Friday, 1 July 2016

Hospital celebrities: Nellie the donkey and Sydney the miler!

*1940s Sydney meets 2016 Tottenham.

THE Prince of Wales Hospital in Tottenham opened its doors to sick and injured people for around 120 years. As hospitals go, it seems to have been an interesting sort of place – apparently a donkey called Nellie was a popular member of staff, for example!
Just before it closed and was converted into an apartment block, the hospital provided the setting for Dennis Potter’s landmark TV drama 'The Singing Detective'. Another brush with fame came during wartime when the hospital staged an afternoon of athletics and Britain’s favourite runner Sydney Wooderson came along to run the mile.

The hospital grounds near Tottenham Hale station extended to four acres, but my research suggests the sports day of 22 August 1942 took place just up the road on a cinder running track on Down Lane Recreation Ground.

I stopped off here on my tour of Wooderson race venues (see * below) and found that although grass football pitches now dominate the site, the route of the old cinder track can still be clearly seen. It becomes even clearer when viewed via Google Earth’s satellite imagery (see pic). No sign of Nellie the donkey these days though.

* The shape of the old cinder track is still visible from the air.
Sydney Wooderson took time off from his home-based war duties in August 1942 to run here and the residents of war-battered North London gratefully turned out in high numbers hoping for some good entertainment. It was badly needed, for these were depressing times.

Just three days earlier more than 3,000 of our boys died in the failed Allied invasion of Dieppe. The raiding force was trapped on the beach by obstacles and German fire and within 10 hours all Allied troops had been killed, evacuated, or left behind to be captured. The bloody fiasco suggested France couldn’t be successfully invaded for a long time.

At Tottenham, meanwhile, Sydney ran a one-mile handicap race, in which he went off the scratch mark, and the other less accomplished entrants were given head starts of various distances.

One of them, W.S.Kingsley of Hoffmann's AC, had a huge 165-yard start on Sydney and managed to stay narrowly ahead of the champion to cross the line first. Inevitably Sydney’s time of 4:21.6 was easily the fastest of the day, but not quite enough for victory in a thrilling finish.

He received a fine ovation, the crowd not caring a jot that the little man had recently lost his coveted mile world record (4:06.4) to Gunder Haegg, who was racing in neutral Sweden without the deprivations of war. Haegg had clocked 4.06.2 earlier that summer and just 10 days later that record was equalled by his compatriot Arne Andersson. Sydney had been world record holder for five years and was still well short of his 30th birthday, but it was clear his chances of staying at the very top of his game were now being hampered by the war.

*  . . .  and the line of the old track at ground level in 2016.
The scene of Sydney’s Tottenham run would be the subject of a Sports Council report in 1973 which described the track as having become sub-standard and partly derelict, and recommended it be abandoned. By the 1980s it had been grassed over. 

Over the road at the hospital, 'closure by stealth' had slowly taken its toll by the early 1980s – department by department – and finally in 1993 the main four-storey red brick building was converted into 38 apartments.

* 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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