Thursday, 15 December 2016

'King of the Milers' does the double for garden party guests!

MY year-long trek in the footsteps of forgotten British sporting hero Sydney Wooderson is nearly at an end. Fifty-nine of 60 of his racing venues are now ticked off the list.

The journey - not a continuous one you understand, but done in bits and pieces over the past 12 months - has served its purpose as a research tool for my forthcoming book. For those to whom his name means nothing, Sydney was 'King of the Milers' long before Joe Public had even heard of Roger Bannister. But just when Sydney was poised to achieve the first four-minute mile and Olympic glory, war was declared in 1939 and things got rather complicated. But that's a story I'll save for the book!

In the mean time I'm tracking down the scenes of his triumphs and this update covers my journey, mostly on foot, around the streets of SE London.
*The former Private Banks sportsground, Catford Bridge.

My research told me Sydney raced at least a dozen times on the Private Banks Sportsground at Catford Bridge, a place that housed the 'home' track of his club Blackheath Harriers for many years. Athletics history was often written here. In fact, the very first Blackheath fixture here (in 1883) saw the charismatic Walter Goodall George run a mile in 4:24.5, which many regarded as the fastest mile in history to that point. It was no flash in the pan, for George later brought the record down to a sensational 4:12.75, a clocking that would keep his name near the top of the world rankings for more than half a century. George's remarkable life story is told in my 2006 book 'Beer and Brine', which can still be obtained via Amazon as an e-book (link: )

Sydney's appearances near the rail tracks at Catford Bridge were mostly 'domestic' club races of little national consequence. All these years later the ground remains a multi-use sports arena, but is nowadays owned by the independent St.Dunstan's College.

Within a short distance from here I found three more tracks trod by Sydney that have yet to disappear under new buildings, and two of them are still staging sporting events nearly 90 years later.

Ladywells Park/Arena (above) has been the home of Kent Athletic Club for well over 100 years. This is the club serving the Lewisham area, which only retains its rather misleading name for reasons of consistency and nostalgia, I was told. The running track here was first created in 1936, the same summer that saw Sydney smash the British mile record (4:10.8) with old Walter George turning up with his walking stick to see his long-standing mark finally beaten!  Sydney ran here at Ladywells in May 1947, winning a two-mile race comfortably, helping Blackheath beat Cambridge Harriers in the process.

The smart, imposing building that still graces the north side of Eltham Road today (above) was created in 1912 as the Ravensbourne Club. It was a residential clubhouse and sports centre for the many employees of Cook, Son and Co.(St.Pauls) Ltd., a huge wholesale clothing company. This handsome four-storey block was refurbished in 2007 and retains its U-shape around a quadrangle at the rear, where there  used to a be a swimming pool and running track.

Athletics historian Kevin Kelly has furnished me with images from the offical programme of the Annual Sports and Garden Party at Ravensbourne in summer 1937. Sydney did the 'double' that day, winning the mile handicap race easily and then helping Blackheath win the Kent mile relay championship. 
Just down the road in the Grove Park area was the track (above) where Sydney pulled in big crowds to see him win two wartime half-mile races. Brian Boulton, himself a former Kent mile champion and President of Kent AAA, used to live and run in this district and he told me:

"Much of this City of London School sportsground is now owned by Eltham College. From 1950 till 1971 I lived nearby with my parents in a house backing on to the CLS grounds. For many years I used to train off-track by exiting our back  gate to gain access to the College playing fields. I was athetics captain at the College in the late 1950s and later trained there with Glynis Goodburn, whom I coached before she married fellow long-distance star Keith Penny. The track I recall was not a standard shape, but pear-shaped."

* My biography of forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson will be published soon - the sixth in my series of books on running legends of the past. 
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