Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club

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Victoria Park Harriers: The History of an East London Athletics Club, 1926-1976

By Gordon Everson

Chapter 1: In the beginning | Contents | Chapter 3: Revival and Happy Days (1946 - 1960)

Chapter 2: The Thriving Thirties

We continued to use Eton Mission for evening training during the winter of 1927-28, but opportunity for competition was limited by our want of first claim members. Lack of numbers threatened our inaugural Club Championship and so to swell the field it was decided to encourage the the entry of track runners by staging a 5 miles Championship on the road around Hackney Marshes. It was held in March and S.Holdstock won the first ever club title from Frank Fuller and J.Walker. Later the same month, the Middlesex A.A.A. formed a County Athletics League and V.P.H. entered the Third Division along with St.Mary's (Hornsey) A.C., Hampstead Harriers, Old Gaytonians and our friends from Grafton A.C. Although eventually the League was contested over a number of all relay meetings, on this occasion the whole affair was decided at one match in July. Our team placed third, which was nothing to get excited about, but it constituted a start into slightly stronger inter-club competition.

At the 1927 A.G.M. Capt.Garro-Jones had presented a cup to the Club as a One Mile Championship Trophy, and the first winner was Jimmy Bell, son of theTreasurer. Jimmy was the typical loyal club runner; and he continued to turn out for us into the mid fifties. When Mr. Moore became President, he had made a donation which was earmarked for a trophy and the Committee felt it time that the sprinters were accommodated. Consequently, the 'R.J.Moore' Challenge Cup was put up for the 100 yards, and Tommy Griffin took the title in 10.6 secs.

The following couple of years were rather uneventful. Large crowds continued to support our events and a newspaper report of our final track meeting in September 1929 estimated an attendance of 8,000 spectators!. That was almost certainly an exaggeration of considerable proportion but it does show that the numbers who came to watch astonished everyone. Our modest standards did not encourage us to seek out the stronger clubs, who in any case would look askance at such new boys, but as our membership increased we grew bolder and by 1930 had the temerity to invite the Metropolitan Police A.C. to contest an all relay match at the Park. This led to a series of fixtures between us and the Police and many members would have had memories of the sporting and hard fought races at home and at Imber Court. In the Middlesex League, we were only 2 points behind the winners, St.Mary's (Hornsey) A.C., and easily beat Hampstead, Grafton and Shaftesbury. At the end-of-season handicaps, the M.P. for Poplar, George Lansbury, presented the prizes. He spoke enthusiastically of the wonderful changes at Victoria Park in recent years and congratulated V.P.H. on the smooth running of the meeting.

During the winter, we showed considerable improvement and in the North London C.C.A. 3 miles on Boxing Day at Tufnell Park, our 'A' team won the first race and our 'B' team were runners up in the second race. Although 1931 brought the Club a full and active programme, it was a year of general depression throughout the country. Trade was bad and the intention of holding a V.P.H.cross country championship was put aside for the moment. There was a dispute which made the committee unhappy with one of its number and this caused some disgruntlement generally; there were charges of apathy against officials and athletes, but perhaps everyone was expecting too much.

Tommy Brooks dominated our distance running at this time and won a number of Club track and cross-country titles. At the same time, we lost Frank Fuller who sought out a South London club in the hope of sharing the successes of its cross country team. It was disappointing. There may have been some extenuating circumstance for he was allowed to join us again in April 1932 as a second claim member and ran for us in the Middlesex C.C.C. The truth was we needed cross country runners but some felt the committee should not have been so compliant. Within three years, the Club had half a dozen people who were better than Frank and he was no longer missed. Five years later, he our 6th. scorer in the Middlesex and collected a medal as we were the first team to close in twelve. It was a situation not without irony. In 1932, it was on the track, and particularly in the sprints, that we mostly made our mark. Tommy Griffin, John Kilbey, a junior, and another youngster, Billy Little, were forcing each other to faster times and the latter eventually became one of our finest sprinters. Billy also excelled in long jumping and by finishing second in both the Middlesex and in the Southern Counties, gaining an A.A.A. standard and being selected for Middlesex in the Sir Sefton Branker Trophy, he established four 'firsts' in our history. In the Middlesex 4 x 220 yards Junior relay Championships at Enfield, our team of Kilbey, G. Robertson, J. Dyke and C. Harvey finished third in the final and gave V.P.H. its first placing in a county team event. All this was most encouraging and 1932 is a milestone in Club history.

Besides Grafton and ourselves, there were two more clubs who used Victoria Park as a home track. One was the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute who drew the bulk of their membership from lads who came from Suttons Buildings. This was where Harry Peck lived and with his influence it was only a matter of time before they came into our camp. Rivalry with Globe A.C. was not altogether friendly; there was a considerable body of opinion that the clubs should amalgamate, and when the persuasiveness of Tommy Griffin brought about a considerable defection, Globe went into a decline. They struggled on for a while but eventually surrendered to the inevitable and most of their members embraced V.P.H. This of course had a marked effect on our membership and our fortunes during the Thirties. Almost at once we gave a better account of ourselves in inter-Club competition and tieing with Essex Beagles as runners-up in the ‘Alex Meyer’ Trophy was our best performance to date. There was a new confidence and an expansion which prompted the formation of a Social Committee.

Individual successes in Open Handicap meetings helped to promote the Club name and it was only fully appreciated when the A.A.A. awarded to Victoria Park Harriers the 'Percy L.Fisher Memorial Shield', being adjudged the most improved club in the South of England. It was a wonderful, unexpected achievement which was justifiably regarded with pride and satisfaction by those founder members who had worked to put the Club on its feet. After World War II, it was thought a good idea to put up the shield as a Junior Trophy for Inter-Club competition and during a season when we were ourselves the holders, it was misappropriated - undoubtedly by a club member. The monetary value of the shield is next to nothing yet to V.P.H. it is beyond price; let us hope that one day it will be restored to us. It may come as a surprise to some that after five years, the Club still did not have a Junior section. What juniors there were competed on equal terms with the seniors and even when an attempt was made to provide separate events within the Club, the Committee decided that there were too few younger members to justify such a move. It was not a popular or a wise decision and it was reversed within 12 months.

The promise of 1932 was maintained in the following year when V.P.H. won the 'Alex Meyer’ from North London Harriers, Essex Beagles, St.Mary's (Hornsey) and Grafton. With six firsts and one second place the Club easily topped Division 2 of the Middlesex League and in the County Championships, seven members were either placed or earned standard medals. Financially too, we were in a much healthier position. Although expenditure had been rising steadily the Social Committee launched various fund-raising schemes and at the end of September, £31-13-8d stood to the Club Account. Some of this money was soon spent on our winter activities; for evening spins we rented rooms at the University Club in Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green. £5 for the season allowed us use of the ‘Uni’ on Wednesdays and it was here we held committee meetings. For Saturday afternoon cross-country runs, we took new quarters at Peel Road, Chingford. It set the Club back £17 to refit the baths and stove and to make other improvements, but the general comfort made members feel it was money well spent. The changes seemed to bring results. Our cross-country section began to flourish and for the first time we were able to enter a team in the Middlesex C.C.Championship; of 17 clubs we were 8th. In the N.L.C.C.A. 3 miles at Tufnell Park a V.P.H. 'B' team took 1st place and, although these were small beginnings for our distance runners, they gave great encouragement.

The school which preached that a winter of stamina building on the road and country paid dividends on the track was given credence by the results obtained during the summer of 1934 when we went through the summer season unbeaten as a team in all competitions and matches. It was a remarkable record. Essex Beagles, Woodford Green, Highgate, Shaftesbury, North London, St.Albans, St.Mary's (Hornsey), Eton Manor and Grafton were all defeated and a match with the Met.Police ended in a tie. We retained the 'Alex Meyer' Trophy, finished first in the 4th Division of the Southern A.A. League and topped the 1st Division of the Middlesex League, but perhaps the most exciting single event was the Middlesex County 4 x 110 yards Relay Championship when A. Hilditch, C. Harvey, S. Cannell and J. Hill brought off a brilliant win to give the Club its first County title. This was not our sole triumph in County events for Albert Gordon became the first V.P.H. individual champion by winning the Middlesex Junior Long Jump with a leap of 9ft, 3ins. In those days, Junior meant 14-16 years of age.

In an effort to popularise walking, we staged an attempt on the 1 Mile World Record by Bert Cooper. Ten of the best walkers in the country were invited to participate including A. Plumb of Enfield, the World 20 miles record holder, together with numerous county and business house champions who were given starts from 60 yards upwards. Three A.A.A. timekeepers and our Treasurer, Harry Peck, were on the watches and a vast crowd gathered to watch the event. The track was specially prepared but unfortunately Bert failed by just 5 seconds to reach the world mark of 6m.25.8secs. Nevertheless, the spectacle had pleased the crowd and the publicity we gained encouraged the Club to try a similar venture the following season. After Bert Cooper had successfully defended his A.A.A.2 miles title with a new championship best, advantage was taken of the presence in this country of one of the famous Latvian walkers, Paul Bernard, holder of the Latvian 1 mile and 1000m. records.

Bernard was a stylish performer and a clash with Cooper, who held world records at 3000m. and 5000m., attracted much attention. The race was held on a July evening over a distance of 1000 metres and, after a close struggle, the Latvian forged ahead to win in 3m.49.5secs. a time which was 2.lsecs. inside the world record. Regretably the figures could not be ratified as there was an insufficient number of fully qualified timekeepers in attendance. Naturally, the likeable Bernard was very disappointed and it cannot be denied that we had slipped up rather badly. To commemorate his achievement the Club presented him with a small cup. We could hardly do less.

It was in 1935 that George Hemsworth became General Secretary. After six years of fine work during an important period of building the Club, Tommy Griffin resigned and George, Assistant Hon.Sec. the previous year, stepped into the breach. As he was to admit years later, he could scarcely have dreamed that he would be in office for three decades. The middle years of the thirties saw the Club gaining steadily in strength. In 1935 Rene Howell became the first member to win a County Track Championship when he took the Essex Junior 880 title and the following year Arthur Coombes got his name into the record books by winning the 1936 Middlesex A.A.A. Junior 220 yards Championship with a record time of 24.6 secs, 0.2 secs. slower than his time in a heat.

In 1937 the fruits of all the labours of the early years began to be gathered in. To quote Stan Cannell, then Track Secretary, cries of "Never heard of them" arose when a V.P.H. quartet won their way through to the A.A.A. 4 x 110 yards relay final and finished third in an unofficial time of 43.5 secs. behind Blackheath Harriers, who clocked 42.9 secs, and the Hungarian Magyar Athletekai Club (Budapest), also unofficially, 43.2secs. The team comprised W. Cairncross, J. Hill, C. Carpenter and S. Cannell, and the following week, with junior sprinter F.Baillie replacing the injured Hill, they took the Middlesex title from the Southern Champions, Southgate Harriers.

For the fifth successive year, we carried off the 'Alex Meyer' and became the first holders of the magnificent 'Sir Wm.Perring' Memorial Trophy by beating St.Albans, Watford Harriers, C.A.V.Harriers and Queens Park Harriers at Watford. This was an all relay meeting where V.P.H. took five of six races. In the Corinthian League, we put out largely second string runners but still finished top with 3 points in hand over Kent A.C. We might well have won Division 2 of the Southern League, but some misunderstanding in one of the events caused our disqualification and we had to be content as runners-up to Thames Valley Harriers. Victoria Park Harriers' strength at this time lay not in one or two 'stars' but in numbers and good all round ability. In matches, we began to field 'A' and 'B' teams and in the ten matches contested, we were defeated on only two occasions.

On the country, sheer bad luck robbed the Park of a major success in the 1937 North of the Thames Inter-team race at Chingford. Owing to the course being poorly marked, a group of the leaders, among whom were several VPH runners, went astray and although they eventually got back on to the right path, the deficit was too much to make up and we finished second to Queens Park Harriers. Only six points separated the clubs and we packed magnificently; W. Pittman was 15th, R. Howell 17th, G. Robertson 18th and W. Riddle 22nd.

In the Middlesex County C.C.Championship, we were never in the hunt for a place, yet our strength in depth gave us the medals for being the first team to close in twelve finishers. G. Robertson, E. Dunn, W. Riddle, A. Abrahams, H. Smith, F. Fuller, E. Markwick, G. Hemsworth, D. Smith, G. Moore, A. Pearson and W. Sadd were the recipients. For the first time, we entered a team in the County Junior C.C.Championship and did well to finish 4th with Pittman leading us home in 11th place.

We had enough members to put out three teams in the North London C.C.A. 3 miles on Boxing Day and won the Corinthian League for the fourth year in succession. In the annual Mob Match with Eton Manor, we had no difficulty in taking the team race - which was not unusual - but we also had the first two men home, George Robertson clocking 13m.20secs. with Dick Carpenter close behind. Although we competed in most of the 'local' road relays, the only real success came at Walthamstow where we finished 3rd of 10 teams in the inaugural road race organised by Wadham Harriers. Woodford Green and Ilford headed us, but Dick Carpenter (12m.03secs.) and Billy Pittman (12m.05secs.) returned 2nd and 3rd fastest lap times of the day. The rest of the team was J. Turner, R. Murtell, E. Markwick, E. Dunn, A. Abrahams, F. Plumm, G. Hemsworth and G. Robertson. In the Watford Relay, V.P.H. were 4th and junior, Rene Howell clocked the second fastest time of the day. After the war, Howell moved to Finchley and became an international steeplechaser.

The comparatively quiet winter season was followed by an even less memorable summer, yet if 1938 did not find us setting things alight we still had our moments. Most notably, we won promotion to the First Division of the Southern A.A.A. League. The League was a prestigeous competition and we beat the powerful Belgrave Harriers into second place. We held on to the ‘Watford Hospitals ‘ Cup from Watford Harriers, despite Watford strengthening their team with two international athletes, and carried off the Corinthian League, but had grown rather blase where the 'Alex Meyer' was concerned and lost our firm grasp on that trophy by one point. Our relay team also slipped up in the Middlesex sprint relay with a sloppy change on the first stage. A few days later, our quartet beat the new champions, Ponders End, in the A.A.A. Championships at the White City, but as we were unable to get among the medals, the lads took little comfort from the reversal. The strength of our sprinting at that time was considerable and it is interesting to note that Stan Cannell, who took third place in both the Middlesex and the Southern Championships could not win the club 100 yards title.

Our matches at Victoria Park were still attracting enormous crowds and nearly 4000 spectators saw us win an all relay match against Woodford Green, Highgate, Ponders End and the Beagles. On one occasion, we sold 1,000 programmes. A junior team of F.Baillie, S.Rawlins, H.Steggles and J.Neport placed third in the Middlesex medley relay and gave an indication that the younger runners were showing sufficient promise. They gave a good account of themselves in the Winter Season of 1938-39 and Billy Pittman was still a junior when he led us to victory in the North of the Thames Inter-team race. After steadily improving on previous attempts, we packed so well that St.Mary's (Hornsey) were 23 points behind and Ilford 44 points adrift. Our scorers were Pittman 4th, C. Bryant 5th, W. Riddle 16th, B. Pinchbeck 17th and their team mates backed up so well we were awarded the 'S.Lambert' Memorial Trophy for having the first eight men to finish; F. Plumm being 28th, H. Smith 37th, E. Markwick 40th and A. Abrahams 45th. Thirty teams and 220 runners competed in the Middlesex Junior C.C.Championship and the V.P.H. team of C. Bryant 2nd, W. Pittman 4th, A. Miles 7th, and J. Herbert 18th took the runners up medals. In the Southern Junior,C.C,C. our team of Pittman 6th, C. Bryant 9th, F. Plumm 64th and J. Herbert 68th, finished third of 29 clubs. These were truly magnificent team performances and they set a standard we are unlikely to equal. But it was on the road that V.P.H. made the greatest impact.

On the same day that 23 people turned up for a training run over the country at Chingford, a team comprising T. Whyman, A. Miles, F. Fuller, A. Connor, R. Howell and R. Murtell won the Corinthian 'City' Relay. We beat Eton Manor in the annual Mob Match by the comfortable margin of 35 points and provided the first three men home. Howell set a new course record of 12m.58secs, 2 seconds ahead of Pittman, while Dick Carpenter was third. V.P.H. teams won both the Watford and the Wadham Road Relays with Howell setting up the fastest lap on each occasion. Partnered by Bryant, Carpenter, Pinchbeck, Murtell and Markwick at Watford and joined by Pittman, Plumm, Robertson and Abrahams in the ten-legged race at Walthamstow where the Club set a course record of 2hrs.4m.50secs. Our performance in the 'Ilford' was superb. A race with ten stages over nearly 38 miles against the best clubs in the south and second only to the 'London to Brighton', was a major test and to finish 5th (3hrs.l7mins.2lsecs), a really fine achievement.

The 1939 track season was held under gathering war clouds, but athletes tended to shut out their concern by throwing themselves into sport. The V.P.H.programme was the heaviest yet undertaken and the toughest competition was met in the Southern League First Division. We could not finish higher than third in any of the events, but enough points were gathered to put us equal 4th with Southgate Harriers. Mitcham A.C. and Herne Hill Harriers tied for 1st place, Blackheath Harriers were 3rd. and Poly.H. 6th. We retained the 'Alex Meyer', but in the Corinthian League, where it was our custom to field reserve strength, Kent kept V.P.H. in second place. Support for the Club Meetings was excellent up to the very last days of peace by which time many had already been called to the Colours. Our end-of-season Handicap Meeting was held on Saturday, August 26th. and attracted a good entry. Most of the competitors would never run another race; World War II was to take the lives of some, blissfully unaware of what fate had in store as they strove for the prizes. And what prizes! A canteen of cutlery, a tea service, an 8-day clock, watches and fruit spoons were just some of the winners' awards for the thirteen men’s and five women’s handicap events. It was a matter of pride to George Hemsworth that the prize tables should be a magnificent sight, and on this occasion, he excelled himself. The quality of the prizes in those days, particularly for Open Handicaps is difficult to conceive today and, undoubtedly, will never be matched again. Eight days later, Britain was at war and the V.P.H. Committee met at an emergency meeting which resulted in the following letter being sent to all members:-

Dear Member,

At a special Committee Meeting held on September 10th, 1939, the following resolution was passed:-'Owing to the outbreak of hostilities, all Club activities to be suspended temporarily. All outstanding accounts to be paid and the balance to be put into the P.O. Savings Bank under the Club Trusteeship'.

George Hemsworth,
Hon. Secretary.

V.P.H.was closed for the duration; who could have guessed that 'temporarily' would stretch to nearly six years!

Chapter 1: In the beginning | Contents | Chapter 3: Revival and Happy Days (1946 - 1960)