Track Stats - Reg Draper

Reg Draper, the hosiery worker from unfashionable Hinckley who commanded respect wherever he ran

Reg Draper was an England cross-country international before after World War II and AAA 10 miles track champion. Profiled by Bob Phillips. Published in “Track Stats” May 2009

During the 1930s England dominated the International cross-country championship with a phalanx of fine runners such as George Bailey, Tom Evenson, Alex Burns and Jack Holden, and so some of their team-mates tended to be overlooked, albeit sterling performers in their own right. A typical example is that of Reg Draper, who was 19th in the race in 1937 and 11th in 1938. On the first occasion he was outside the scoring six but came in ahead of Bailey as Holden failed to finish. The following year Draper was England's 5th finisher, one place in front of Burns, and then returned after war service to place 10th, and 3rd English scorer, in 1946.

Reginald Victor Draper was born in Hinckley, in Leicestershire, in 1912 and in his first track races as a junior in 1930 he won three handicap events at 880 yards and one mile. The next year he gained his initial success of some importance, beating a very useful runner, George Forryan, of Birchfield Harriers, for the Leicestershire mile title in 4:39.4 on a waterlogged track. Forryan had run for England in the International cross-country of 1926, and in 1933 he was to be credited with the fastest two miles track time of the year in Britain at 9:14.6, beating Jack Holden by a dozen yards in a race in Coventry. Draper was apprenticed to the hosiery trade, which since the Middle Ages had been of great importance in the Hinckley area, and he was at first a member of the Warwickshire club, Nuneaton Harriers, as Nuneaton was only a few miles across the border between the two counties, before helping to set up Hinckley Technical College AC with four other ex-members of the Nuneaton club.

His first cross-country achievements of note were a 10th place in the Midland senior event at Wolverhampton in 1932, which was won by Jack Holden, of Tipton Harriers, and 48th in the National at Wolverton (now part of Milton Keynes), some 3½min behind Alex Burns, of Elswick Harriers, who led home Bailey and Holden. On the track in 1932 Draper won the Leicestershire mile again in 4:26.2, and in the Midlands race, won by Joe Helps, of Birmingham University, in 4:23.0, he was 4th in 4:27.0; The following winter Draper had wins in three of the five Warwickshire League cross-country fixtures which attracted 200 or so runners from eminent clubs such as Birchfield, Small Heath and Sparkhill each time they were held, and was 13th in the Midland senior race, again won by Holden, but it seems likely that he did not run the National.

Draper’s best performance of the 1933 track season was 3rd place to two British internationals, Cyril Ellis and Clifford Whitehead, in the featured mile event at the Bournville Games, in Birmingham, which was supported by the Cadbury's chocolate firm. Draper's estimated time of 4:21.7 was the 8th fastest in Britain for the year, and he also that summer placed 3rd in the Midlands one mile and three miles on the same afternoon, won respectively by Ellis (for the 6th time since 1925) in 4:26.8 and Holden in 14:38.4 (Draper’s time was 14:59.6), and took the Leicestershire 880 yards (2:02.6) and mile (4:28.2) titles, plus numerous handicap prizes. The 1933-34 cross-country season brought him nothing of note and he failed to finish in a Midlands “junior” championship – described as such because of its shorter distance than the senior event, not age qualification – for which he had started favourite.

The summer of 1934 might have aroused some expectations of selection for the British Empire Games, to be held at the White City Stadium, in London, in August, and Draper was 2nd in the Midlands mile to an Oxford undergraduate, Wilfred Squires (4:28.8), who often raced and trained with Jack Lovelock, and 3rd in the Inter-Counties’ mile, won for Warwickshire by Squires in 4:24.8. The winning time for the AAA Championships mile in July was actually slower but was set by Lovelock in a canny strategic duel with Sydney Wooderson, and subsequently Wooderson and the Olympic 1500 metres silver-medallist, Jerry Cornes, were 2nd and 3rd to Lovelock in the Empire Games final. Wooderson's time was 4:13.4, equalling Reg Thomas's British best from 1931, with Cornes only two-tenths slower, and this calibre of achievement really put them in a class apart from Draper. Late in the season he won the Leicestershire 880 (2:01.8) and mile (4:25.0) again.

After suffering Achilles tendon trouble Draper's 1934-35 cross-country form was moderate – 14th in the Midland, won by D.A. Currie, of Birchfield, ahead of Holden, and 20th in the National – until he pulled off a most unexpected victory ahead of a formidable Scot from Birchfield Harriers and Warwickshire, Robbie Sutherland, in the Inter-Counties' cross-country at Luton, which was sponsored by the “Daily Telegraph”. This race was held on 30 March, a fortnight after the National, and it has to be said that the quality of entry was not quite the same on the latter date. Even so, Draper beat Sutherland by nine seconds in a race lasting some 40½ minutes. Sutherland was a Sergeant at the Army Physical Training School who had won the Inter-Services' title for the previous four years and who was to represent Scotland in the International on seven occasions from 1928 to 1937, placing 2nd in 1930 and again in 1933. In 3rd position in the Inter-Counties' was the aptly-named Bert Footer, of Belgrave Harriers and Surrey, who was another runner of superior class, having been 4th for England in the International in both 1933 and 1934.

During the following track season of 1935 Draper was again 2nd in the Midlands mile, won by A.W. Shakespeare, of Small Heath Harriers, 4:22.8 to an estimated 4:23.1, and ran a 9:31.0 two miles at the Coventry Carnival meeting and an impressive 14:39.0 in a three miles handicap race off scratch in Tamworth. The fastest British three miles of the year was 14:26.6 by Aubrey Reeve, of Polytechnic Harriers, and Draper placed 6th when Reeve also won the AAA title in a time only one second faster than Draper's best.

A recurrence of his tendon problems prevented Draper running any cross-country in the winter of 1935-36, but he was sufficiently recovered to place 3rd in the Bournville mile of May 1936 and 2nd again in the Midlands mile to Wilfred Squires, whose time of 4:22.0 was the equal 2nd fastest ever in the Championships. Squires, who won by eight yards, got to the AAA final the next month. Draper, interviewed in later years, admitted dolefully that he had burned himself out, trying to qualify for the Olympic team. Presumably the lack of endurance background caused by his enforced idleness during the preceding winter finally caught up with him.

A waterlogged course and a biting wind … a day for the sturdy men

The 1937 National cross-country brought Draper, now representing Hinckley Technical College, his best ever cross-country performance, as he finished a close 2nd to Henry Clark, of York Harriers, and thought afterwards that he could even have won the race as Clark was in a state of collapse at the finish. This was a typical National of the 1930s – the Stratford-on-Avon racecourse was waterlogged and a biting wind lashed the runners so that even the leaders took more than an hour to cover the 10 miles. “The Times” described Clark and Draper as “two exceptionally sturdy but little known runners”, and this was a fair enough appraisal, considering that they left the more famous names far behind: George Bailey was 7th, Jack Potts 8th, Jack Holden 9th and Sgt Robbie Sutherland 15th. Potts, the holder of the title, was already in front after the first mile or so but was caught at seven miles.

Draper’s recollections of the race are borne out by a grainy but dramatic photograph published in “The Sporting Life” to accompany the report of the race by J. Armour Milne and depicting Clark almost falling across the finishing-line, with Draper still only in 3rd place and several yards behind James Ginty, who was a Lance-Sergeant in the Coldstream Guards running for Belgrave Harriers. Draper must have caught Ginty with his very last stride. “The Times” suggested that Holden was maybe merely content to earn his place in the team for the International at the Hippodrome de Stockel, in Brussels, a fortnight later. However, the first England scorer in Belgium was Ginty, in 3rd (as he had been in the National). Clark was 12th and England did not even require the services of Draper (19th), Bailey and Holden to have their six scorers in the first 18 and win the team title by 15pts from France. Incidentally, James Flockhart became only the second individual champion from Scotland that year since the series had begun in 1903.

During the summer of 1937 Draper maintained much the same level of track performances as in previous years, winning the Bournville mile in 4:21.0 and the Birmingham Gas Sports two miles in 9:34.2, beating his cross-country conqueror, Clark, by 15 yards, with Holden a close 3rd. Draper did not take part in either his county championships or the Midlands events, and so his mile time was ranked 15th in Britain for the year; To put this in its proper perspective Sydney Wooderson broke the World record that August with 4:06.4.

Over the country in 1937-38 Draper was in fine form, starting with a win in the Leicestershire county race and then finishing 3rd in the Midlands event to Holden and an Irishman, Frank Cummins, who was a member of St Gregory's AC, in Cheltenham. After placing 3rd in the Inter-Counties’ to Sam Palmer (Mitcham AC) and Frank Reeve (Slough AC), he was 5th in the National behind Holden (Tipton Harriers), Jack Emery (North Staffs Harriers), Palmer and Burns to earn his place again in the International, and at the Royal Ulster Showgrounds, in Belfast, he figured in England's 9th successive team win, and by more than 50pts over France – Emery 1st, Jack Potts (Saltwell Harriers) 4th , Holden 6th, Bertie Robertson (Reading AC) 9th, Draper 11th and Burns 12th. Emery was a rarity among International champions in that he was an Oxbridge product, and his earlier career had included a modest 3rd place in the Midlands mile in 1936 (in which Draper had been 2nd), but he would set British records at two miles later in 1938 and again in 1939. Robertson, coincidentally, had won the 1935 Inter-Varsity cross-country and would re-emerge after the war as champion at the snowbound National of 1947.

Victory in the AAA 10 miles, but the record-holder was missing

Three weeks later Draper contested the AAA 10 miles track championship at the White City, and this proved to be one of the most exciting of the series since it had first been held in 1880. The previous year's winner and runner-up, Reg Walker (Wakefield Trinity Harriers) and Burns, were among the numerous starters, but with a mile to go the four men sharing the lead were Draper, Palmer, Arthur Penny and Tom Carter (both Belgrave Harriers). Then, in the words of the correspondent for “The Times”, “Draper took the lead at the start of the last lap and raced away from Palmer to win by 40 yards”. Draper's time was 52:40.6 and was not exceptional, compared with the Championship best and British record of 50:30.8 set by Bill Eaton two years before, but the first 15 finishers achieved the AAA 1st class standard and the next seven the 2nd class standard. Eaton had planned an attack on Paavo Nurmi's World record of 50:15.0 in this race, but sadly at the beginning of the month he had died of pneumonia, contracted whilst out on a preparatory training run.

Draper transferred his new-found form to shorter distances, winning the three miles for the AAA against Oxford University on 26 May, though this was hardly a severe test, and the description of the race by the correspondent of “The Times” was splendidly droll: “The three miles developed into a 'conversation piece'. R.V. Draper and A.E.J. Etheridge were soon in a comfortable and unhurried lead and they amiably conspired to finish abreast”. Their time was 15:11.8. John Etheridge, of Guy's Hospital AC and South London Harriers, was a very capable distance man who was to run in the International cross-country in 1939 and was 2nd in the AAA steeplechase later that year. He was then selected in the steeplechase for the GB team against France, but this match was cancelled because of the outbreak of war and Etheridge never had another chance. He qualified as a doctor and many years later, in 1987, was to cause a stir by claiming that he had seen Jack Lovelock break four minutes for the mile by a very wide margin in training. (Note: this intriguing matter is dealt with in great detail in an article in the 2009 ATFS International Athletics Annual, published by SportsBooks Ltd).

Two days after the OUAC-AAA match Draper recorded his fastest ever mile time in his favourite annual Bournville race. He was beaten into 3rd place, but the two ahead of him were Jim Alford and Jack Emery. The winning time for Alford, who had taken the Empire Games mile title for Wales the previous February, was 4:15.4, with Emery 2nd in an estimated 4:16.5. In the splendidly comprehensive British rankings for the 1930s, compiled by Ian Buchanan, David Thurlow and Keith Morbey, and published by the NUTS in 2008, Draper is credited with an estimated 4:20.2, but interestingly in a profile of Draper which appeared in “Athletics” magazine in 1947 he specifically remembered running 4:18.2 – or actually 4:18 1/5, as it was registered on the watch that day. Elsewhere in the same article other performances for Draper are rounded off to the nearest second, and his precision in this instance suggests that there might, unusually, have been a watch in use for place times that day at Bournville. Whichever is the more accurate clocking, it was a personal best for Draper and would rank him either 6th or 10th in Britain for the year, depending which version pleases you more.

Even better was to come at Coventry on 11 June when Draper finished 2nd in the Midlands six miles to the Irishman, Cummins, in a time of 30:27.2. Cummins won in 30:06.0, and the two of them were far ahead of the rest, as Jim Smith, of Birchfield Harriers, took 3rd place in 31:40.0, a few yards up on Jack Holden. At the AAA Championships neither Cummins nor Draper were a match for the Italian, Giuseppe Beviacqua, who won a rain-drenched race in 30:06.6 – Cummins 2nd in 30:23.4 and Draper 3rd in 30:56.2. Even so, Draper was the only Briton to beat 31min for the distance during the year, and his Midlands time was the 10th fastest ever by a Briton. The six miles had not been established by the AAA as a championship event until 1932, and the best times so far recorded by Britons for the distance were as follows - 29:45.0 Alex Burns 1936, 29:47.0 Jack Potts 1936, 29:51.4 Bill Eaton 1936, 29:59.4 Alfred Shrubb 1904, 30:08.4 George Bailey 1933, 30:12.0 Arthur Penny 1936, 30:12.0 Arthur Furze 1936, 30:17.8 Syd Thomas 1892, 30:26.6 Jack Holden 1932, 30:27.2 Reg Draper 1938.

Beviacqua was to finish a very close 2nd to Ilmari Salminen, of Finland, in the European Championships 10,000 metres at Stade Colombes, in Paris, in September, but neither Cummins nor Draper were in the race. Cummins's absence can be readily explained by the fact that Ireland did not take part because of the internal dispute in the administration of Irish athletics during the 1930s. Draper, though, surely deserved selection for Great Britain, and one wonders why he was omitted. The only British nominee was Jack Emery, who had no experience of the distance and after placing 4th at 5000 metres the previous day did not start. There’s no doubting that Emery, as International cross-country champion, had all the stamina that was needed for a 10,000, but neither Salminen nor Beviacqua, nor anyone else for that matter, attempted to double up at both 5000 and 10,000 metres in Paris, and it was surely naïve of the British selectors to imagine that Emery could have done so.

Why wasn’t Draper selected for the European Championships?

Draper could well have finished in the first six and thus emulated the example of an Edinburgh University student, Morrison Carstairs, who had only placed 4th in the AAA three miles but was 6th in the European 5000 metres. It would not seem that it was a case of Draper declaring himself unavailable because he could not get time off from work – the names of the 19 athletes selected for the Championships were announced on 23 August, which was 11 days before the meeting began, and one among them who did subsequently withdraw for that reason was the Berlin Olympic relay gold-medallist, Bill Roberts. The only other track events in which Great Britain did not have its full complement of two representatives were the 400 metres hurdles (one entrant) and the steeplechase (none), though the AAA title in the latter event had gone to Draper's perennial cross-country rival, Jack Potts, who might also have merited the journey to Paris.

Draper raced very little in 1939 – more tendon trouble, perhaps ? – but his thoughts had turned towards the marathon and he had begun training for the 1940 Polytechnic race when war broke out. His competitive experiences during his army service as a physical training instructor were certainly varied. In 1942 he won an Inter-Services' and Allies' cross-country race at West Bromwich and was 2nd in a similar event in Belfast. In 1943 he set a record on his stage of the “News of the World” road relay at Mitcham and in July he won a two miles at an Inter-Services' meeting at Epsom in a personal best of 9:29.0, as referred to in the articles on wartime athletics in the November 2008 issue of “Track Stats”. In 1944 he proved he was just about as fast a miler as he had ever been by winning his army divisional title in 4:20.0 and he was also successful at the Northern Command meeting in 4:31.0. Just for variation, he briefly took up race-walking and won divisional and command titles on the road in that discipline.

In 1945 he was unbeaten in a series of cross-country races while serving with the British Army of Occupation of the Rhine and also won a BAOR 5000 metres title and claimed 38 army command victories in all. Back in “civvy street” in 1946, he was 5th in the National as Jack Holden won – the two of them thus occupying the same positions in the race as they had in 1938 – and other prewar survivors included Bertie Robertson (11th) and Tom Carter (16th). The International race was held at Ayr Racecourse, but England were no match for the continentals – the French and the Belgians had the first five places between them, and France won the team title with 43pts, to 77 for Belgium and 96 for England. It was the first time that England had finished lower than 1st or 2nd in the race, but that was no discredit to Holden (6th), or to Reg Gosney, of Eastleigh AC (7th), or Draper (10th).

Draper ran in the six miles at the AAA Championships but did not finish as a future marathon record-breaker, Jim Peters, of Essex Beagles, had his first major success at the age of 29. Returning to excellent form for the 1947 Inter-counties' cross-country at Nottingham on 18 January, Draper finished a close 2nd to Gosney, another late developer for Hampshire at 36. Draper also had a very convincing North Midlands League win at Hinckley in March where a promising young three-miler named J. Disley, who was a student at Loughborough (and an Olympic steeplechase bronze-medallist in future years), finished 2nd, but for whatever reason Draper did not run in either the Midlands or National events. Maybe the huge snowfalls, which prevented so many clubs from reaching the course, kept him away from the latter.

On the track he was 2nd to Peters – who had yet to take up marathoning and would run in the Olympic 10,000 metres the next year – in the AA A track 10 miles, 53:21.0 to 53:58.0, with the next runner almost two minutes further behind, and won the Midlands six miles in an excellent 30:34.0. The AAA six miles title went to Anthony Chivers in a time which was less than three seconds faster than Draper's, but only the first three finishers of the latter were recorded, mystifyingly, and it is not known whether Draper took part.

Back on the country in the winter of 1947-48 he won the Leicestershire cross-country title for the first time since 1939 by over half-a-minute at Hinckley, and in 3rd and 5th places were two men who would go on to gain the Olympic honours which had eluded Draper before the war: 19-year-old Ken Johnson, of Leicester College of Art & Technology, was to run the steeplechase at the 1952 Games, while Don Cobley, then only 18 and a clubmate of Draper’s, also became a very capable steeplechaser but had much greater success at the modern pentathlon, in which he competed in the 1956 and 1960 Games. Draper was 5th in the Midlands cross-country and 12th in the National, just missing out on another International selection, and then in 1949 he won another Leicestershire cross-country title, 10 seconds ahead of Cobley. That seems to have brought Draper’s athletics career to a close, and at the age of 36 this was perhaps understandable.

The affectionate profile of Draper compiled for the May 1947 issue of the monthly magazine, “Athletics”, which was later to become “Athletics Weekly”, by an unsigned contributor, provides some of the detail contained in this “Track Stats” article. The closing sentences of that article painted a rather more vivid picture of Draper than any amount of statistics ever could:

“Never a stylish or graceful runner, Draper has always impressed with an obvious combination of speed and strength. For many years he has been a danger to the best at any distance from a mile to 10 miles. He has undoubtedly suffered to a certain extent through not being a member of a fashionable club, and had he been able to train regularly with a strong club it is possible that he would have shown us even greater things. A quiet and modest athlete, and a sportsman right through, Reg commands respect wherever he runs”.

On the trail of an England international runner from the 1930s

It is not that difficult for studious researchers to reconstruct the careers of notable British athletes from the 1930s, particularly since the publication in 2008 of the NUTS handbook of national rankings for that decade, compiled so assiduously by David Thurlow, Keith Morbey and the late Ian Buchanan. The best performances, the titles won and the international appearances can all be found reasonably readily, but such basic facts and figures lack the personal touch, and in newspaper reports of those prewar days there was rarely anything said about the personality, style or background of athletes. When the monthly magazine, “Athletics”, began publication in 1945 there were occasional profiles published by the editor, “Jimmy” Green, and these often filled in some intriguing detail about their subjects. Just such a one was the article about Reg Draper, and this led me to seek out further information. The sports editor of the “Hinckley Times” published an item early in 2009 about my search for family or friends of Reg Draper, and such is the power of the local press that within a day I was in contact with Reg Draper’s grand-daughter and then his daughter, Mrs Irene Pallett.

Mrs Pallett told me that her father had gone back into the hosiery trade after returning from wartime service, but he then worked for the electricity board until his retirement in the late 1970s. He went to live in Cornwall with his wife, whom he had married in 1947, but sadly died in 1981 at the age of 68, though he had continued to keep fit after his retirement from athletics competition. His wife and his brother and sister (the latter in her 90s) survive him. Mrs Pallett found for me a copy of an article written for the “Hinckley Times” in 1981 as a tribute by one of her father’s former clubmates and colleagues, Ray Bateman, and this contains a great deal of valuable first-hand testimony as to what it was like to be a working man in the 1930s and also an international athlete. Mr Bateman was then Southern District Secretary of the National Union of Hosiery & Knitwear Workers, and these are some of the comments which he made:

“R.V. Draper, H.T.C.A.C. – what memories that name will bring back to anyone who had an interest in amateur athletics in the 1930s and 1940s; a name which in those days was as respected and well known in the World of athletics as Brendan Foster or other top athletes of today. The main difference between then and now is that in those days there was no television to bring performers of Reg Draper’s calibre into the home as it does today, making them celebrities and household names. Not that Reg would have wanted that, but his achievements on the track and over the country would have ensured it; achievements which because of his natural modesty and reserve were much better known outside the confines of his home town, Hinckley.

“For whilst the national press often contained reports of his prowess, he always shunned the limelight, letting his achievements speak for themselves. He was a shy man who nevertheless always found the time to help those seeking his advice, but he never pressed his training schedules or methods on lesser mortals. In retrospect, one now has to admit that he was ahead of his time in the way he trained and approached the subject of athletics. Had he chosen to have accepted one of the many offers he received to join a more prestigious club, I have no doubt they would have ensured they made full use of the publicity arising out of his talents. He was a prime mover and a founder of H.T.C.A.C., but this meant, among other things, that instead of having well-appointed dressing-rooms with showers attached he chose to change in the stoke-hole of the old main building of the Technical College.

“Whilst others had their moments of glory, Reg was always the most consistent of a small but talented band. His success in the art of handicap running soon made him the back marker in races from 600 yards to three miles throughout the country. As being an amateur meant just that in those days, there was no such thing as expenses being obtained for any reason, and so as well as paying your own entry fee for the privilege of competing you had to provide your own means of transport, which often meant that for distances of up to 30 or 40 miles a cycle was used.

“This did not restrict or deter Reg from pursuing his chosen sport and setting an example to the more affluent of his clubmates who used to travel by bus and train, arriving at the race meetings much more refreshed but still unable to perform as well or as consistently as Reginald Victor could. Reg was employed in Hinckley by Simpkin Son & Emery’s as a counterman, and then as now the vagaries of the trade meant lots of short-time working. Social security not having been thought of, Reg was forced into making prodigious physical efforts to get to the widely dispersed meetings, but all you ever got from him when the question was posed, ‘Are you going to the meeting ?’, was ‘Yes !’ When asked, ‘How are you getting there ?’ his reply was quite often, ‘Oh, I’ll see you there’, and you would find out that he had cycled often long distances in order just to compete.

“It is remotely possible that somewhere, sometime, someone locally will emulate Reginald Victor’s achievement., but those who were privileged to know him will doubt if it is possible for anyone to achieve such success and remain as modest and unassuming a gentleman as R.V. Draper, who it was certainly a privilege to have known”.

Footnote: thanks to Reg Draper’s daughter, Mrs Irene Pallett; to Trevor Clowes for providing so much useful information on Reg Draper's career; to Ian Gallagher, sports editor of the “Hinckley Times” for publishing an article about my search for information regarding Draper; to Mark Woolley, who manages an attractive and informative website,; and to John Heywood, who is compiling a history of Leicestershire athletics. Note that times for races in the 1930s have been given in decimals though usually timed to one-fifth of a second.