A little-known aspect of the once ubiquitously thriving mining communities in South Yorkshire and North-East Derbyshire is the contribution they made to amateur athletics.
This is something of which I had personal experience in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Being somewhat of a giant (by the standards of the time!) in the first form in 1957, I won the Sheffield Schools 100 yards in record time, and so came to the attention of Hallamshire Harriers – not terribly well-known, I suppose, until a certain Mr. Coe joined them many years later.
We trained at Hillsborough Park stadium (where the City School Sports were held). This meant a long bus journey every Sunday from our house-cum-shop near Broughton Lane in the industrial east of Sheffield, and back again – no wonder my weekly German essays were usually late!
Broughton Lane is notable as (probably) the site of the last gibbeting in England – of the eponymous Spence Broughton. This is a fact widely unknown, given the general level of Council competence in promoting the city, but still gruesomely commemorated by the cheap and surprisingly cheerful "Noose and Gibbet" pub. The area is now the site of the Sheffield FM Arena and the Virgin Centertainment complex, and on the route of the pleasant Canal Walk – a far cry from "t’mucky cut" and Railway Cottages (well, who wouldn’t want to sleep next to a marshalling yard?).
Dick Furniss and Ray Charlesworth, the dedicated chaps who ran Hallamshire Harriers, would ferry us at weekends to a host of mining villages like Hickleton, Tibshelf and Grassmoor, each with its own running track, made from readily available shale by men with bulging muscles. True, some of the bends were a bit tight on the 220 yards, but the surfaces were generally quite good. Grassed-over slag heaps made excellent grandstands for the spectators. I remember winning a cake stand and a thermos flask, among other treasures. Exciting times, eh? (It was a very posh thermos flask!)
I also have fond memories of the chaps from Rowlinson, Jordanthorpe, High Storrs and King Edward’s that I trained with (most people seemed to be in the year above me). Although none of us lads achieved individual eminence in the Yorkshire Sports, we worked hard at the relay, and in the Northern Counties, came second to the stunningly professional Doncaster Plant Works youth team. We had rather amateurish red cotton vests with an imaginative (!) white tape "H" stitched on the front. DPWAC had kitted out their lads in shiny gear that made them look like internationals. I suppose we were beaten before we put our spikes on!
Some meetings, of course, did feature real internationals. I will never forget lying on the grass at Hillsborough behind Arthur Rowe, the European shot-putt champion (they wouldn’t let teenagers do that today, would they?). I won the event at school in the fourth form, with a shot weighing under 9 lb. I thought you hurled it mainly forwards. My jaw dropped as Arthur’s 16 lb shot rose way up into the air, higher and higher, and seemed never to be about to descend.
The famous sprinters in Britain in those days.were Peter Radford, David Jones and Berwyn Jones. I think they all eventually ended up at Birchfield Harriers, training together until they were physically sick, it was said. Such an image was bound to hold a morbid fascination for a teenager – but not quite enough to get me to emulate the feat.
Hickleton, of course, produced the delightful Dorothy Hyman, second to the amazingly long legs of Wilma Rudolph in the Rome Olympics of 1960. On her infrequent visits to Hillsborough, Dorothy would give us teenage lads 10 yards start and, I fear, invariably beat us. Still, it’s not everyone who’s run against an Olympic star!
Fortunately, I was able to watch "Dot"’s Olympic races on TV. But disaster struck with the final of the men’s 100m. In the semi-final, the German Armin Hary had become the first man to do "even time" – 10 seconds dead – for metres. (It was a long time ago!)
All alone (it must have been a Sunday, I suppose), I awaited the final with bated breath. This was the most exciting thing I had seen since the Coronation. As they got down on their blocks, a knock came at the door: "Av yer gorra loaf, luv?" Nowadays, I suppose the average teenager would say "Hang on – I’m watching the telly!" But that was then. The brief transaction complete, I settled down glumly to watch the aftermath of the race. Still, I suppose that was a small price to pay for having been brought up in a sweet-shop from the age of 3 – especially in the food-rationed 40’s and 50’s!
So when I look back at the essay competitions I didn’t go in for at school, I suppose the athletics is one of the reasons why. I had never really thought about how much time I had devoted to it – you don’t if you are really enjoying something. Such a lot was to do with the warmth of the dedicated adults, and their obvious commitment.
Much of that commitment was visible in teachers like Tom Cook and Danny Burke, who, with Mr Harrison, looked after the school rugby teams. Danny would sportingly allow himself to be tackled. Since he felt like 14 stone of solid bone, this was a stimulating, if somewhat dazing, experience.
The warmth generated by the gratitude for the time so many teachers gave out-of-hours must have been reflected, I am sure, in the classroom atmosphere. Looking back, one of my greatest regrets is not to have kept in contact with them. I hear about sadism and viciousness in the masters and I suppose I was very fortunate not to encounter it. I don’t think the bullying masters concerned were much involved in sports, were they?
© Paul R. Whyman