A RUNNING track in Birmingham which first opened nearly 90 years ago has enjoyed a colourful history since the likes of Sydney Wooderson sped down its inside lane either side of the Second World War.
Created on the site of a rubbish tip, Perry Barr Stadium opened in 1929 mainly to provide a home for crack Midlands club Birchfield Harriers. Since then it has hosted cycle racing, dirt-track and speedway, equestrian events such as show-jumping, and more recently greyhound racing. In between some of these entertainments the ground was requisitioned by the War Office for use by the Home Guard (“They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Mainwaring”) and also accommodated Italian prisoners of war.
In athletics terms, one of its proudest claims involves the installation of floodlighting, which allowed it to stage the first floodlit athletics meeting ever held in the UK in September 1948. The crowd that evening gasped in wonder when the lights came on for the first time towards the end of a meeting which had overrun into dusk.
I visited this hectic part of England’s second city as part of my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – to visit and run at 60 of the venues graced by forgotten athletics hero Sydney Wooderson, the subject of my latest book project.
I was informed that for many years there were two sports stadiums within 400 yards of each other here in the Perry Barr district. But the real deal was very easy to pinpoint in 2016 – for the other one was wiped off the face of the earth a few years ago to be replaced by the One Stop Shopping Centre!
Humble South Londoner Sydney came this way in July of 1938 competing for his club Blackheath Harriers in the annual Waddilove Trophy event. As was his wont, he tried to make a quiet and dignified entrance, but most of the excitable 7,000 crowd only had eyes for him – and there was no hiding place.
Such attention brought with it the pressure of pulling off a spectacular performance every time he stepped on a track – but the odds were against that on this summer’s afternoon. The Perry Barr cinder track had only recently been re-laid and had not settled down to expectations. It was lumpy and not likely to help runners achieve fast times.
Sydney, the reigning world mile record holder, chose to run the scratch half-mile race. There would be no records today, particularly as Sydney found himself somewhat boxed in for much of the opening lap. When the bell sounded at the start of the second, he was able to force himself clear of danger and then treated the crowd to one of his electric finishes. He flew across the line in 2:00.6, less than a second clear of plucky chasers John Powell (London AC) and A.A.Bird (Belgrave Harriers).
Later that afternoon the crowd was delighted to see the great man in action again when he took the opening leg for Blackheath in a one-mile relay, staged this time on the adjacent grass track. It had not been formally measured, so no times were taken. Sydney passed on the baton having forged a good lead, and his teammates maintained this till the end.
During his 20-year career Sydney only appeared at this important venue twice, the second coming eight years later in the Waddilove Trophy of July 1946. He opted for the two-mile race on a scorching sunny day and it proved little more than a training spin as he cruised home a full 100 yards in the clear in 9:35.6. He may have been a Londoner, but the locals cheered his every step.
* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion 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, the challenge should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!