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 9: Social Happenings | Contents | Chapter 11: Club Magazines

Chapter 10: Our Headquarters

At the 1950 AGM, it was decided to open a Building Fund in the Club's accounts for the ultimate purpose of obtaining a Headquarters. It was open by a grant from the General Account and a collection from the meeting. The fund was boosted later with cheques from the Association of London Clubs as our share in the profits from the 'Evening News' sponsored floodlight meetings. Over the years, aided by further cheques from the same source, and from various other fund-raising schemes, the fund grew slowly until we had a fairly substantial amount.

In 1957, when the fund stood at £921, we learned that the semi-derelict St Augustine's Church Hall and its adjoining cottage might be on the market, as the Church had no further use for them. After some tentative enquiries which confirmed that this might be so, a special meeting was called on March 3rd, 1958 and all our old members were contacted as it was realised that a great deal of money would be required and that our fund as it stood would be quite inadequate to finance such a project. This meeting was held in Eton Manor Club and while it was well attended numerically, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from those members whose help was considered essential. As was to be expected, an overhwelming majority enthusiastically committed the Club to negotiating for the purchase of the property. Two people in the room who did all they could to dissuade the members from this course were Fred Moseley and the then Chairman, Eugy Murnane who saw more clearly than most the difficulties involved, but once we had been committed to pursuing the matter, "Mac" and Eugy accepted responsibility for the necessary negotiations, and how well their business experience served the Club. The Agents for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were approached, and after a good deal of hard bargaining which would have done credit to a horse dealer, a price was agreed which was about one half of the figure originally suggested by the Agents. As we had nothing like the amount required in spite of the reduction, it was suggested that the Club might be permitted to rent the property at a nominal rental for a period of two years with an option to purchase at the agreed price at the end of that time. In addition, we undertook to make the building weatherproof. This arrangement was made to give us the opportunity to raise the required amount. A special meeting was held on one Sunday morning at which a firm decision was taken to go ahead, and the Club was committed to the herculean task of raising the huge (then) sum within the two years allowed.

Much work was necessary to put the place into some sort of order and to keep out the weather, and many of the lads were given a good apprenticeship in painting and decorating, not forgetting the glazing, as very few windows had any glass left in them. Dozens of people helped in one way or another, but particular mention must be made of Arthur Coombes, Alf Gillett, Alf Pearson, George Hemsworth, and John Turner. Finally, when it had been made reasonably habitable, primitive bathing facilities, tin baths and water heated by old gas boilers, were provided, and while the work still continued, the Clubhouse was used regularly for training. Mention should also be made here of Harry Marshall, who in spite of starting his ordinary day's work at an incredibly early hour, was always on hand to see that a good supply of hot water was ready for the lads at the end of a training stint.

On the financial side however the situation wasn't so rosy. As expected perhaps by the more sceptical, the money was only coming in slowly and, in spite of extra efforts, we were doing little more than holding our own as the extra cash we were collecting was absorbed immediately in the rent and running costs of the building, not forgetting the constant demands for paint, glass and other materials to make the place habitable. Much of the work and materials were supplied to the Club either cheaply or at no cost thanks to the extreme generosity of many people not the least of whom was builder Tommy Whyman.

At the end of the first year, we had spent nearly £400 on repairs and had collected £1,350 towards a building which was costing us £3,750. It was evident that we were not going to succeed in our efforts unless outside help could be obtained, otherwise we should have to forego our option. So with this in mind, various organisations and charities were approached in order to obtain some assistance. These organisations might have been very estimable and seen to be doing good work, but as far as we were concerned, it appeared that they employed a number of very sympathetic people whose job in life seemed to be just to say "No" very nicely when asked for any assistance.

It was at this point, with only a few more months before the option was due to expire, that Eugy Murnane wrote a personal appeal to the Mayors of all the Boroughs from whom we drew our membership, asking for their support and cooperation in helping us to obtain Headquarters. From this, a meeting was called by the then Poplar Borough Council at their Town Hall at which delegates from all the other Councils attended. The Club was represented by Eugy and George Hemsworth. An offer of a long-term loan at low rate of interest was made by Hackney Borough Council, which would have enabled us to complete the purchase, but of course, this would have needed repayment, and to accept would have meant committing the Club to a burden of extra expense over a period of years. It was suggested that we put our case to the London County Council, and report back to the Boroughs when it was known to what extent they would be prepared to help.

This was duly done, and in our application was stressed the need for more renovation together with shower facilities, and estimates were also included covering this work. Eventually, a substantial grant was offered by the London County Council to assist with the outright purchase of the property provided that the suggested improvements were included. Armed with this good news, further meetings were arranged with the Borough Councils, and their additional support was given to such an extent that we were able to purchase the property outright without the necessity of any loan. Bethnal Green, Poplar, Shoreditch, and Leyton all contributed to such an extent that a useful sum remained of our savings for the efficient running of the Club. In addition, the Eton Manor Charity gave us help. This may well be the only occasion when there has been a combined effort by local Councils for the benefit of an athletics club, and we should feel honoured that we have been the beneficiaries of an action which could be duplicated elsewhere with great advantage to athletics throughout the country.

With our main financial difficulties behind us, we progressed rapidly. With the aid of Mr Villiers, our Patron, the main hall was completely redecorated, and as a ladies' section had been started, an additional shower room and lavatories were installed. In 1962, a grant was made by the London County Council Youth section for improvement to our canteen facilities.

To protect the buildings for future members and athletics in particular, a Trust was established in which was invested absolute control of the property. The original Trust members were Eugy Murnane, Fred (Mac) Moseley, Tommy Whyman, and Harry Marshall, all VPH members of long standing and integrity. Deaths and resignations caused the Trust committee to be reconstituted from time to time. Members who have served the Trust additionally were Dick Everson, Deric Bareford, Arthur Coombes, Gordon Everson, Ken Rouse, Major Carr, John Daniels and Ron Iron.

The official opening was performed on Wednesday, 26 September, 1962 by Mrs. Courtney, whom many of our members would have known better as Lady Trefgarne. She very kindly equipped and furnished our magnificent committee room which was named the "Trefgarne Room" in memory of her late husband Lord Trefgarne, who had been one of our Patrons since the very early days of the Club, and in opening this room, an official opening ceremony for the Headquarters was incorporated. Representatives of Councils who had helped us were present, and our appreciation of that help was suitably expressed.

The Headquarters didn't just happen. People worked, gave of their time, their labour and their money, and used what talents they possessed to give this Club a headquarters which was without doubt the finest of any athletics club in London, if not the whole country.

Addendum

Our headquarters were substantially refurbished in the winter of 2012/2013.

Chapter 9: Social Happenings | Contents | Chapter 11: Club Magazines