Thursday, 30 April 2015

Alec Nelson from 1890s Goldsmiths to Olympic Coach

I am currently a part time student at Goldsmiths College (University of London) in New Cross. Goldsmiths doesn't have an active athletics club at the moment - keen runners there tend to gravitate instead to the local Kent Athletic Club- but it does have a long history of athletics involvement.

What was originally Goldsmiths' Technical and Recreative Institute was founded by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (one of the City of London's livery companies) in 1896 for 'the promotion of technical skill, knowledge, health and general well-being among men and women of the industrial, working and artisan classes'. In 1903 it was transferred to the management of the University of London.

There seems to have been an athletics club from early on, and one of its first prominent runners was Alec Nelson (1871-1944). A report of an 1897 1,000 yards race, organised by Finchley Harriers, records that 'A. Nelson, of the Goldsmiths Institute Athletic Club, rushed to the front. Travelling at a great rate he gained a lead of eight yards in the first furlong' but having 'misjudged the pace... was done with a hundred and fifty yards from home' (1).

(Pall Mall Gazette, 6 September 1897)
The following year 'The South London Harriers held their Autumn meeting at the Oval on September 17th, when there was an attendance of about 3000. The 1000 yards Invitation Scratch Race brought out a field of thirteen, and A. Nelson, Goldsmiths' Institute, won easily from J. Binks of Wandle, C. Pearce of Northampton, being third. Time, 2 min 15 sec, which is claimed to be a grass record for the distance' (2). 

Nelson went on to become a professional runner from, winning a professional half-mile championship in 1905 (3). An article from this period bemoaning the dearth of professional athletes in England, mentions  'Another candidate is Alec Nelson, the old Goldsmiths' Institute runner, but he has no pretensions to be regarded as a distance champion, a mile being almost his limit as a class man' (4).

When his own running career came to an end, Nelson took up coaching. He was a professional coach at Cambridge University 1908-1913, and also coached British athletes for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm (5). 

In the First World War he served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in Italy and France - this was a voluntary service founded by Quakers and mostly staffed by conscientious objectors. Nelson worked alongside FAU founder Philip Noel-Baker (6), later Labour MP and disarmament campaigner. Baker had been President of the Cambridge University Athletic Club from 1910 to 1912 (7), which is presumably how the two first met. As Ian Stone (8) has demonstrated, the long term friendship with Baker was an important factor in Nelson’s career. After the war both became involved again in athletics. Baker was captain of the British track team for the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp and won silver medal in the 1500m (9), while Nelson returned to coaching at Cambridge. .

Nelson was well known enough by 1919 to be mentioned in an article in the Times arguing for more 'Money and Trainers' to improve Britain's prospects at the following year's Olympics. 'The Olympic Games: British Need of Organization' by Lieut. Col. A.N.S. Strode-Jackson (winner of the 1500m at Stockholm Olympics) 'We want immediately a fund of £100,000... With this money we could engage a supervising trainer of the stamp of Alfred Shrub and Alec Nelson for athletics' (10).

As well as coaching Cambridge University Athletics Club athletics coach from 1920 to 1939, Nelson coached the Achilles Club (11), founded for ex-Cambridge and Oxford athletes. Another engagement, in 1928, was in the capital: 'Alec Nelson the well known trainer for the Cambridge University A.C. has been appointed by the University of London Athletic Union as coach of the athletic team' (12) .

As well as Philip Noel-Baker, Nelson is known (13) to have coached athletes including Harold Abrahams of Chariots of Fire fame (winner of the 100m at 1924 Paris Olympics), Douglas Lowe (winner of 800m at Paris and in 1928 in Amsterdam), Henry Stallard, Lord Burghley, and G.M. Butler. He also coached Irish athletes Patrick O'Callaghan, Bob Tisdall and Eamon Fitzgerald to prepare for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles (14) – O’Callaghan went on to win gold in the hammer throw (15), Tisdall gold the 400m hurdles (16) while the injured Fitzgerald narrowly missed out on a medal in the triple jump (17).

Nelson was the author of an influential textbook, Practical Athletics, first published in 1924 with a  2nd edition in 1930. Copies of these appear on ebay from time to time.

Nelson's death in 1944 was marked by a short obituary in The Times:

Times, 12 January 1944


1. Pall Mall Gazette, 6 September 1897
2. The Press (NZ) 16 November 1898.
3. The Times, 12 January 1944.
4. Sydney Sportsman, 2 May 1906.
5. The Times, 12 January 1944;  Day, D. (2011), 'Massaging the Amateur Ethos: Professional coaches at Stockholm 1912', a presentation given at the 'Sports and Coaching: Pasts and Futures' conference. Manchester Metropolitan Universty, June 2011.
6. Stone, I. (2010), 'Alec Nelson: professional runner and athletics coach', a presentation given at the ‘Sporting Lives’ Symposium, Wychwood Park, Cheshire, December 2010.
8. Stone, I. (2010), 'Alec Nelson: professional runner and athletics coach', a presentation given at the ‘Sporting Lives’ Symposium, Wychwood Park, Cheshire, 4th December, 2010.
10. The Times, 29 Sept. 1919.
11. The Times, 12 January 1944.
12. The Times 19 March 1928.
13. The Times, 12 January 1944.

Ian Stone of Durham University is researching Stone's career. His powerpoint presentation (see ref. 6 above) is available online and includes photographs of Nelson.  I believe that there is also an article based on this but I have not yet seen it: Stone, I. (2012). Alec Nelson: Professional Runner, Athletics Coach and Entrepreneur-Client. In Sporting Lives, special issue of ‘Sport in History'. Day, D. Routledge. 103-133).

Monday, 27 April 2015

London Marathon: a short report of a long race

Walking slowly downstairs today after yesterday's London Marathon, my first marathon. It was a milestone for me as it was two years ago this weekend that I dipped my toe into organised running for the first time since leaving school by taking part in my first parkrun, at Hilly Fields, after several months getting going with the NHS Couch to 5k podcasts. Since that time I've run 80+ parkruns, joined a club (the mighty Kent AC), completed a cross country season and run a couple of half marathons and lots of other races, so I feel as if running London completes my apprenticeship. I achieved my goal of breaking four hours (3:51), a respectable time I think considering I'm still shaking off a cough/cold - well anyway that's my excuse for slowing down in second half.

Yes, just like they say, the atmosphere at London is amazing with a record 37,675 finishers and hundreds of thousands on the streets cheering us on. I loved the music on the way round - 'A Town Called Malice' at Blue Start, the old guy singing 'Lady Madonna' outside Clancy's in Woolwich, numerous drummers, bagpipes in Rotherhithe, and DJs playing everything from Springsteen's 'Born to Run' to CeCe Peniston's 'Finally' (except it was at the half way point not the end). Personal favourite was hearing a few bars of the similarly named soulful house classic Finally by Kings of Tomorrow, a track I last heard out dancing to Norman Jay at Notting Hill Carnival ('time marches on never ending, time keeps its own time') . A similarly packed crowd yesterday but  I wasn't hanging around to dance and sing along - as I've said before, for me running is the new raving.

I wasn't spending too long sight seeing either, though I like the fact that as well as passing all the chocolate box London tourist landmarks (Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, the Cutty Sark in Greenwich) the race takes the world's best long distance runners on a tour of South East London, out through Charlton, Woolwich, Deptford and Rotherhithe .

One of the advantages of being a London runner is how familiar much of the course is. I was able to leave home after 8 am and get to the start in plenty of time, and in my Marathon training I've covered various sections of the route, including the first seven miles the previous weekend with a group of Kent AC runners. The club turned out 46 runners yesterday, with outstanding performances from John Gilbert, 2nd finisher after the elite field in 2:18 (I saw him running past me in the opposite direction in East London with nobody in sight behind him), and Amy Clements, 10th non-elite woman in 2:43 (full results here)

The finisher t-shirt and the medal for this 35th anniversary race both featured the image of Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen jointly winning the first race in 1981 (I saw them both speaking last week at the London Marathon Expo)

As expected the last few miles were the toughest, by that point it was head down and keep going with all the noise becoming more oppressive than inspiring, by that point too I was close to vomiting on lucozade and energy gels. Having done the training I had my mantra 'I do this everyday, I do this daily everyday, I do this' courtesy of Crystal Fighters, as well as my regular mind trick when suffering of telling myself that 'the faster you run, the sooner you can stop'. And the sooner I stopped the sooner I could have a pint after a couple of weeks of fitness fanatic abstinence.

Although I had a ballot place and therefore no charity fundraising target I did invite donations to Core (gut and liver disease charity)  in memory of my dad who died from stomach cancer. I'm amazed that I've raised more than £800, thank again everybody for your support - there's still time for a last minute donation at Just Giving!

sitting down on the Mall just after the finish
 - standing up again was the hard part
Update: Tim from Kent AC paused briefly at mile 20 to propose marriage to Linda - before going on to complete a sub-3 hour marathon


Friday, 24 April 2015

Paddock Wood Half

The start of the race - eventual winner Toby Lambert (right with headband) already in front
2,061 runners finished the 26th Paddock Wood Half Marathon last month (March 29th), a good race through the Kent countryside on a mostly flat course (other than one hill just after the first mile). The forecast was for heavy rain and strong winds, but it wasn't quite that bad even if it was getting a bit wet and blowy towards the end.

Toby Lambert (Winchester and District AC) won the race in 1:07:09, followed by Tom Collins (Medway and Manchester AC) and Robert Jackaman (Cambridge Harriers), while the unstoppable Clare Elms (Dulwich Runners) was first woman home for the third time, coming in at 1:22:30 ahead of Tina Oldershaw (Paddock Wood AC) and Una English (full results here). I was happy enough to duck beneath 100 minutes.
The finish line

This is Paddock Wood Athletic Club's big annual event, raising funds to keep it going throughout the year as well as for Kent Surrey Sussex Air Ambulance. It's a friendly and well-organised event, with the support of various local community groups such as the Girl Guides helping out with the baggage.

The course starts on an industrial estate in Paddock Wood before heading through country lanes, passing farms and yes oast houses as featured on the rather wonderful medal.

 The oast houses were built to dry hops for the beer trade, and in heading down to this traditional hop-growing area from SE London our Kent AC crew were of course following in the footsteps of all those who went down there from the capital in September up until the 1950s for working 'holidays' harvesting the hops. We didn't sing this traditional ditty which was recorded at a Deptford hop-pickers’ reunion in the 1990s:

'We are the Deptford girls, We are some of the lads
We know our manners, Spend all our tanners
We are respected wherever we go.
We go marching down the Old Kent Road,
Doors and windows open wide.
If you see a copper come, Hit him in the eye and run
We are the Deptford girls'.

 (source: Hilary Hefferman - The Annual Hop: London to Kent, Chalford, 1996)

Hop pickers in Kent, 1948

Friday, 17 April 2015

Friday photos (22 ) - More 1890s English Athletes

I featured some photos a few weeks ago from an 1896 book entitled the 'Sportfolio: portraits and biographies of heroes and heroines of sports and pastimes'. I have never seen the actual book, but had found a few images from it on ebay. In response to that post, Jennifer Miller  (who runs with 'New Jersey's Best Running Club' Raritan Valley Road Runners) got in touch. Not only has she seen the whole book, but she has scanned all the pictures in of athletes - and kindly shared them to post here.

George Crossland, Salford Harriers:

E.C.Bredin, London Athletic Club:

A. Ovenden, London Athletic Club:

Sid Thomas, Ranelagh Harriers, and later professional runner:

H.A. Munro, Lea Harriers:

J.E. Dixon (not stated in book, but he ran for Spartan Harriers):

E.J. WIlkins, London Athletic Club:

E.H. Pelling, Ranelagh Harriers

Some very well groomed gentlemen there, reminding me of  a comment about hair I read in an issue of the Ranelagh Harriers Gazette (no.167, May 2013) which I picked up in their clubhouse recently. It was a reprint of an article by 'Alsoran' from the Gazette a century ago (30 April 1914) describing the club's trip to Guildford for the Southern Cross Country Championships.The author writes: 'after the team had bathed themselves and got back to their right senses, besides bestowing very great care upon their hair - this being characteristic of all good-class runners - we got underweigh for The Three Pigeons... Things went quite in the ordinary way with each member of the team explaining how he beat old so-and-so, and gallantly passed five thousand men in the last quarter-of-a-mile, all for the honour of the Club, of course, and not for his own  special glorification'

Once again I am fascinated by the sophistication of running kit design at this period - note the thin white stripes on Salford Harriers shorts (not to mention Thomas's lederhosen!), and the specially-made shoes with spikes. They look quite similar to theses ones from the 1950s (photo from excellent I Was, or Am a Runner group on facebook):

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Staying Out for the Summer - Start of 2015 Assembly League

It felt like the start of the summer season proper last week (April 9th) with a warm Thursday evening for the first fixture of the Assembly League in Beckenham. The League involves 13 London/Kent clubs in a series of six 3 to 3.5 mile road races between April and September. 2015 marks the 40th year of the competition (for a bit more history see here).

(see route at Map My Run)

After meeting up at Beckenham Cricket Club (the home of Beckenham Running Club), 237 men and women runners headed from the start in Foxgrove Avenue on a course that circumnavigates Beckenham Place Park on surrounding roads/pavements. The three mile route heads up and over Crab Hill in the first mile, then remains fairly flat until near the end. After the two mile point at Downham McDonalds on Bromley Road it turns back westwards, entering Beckenham Place Park from the Beckenham Hill Road entrance with the last third of a mile a long upward slope towards the finish by the old Beckenham Place mansion. On this occasion the final stretch was accompanied by a magnificent sunset.

The Mansion in 1805 - the 2015 finish line is near to those cows!

The race was won by Pete Tucker (Ravensbourne) in 15:18, with Kent AC's Amy Clements coming first among the women runners in 16:41 (Amy won three of last season's six races in the winning Kent AC team). It was a good start for Kent AC all round, coming first in both the men's A & B teams, and the women's A team. Overall we had 40 runners taking part, a great turn out. In addition the club's oldest member, Ron Hale, was on hand to buy drinks in the bar afterwards to mark his recent 90th birthday.

Next stop in the Assembly League is Victoria Park on May 7th.

Full results here

See previously: The Assembly League 2014 Finale in Beckenham

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Running History: A.J.Lock, 1920s Kent A.C. Miler

As part of the continuing research into the history of Kent Athletic Club (my club) and running in the Lewisham area of South London - building on research of club historian Len Reilly - here's some notes on A.J. Lock, one of the club's top runners in the 1920s.

I first came across mention of A.J. Lock in a report of the August 1921 Kent County Championships, which were held on the grass track at the RAF Kidbrooke Sports Ground - located where the Ferrier Estate was later built, as noted by Running Past. The competing teams included clubs such as Herne Hill Harriers, City of Rochester AC and South London Harriers, as well as mlitary athletes from the Royal Marines and other regiments. I was most interested to see mention of Kent Athletic Club runners - G.P. Sweet  from  Lee, who came 2nd in 440 Yards, and  A.J. Lock (from Forest Hill) who came 1st in the 880 yards race.  Kent AC also one the One-Mile Relay and Lock no doubt took part in that, as this seems to have been a speciality of his.

The year before, in September 1920, A.J. Lock took part in what the Times called  'the greatest International Athletic Meeting which has ever been held in this country', at Queens Club, West Kensington, between athletic teams representing the United States and the British Empire. Queens Club, now best known for tennis, was up until 1922 the main football ground for Corinthians FC. It was too small a venue to accommodate everybody who wanted to come: 'People climbed on to the roofs of the club buildings, sat on walls [and] overflowed from the stands on the grass edges of the track'

The Times , Monday, Sep 06, 1920

The meeting was also reported in the American Spalding's Official Athletics Almanac 1921, which reported that 'the programme was made up largely of relay events, this latter form of racing not being as well known in England as in the United States'. A.J. Lock, England, is listed as taking part in the 4-Mile Relay (i.e. 4 x one mile), which was won by the USA:

In 1923 (September 15th), Lock was one of 'the cream of the southern clubs' milers selected to take part in a Ten Miles Relay Match between Birchfied Harriers and the South. The race was held as part of an end of season London Athletic Club meeting at Stamford Bridge watched by 'about 7,000 spectators' and won by the South:

Times 17 Sept. 1923
I have found several other mentions of Lock from the 1920s. In March 1926 he came second in the Royal Ordnance Factories Championship five mile race in Eltham: 

The Times (London, England), Monday, Mar 15, 1926

In December 1927, he won Kent AC's own Transvaal Cup in a five mile cross country race at Bromley, six seconds ahead of R.G. Goddard:

The Times (London, England), Monday, Dec 19, 1927
A month later, in January 1928, positions were reversed in Kent AC's ten mile cross country championship for the Scard-Robbins Challenge Shield, run in South Bromley. This time Goddard won in 69 min 11 seconds, with Lock second:
"Cross-Country Running." Times [London, England] 30 Jan. 1928: 4

It was the same result in the same race a year later in 1929, though presumably conditions must have been better as the winning time was more than 8 minutes faster:

"Cross-Country Running." Times [London, England] 28 Jan. 1929: 5

 R.G. Goddard seems to have been Kent AC's top cross country runner in this period - in 1927 he was the club's first finisher, in 19th place, in the South of the Thames Cross Country race held at Reading (Times, 14 Feb 1927). Goddard was still coming in top five in Kent AC cross country in 1930, with no sign of Lock by this point in the leading positions:

The Times (London, England), Monday, Dec 01, 1930

The Times (London, England), Monday, Dec 15, 1930

(If you have any more information about A.J. Lock, R.G. Goddard or any other historic Kent AC runners, please get in touch)

See previously on Kent AC history:

Herbert Cowper Scard (1865-1931): Lewisham and Blackheath Cross Country Champion
Notes on the history of Kent Athletics (1908)

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Art of Athletics (8): Young Girl Running on a Balcony

'Young Girl Running on a Balcony' was painted in 1912 by the Italian futurist artist Giacoma Balla (1871-1951):

Utopia/Dystopia describes it as follows:

'The title of the piece gives a clue as to what the subject of the painting is.  Once it becomes clear that the subject is a girl, her outline becomes apparent.  The reason the picture looks abstract is because the artist depicts the subject at multiple points in time as she is running. Balla blurs the lines between the movements of the girl.  He makes it so the girls’ movements aren’t disjointed, but are in fact one continuous fluid movement.   This painting was one of many paintings that Balla used to experiment with “physical reality and optical appearance” of movement. Balla is so detailed that you can tell how the little girl’s braid moves back and forth as she moves.  He painted each part of her body to be one specific color, for instance her dress is blue and her shoes are brown, so the viewer can easily follow the movements that the girl makes.

Giacomo Balla studied his subjects for months before he created his finished painting.  He painted A Young Girl Running on a Balcony by painting  “about ten studies which become increasingly complex until he reaches abstraction.” So he started with a normal image of a girl running and made it more and more abstract, however, it still is clear what the subject is once you look at it for a long enough period of time.  Balla viewed his paintings as “scientific and mathematical as well as artistic.” This painting was important at the time, because Balla was one of the first futurist painters to experiment with movement in his paintings'.

Although this is the only work of his I know of that takes running as its subject matter, the representation of movement was a major pre-occupation of the artist. Other examples included 'Flight of the Swallows' (1913):

...and 'Lines of Movement and Dynamic Succession' (1913):

See also in the Art of Athletics series:

Friday, 3 April 2015

Friday photos (21): 1890s English Athletes (and their shorts)

Here's some English runners photographed in the 1890s. Aside from recalling their achievements (one of them was a three mile world record holder, another the first London to Brighton winner), I was struck by their running kits, in particular their lengthy and high-waisted shorts. All of the ones here have different coloured piping on the shorts, I wonder who made them? There was no mass manufacture of sports wear by this time, as far as I know, but there must presumably have been some specialist clothing retailers. The shoes too - which as a friend pointed out on twitter look almost like moccasins - must have been specially made.

James Kibblewhite, Spartan Harriers & Essex Beagles

The first photograph is entitled 'Runner James Kibble, 1891' and is from the National Archives collection

The name is an error though and it is actually James Kibblewhite, also shown in this photo from Wiltshire Historic Photographs with the caption 'James Kibblewhite, athlete, of Spartan Cottages, Purton, Wiltshire, running for Spartan Harriers in the two mile N.C.A.A. Championship, Manchester, July 1890':

According the Newham and Essex Beagles History, Kibblewhite went on to run for Essex Beagles in 1892-3: 'The programme of races at the 1892 meeting featured a two miles match where Beagles' new recruit James Kibblewhite was forced to concede defeat to Heath of the South London Harriers. But Kibblewhite made no mistake in the AAA championship four miles race two months later, winning in a fast time of 19 minutes 50.6 seconds. While this was the first championship success for a member of the Essex club, for Kibblewhite it was a sixth (and final) AAA title, following on from his hat-trick of victories in 1890 when he lifted the one, four and ten mile prizes, and his other mile wins both in 1889 and 1891.

James Kibblewhite, Wiltshire born in 1866, started a career spanning 10 seasons in 1884 - the last year as an amateur of his fellow Wiltshire athlete, Walter George, whose feats must have attracted the young Kibblewhite's attention. Kibblewhite burst on the scene in 1889 in the black vest of Spartan Harriers and on 31 August that year, running from scratch in a three miles handicap race at Stamford Bridge, he slashed 10 seconds off George's five-year old world best, coming home in 14 mins 29.6 seconds. Swindon based - where he worked at the Great Western Railway works - Kibblewhite reached the top by "persistent practice". During his long career he won prizes valued at £1200 and probably also pocketed a tidy sum in appearance money: there were few meetings where the star names were not paid the standard £5. Kibblewhite retired three years before the AAA's crackdown on his contemporaries in 1896, so he was able to end his career untainted by the tag 'professional''.

F.D. Randall, Finchley Harriers

The second athlete featured here is F.D. Randall, 'born in Enfield, on February 5th, 1864. He enjoys the reputation of being the best cross-country runner included in the ranks of the Finchley Harriers' coming second in both the Southern and National Cross Country Championships in 1892 behind H.A.Heath. We are told that the Finchley Harriers were 'the Black and Pinks' so we can easily colour his running kit in our imagination.

Randall went on to be the first winner of a London to Brighton race, organised by South London Harriers in 1899. He completed the fifty miles in 6 Hours 58 minutes 18 seconds. On the strength of this he was selected to run the Marathon for Great Britain in the 1900 Paris Olympics, though he was one of 6 out of 13 runners who did not finish due to the heat.

The image comes from an 1896 book entitled the 'Sportfolio: portraits and biographies of heroes and heroines of sports and pastimes' (on sale on ebay). From the same book, here's another Finchley Harrier - W.J. Fowler, one of whose claims to fame according to this book is that he once beat Kibblewhite.

(Finchley Harriers merged with two other clubs to form Hillingdon AC in 1966)

See also:

More 1890s English Athletes