Thursday, 2 June 2016

The bespectacled Army corporal who had his own post-War party - on a running track!



* Wooderson in 1945 and GEC's sports grounds in 2016 - together again!
In the early summer of 1945, while the victorious allies and Soviets were sorting out how to divide up Berlin and govern defeated Germany, a certain corporal in the Pioneer Corps was preparing to defy medical opinion and re-launch his celebrated running career.
While the nation celebrated the end of the war, 30-year-old Sydney Wooderson was concentrating on a return to competitive sport, just months after doctors told him a severe bout of rheumatic fever would probably prevent him running again.

The pre-war mile world record holder had been hospitalized for a miserable four months towards the end of the war, and will have been a bag of nerves on Saturday 23 June 1945 when travelling by train to Rugby in Warwickshire to run his first mile race in exactly a year.

Since his recovery, training had gone surprisingly well. He’d proved he was on the way back with a fast relay leg in April in South London, and then victory in a half-miler at Worthing a month or so later. Now he was back running his favoured distance at Rugby, representing the South against the Midlands AAA in a match at the BTH sports grounds on Hillmorton Road. The nation was still in party mood (VE day had been six weeks earlier) and a good-humoured crowd assembled to see star attraction Sydney’s big comeback.
As part of my tour of the venues at which Sydney raced during his career, I pitched up recently in Rugby to seek out the old sports ground that had been the property of engineering company British Thompson Houston back in the day. I found the place was now generally known as the GEC Recreation Ground and is the home of the AEI rugby club.

* GEC Recreation Ground pavilion - in 2016.
BTH merged with Metropolitan Vickers in 1959 to become known as AEI (Associated Electrical Industries) and although AEI was taken over by GEC in 1967, the AEI name lives on through the rugby club. The old sports ground is still there, although the running track is long gone and there has been some encroachment by new housing.
Hillmorton Road sits on the eastern edge of town in a relatively peaceful spot. On an overcast morning, two elderly ladies walking their small frisky dogs were presumably completely unaware they were pottering around on the very spot where Sydney’s front-running generated roars of approval from a lively crowd some 70 summers ago.

On that day he took an early lead and was never headed. The dramatic late finish he'd been famous for before the war was not needed as he won at a canter in 4:20.8. It was well short of his lifetime's best, but comfortable enough to beat Midlands rivals Brown and Reid by more than 20 yards.
The outcome filled Sydney with great heart for the summer ahead, and indeed for the resumption of his top-flight career, and saw the press begin painting him as a real gutsy hero. His poor eyesight had prevented service overseas in the regular Army during the war, but he’d done his bit in other areas – and now he was ready to take on Europe’s best on the running track again.

* ‘Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was 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 should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!

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