Track Stats - White, Evans & Webster

In pursuit of Wint, Parlett and Bannister, great days for the “three musketeers”

Tom White, Frank Evans and Albert Webster were leading British 800 metres runners of 60 years ago. Profiled by David Thurlow. Published in “Track Stats” March 2009.

British half-miling has always been a rich vein of success in the major championships. Before Word War II a Briton won every Olympic 800 metres title from 1920 to 1932 and there was a finalist in 1936. Just after the war we had Tom White, then John Parlett and an “import “, Arthur Wint, who ran in head-on clashes for Britain, though Wint did not do so at the Olympics, where he was 2nd for Jamaica in 1948 and 1952 behind Marvellous Mal Whitfield. In the years 1950 to 1952 White and two other men long forgotten but important led the parade before Derek Johnson and Brian Hewson which stretched on via runners like Mike Rawson and Mike Farrell eventually to Seb Coe, Peter Elliott and Steve Ovett.

White was from Lincolnshire and was always described as “evergreen”, and the other two were Albert Webster, from the Midlands, and Frank Evans, from Manchester. Their battles over the three years which practically ended with the Helsinki Olympics were titanic and much looked forward to by fans. They were all different in temperament but shared the strong will to win, and although none of them ever beat 1min 50sec they all had performances which ranked them in the top class. At the same time they were never the best in Britain – Wint or Parlett or Roger Bannister always being just that bit better – but when it was necessary our trio rose to the occasion and took over.

One of the problems of those days was that competitions were on a strict timetable and that, coupled with travel difficulties and working patterns, limited the number of times the three met. Most athletes worked five days a week and often on Saturday mornings, and that was certainly so in the industrial North and Midlands; Extra time off meant loss of wages or holidays.

The season started with the county championships; then came the Inter-Counties' at the spring British Games; then the regional championships and finally the AAA Championships. Success at the AAA led to international selection or being picked to run in the later big meetings which were almost always held at the White City Stadium, in London. So training was aimed at the AAA Championships as the most important meeting of the year.

Tom White was the oldest of the trio by eight years, born on 16 November 1917. Evans was born on 7 April 1925 and Webster on 25 May of that same year. Webster was the tallest at 1.83m to White's 1.74 and Evans's 1.69, and the heaviest at 73kg. And they could run very fine half-miles.

White was originally a cyclist but took up running at the age of 24 during World War II in Egypt, where he became national champion at 400 and 800 metres with a best time of 1:56.0. In 1946 he ran a fine 2nd to Arthur Wint in the first postwar AAA Championships and went on to beat the giant Jamaican in the match against France before finishing a fine 5th in the European Championships 800 metres in Oslo in a time of 1:51.5 which was to remain his lifetime best. The next year White won the AAA title, with John Parlett 3rd, and soon after he finished 3rd in a great race with Wint and Parlett during a match between the British Amateur Athletic Board and the Combined Srevices. Wint won in 1:50.0 from Parlett, with the bespectacled White doing 1:52.5, and there is a wonderful photo of the race with Wint and his massive 9ft 6in stride leading the way. White was 4th against France when Marcel Hansenne ran away in 1:50.2 from him and Parlett.

Frank Evans joined the fray in 1948 because the Berlin Olympic relay gold-medallist, Bill Roberts, was ill and Lancashire needed a 440 yards runner for the Inter-Counties' at the White City. Evans was a member of Manchester AC and had become interested in athletics while serving with the Royal Navy in Bermuda. He then had his appetite really whetted when back in the UK Wint showed him how to run on a wet track and beat him by 25 yards over a quarter. Afterwards, Wint (later to become a doctor and High Commissioner in Britain for his Caribbean island) sat down and talked to Evans and was to give him coaching advice. Evans, who used ballroom-dancing as part of his training, ran well in Roberts's place and finished 4th, giving him high hopes which were quickly dashed when a clubmate ran away from him in the Northern 440. It was soon afterwards that Evans changed to half-miling and found that he was good at it and liked it.

The Olympic year of 1948 was the last time that White was on his own ahead of the other two as he came 4th in the AAA 880 in 1:53.8 behind an inspired Parlett, who ran away from Doug Harris, of New Zealand, and Wint. At the Games White ran an easy 1:56.6 in his heat, but his 1:53.0 in the semi-final was not quite fast enough and out he went, with only Parlett qualifying to represent Britain in the final but going unplaced after running 1:50.9 in his semi-final. Harris tore a tendon in his Olympic heat.

The next year the up-and-coming Evans joined the party. White had won the British Games 880 in 1:55.4 and the Inter-Counties' in 1:57.7 to beat Parlett and Evans (for the first time), but the Mancunian got his revenge when he beat White by a foot in the Northern in 1:57.7. Then White outclassed Evans at the AAA, run on a puddle-covered track in the rain, and so did Parlett, who caught the astonished veteran on the line with one of his lightning finishes to take the title which White thought was his in 1:53.7. Evans, who had run well to finish 3rd at the Kinnaird Trophy meeting, was 5th in 1:55.4. Parlett was preferred for the match against France, but White had a good win later in the season to beat Bannister in the Waddilove Trophy in 1:56.9, while Evans gave Bill Nankeville a fine race in a representative match as the AAA mile champion did 1:53.8.

White goes off to the Empire Games in New Zealand. Webster makes a winning start

White made the long trip to New Zealand for the 1950 Empire Games as 2nd string to Parlett for the 880 and also as a miler to help Yorkshireman Len Eyre, though Eyre was to win the three miles instead of his speciality. White finished 5th in the half which Parlett won with a fine run in 1:53.1 and White was just 0.8sec behind. White went on to come 5th again in the mile in a lifetime best of 4:15.0, with Eyre 2nd. And then there were three because when White came back to Britain the 880 yards handicap at an early-season meeting organised by Birchfield Harriers was won by A. Webster, of Sutton-in-Ashfield AC, in 1:48.6 off 54 yards. A few weeks later the same Albert Webster finished 6th in the AAA Championships in 1:54.2, and two years after that he ran 1:50.1 in the semi-finals of the Olympic 800 metres and was then 5th in the final !

Webster had started running in 1949 and had placed 2nd in a slow Midlands final. The trio had met for the first time in 1950 at the Inter-Counties' with White winning from Evans, 1:55.4 to 1:55.7, and the newcomer 4th in 1:56.1. Then Webster won the Midland title and White was well clear of Evans in the Northern. The AAA Championships final produced two races as Bannister, Wint and Parlett were in the first league and two of our trio were in the second division, as White, who was a clerk in a major industrial firm, did not make the journey south. Wint outfoxed Bannister, 1:51.6 to 1:52.1, with Parlett a second behind just ahead of Roy Morley – another of the second division – and Evans 5th and Webster an astonishing 6th. Parlett and Bannister went to Brussels for the European Championships 800 where they finished 1st and 3rd, and the same two took the places in the international matches.

Things were to change in 1951 as Parlett went off to chase his miling ambitions – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – and Bannister came closer and closer to the elusive sub-four-minute mile. The Inter-Counties' was the first meeting of the three – inevitably at the White City in London – and Webster took it with 1:56.7 for his first victory against his great rivals. Nankeville, who led at the bell in 58.8, was 2nd, Evans 3rd and White 4th. Before the regional championships Webster ran a personal-best 1:52.8 for 880 yards at Middlesbrough on a damp evening against a visiting American, Roscoe Browne, who won in 1:52.4. The race was originally reported as being a handicap event, with Browne off 11 yards and Webster off 15, but at the last minute it was changed to a straight race. Webster won the Midland, while Evans set his best of 1:54.7 to take the Northern from White.

At the White City for the AAA Championships it was clear that Wint was in a class of his own, and so it proved with a 53.4 first lap, about three seconds ahead, and then holding on but gaining no further ground as Evans took 2nd in 1:53.2, White 3rd and Webster 4th, with half-a-second covering them. Evans and Webster ran almost as fast a few days later in a regional match, with Evans just holding on by inches in 1:53.4. Webster had another victory over White in a Northern meeting at Chesterfield in 1:57.4, and then Webster and Evans were picked for the GB team's Balkans tour and had great chances of raising their profiles because of the dysentery which affected so many of the party.

Against Yugoslavia Evans ran a personal best of 1:52.6 when finishing 3rd in a very fast race won by Wint in 1:49.7 from the local hero, Andrija Otenheimer, who beat Bannister at 1500. Then the stomach bug struck so that against Greece Webster was the first string and beat Len Eyre by a yard in 1:57.4. By the time the team reached Turkey Bannister was a walking wreck who could only do 2:05.3 as Webster again took the 800 in 1:54.7. In the previous two matches Webster had also been in the winning 4 x 400 relay teams.

There was still more to come. At the British Festival Games Wint won in 1:51.7, but Bannister only just managed to hold off Evans in 1:53.7 with Webster 4th. Evans gained his own back shortly afterwards when he outsprinted Bannister in a triangular match in a slow 1:58.9 while White was being defeated by two Scotsmen in Glasgow. The highlight of the year was at the end for Webster and Evans (who had also run a personal best mile of 4:13.1 during the season) as they were both in the GB quartet for the invitation 4 x 880 yards relay at the London-v-Gothenburg match at the White City on 26 September.

There were three teams – GB, England and Sweden – and Nankeville led off for GB with 1:53.4, followed by Webster with 1:52.8 to turn the two-yard deficit into an eight-yard lead. Evans went off too fast, opening up a gap of 20 yards and then losing 19 of it but still running 1:53.6 to give anchor-man Parlett a slight advantage which he increased to three yards, and there it stayed until he broke the tape in 7:30.6 after a stage of 1:50.8, with the Swedes also inside the new USA record with 7:31.2. England were 3rd with Tom White running the last leg but some way behind.

When the “Olympic Possibles” list came out soon afterwards both Webster and Evans were included but not White, who made sure that was altered when the 1952 season began. The trio met as usual at the Inter-Counties' where Evans won in 1:56.1 from Webster and White, just behind in 3rd, though Webster had run a championship best of 1:53.9 in the heats. Webster won the Midland title in 1:56.7 and White the Northern with Evans only 3rd. By the time they got to the White City for the AAA Championships the tension was almost unbearable – there were three Olympic places but who would get them ? Bannister stepped down from the mile to gain extra speed, and so he was the favourite, but would he go for the 1500 metres in Helsinki or would he stick to the 800, as he had done in the European Championships two years before?

Bannister wins the AAA title, but Webster, Evans and White get their Olympic places

Ina Gurney, an Achilles runner, led the AAA 880 until 350 yards from home and then Bannister struck with his killer sprint. It took him away from the “Three Musketeers”, but they stuck to their task, and Webster got 2nd with 1:52.7, Evans 3rd at 1:53.5 and White 4th at 1:54.1. It was enough: they were all picked for the 800 as Bannister went to Helsinki as one of the favourites for the 1500 – until he learnt that there were three rounds, not two, and that hit his confidence and he was only able to finish a bitterly disappointed 4th in that race won by Josy Barthel, of Luxemburg.

Before the Games there was the triangular home international where Webster beat Bannister in a tight finish, 1:55.7 to 1:55.8 for 800 metres with a 56sec last lap, while in the invitation race at the same meeting White beat Evans on the line, both being credited with 1:55.4, and in 3rd place was a very youthful Derek Johnson, aged 19, and four years before his Olympic silver medal. In a regional match Evans took his turn and defeated Webster in another close finish in 1:56.5. The rivalry among our trio was intense and the attitude fiercely competitive, but they remained good friends. It is worth remembering that all of them had jobs which did not allow them the time-off luxury of the armed forces – for national servicemen as well as regulars – and the universities with their long holidays. A working-man was heavily handicapped and depended on good employers to give him time off. For example, Evans tried several jobs before he found an employer who would grant him leave away from his job as a fitter.

And so to the Olympics. All three 800 metres men got through the 1st round: Webster 1:55.5, White 1:52.7, Evans 1:53.6. In the semi-finals it was a different story. Webster rose to the occasion with a lifetime best of 1:50.1, but White ran himself out and was eliminated with 1:53.6 and Evans was completely outclassed and finished very disappointed in last place. In the final Webster stayed with the field all the way and it was only in the closing stages that Whitfield and Wint got away, but Webster kept going at a pace which he had only ever previously achieved in the semi-final and came a very good and unexpected 5th in 1:50.2.

In the traditional match between the British Empire and the USA back in London Webster ran the anchor stage of the 4 x 880 but stood no chance as Whitfield had been given a 30-yard lead ! The USA team broke Great Britain's World record with 7:29.2. Webster was not in the team for the match against France at the end of the long season and Evans and White came 2nd and 3rd in a creditable 1:52.4 and 1:52.5 behind the Frenchman, El Mabrouk. There was one more race, at the British Games, and there White was a tired 3rd and Webster an even more exhausted 6th. Internationally that was it. The next generation was ready to take over.

In 1953 White managed 1:54.8 for 3rd behind Brian Hewson at the AAA, but the other two musketeers in the race were unplaced. Webster won the Midland title again and Evans the Northern, and Webster also ran 1:54.4 for 800 metres in France behind El Mabrouk. A year later Webster was 4th in the Inter-Counties' in 1:53.5 behind the new star and Empire champion-to-be, Derek Johnson, and although he did 1:54.7 in his heat of the AAA he was out of the first six in the final. Webster had one last race against White in a regional match which he won in 1:59.7 with White, now aged 37, 3rd. The three thus ended their careers woth no one the outright winner, although Webster had the best international record, White the longest career, and Evans the brightest spark on occasions. They all had fun and success and who can ask for anything more ?

Albert Webster remembers a career that started late

Albert Webster was one of that rare breed – someone who came into athletics late and found fame and fine performances from the start, ending his short international career with a place in an Olympic final. The 6ft (1.83m) tall 11˝-stone (73kg) ex-Navy man would never have run at all but for breaking his arm playing his beloved rugby. The arm did not recover sufficiently to enable him to play again, and so instead as a fitness fanatic he turned to running at the age of 24 and discovered very quickly that he could run a half-mile faster than nearly everyone – and certainly everyone around Sutton-in-Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire, where he was a senior post office employee. At his home at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, at the age of 83 he remembered his many races with Tom White and Frank Evans: “I was always ready to knock them down. I didn't meet them often, and then mostly at the big meetings. You ran for county and country and I met them at regular intervals. We didn't get together except at races, but they were always alright chaps. We always had a good race, but afterwards we went our separate ways. There did not seem time for socialising.

“I started running in North London after five years in the Royal Navy when my arm would not heal. I was playing at a high standard then. I found I could do a bit of running and it was very successful. Some people where I was working who were looking for others to join in a race asked me, and I did, and because I won it I was picked forever ! It was a lot of fun, and I settled down, winning county races and across the country as well. I trained more than most and joined a club, Sutton-in-Ashfield, and trained mostly every night. I found I could run and win at half-miling, and I could also do the 440”. After his competitive career was over, he kept his interest in the sport, through coaching and other involvement at his club, and he recalls: « It was great fun and I enjoyed it all. We didn't run for money, just for cups and medals, and we always had great races between the three of us. Great days ! »

Year-by-year British times and rankings (World top 50 rankings in brackets)

1946: 1 Arthur Wint (Jamaica) 1:50.6m (6=), 2 Tom White 1:51.5m (11), 3 Geoffrey Dove 1:55.4y, 4 Jim Alford 1:56.2y, 5 Doug Wilson 1:56.5y, 6 Len Marchant 1:56.8y, 7 Gerry Smillie 1:57.0y, 8 J.P.S.Gibson 1:57.3y.

1947: 1 Wint 1:50.0m (5=), 2 John Parlett 1:51.2m (18=), 3 White 1:52.5m (34=), 4 Harold Tarraway 1:52.8m (39=), 5 Wilson 1:55.0y, 6 Bill Nankeville 155.7y, 7 Les Sarbutt 1:56.5y, 8 Marchant 1:57.0y.

1948: 1 Wint 1:49.5m (4), 2 Parlett 1:50.9m (9=), 3 Doug Harris (NZ) 1:52.4y (24=), 4 Nankeville 1:53.4y (38=), 5 White 1:53.0m (50=), 6 Dick Morris 1:54.3y, 7 Tarraway 1:55.8y, 8 Angus Scott 1:55.3m.

1949: 1 Wint 1:51.2y (5=), 2= Roger Bannister, Scott 1:52.7y (23=), 4 Parlett 1:52.9y (28=), 5 Ian Thomson (SA) 1:53.4y (38=), 6 Harris 1:53.5y (41=), 7 White 1:53.7y (47=), 8 Tarraway 1:53.9y (52=).

1950: 1 Parlett 1:50.5m (6=), 2 Bannister 1:50.7m (9=), 3 Wint 1:51.6y (12=), 4 Roy Morley 1:53.3y (50=), 5 Nankeville 1:53.7m, 6 White 1:53.9y, 7= Scott, Frank Evans 1:54.1y, 9 Albert Webster 1:54.2y.

1951: 1 Wint 1:49.6y (1), 2 Parlett 1:51.6y (11=), 3 Webster 1:52.8y, 4 Bannister 1:52.9y, 5 Evans 1:53.2y, 6 Nankeville 1:53.4y, 7 White 1:53.5y, 8 Hans Streuli (Swi) 1:52.8m.

1952: 1 Wint 1:49.4m (4), 2 Webster 1:50.1m (13=), 3 Bannister 1:51.5y (24), 4 Evans 1:52.4m, 5 White 1:52.5m, 6 Ian Parr 1:53.6y, 7 Keith Marsden 1:54.0y, 8 Ian Gurney 1:54.4y.

Note: subtract 0.7sec from 880 yards time for the 800 metres equivalent.