Sport boomed in the twenties as people turned from the horrors of the First World War and young men discharged from the forces sought outlets for their energies. Life was not easy in civvy street but the working man had greater opportunity to participate in sport than ever before and the Olympic Games of 1920 and 1924 thrust athletics before the public eye.
East London had long been an area noted for ‘pedestrianism’. During the 19th century, Hackney Marshes was the venue for many professional races and some of the very earliest properly organised meetings were held in the district. Constructed shortly before the War, the running track at Victoria Park became a popular centre. At first there were no dressing rooms or water and people changed, discreetly, under the trees in the middle of the centre of the arena but by 1926 the track had been encircled with railings and dressing rooms of a good standard for that time were available. Athletes who worked in the City found it easy to reach by bus from Liverpool Street and more convenient for training than their home track. In fact most of the runners - field eventers were a rarity - belonged to clubs based elsewhere or were members of social and sports clubs such as Jeremiah Rotherhams, the Shoreditch wholesalers. Retired runners, a number of footballers past their playing days, parents, perhaps imagining little Johnny as another Nurmi or Abrahams, and people who simply enjoyed watching the activity would gather socially and there was seen the need for a club with its headquarters at Victoria Park. However it was not until the summer of 1926 that any serious move was made.
In a speech at the Club Dinner of 1937, the first to be held, it was stated that the founding of Victoria Park Harriers could be traced to a chat that took place alongside the railings surrounding the track between just three people. One of the trio was Harry Peck, who had been a very useful sprinter in the years around 1903-12 , and now occupied himself by advising on training but unfortunately the others cannot now be identified. However, they decided to call together those fellows who had shown interest in starting up a home club and Mr.R.J.Moore, licensee of the Mitford Castle Tavern, was approached for the loan of a room in which to hold a general meeting. The precise date of this inaugural gathering is not known but it was in late August and may have been on the 28th, for a membership book has Bill Duncombe joining on that date. Anyway, it seems to have drawn a good attendance. A number of those present were already members of other clubs and Bill Collier, a Wigmore Harrier, took the chair. The proposal to form a club under the name of Victoria Park Harriers was unanimously carried and a committee came forward readily enough. We know that the Hon. Secretary was A.Smith, Asst. Hon. Secretary J.Gregory, Hon.Treasurer A.J.Bell, and Handicapper H.J.Peck, but if a proper record of the meeting was made, it has not survived nor has a minute book of the earliest committee meetings chosen to reveal itself, so there is doubt about the exact composition of the Committee. An attempt at reconstruction suggests the following sextet may not be wide of the mark: G.H. Shaw, A. Flynn, J. Acott, F.G. Knight, R. Morris, and A. Robins. The club captain appears to have been H. Kendall. None of the elected officials held those positions for very long, but several served in other capacities for many years.
As far back as the fifties it was generally accepted that Ernie Wiseman and Wally Stokes were founder members. They were revered as such, but a membership/address book compiled by George Hemsworth in 1945 reveals that Ernie was elected as a member on October 10th, 1926, pretty close, of course, yet not close enough. However, he was immediately co-opted onto the Committee for he had years of experience with North London Harriers and we needed every bit of it. In the same notebook, Wally is shown imprecisely as ‘1930’ and these mis-beliefs say something about the frailty of memory and of George the diplomat.
We do know that subscriptions were set at 5 shillings (25p) for active athletes and 2/6d (12.5p) for honorary members, sums which remained unaltered for more than 20 years. To raise some working capital, a collection was taken during the inaugural meeting. How ever much was collected it is not likely to have been a substantial sum in those hard times. Thus came V.P.H. into the world; now everyone was impatient to bless the event with an opening meeting. Track runners could not bear to wait until the following Spring and so the first club handicaps were staged at Victoria Park on September 11th, 1926. It was a modest meeting consisting of 440 yards and 2 miles handicaps, 220 yards and 880 yards, but the results are not on record. Another event was held in October, one which seems rather odd nowadays; firstly the competitors went for a 3 miles pack run and then they lined up to race 1 mile on the track.
With the arrival of the cross-country season, the Eton Mission at Hackney Wick was approached for the use of their premises. A fee of 5/- per night was quoted which could be revoked provided that notice to cancel was given before 6:00 p.m. and this arrangement proved acceptable. During the Winter season of 1926/7, a few handicaps were run on the road around Hackney Marshes 'Triangle' and a team was entered in the popular Boxing Day 'Bakers and Sweeps’ meeting promoted by the North London C.C.A. On Christmas morning, handicaps over 100 yards, 440 yards and 2 miles had been held at Victoria Park, but again the results have not been recorded. There is doubt whether the first mob match road race with Eton Manor, which developed into a traditional annual event, was held early in 1927 or in the following autumn but certain it is that V.P.H. did not provide the individual winner. Nor could we do so in 1928 when Tommy Brooks was runner up. Tom had belonged to Hampstead Harriers and joined us on October 26th 1928 shortly before the race. The ‘Manor' set great store to winning this event. We were relaxed about it, mostly looking upon the race as a rather casual fixture that was nice to win, but hardly a clash of Spurs v Arsenal proportion.
The earliest committee minutes still in existence date from April 12th, 1927. They make interesting reading not the least for price comparisons. An entry for May 5th shows that a pistol and shots were purchased for 5s.; on June 2nd ‘It was proposed by H.Peck and seconded by R.Hewitt that one dozen vests be purchased - 31s.9d. (£1.58p)’. The Club colours, of white vest with blue sash from right shoulder to left hip, had already been chosen, but whose idea it was has not come down to us. What form the club badge was to take lay undecided until 1930. Tommy Brooks and Bill Sadd had submitted a variety of designs in the previous year and the emblem selected was a fusion of two of them. We can also see from the minutes that in September, Ernie Wiseman was recompensed 2s.4d (12p) for having bought ‘eggs and spoons for Ladies race 10.9.27’. This entry refers to an end of season track meeting which became a feature at the end of every track season up to 1939. A carefree atmosphere was encouraged with novelty races for wives and children; sweets were handed round freely to all the youngsters and a good time was had by all.
The Victoria Park Harriers badge, designed by Tommy Brooks and Bill Sadd in 1930.
Club committee meetings were held weekly, when it was customary to choose teams for forthcoming engagements, but this ‘hands on’ method gave rise to disagreement. It was also time-wasting, so selection was left in the hands of the captain. However, it was two years before it was resolved to regularise the meetings on a monthly basis. Initially, they were held at the Mitford Tavern, but the chaps did not drink enough beer for the licensee. That he was also our President seems not to have weighed very heavily with the gentleman and so we lost both him and the room. It is always difficult for an infant club which has to rely heavily on second claim members to arrange a fixture list and during the 1927 track season V.P.H. runners found themselves repeatedly meeting Grafton, a club confined to Jewish athletes also based at Victoria Park. It was against Grafton that we were first tested. The contest was limited to a single event, a 2 miles relay, and held during a handicap meeting on April 27th, 1927. The distances and V.P.H. runners were as follows:-1 mile (Whyment); 2 x 220 yards (Gregory & Williams); 880 yards (B. Jones); 440 yards (Scott); and the race resulted in a win for the Park. Further meetings were staged in May and June when some 60 runners competed. Capt. G. Garro-Jones, M.P. for South Hackney acted as referee and presented the prizes. He, and Ernest Thurtle, M.P.for Shoreditch, soon afterwards became Patrons of the Club. Capt. Garro-Jones was raised to the Peerage in 1946 and, following his death in 1960, his son, the 2nd Lord Trefgarne, became Patron. The Committee Room in our Cadogan Terrace headquarters was decorated and furnished to the memory of Lord Trefgarne by the generosity of Lady Trefgarne in 1962. But this is galloping ahead.
Second claim members played a significant part in the Club's survival and early progress. Their experience and encouragement was invaluable. Several officials and committee members had been, and in some cases still were, members of other clubs. Among the active athletes were R. and L.Bailey, G. Hardy and J. Goody (Poly); H. Burridge and A. Done (Essex Beagles) and J. Titcombe (L.F.B.). Billy Simmons (Poly), George Constable (Surrey A.C.), Harry Forrester and Bert Cooper (Woodford Green) were the most talented of our auxiliaries. Simmons was a sprint international who could clock ‘evens’ and Cooper developed into one of the greatest walkers this country has ever produced. Besides winning a string of A.A.A. titles, he represented Great Britain on many occasions and set both National and World records. Such performers attracted new members and, with publicity in the newspapers, created interest amongst the general public. Astonishing numbers crowded into Victoria Park to watch them but of course these were the days before television. Not everyone owned a radio (or wireless as the magical device was called) and in those stringent times people sought free entertainment. They stood three and four deep outside the railings and so many hopped over or slipped inside the gate it became necessary to erect ropes alongside the track. It has been estimated that as many as 3,000 spectators attended some of the summer evening meetings.
The Club always aimed at a high standard of handicap prizes. Finances were not such that we could be profligate but Honorary members, local shopkeepers and friends of V.P.H. could be relied upon to present suitable awards. Sets of medals for novices races were obtainable free of charge from the "News of the World" which was always generous in its support of athletics. There was nothing slipshod about our presentation of meetings at the Park. Programmes, usually 500 of them, were always properly printed; officials wore rosettes but after a while the Committee began to consider them a luxury and it was decided that ribbon be worn instead. The cost of programmes was largely offset by advertising and with the help of Christmas and Derby Draws, £29.00 stood to the credit of the Club by July.
The final meeting of the 1927 track season was held on September 9th and gave ample evidence of the progress that had been made. Morning rain soaked the track, but the weather brightened and in front of a crowd of some 2,500 no fewer than 170 competitors took part in eight events. Among them were 25 ladies, pioneers of Victoria Park Ladies A.C. who invariably held their events in conjunction with our own. The Ladies Club was not actually formed until 1931. It had been proposed at the 1929 A.G.M. that we started a Ladies Section, but this suggestion was not entirely favourably received. To placate those supporting the motion, it was said that every encouragement would be given if a separate club was established but an element always opposed amalgamation and the two clubs remained as separate entities. V.P.L.A.C. was not revived after World War II and it is possible that, decades later, one or two elderly ladies were still polishing some nice trophies full of old memories.
So passed the first crucial 12 months of Victoria Park Harriers. The flush of enthusiasm had burnt itself out; some members had drifted away and certain officials were found wanting but all emergencies had been met and the Club was developing. Much of the credit must go to Jack Gregory who had taken over the job of General Secretary in a mid-term emergency and held things together. So pleased were the Committee, a special presentation was made to him at the A.G.M. in September 1927. The foundations had been firmly laid and the future was faced with confidence.