Track Stats - The Surrey 880 Yards Championships

Oh, to be at Motspur Park with the sun in its heaven and the half-mile about to begin!

The Surrey 880 yards championships, related by the Editor of Track Stats.   Published in “Track Stats” May 2009.

The hallowed cinders on which Sydney Wooderson set World records for 800 metres, 880 yards and the mile have long since disappeared. Even the name of the track which once held such fond memories for generations of athletes and enthusiasts has slipped into obscurity. Motspur Park, according to the internet’s Wikipedia encyclopaedia, is identified these days merely by a railway station and a parade of shops. The area is known instead as West Barnes, and though the ancient grandstand is still in existence the address is given as New Malden by its present owners, Fulham Football Club, who grassed over the track 10 years ago to form their training ground.

It was in 1928 that the University of London bought 18 acres of Surrey countryside at Motspur Park for £18,000 and spent a further £17,000 on levelling, drainage and equipment to provide an athletics track for the use of its 20,000 students. One amongst them, Jack London, won the silver medal at 100 metres and a bronze in the 4 x 100 metres relay at the Amsterdam Olympics that year, and another, Reg Revans, competed in the long jump at those Games. Wooderson’s 4:06.4 for the mile in 1937 and 1:49.2 for 880 yards in 1938 were, of course, two of the very finest performances by British athletes throughout that decade of the 1930s, but Motspur Park did not otherwise figure that importantly as a key venue in prewar years.

London University held its matches there, while the hospitals and the banking and insurance industries staged their championships and there were regular inter-club meetings. The first achievements of any real note were a sprint double in 10.1 and 22.8 (actually 10 1/5 and 22 4/5) by L.R.J. Rinkel – who was, presumably, a brother of John Rinkel, 4th for Great Britain in the 1928 Olympic 400 metres – at the United Hospitals’ Championships of 1931. Yet even more commendable that day was surely the pole-vault victory of the British record-holder, Laurence Bond, whose winning height was of no consequence but whose courage was beyond doubt. He was competing with three dislocated ribs – not, perhaps, the wisest of decisions for a trainee doctor to make, though he apparently suffered no ill-effects, placing 3rd in the AAA Championships a few weeks later.

The Universities’ Athletic Union took its annual Championships to Motspur Park in May of 1932 and the highlight on the day was the double victory of the Oxford blue, Jerry Cornes, at 880 yards and the mile. In rapid hindsight, though, the afternoon’s activities were to become historically the more significant for the 3rd place in the mile of J.E. Lovelock, described somewhat sniffily in “The Times” as “a reserve runner from Oxford” who finished little more than a foot or so behind, separated by Joseph (“Gar”) Helps, of Birmingham University, 2nd. Lovelock, who led for the first three laps with the intention of staging a dead-heat with Cornes, described the race in detail in his journal, concluding: “I was the fool of the party, undoubtedly, but deserved the defeat for my poor tactics”. Oddly, he mistakenly says that the meeting was at the White City, but maybe this his notes were written a week or so later in a state of euphoria as by then he had astonished everyone by breaking the British record (open to “all-comers”, as it then was) in a time of 4:12.0!

The Southern Championships of 1939 was the major meeting to be held at Motspur Park in that decade and despite a chilly and windswept afternoon it produced a number of useful performances. Don Finlay won the 120 yards hurdles in 15.0. Denis Pell, a most promising 22-year-old, took the mile in 4:19.8, with a future marathon-man of renown, Stan Cox, in 3rd position. Peter Ward beat a fellow 1936 Olympian, Aubrey Reeve, in a fine three miles. What irony, then, that the fortunes of these title-winners on the eve of war should be so acutely varied: Finlay became a Battle of Britain fighter-pilot hero but was later severely injured in a car-crash which led to his death in 1970; Pell was killed in an aircraft training accident in 1943; Ward died earlier this year just short of his 96th birthday.

After the war that oh-so-welcome recruit from the West Indies, Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, set about dismantling the modest Motspur Park track record for 100 yards, running 9.8 in 1946 and then 9.7 and 9.6 on the same afternoon at the Southern Championships of 1947. Another exhilarating Caribbean arrival, Arthur Wint, was now competing on home ground as he was studying medicine at London University, but he tended to ease his way gradually into form at the start of each season and contented himself with a 49.0 for 440 yards and a 1:54.8 for 800 metres in preparation for his 1948 Wembley Olympic triumph at 400 metres. A further valuable “import” from the Empire was the splendidly titled Prince Adegboyega Folaranmi Adedoyin, of Nigeria and Queen’s University, Belfast, who graced the UAU Championships of that same year with resounding wins in the high jump and long jump and three months later took 12th and 5th places for Great Britain in those events at Wembley.

My memories of Motspur Park come from a somewhat later era, and it may seem odd that the most vivid of them revolve round the Surrey county 880 yards races, but it should be pointed out that the various county championships formed a highly important part of the domestic programme from the 1930s through to the 1960s. Many a June Saturday morning in the last of those decades I would eagerly take the underground train from Watford and then across London to spend the afternoon leaning contentedly on the back-straight railings as the Surrey championships unfolded. The sun always seemed to shine, though I don’t suppose it did, and I have to say that for all the fine performers on view it was really only one event that I had come for … and that was the 880. Why, I had even taken to those cinders myself for the sacred two laps one Friday evening in the heats of the Southern championships – I forget the year, but it matters not as there was no need for me to make the return journey on the morrow, if you follow my meaning.

The Surrey championships go to Motspur Park, though Hampson’s record is safe

The Surrey officials had first taken their championships to Motspur Park in 1936, and the half-mile had been won that day by a man named H.A. Williams, of Queen’s Park Harriers, who was successfully defending his title and would win again in 1937. His 1936 time of 1:58.8 was his fastest of the series, which might not seem particularly noteworthy but any study of county events of those years will show that breaking two minutes was a very commendable performance. Williams had also placed 3rd in 1932, and was undoubtedly happy to do so as the winner that day was the estimable Tommy Hampson, already the British Empire champion and completing the hat-trick of county wins that Williams would emulate. Hampson, though, was destined for a rather more secure place in athletics history a couple of months later as the Olympic 800 metres champion and the first man to beat 1min 50sec. He had set a county record of 1:56 2/5 in 1930 which would last for 20 years.

The first GB international after Hampson to win the title was Geoffrey Dove, who came from British Guiana (now Guyana) and ran in the winning medley relay team against France at the White City later in 1946. He was 3rd in the AAA Championships 880 that year to Wint and Tom White in his career best of 1:55.4 and was Surrey champion again in 1949 when the championships returned to Motspur Park, to be succeeded the next year at the same venue by a man who was unquestionably the most talented holder of the title since Hampson. He was Bill Nankeville, who was very much more of a miler (6th in the 1948 Olympic 1500 metres and four times AAA mile champion) but comfortably beat Hampson’s meeting record with 1:54.8. Nankeville’s fastest 880 was a 1:53.4 in 1948 and five years later he ran an almost identical 800 metres time of 1:52.6.

Curiously missing from the list of Surrey half-mile winners of that era is the name of John Parlett, Empire champion at 880 yards and European champion at 800 metres in 1950. The reason is that while Nankeville was beating Hampson’s venerable record in ideal conditions on that June Saturday afternoon of 1950 Parlett opted for the mile event and lost by a couple of yards to Chris Chataway but the next year made full amends by winning in a record 4:11.2, having already run a heat in 4:17.6. Incidentally, other Surrey winners in 1950 included John Wilkinson at 220 yards (21.9), Derek Pugh at 440 yards (48.7) and a future respected coach, George Pallett, adding yet another title in the pole vault to various others, including the long jump and triple jump, in which he had also been champion before the war.

From 1949 onwards the Surrey championships became established as an annual fixture at Motspur Park, having in earlier years visited Battersea Park, Byfleet, Guildford, Redhill, Tolworth, Walton-on-Thames and Wimbledon. Nankeville won the 880 again in 1952 but the previous year had been beaten by a surprising South London Harrier, J.D. Prince, who finished 10 yards or so clear in 1:55.6, never before having run under two minutes ! Prince, in his turn, won again in 1953 without ever improving on his breakthrough time and much more attention was paid that day to Gordon Pirie, enjoying one his greatest seasons, and loping effortlessly round three miles in 13:54.2. Pirie set the mile record at 4:10.6 in 1954, with Peter Driver and Brian Barrett on his heels, and Nankeville lost the half-mile by 1½ yards to a 20-year-old from Mitcham AC, Brian Hewson, who also had the temerity to break Nankeville’s meeting record by half-a-second.

In 1955 Pirie ran an even faster mile of 4:08.6, but the 880 was deprived of Hewson, suffering the after-effects of a bumpy air journey back from a race on the Continent, and it went instead to an unheralded clubmate, Norman Lloyd, who had placed only 3rd in the his heat. Lloyd’s winning time was an undistinguished 1:56.2 but he attracted the attention of the correspondent for “The Times” who remarked that “his long stride seemed neutralised by an oddly wooden way of carrying his arms”. Lloyd, a wiry 6ft 3in (1.91m) tall, might not have been over-enthused about such coverage, but we were to hear from him again when he went off to Stanford University, in California, after emigrating to Canada and amazed everyone who had known him only as a club-class half-miler (best of 1:52.6) by running a 1:49.2 in 1958 which ranked 3rd on the British all-time list, having already won a mile race earlier that day in 4:17.0, with a last lap of 57.5, and later running a 47.4 for 440 yards in a relay!

Hewson does without the “pale cast of thought”

Hewson was not to take the Surrey title again until 1958, but when he did so he did it in style. He won by a street in 1:49.3 (2nd place 1:54.8) and drew a detailed but perhaps chastening assessment from “The Times”: “Hewson’s fast run showed this sometimes disappointing athlete in the best possible light. For him ‘the native time of resolution is sickled o’er with the pale cast of thought’ too often in the mile, but the half-mile gives him no time to think about tying up and plenty of opportunity to use his speed and great sense of rhythm. Hewson floated effortlessly round the two laps in his heat and in the final led from gun to tape, having no real opposition’. Hewson would perhaps have been more encouraged by the writer likening him to those two masterfully elegant Americans, Mal Whitfield and Arnie Sowell.

The next year Hewson was only slightly slower, in 1:49.6, and had a mere 15 yards or so to spare over Bob Harvey, still only 19, and Mike Fleet, 21, who were both members of Croydon Harriers. Hewson then had his fourth win in 1960 from another newcomer, 20-year-old Tony Milner, whose identical twin brother, Peter, often confused the issue by actually being the faster of the two (career bests of 1:50.7 for Peter and 1:51.2 for Tony) and winning the event in 1961. Fleet was a very close 3rd on this occasion, and I suppose this could be described as the start of an era of Surrey half-miling with which I was to become personally acquainted. Actually, I have to admit that it’s all really rather a blur as to which years I went to Motspur Park and which years I didn’t, and the experience simply seems to merge into an endlessly sublime one minute and 50 seconds or so which lasted for most of the 1960s and usually involved the aptly-named Fleet in the proceedings.

Fleet, in fact, spent eight years trying to win the title – 3rd in 1959, 1960 and 1961, 2nd in 1962, 1963 and 1964, 4th in 1965, unplaced in 1966 and winner at last in 1967. In 1962 Fleet was edged out by Bob Harvey, both given 1:53.7, but eventually had the fastest British time of the year, 1:48.9, and reached the Empire & Commonwealth Games final in Western Australia. The 1963 race was won by Terry Keen in 1:50.2 and four of the next five also had season’s bests, with Bob Setti 3rd in 1:50.7, Martin Wales 4th in 1:51.8, David Prior 5th in 1:52.3 and Harvey 6th, also in 1:52.3, and all of them ranking in Britain’s top 40 for the year. The one man who improved was Fleet, 2nd in 1:50.7, though the fastest Surrey half-miler of the year was actually Tony Harris, of Mitcham, at 1:48.9.

Fleet belongs to a neglected generation of British half-milers of the early 1960s who had the invidious task of following on behind a galaxy of talent. Between them at 800 metres and 880 yards during the years 1948 to 1958 Wint, Parlett, Webster, Johnson, Farrell, Hewson and Rawson could point to three Olympic silver medals, two Commonwealth golds and a silver, a European gold, two Olympic 5th places and seven British records. Yet Fleet and two of his contemporaries, Bob Piercy and Peter Kilford, were immensely wholehearted runners who did sterling service in British colours.

In the 1964 Surrey title race Fleet ran 1:49.9 but still had to settle for 2nd place to the 1:49.6 of 21-year-old David Cocks, and in 1966 Hewson’s meeting best was equalled by Mike Varah, also 21, who later that June was to share in a 4 x 880 yards relay World record which was contentiously disallowed because the runners were given unofficial lap times. The next year Fleet got his long-awaited victory as the heavy rain slowed him to 1:53.6.

And that seems an appropriate note on which to close this account. It was by no means the end of Motspur Park’s days, though by 1990 the only personal best time at 800 metres (including conversions from 880 yards) to have been set on that track among the fastest 100 Britons ever was 1:48.4 … by Sydney Wooderson all those years before in 1938. the latter 1960s was certainly the end of my presence among the spectators there as work took me away to the Midlands and then the North of England, and the concrete walls of Kirkby never had remotely the same charm as that sylvan setting in Surrey. Nor does the Surrey 800 metres of the 21st Century stand much comparison with those half-miles of more than 40 years ago – John Gladwin set a very commendable meeting record of 1:48.1 in 1986, but since 1990 the fastest winning time has been no better than 1:51.1. In 2007 there were only two starters, and no doubt one onlooker aghast at the sight was Mike Fleet, who has continued coaching at Croydon Harriers since his retirement from competition.

Yet for those who nostalgically – maybe even myopically – yearn for their Motspur Park of yesteryear there is a sobering thought. Mike Fleet’s most brilliant protegé is Martyn Rooney, who may well run 800 metres times unimaginable in those heady days of the 1960s.

40 years of Surrey county champions at 880 yards, 1928-1967

* - meeting record

1928: F. Warne (Queen’s Park H) 2:05.0. 1929: J.A. Sutherland (London AC) 2:00.0. 1930: T. Hampson (Oxford University/Achilles C) 1:56.6*. 1931: Hampson 1:58.0. 1932: Hampson 1:58.4. 1933: J. Sarjeant (London AC) 2:03.0. 1934: A.R.M. Maxwell-Hyslop (Achilles C) 1:58.2. 1935: H.A. Williams (Queen’s Park H) 2:03.5. 1936: Williams 1:58.8. 1937: Williams 1:59.4. 1938: J. Youngs (London AC) 1:59.0. 1939: K.T. Roberts (Mitcham AC) 2:00.3. 1946: G.A.W. Dove (South London H) 2:00.0. 1947: 1948: L.M. Marchant (Belgrave H) 1:58.8. 1949: Dove 1:59.9. 1950: G.W. Nankeville (Walton AC) 1:54.8*. 1951: J.D. Prince (South London H) 1:55.6. 1952: Nankeville 1:57.0. 1953: Prince 2:00.1. 1954: B.S. Hewson (Mitcham AC) 1:54.3*. 1955: N.A. Lloyd (Mitcham AC) 1:56.2. 1956: I. H. Boyd (Herne Hill H) 1:56.0. 1957: J. Clements (South London H) 1:56.2. 1958: Hewson 1:49.3*. 1959: Hewson 1:49.6. 1960: Hewson 1:52.7. 1961: P.W. Milner (Walton AC) 1:50.7. 1962: R.J. Harvey (Croydon H) 1:53.7. 1963: T.P.G. Keen (Hercules AC) 1:50.5. 1964: D.A. Cocks (Belgrave H) 1:49.6. 1965: K.M. Bromley (Walton AC) 1:53.9. 1966: G.P.M. Varah (Hercules AC) 1:49.3 =*. 1967: M.A. Fleet (Croydon H) 1:53.6.