Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club

Friendly east London club for athletes of all abilities


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

By Gordon Everson

Chapter 4: Years of Uncertainty (1961 - 1975) | Contents | Chapter 6: Speedsters (100 - 440)

Chapter 5: Men Who Were the Club (Officials)

In tracing an outline of the Club over half a century, it would have been distracting to make more than cursory mention of a few of the several thousand members who have come together over the years in pursuit of a common enthusiasm. But a club is people and the investment in time and effort that so many have made to Victoria Park Harriers must not be allowed to pass unrecorded.

Pre-eminent among our founder members were two men who oddly enough do not figure prominently in our lists of club officials. Harry Peck had been a quality sprinter with Cambridge Harriers around the turn of the century. He had long given up serious competition but in those early days could be persuaded to fill out the fields in handicap events and in 1929 won a 100 yards race from scratch. He was our Honorary Treasurer between 1931 - 1933 and again in 1936 but Harry's main interest lay in coaching. His experience and good judgement made him a natural handicapper and he also acted as timekeeper. Harry was the Club's much respected father figure. With thumbs hooked into the pockets of a waistcoat which had known better times, and a tattered hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his lower lip, he would lean back on his heels and preside over training sessions; dispensing advice to any who asked for it and clocking people for their advantage or his own interest.

Harry Peck enjoyed few of the material benefits of life but his influence was immense and it was recognised when in 1948 he was elected one of the two first VPH Life Vice Presidents. He was active as timekeeper at our home fixtures until the early 1950's when his sight began to fail. He died much regretted in 1965.

The unobtrusive Ernie Wiseman was almost as familiar to the habitues of the Victoria Park track as Harry Peck. Once a runner with North London, he joined VPH in October 1926 and was almost at once co-opted onto the committee. As well as being a handicapper, he occupied the post of Assistant Honorary General Secretary during 1927/8 but it was as Club Starter that he made his greatest contribution, sending away generations of runners over a period of 30 years. He was so efficient with his guns and so self-effacing that few could have known his name in post-war days for he came and went quietly on meeting days and was not seen between them. Ernie too was made Life Vice President in 1948.

Jack Gregory did not serve as long but he was one of those people who are crucial to the development of any infant club. Elected as Assistant Honorary General Secretary in 1926, Jack was forced to take over as Secretary the next year and kept the office during1927 and 1928. He then reverted to Assistant Secretary during 1929 and 1930 but if officials are crucial they exist only to administer for active athletes and Jack was prepared to have a go at everything simply to swell the fields. Surviving programmes show him entered in handicaps at all distances from 100 yards upwards on the track and 2 1/2 miles on the road. I dare say he also took part in cross country events but although Jack Gregory never set things alight as an athlete he was a good example of a man who simply loved to run and at the same time was putting something back into the sport.

More often than not, men who have best served VPH as officials were never better than average standard as athletes. Some never ran at all. In the former category was Arthur Slade, a half-miler with Woodford Green AC who for a few years competed in our handicaps and as a second-claim member. When the time came to hang up his spikes, Arthur became one of our handicappers and suffered the slings and arrows of the position from 1934 until the fifties. Besides being an Honorary Trustee, he also acted as marksman for Ernie Wiseman and was one of the 'old reliables' for many years. Arthur was almost as keen on soccer as he was on athletics and it was on a trip to Wembley Stadium that he died in 1963.

Like many officials over the years, Wally Stokes came into our sport following the enthusiasm of a daughter, Kitty, who became an international. Wally joined in 1930 and never competed, but he served VPH loyally for many years and was almost part of the track landscape in the thirties. Apart from 1936 and the war years, he was our Honorary Treasurer from 1934 to 1947. Wally Stokes also took on the burden of Honorary General Secretary in 1937.

Tommy Griffen was General Secretary from 1931 to 1936 and only one person has occupied that arduous post for a longer period. It was a time which could have seen the club fall apart after an enthusiastic start. That it did not was in no small measure due to the admirable way Tommy Griffen did his job. During his last two years, he had as Assistant General Secretary George Hemsworth and perhaps Tommy deserves some credit for grooming the man whose name became synonymous with Victoria Park Harriers throughout the Southern Counties.

As a runner, George Hemsworth, a London fireman, was a regular member of our cross country and distance teams. Never a high scorer, he was the sort of person upon which all club's know they can rely. But if he was not highly ranked among our runners, he was a gem among officials. From the moment he took over as General secretary, George set a high standard and the way he organised the end of season family meetings was legendary. On such occasions, his popularity with all ages was reflected in the way he would be a Pied Piper to the children of our members. Mention had been made elsewhere of George's initiative in reviving the club. As a batchelor, he had no problems with priorities; athletics was his life and VPH secured the benefits of that affection. Not that all his time was spent on club affairs for George served on several area and district committees. He also organised the massive London Fire Brigade 'Open's' which were held at White City stadium and elsewhere. As a past-time, he would go fishing and what better way to relax.

His innate kindness will live with many people. Members who had fallen ill could always expect letters or personal visits and George always tried to keep contact with those who had retired or moved away. So much was taken on his shoulders that one wondered how he found sufficient hours in the day. Besides the recognised correspondence duties of a General Secretary, he would take a hand in running football pontoons and other money raising schemes; buy all handicap and championship awards; send out Christmas cards to all members, as well as distributing fixture cards and the like. He arranged all printing and personally ran off the club magazines from the stencils sent to him.

Upon reflection, one can see how unfairly things were heaped upon his willing back until he showed signs of breaking and perhaps only Dick Everson over the years made serious attempts to relieve the pressure. Many a time they would sit up together after midnight on Saturday nights writing out hundreds of pontoon result sheets for people who probably spared not a second's thought upon the work behind the scenes.

George was a golden man who shunned the limelight. He was awarded a British Empire Medal for his services to the London Fire Service Sports and Charities and was persuaded to be our Club President in 1957. He was made a Life Vice President in 1962 and, with the breaks of the war years and two years in the late fifties, was General Secretary from 1937 until his untimely death in 1968.

While George Hemsworth holds a pre-eminent position among our officials, there can be no doubt that Dick Everson follows him closely and if man hours spent at track, road and cross country events where Victoria Park Harriers were competing could be reckoned up, Dick must be ahead. Although he always followed athletics, Dick did not join VPH until 1946 when one of his sons took up running. He was very soon elected Assistant General Secretary but then took over as Honorary Track Secretary and for a year held both offices. He brought to the track an organisation and dedication which it would be difficult to exceed. He felt he needed a rest after ten years but was scarcely able to draw his breath before he again found himself allied to George Hemsworth as Assistant General Secretary, this time for six years. When George died, there was great concern about how the club would function without its hub and Dick came back for three more years as Assistant Secretary firstly to support Peter Seabrook and then Alf Pearson. By 1970, he was 74 years of age and determined that younger men should take the responsibilities but there were still ways of making himself useful and from 1971 to 1974, he acted as an Honorary Auditor.

Between these stints in executive positions, Dick shouldered the sheer grind of running VPH's football pontoon yet his most massive contribution to VPH affairs was as club timekeeper. A Grade I County Timekeeper, Dick was our chief timekeeper for some 30 years. For at least half that time, the number of club fixtures that he missed, home and away, could virtually be counted on one hand. Summer or winter, rain or shine, Dick Everson would be there. He was also in demand as a timekeeper at meetings in which VPH had no part but he never hesitated to decline invitations to prestigious White City meetings when they clashed with our domestic fixtures.

Dick served two terms as President, 1956-7 and 1964-5. He was made a Life Vice President in 1966 and served as a member of our Headquarters Trust for many years. He died in his 89th year in 1985.

There is no doubt that for the decade following WWII our club was better provided with officials than at any other time. The important positions were all held by men of maturity, diligence, and integrity and by holding office for lengthy periods they brought a regularity and order to the club. George Hemsworth and Dick Everson were the two pillars of the club, but there were others who stood out. Gentlemanly Arthur Lait was Honorary Treasurer from 1948 to 1956. He came to Victoria Park in support of a son in 1939 but it wasn’t until after the war that he played an active part in Club affairs. Impeccably dressed, as though going to his office, Arthur Lait's meticulous accounts were an example to his fellow committee members. Handling club money brings a special responsibility and over the years there have been people in various positions who may have betrayed our trust or at best been careless or incompetent. When these regretable instances are held up alongside Arthur Lait, one sees the inestimable value of such a man. Ill health compelled his retirement and he died in 1957.

A fourth stalwart of the post war era was Frank Fuller. He joined VPH as a junior soon after the formation in 1926 but Frank was devoted to cross country and felt he would be more suited to Surrey AC who had a strong 'country' section. Consequently, he became second claim to VPH. After the war, he did not rejoin Surrey and became our Cross Country Secretary, holding that office for eleven years. He was also our handicapper for road and cross country races. During the track season, Frank was little seen but when we began to field marathon teams in the early fifties, he often turned out to back up our scorers and ensure that VPH closed in. In 1954/5, he was elected President.

Upon the loss of George Hemsworth, Peter Seabrook stepped into the breach. Peter had a remarkably short and spectacular running career. He came to us in December 1947 and within a couple of years had won the Middlesex Youths sprint title but, as with so many others, National Service damped down his active running career. After a while, Peter began coaching and as he became more interested in distance running, took on the job of Cross Country Secretary in 1962, an office he held for five years. It was hoped that he would succeed George and so in 1966 and 1967 he was elected Assistant General Secretary. Consequently, this period of initiation gave us hope of a smooth transference of the senior office but the General Secretaryship can be an unexciting heavy responsibility. Furthermore, Peter was persuaded to resume as Cross Country Secretary. The double burden proved too much and he was lost to us altogether. As coach, official, and administrator, Peter Seabrook served VPH with devotion; he also did more than his share in the work involved on our Headquarters and to lose his services was a bad blow.

It was undoubtedly the case that people become burnt out after holding offices of responsibility. Some can go on for many years, some only manage a single term, while others can survive for lengthy spells by occasionally changing horses. A few fell from the scene only to be drawn back again years later to throw themselves into Club life with renewed vigour.

In the latter category came Arthur Coombes. He joined us in June 1934 and proved an outstanding junior sprinter but made only rare appearances in the Senior ranks. In 1949, he was Assistant General Secretary but for the next 15 years or so maintained only a tenuous connection with VPH by acting as one of our auditors. However, in 1964, Arthur entered more fully into our organisation and became Treasurer. He held that office for seven years, but did very much more besides. As an announcer, recorder, and general official, his contribution to our club was immense. It was as the Club Starter that he shined the brightest but it must be remembered that no one spent more time and energy in maintaining our Headquarters building. Arthur held office as President in 1965/6 and again in 1973/4. In 1975, he was elected a Life Vice President. He also served as a member of our Headquarters Trust until passing in 1992.

One of the most popular figures at Victoria Park for more than three decades was that of Alf Pearson. He originally came to the Club in August 1935 and, with a particular liking for cross country, was a familiar face at winter events. Alf was little seen after the war until the late fifties when he returned to the fold and threw himself wholeheartedly into the work on our Headquarters; so much so that he was given the title of Warden. In subsequent years, Alf was an ever present official at Club meetings and also tackled such tasks as producing club news sheets and sending in newspaper reports. Alf never sought one of the major secretarial positions but was prepared to meet the test when demanded and acted as our General Secretary from 1970 until 1974. In 1966/7, he was Club President. Alf died in 1991.

Being so close to the centre of London advantaged the club in some respects, but VPH also suffered greatly from the natural trend for members to seek the suburbs or green belt areas upon marrying. That many of them nevertheless remained loyal though domiciled 30 or more miles from our Headquarters was fortunate but we lost some priceless fellows who, although their affection for VPH could not be doubted, were so far removed from Hackney Wick that it would be absurd to expect them not to channel their energies elsewhere.

Notable among these people was Les Williams who joined in November 1948. Although his studies and work often made it difficult for him to find time for athletics, he not only slotted in his running, but was also our Social Secretary for years and General Secretary during 1957 - 9. Business compelled Les to give up the Secretaryship, but he served us as Treasurer - for much of the time from afar - during 1960 - 3, but this arrangement became impossible when Les finally settled in the Midlands, but still served as our Auditor until 1966. He was especially missed for his coaching abilities, but our loss was the Midlands' gain. In recognition to his services to VPH, Les was elected President for 1968-9.

From the same mould came Major Carr. If Les and Major had come from the same decade, they would have been training buddies and Major followed almost exactly in the Williams' footsteps. Besides being involved in our social activities, Major was Treasurer from 1971 - 1974 and then became General Secretary in 1975, a position he held in our anniversary year. He continued to serve VPH in various capacities but the full record of that service must be contained in a continuing history of our club.

During all of our first half century, there were people who made little or no impact as athletes and rarely if ever held secretarial positions, being content to be committee members and officials at track and cross country fixtures. That they had not wished to accept the more important offices did not prevent them from giving sterling support to VPH. It is not possible to pay tribute to them all, but some must not be forgotten.

A "character" well describes Dick Hammond, once of Cambridge Harriers, but although no longer active, his hooped jersey was well known at Victoria Park in the thirties as he steadily lapped the track. No one could "tell a tale" better than Dick and his powerful voice was heard on the megaphone at our meetings for some ten years before the war.

George Curtis served as well as announcer and social secretary in the late thirties, Bill Collier was Treasurer briefly and often a judge, while Bill Baker and Harry Marshall usually acted as recorders. Bill, one of our auditors in 1936/7, also was an announcer and presented the Junior 880y Championship Trophy in memory of his wife. Bill passed on in 1963.

Harry Marshall was one of the most selfless men ever to come forward to serve VPH. He joined in 1932 and rarely missed a home fixture before World War II. In 1946, he was one of the first to return to Victoria Park, as was Bill Baker, and he became a Trustee. It was the only office he ever held yet by officiating at our meetings and turning a hand to anything that needed doing at the track, our winter quarters, and eventually at our Headquarters, Harry was worth his weight in gold. Our President in 1958/9, he received the accolade of Life Vice President in 1962. Harry died in 1965.

A contemporary of Harry Marshall was Albert Abrahams, a splendid little Jewish fellow, who came to us in 1936. At best, he was well down the scoring of our road and cross country teams, but he loved running and the sport. After the war, Albert helped to back up our small but effective marathoners. Always cheerful, he was one of the most familiar faces at club events - running in the winter and officiating at track events. Albert was also a character who once queued at a bus stop and hopped on a no. 236 to return to the Backyard Club after his legs gave out during a training spin. He had to confess that he had no money to which the conductor replied that the story with which he could now regale his friends was well worth the fare! Albert Abrahams became President in 1959/60 and was elected Life Vice President in 1966. He died in 1974.

Eddie Dunn was our Cross Country Secretary for three years before the war and popped up again in the 1950's to make an energetic re-entry for a few short years as Social Secretary. Alf Gillett gave VPH a lot of his time during the late 50's and early 60's although he never occupied a secretarial post. Alf Wood was Assistant Secretary from 1950 - 1954 before emigrating to Canada. John Daniels became a second-claim member in June 1956 and his best active years were spent as first claim to Grafton AC. When that club closed, he became our Track Captain and then Track Secretary betwen 1966 and 1973. In one way or another, John served VPH magnificently over the years, a fact that was recognised by his election as President in 1970.

Of all the people who have made marked contribution to the managerial side of Victoria Park Harriers, only two did not come to us through a personal interest in athletics. These were Bob and Joy Small who were invited to tenant St Augustine's Cottage after the death of George Hemsworth. They didn’t know us, nor we them, yet in all the years they lived in the Cottage, there existed a harmonious relationship as the Smalls became fully fledged members of the Club and couldn’t have been more supportive. Bob was elected to the committee and became Assistant General Secretary in 1971 and if man-hours spent on VPH matters could be calculated, his total would be formidable. It was a sad day when they moved away from Victoria Park. Their story is unique but perhaps so were they.

Chapter 4: Years of Uncertainty (1961 - 1975) | Contents | Chapter 6: Speedsters (100 - 440)