Thursday, 31 March 2016

Answers please: What was this game runners called 'rockets'?

* Chasing Sydney Wooderson around Home Park, Plymouth . . .
THIS week I need help with a mystery. Research for my book on Sydney Wooderson has turned up something rather baffling.

Once upon a time – Sunday 16 June 1935, to be precise - a train stood beside the platform at Plymouth station ready to leave for London. Inside were a large troupe of glamorous girls from a touring theatrical company. For ages, apparently, they sat spellbound while a group of male runners opposite performed what is described as an impromptu series of ‘rockets’ to entertain them. 
These were professional dancers, not easily impressed, but what those lads did went down a storm. Unfortunately my source did not (or could not) explain what exactly 'rockets' were!  I wonder can any blog readers out there shed any light on what might have been going on?

Was it a display of gymnastics? Indoor fireworks? Were they breaking wind in spectacular fashion? Was it merely a long-forgotten 1930s parlour game? Whatever occurred, we must assume it was legal, above board and not of a sordid nature - otherwise it would surely have been hushed up and never mentioned again . . .

I feel it is important to get to the bottom of this ‘rockets’ mystery. Maybe it could prove to be a Georgian-era pastime or party trick that could be successfully revived in 2016? It could then be tried on road trips by running clubs such as mine (the mighty Tiptree Road Runners) perhaps?   

To give you the context of what went on, here’s part of the report I uncovered. It features various well-known runners from London clubs, some of whom had just won the prestigious Travers Stubbs inter-club trophy at Home Park, Plymouth, and were returning homeward in celebratory mood:

 “Leaving the trophy in capable hands, we set out for the station. We thought we would sleep all the way up, but a treat was in store for us. Ernie Lotinga’s Theatre Company, bound for London, were with us, including a whole coach load of young ladies. Led by sprinter Tremeer (London AC), we entertained these ‘beautifuls’ to a series of ‘rockets’. This went down well, they had not seen it before.

“Then we loaded up a luggage truck with them and pushed them up and down the platform, Mr.Wiard and Mr.Evan Hunter on board to see that they came to no harm.

“Blackheath Harriers’ Ernie Page came down to see what it was all about, but then had to sprint back to his compartment to avoid being deprived of his braces. The Station Master was relieved to see us go – he seemed quite annoyed at our yelling “All change” when a local train full of day trippers pulled in, causing the platform to become a struggling mass of mums, dads and kids, the latter armed with lollipops and luggage, all yelling ‘Porter! Porter!’  

“The Station Master seemed to take a narrow-minded view of this. The last amusing incident to recount was the resourcefulness of Dondelinger, who had locked the theatrical company’s manager in his compartment during all this.”

So there it is. Noisy young people behaving badly on trains is clearly nothing new then! 

My own recent visit to Plymouth saw another venue ticked off on my tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues (see * below). But the only noisy behaviour I witnessed was from fellow Luton Town fans as we beat home side Argyle 1-0. The pitch was just a few yards from the grass track on which Sydney recorded a hat-trick of one-mile victories for Blackheath in the mid-1930s – the first during that lively 1935 trip described above. 
It seems unlikely Sydney was involved in the horse-play recounted here. He’d travelled to Devon separately from his colleagues, arriving a full day earlier, although it’s possible they all returned together. No doubt his well-organised mum Jeanette, who took a serious interest in his running, urged the early arrival and won’t have been impressed by those tales of high jinks, platform races and ‘rocket’ launching.

Or perhaps I am missing a trick here, and the famously shy and quietly spoken Sydney was a party animal at heart. Perhaps he did try his hand at ‘rockets’ that weekend? I somehow doubt it.     
* ‘Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ - to visit and run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60! This blog records the progress of that challenge. Conveniently, it will not only help keep me fit, but assist with the research for the book!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The end of an era down by the banks of the Medway

* Sydney imagined at the former Aylesford Paper Mills sports grounds in 2016.
THERE was much sadness in 2015 when production at the huge Aylesford Paper Mills site in Kent ground to a halt after nearly 100 years. More than 200 workers were made redundant, the famous landmark was decommissioned and its associated sports grounds nearby were put up for sale. 

I was here recently on my tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues*, and the first thing I noticed was the isolated and quaint little football grandstand, now deemed too decrepit for safe use. It looked out forlornly across the paper company’s windswept sports fields where the future is now highly uncertain. 

Here on the banks of the River Medway, not far from bustling Maidstone, that ancient little grandstand has witnessed much fine sport down the decades – not least a 10-mile cross-country race that saw Sydney Wooderson eke out one of the best victories of a celebrated career.

It happened on an unseasonably warm February afternoon in 1948. When the bespectacled little figure from Blackheath stormed across the finish line - 10 seconds clear of a very strong field - he became Southern Counties champion for the first time. In typically modest fashion he kept a low profile afterwards, but knew this win was a very important milestone. It convinced him he’d been right to abandon thoughts of a last tilt at Olympic glory and to instead spend this winter building towards the English National cross-country championships. Although winning mile races on the track had made Sydney famous, he had a deep love of cross-country and in the twilight of his career felt that becoming national champion would be a great way to sign-off.

Aylesford Paper Mills Sports Club (Athletics Section) boasted some top runners in their ranks at this time and some fine facilities to offer visitors. From its inception, the management of the mills was keen to foster sporting and social societies among its workers and backed this up with generous subsidies. Later in 1948, of course, London staged the first post-war Olympic Games, and the visiting Finland squad chose to base themselves at Aylesford. They organised the construction of a sauna on the sports club premises, and didn’t take it away when they left - meaning many local folk would afterwards have the chance to sample this Scandinavian delight for the first time.
* Sydney (right) settles for joint-third at Aylesford in 1947.
Sydney Wooderson’s only other race at Aylesford prior to the 1948 Southerns had been a year earlier when the locals hosted the Kent cross-country champs. Here Sydney had worked hard towards the end of a rain-drenched three-lapper, but was unable to peg back the home club’s Macoy and Charlesworth, ultimately settling for joint-third, coming in alongside Blackheath clubmate Monshall (see pic). 

Sydney and around 25 clubmates had travelled down by coach that day, and were grateful to make use of this vehicle for shelter, such was the persistence of the rain throughout the day’s programme.

* 'Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ - to visit and run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60! This blog records the progress of that challenge. Conveniently, it will not only help keep me fit, but assist with the research for the book!

* Sydney imagined passing the Aylesford PMSC cricket pavilion in 2016.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A star miler is born - in the middle of a GB drought

TRACKS were dusty and sports fields scorched bone-dry on the June day little Sydney Wooderson made the big breakthrough in his running career. It was early summer 1934 and Britain was suffering its worst drought for at least 80 years.

Not the best conditions, then, for a gala athletics meeting arranged to take place in the grim heart of industrial Belvedere, beside the busy River Thames. Sydney was making his debut at the annual Kent AAA county championships and at the age of just 19 would be up against many of the region’s best men for the first time.

His inexperience, the heat, pollution and generally unattractive surroundings didn’t bode well – but our hero was undaunted and not only pulled out a PB to win the county mile title, he smashed the all-time Kent record by two seconds. Sydney had already collected junior and schools titles, but this was the day the athletics world really sat up and took notice of the little fellow in glasses from Camberwell.

* On this very grass . . . . Sydney imagined in Belvedere 2016. 
The scene of his heroics proved a little tricky to find when I headed to Belvedere this week on my tour of Sydney race venues in advance of publication of my book about him. I had been told the 1934 Kent championships took place on the sports grounds that BICC (British Insulated Callender’s Cables) had provided for their employees, adjacent to their huge riverside factory.

My gentle jog through the area was a far cry from Sydney’s record-breaking mile of 4m:27.8s here – and naturally the passing of 82 years meant many changes to local architecture and road layout. However an old map helped me find the right spot.

The entity known as BICC disappeared years ago after a spell owned by Pirelli. Viewing new construction work underway on their former home, it was hard to imagine that seven county athletics records were broken here on that hot Saturday back in 1934.

Sydney had emerged from the wooden pavilion that day dressed in Blackheath Harriers’ all-black kit, having achieved minor fame as the Public Schools mile champion, but still pretty much an unknown quantity in senior athletics. His 20th birthday was still a few weeks away and his small, bespectacled frame would certainly have not struck much fear into his opposition.

But, less than five minutes later, a star had been born. What would become his trademark late burst won him the Kent mile crown by a three-yard margin as he held off the fierce challenge of Belgrave duo Jordan and Shaw. These two could hardly believe they’d managed to break the seven-year-old Kent record set by E.D.Bell, yet had still been beaten by a young upstart who weighed barely nine stones in his enormous baggy shorts.

* The scene of Sydney's triumph - surrounded by heavy industry.
(PIC: Erith & Belvedere Local History Society).
It was Sydney’s first senior title and he was clearly ready to start challenging for more honours in the world of men’s athletics. Next up would be the Southern Champs three weeks hence in Guildford. His clubmates,‘The Heathens’, were jubilant and agreed he’d been the star turn of the day – particularly as the British 440-yards champion and Olympian Godfrey Rampling hadn’t shown up due to a calf strain.

Although the Thames was just a few yards away, the air on this hot day was thick and oppressive, making Sydney’s run all the more noteworthy and because of his age it had overshadowed records set by others in the three miles, half-mile and field events.

* The Callender's sports ground as it looks today.
 * 'Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which, conveniently, will not only help keep me fit, but assist with the research for the book!

*Visit or Amazon at for details of all my other books.