Track Stats - Stanley Wilson

“Adding to the gaiety of things sporting”: Stanley Wilson, the leading British javelin-thrower of the 1930s

Profiled by Bob Phillips. Published in “Track Stats” March 2008.

It was an interesting, even provocative, suggestion: “Anybody can become a moderately good javelin thrower”. The idea was put forward in a training manual published in 1938, and the author was the leading exponent of the event in Britain that year. He, as it happened, was a South African undergraduate at Oxford University whose best throw was further than any Briton had ever achieved, and so it seems that his opinion had been paid little or no heed.

Ralph Blakeway had not taken up the event until after leaving school at the age of 17 in 1929, but within two years he had won the South African universities’ title, and in 1934 he improved over 30 feet to a best of 188-4 (57.40). In 1936 he arrived at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and was 2nd in the Universities’ Athletic Union championships to Josef Klein, who was a Czech studying at Cambridge. Neither Klein nor Blakeway had the chance to demonstrate their prowess at the Inter-Varsity match that year because the javelin was not introduced to the series until 1938. Throughout the 1930s the best throw in Britain was Blakeway’s 202-4 (61.68) in the 1938 Oxford-v-AAA match, and only one British-born thrower, James MacKillop, beat 200ft and only two others, Stanley Wilson and William Land, exceeded even 190ft.

By the end of that decade the national records of 23 countries were better than Britain’s, which ranked behind those of Holland, Puerto Rico, Greece and Chile, among others, and only marginally ahead of Egypt and Liechtenstein! It was a sorry tale, and one that was largely reflected across the range of field events in Britain. The absence of the javelin from the Inter-Varsity contests was symptomatic of a general lack of regard, and the competitive opportunities were severely limited for such aspiring throwers as there were. Of Britain’s 18 international matches from 1930 to 1939, the javelin featured in only six – twice each against Finland, Italy and Norway, and the British throwers were 3rd and 4th on each occasion except for Blakeway’s solitary 2nd place against the Norwegians in 1938.

The recurring name in the British javelin ranking-lists of the 1930s is that of Stanley Wilson, who set an English native record of 194-2 (59.18) at the 1937 AAA Championships ahead of Blakeway and has the rare distinction of having won all three regional titles – the Northern in 1931 and 1932, the Midlands every year from 1935 to 1938 inclusive, and the Southern in 1939. He represented Great Britain on only two occasions, placing 4th and last against Italy in 1931 and against Finland in 1935. The Finns sent only their 4th-ranked and 6th-ranked men for the match at Hampden Park, in Glasgow, and still won comfortably, but William Land valiantly rose to the challenge, setting an English record (actually also a British national record, though no such category was recognised then), and Wilson was very close to his best – so neither was disgraced.

Wilson’s annual ranking positions in Britain from 1931 onwards, excluding foreign residents, are a tribute to his persistence: 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd. In addition to his win in 1937 at the AAA Championships, he had 2nd places in 1932, 1934, 1936 and 1938, 3rd in 1931, 4th in 1939 and 5th in 1935. It has to be said, though, that whenever there were overseas visitors of note they won – from Italy in 1930, Norway in 1931, Latvia in 1932, Sweden in 1935 and Holland in 1936. At no time during the 1930s did any Briton rank among the top 50 javelin men in the World.

Accordingly, Wilson merits no more than a minor place in the advancement of the event in Britain – and there was no advance in any true international sense until the 1960s – and yet his is a name which remains very well known for his academic prowess rather than for his athletic achievements. He was a student and lecturer at Carnegie College, in Leeds, and became assistant physical education organiser for London County Council. He wrote a widely-acclaimed book in 1939 and published texts on basic vaulting and agility exercises which are still highly thought of.

Wilf Paish M.B.E., who was himself a Carnegie student and became one of the World’s leading javelin authorities, says of Wilson, “He is one of the foremost people in the realm of physical education, and when I met up in 2007 with a group of former Carnegie lecturers of my age and mentioned Wilson’s name they all said, ‘Ah, yes, vaulting and agility’. He didn’t write very much about javelin throwing but was concerned with basic material aimed at physical education teachers”. From 1964 onwards, after becoming a national coach, Paish used Carnegie as his main base, and still does so at the age of 76. He has coached many fine javelin throwers there, including the 1974 Commonwealth champion and former World junior record-holder, Charlie Clover, and more recently the World Championships bronze-medallist of 1993, Mick Hill.

Stanley Wilson joined Birchfield Harriers in 1934, and it may be that he decided to do so because the leading British javelinist of the 1920s, Jock Dalrymple, was a member and was still winning Midlands titles. Another British international, Eric Turner, also competed for Birchfield, as did two AAA junior javelin champions during this era – Joseph Heath (1932) and Frank Adams (1936) – and John Duus, the Northern champion of 1935. Wilson, Heath and Duus all represented England at the 1934 Empire Games, with Wilson placing 4th and Heath 5th.

Heath beat Wilson and Turner for the 1934 Midlands title, and Ian Tempest notes in his admirable survey of the javelin published as one of the booklets in the NUTS Historical Series that the event drew lavish praise from a reporter for the Midlands-based magazine, “Sport and Play”, who wrote: “The javelin men were excellent. It is to be noticed, too, that the public liked the event. It is spectacular – the javelin can be seen, as distinct from the shot which cannot. Heath and Turner and Wilson all charmed the onlookers, and I hope that other sports will include a javelin event occasionally. It will add to the gaiety of things sporting”. Unfortunately, this journalist’s view was a very uncommon appreciation in Britain at that time of the javelin-throwing art.

Was there, perhaps, a connection with Captain F.A.M. Webster?

Wilson had been born on 25 January 1909, but it is not known where, as Ian Buchanan has found in his researches for his directory of prewar GB internationals that there are relevant birthplaces for the name of Stanley Wilson in South Shields, Hartlepool, Tynemouth, Ampthill and Portsmouth. Ampthill is in Bedfordshire, and if that was where Wilson was born it could be that he had contact at some time during his throwing career with Captain F.A.M. Webster, the foremost coach of field events in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, who lived in Bedford. Even so, a Northern birthplace for Wilson does seem rather more likely because of his Northern title wins of 1931 and 1932 before joining Birchfield, and for which his eligibility was presumably based on birth, though it could also have been because of where he was studying or living. Captain Webster had himself set British records for the javelin in 1911 and 1921 and claimed a best throw of 176-5 (53.78) in 1924, though this may well have occurred during a coaching demonstration. Both Jock Dalrymple and the later British record-holder, James MacKillop, trained with Webster at his home track in Bedford, and it is interesting to speculate that Wilson might have done the same.

Wilson’s first Northern win in 1931 was achieved at the Pimlico ground, Ilkeston, in Derbyshire, and though his distance was only 179ft 2in (54.62m) he beat the meeting record of the defending title-holder, William Abell, by a very wide margin. At the AAA Championships that year the javelin event was decided on the Saturday morning, starting at 11.45 a.m., after the discus and while the seven miles walk was in progress, and the correspondent for “The Times” remarked, interestingly, that “England can take comfort from Hertzog’s second place in the javelin throw and hope from S. Wilson’s throw of 173-11½ in his second competition”. Willem Hertzog was actually a South African studying medicine at Guy’s Hospital, in London, and had earlier won the Southern title, while the intriguing suggestion that Wilson was almost a complete novice at the event is unfortunately not explained. The implication is that the preceding Northern championships was the first time that he had thrown a javelin in competition, which seems unlikely but may be possible.

Wilson improved the Northern record to 184-9 (56.32) in the 1932 meeting at Leeds University’s Weetwood ground and was 2nd at the AAA Championships – held at the newly refurbished White City Stadium – with a throw of just a quarter-of-an-inch further. The winner here was the Latvian, Otto Jurgis, whose 211-8 (64.51) must have seemed a very long way ahead to his British fellow-competitors and was, indeed, a performance of real class as it ranked him 15th in the World for the year. Despite this, Jurgis was not sent to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles the following month – and neither, of course, was Wilson, and nor for that matter any Briton in the eight field events for men and three for women.

Thus Wilson’s first (and only) major championship opportunity came when the British Empire Games of 1934 were held at the White City, and it could really have been little surprise after an exceedingly moderate AAA Championships win by Lieutenant Charles Bowen, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, at 169-9 (51.74) from Wilson and John Duus that the Empire title should go to a Canadian, Bob Dixon, ahead of two South Africans, Harry Hart and Johan Luckhoff, with Wilson leading the home contingent in 4th place.

The following year’s GB-v-Finland match at Hampden Park was a salutary experience for Wilson and his team-mate, William Land, in the shadow of what “The Times” described as “the soaring masterpieces” of the visiting virtuosi, but there were words of cautious encouragement from the same writer. The national record set by the versatile Land, who had made his GB debut at the age of 16 as a high jumper in 1931, was 191-7¼ (58.41), and the man from “The Times” said of Land that it “made one feel that he might reach the 200ft mark before long, which hope enforced the reflection that Järvinen has flung an official spear over 251ft”. Comparisons with the Finnish World record-holder, Matti Järvinen, who was not in Glasgow but threw 73.30, worth 240ft 6in, in his home country the next day, were to torment British javelinists throughout the 1930s.

Wilson becomes the second Briton to throw over 190ft

Wilson came very close to Land’s record with a throw of 191-2¾ (58.29) during the 1936 Midlands championships at Wardown Park, Luton, where the 2nd-placed athlete reached only 148-11½ (45.41) and the 3rd-placed 121-1 (36.90)! At the AAA Championships “the crowd, as usual, liked the javelin”, according to “The Times”, and the spectators had greater opportunity than before to voice their appreciation because the event began at the more reasonable hour of 2 p.m. However, Wilson was a well-beaten 2nd to yet another foreign visitor, Johan van der Poll, of Holland, who was to finish last but one with much the same distance in the Olympic final a month later. It would have been hard to argue with the decision not to select Wilson for those Games.

The 1937 season was Wilson’s best, beginning with a close contest against the South African undergraduate, Ralph Blakeway, in the Oxford University-v-AAA match on 25 May. Blakeway set a ground record of 178-10 (54.50), with Wilson 2nd at 174-9 (53.26). The athletics events that day at Iffley Road must have made a fine spectacle because further records were established by Billy Breach and Sandy Duncan in the long jump, beating C.B. Fry’s World-record effort of 44 years previously, and by Alan Pennington at 100 yards and Don Finlay in the 120 yards hurdles. Then at the AAA Championships, where the event was one of the last of the day, beginning at 4.05 p.m., Wilson reversed roles with Blakeway and in the process set a national record of 194-2 (59.18) to his rival’s 189-7 (57.80).

This fine achievement earned the approval of “The Times”: “In the field again there was S. Wilson, the Birchfield Harrier, to throw the javelin further than any Briton – himself, as it happened – had thrown it before”. Yet the “spirits of Suomi” still shrouded the occasion. “It is only to retain a proper sense of perspective that one mentions that Järvinen, the Finn, has cast the same missile over 250ft, or 56ft further than Wilson’s highly creditable effort”, concluded the correspondent of “The Times” in apologetic manner. In September the Great Britain team travelled to Finland and Norway for international matches and took their habitual 3rd and 4th places in the javelin, though Blakeway bravely threw a personal-best 59.61 (195-6¾) as Järvinen again exceeded 250ft. Wilson did not go on the tour – presumably unable to spare the time off.

Blakeway began the 1938 season by improving to 202-4 (61.68) in the Oxford University-v-AAA match on 26 May, and it was obviously a pity that he had not been able to take part in the British Empire Games three months before in Australia, where the title was won by Jim Courtright, of Canada, at 206-0¼ (62.81). No javelin thrower from the home countries – except for John Clarke, of Northern Ireland, who was primarily a pole vaulter – had been able to make the long journey. At the Cambridge University-v-AAA match on 4 June Wilson was very close to his best at 194-0 (59.14), but a fortnight later a Sandhurst army cadet, James MacKillop, set an English (and British) record of 197-2½ (60.11) at the Kinnaird Trophy inter-club match at Chiswick, with Blakeway 2nd and Wilson 3rd. Blakeway beat Wilson for the AAA title, as MacKillop could only place 4th, and the winning throw of 197-1¼ (60.09) was oddly described by “The Times” as “another English native record”. Blakeway certainly did not have the right birthplace credentials for that, but MacKillop – despite possessing first names of “James Angus McDonald”, being known as “Hamish”, and having served in the Cameron Highlanders – apparently did!

MacKillop had throws of 192ft-plus in May and June of 1939, and on successive weekends Wilson won the Kinnaird event at Chiswick with 192-4 (58.62) and the Southern title at Motspur Park with 190-5 (58.04). “The Times” reported on the latter occasion in some detail, but the theme of the article would be an all-too-familiar one of damnation with faint praise: “Wilson accomplished a throw of 190ft 5in which was not far short of his own English record and made the winning throw of 164ft-odd last year seem a trifle ridiculous. Admittedly, Wilson seemed to be one of those who benefited from the wind on Saturday. There is a splendid power behind his throwing, but evidently the almost perfect technique which enabled Järvinen, the Finn, to cast his missile over 250ft has yet to be acquired”.

MacKillop achieves the furthest throw by a Briton

As to whether Wilson, MacKillop or Blakeway was the true “English” record-holder, who could say? But none of this domestic detail really matters, and in any case MacKillop achieved a small niche in British athletics history on 1 July by throwing 202-2¾ (61.62) in a match between the services’ club, Milocarian, and the Royal Navy at Portsmouth. This is the first 60m-plus or 200ft-plus throw credited to a Briton, though not, of course, the first or even the furthest by a British international representative! After all this flurry of excitement the AAA Championships event was very much a letdown, won by MacKillop at 186-7 (56.87), with Wilson unaccountably well short of 160ft in 4th place. It is known that Wilson made at least one further appearance some time during the 1939-45 war.

Wilson was a student at Carnegie College in 1936-37 and was appointed assistant organiser of physical education for London County Council in 1939, still continuing to compete and winning the Southern javelin title the same year as a member of Southgate Harriers. His influential book entitled “A New Approach To Athletics”, was also published in 1939, and he sub-titled it, “A practical guide for teachers, coaches and ‘keep fit’ leaders”. The section on javelin-throwing included the following guidance regarding training and technique:

“Suppleness of the shoulders and of the trunk both backwards and laterally are great assets for the beginner, and efforts to promote suppleness in these directions might well form part of the training. Briefly, the technique consists of forming a bow with the body and using it to ‘shoot’ the spear from it like an arrow. Whilst strength of throwing arm is important, the skill lies in being able to get the weight of the body behind the throw, and to transmit the effort along the shaft of the javelin”. He warned his readers that javelin-throwing was “not as popular as it might be … first attempts can be discouraging, and unless subsequent instruction is forthcoming the average individual loses heart and interest”.

Wilson followed this with sound advice to teachers on how to safely organise a group training session for the event. “When coaching this event as a class activity”, Wilson wrote, “the partners should stand behind the throwers and should not retrieve the spear until the word is given. Also, pupils should not throw until the word is given and then all must throw simultaneously”. This may seem like elementary stuff, but it should be remembered that perhaps the only places in Britain where such serious javelin-throwing activity was taking place in 1939 would have been in Bedford, as Captain Webster conducted his courses, and at some army camps and maybe at one or two progressive clubs such as Birchfield Harriers.

Wilson’s other book, “Vaulting and Agility”, had already appeared in print and had proved so successful that it was into its fifth edition. Among the 152 illustrations is one of an athlete leaping gracefully through the air and Wilf Paish thinks that the demonstrator might very well have been Wilson himself. As a student of physical education, and then a lecturer, administrator and author, Wilson clearly amassed a great deal of knowledge of the mechanics of javelin-throwing and of the technical requirements of it for any aspiring practitioner. No doubt he would have been highly gratified to learn that some 70 years later Leeds Metropolitan University, of which the former Carnegie College, now known as the Carnegie Faculty of Sport and Education, is part, still makes every effort to ensure that aspiring javelin throwers in the 21st Century lose neither “heart nor interest”. A graphic example of this is the provision of facilities for the World junior bronze medallist, Annabel Thompson, to receive coaching from Wilf Paish.

This rather contrasts with Ralph Blakeway’s observation of some 70 years before, and Blakeway is actually somewhat critical of Wilson in his chapter for the Achilles book. This includes a photograph of Wilson in action, from which it would seem that he was very slim and wiry, not noticeably muscular, and of no more than average height. Perhaps unkindly, Blakeway emulates the correspondent of “The Times” by comparing Wilson’s throwing action with that of Järvinen, who is pictured on the same page, and says that “Wilson is beginning the throw without allowing his chest to swing round first and help force his arm forward”.

However modest his standard of performance was, the fact is that Wilson was consistently the best British exponent of the javelin throughout the 1930s, and without him the domestic ranking-lists would have looked very much thinner.

Britain’s 20 leading javelin-throwers – as at the end of 1939

202-4(61.68)     Ralph Blakeway (Oxford Univ)(1)   Oxford26.05.38
202-2¾(61.62)James MacKillop (Milocarian AC)(1)Portsmouth01.07.39
194-2(59.18)Stanley Wilson (Birchfield H)(1)London (WC)   17.07.37
191-7¼(58.40)William Land (Army)(3)Glasgow29.06.35
187-7¾(57.18)Thomas Rees (Army)(1)Aldershot17.07.39
187-0(57.00)Eric Turner (Luton United H)(1)Kettering09.07.32
186-5½(56.82)James Dalrymple (Birchfield H)(1)London (SB)28.06.24
186-3(56.76)John Duus (Manchester AC)(1)Ilkeston22.06.35
184-11¼(56.36)W.E. Hibberd (Reading AC)(1)Portsmouth10.06.39
182-10¾(55.72)Arthur Squibbs (Loughborough C)(1)Port Talbot19.08.39
180-7(55.04)Percy Blanking (Army)(1)Aldershot21.07.37
178-8¼(54.46)Charles Bowen (Army)(1)Aldershot18.07.35
177-10½   (54.20)James Jackson (Field Events Club)   (1)Glasgow04.07.38
176-8(53.86)Leslie Snow (London AC)(4)London (SB)05.07.30
176-3(53.72)F.R. Cooper (Royal Navy)(1)E. Molesey01.05.37
175-10½(53.60)W. Jones (Bedford AC)1939
175-9½(53.58)William Abell (Derby & CAC)(3)Kettering09.07.32
175-5(53.48)Joseph Heath (Birchfield H)(1)Birmingham23.06.34
174-9(53.26)Edward Finneron (Belgrave H)(1)Guildford05.06.37
173-1½(52.76)George Powell (Belgrave H)(3)Southend20.06.31

Note: Blakeway was South African but as he competed for Great Britain it would seem churlish to leave him out of the rankings! The army’s contribution to the event was inestimable as they provided 12 different throwers for the British top 10 lists during the 1930s, including two British record-holders (Land and MacKillop), the 1934 AAA champion (Charles Bowen) and another British international (Percy Blanking). The performances of the stalwarts of the 1930s stood the test of time. At the end of 1957 MacKillop still ranked 20th on the GB all-time list, Wilson 41st, Land 46th and Turner 62nd.

Progression of the British javelin record in the 1930s

The term, “British records”, in prewar years in fact referred to “British all-comers’ records”, and “British national records” were not then recognised. The best performance by a Briton before 1930 was 186-5½ (56.83) by James (“Jock”) Dalrymple in 1924, and subsequent improvements were as follows:

186-8(56.89)Eric Turner, London (Stamford Bridge), 5 July 1930 (AAA Champs)
187-0(57.00)Turner, Kettering, 9 July 1932
191-7¼(58.40)William Land, Glasgow (Hampden Park), 29 June 1935 (GB v Finland)
194-2(59.18)Stanley Wilson, London (White City) 17 July 1937 (AAA Champs)
197-2½(60.11)James MacKillop, Chiswick 18 June 1938 (Kinnaird Trophy)
202-2¾     (61.64)     MacKillop, Portsmouth, 1 July 1939.

MacKillop’s record stood until 1945, when Denis Jacobs threw 61.68 (203-4) in Germany.

The best throw in Britain had been set by the New Zealander, Stan Lay, at 222-9 (67.90) at Stamford Bridge, London, on 7 July 1928. This was improved to 224-8 (68.48) by Alton Terry, of the USA, in Glasgow on 17 August 1936. Then at the 1937 August Bank Holiday British Games at the White City, József Várszegi, of Hungary, won at 237-2¾ (72.30), from Friedrich Issak, of Estonia, at 233-2¾ (71.08).

Acknowledgments: No praise is too high for the two NUTS publications which have proved of most value in composing this article: “Javelin: A Statistical Survey of British throwing”, by Ian Tempest (published in 1999), and “1930-1939 UK Men’s Ranking Lists”, by Ian Buchanan, David Thurlow and Keith Morbey (published in 2007). These are volumes No. 2 and No. 11 in the NUTS historical series of booklets. My thanks also to Wilf Paish for his enthusiastic responses to my questions.