The Story of Tipton Harriers (Running Review Article 1984)

Tipton Harriers were created in September 1910, when the members of the Tipton branch of Birchfield Harriers resolved to end their connection and become independent. Soon, over 40 members were meeting and training regularly from a former painters' workshop and store in a loft behind a shop and houses in Waterloo Street. These primitive facilities, sparsely furnished, using two 18 feet square, 8 inches deep beer cooling vats as baths with water heated in an old copper washing boiler, remained the club H.Q. until 1936. Much of this happened despite serious bomb damage during the Zeppelin raids in 1 916 and the obstruction of the non-improving landlady.

In competition the green and white hopped vests with the whippet emblem surmounting the slogan "Swift and Eager", soon became a force to be reckoned with in cross-country competition. This despite the demands of the armed forces and munitions work during World War 1, and the ravages caused by the economic depressions of the 1920's and early 1930's when at times up to 80% of the members were unemployed. After the war membership grew and club branches were founded at Wolverhampton, Dudley, Wednesbury and Cradley Heath until this practice was banned by the M.C.A.A.A. in 1924.

The first major team successes, winning the Midlands 'junior' and Staffordshire Championships arrived in the 1925-26 season where they were also runners-up in the Midland Senior Championship. This marked the beginning of the first golden age for the club, which was dominated by two outstanding individuals, the athlete Jack Holden, and the club president 'Innie' Palethorpe. Together they transformed the image and the reputation of the club.

The First Golden Age

Holden's incredible career, lasting 26 years (1925-51) is legendary and unique in British athletic history. In international competition from 1929 to 1950 in events ranging from middle distances on the track, through cross-country to the marathon in his later years, he held world records and won at least 75 major championships from County to Empire and European levels. Only an Olympic medal eluded him. Among his most distinguished achievements were, Midland 6 mile champion eight times (1932-46). A.A.A. 6 mile champion three times (1933-35). Inter-Counties champion four times. English cross-country Champion three times (1938,39 & 46). Midland cross-country champion eight times (1932-40). International cross-country champion four times (1933-5 & 46), the only individual ever to achieve three consecutive wins. He was also runner-up twice and made four other appearances in the first ten.

He narrowly missed Olympic selection in 1932 and 1936, what would the record have been had the six non-championship World War II years not intervened? In 1946 he turned to marathon running and added further lustre to this tremendous career. Midland Champion (1946-49), A.A.A. Champion (1947-50), British and English native records at 25 miles and a world 30 mile track record. Tragic failure when favourite in the 1948 Olympics and finally the perfect finale in 1950 at the age of 43, the Empire and Commonwealth title in New Zealand and the European title in Brussels. He would retire only when a British runner emerged who could beat him. In 1951 Jim Peters did so.

The statistics reveal only a little of the essential qualities which made him so great a champion - dour, single-minded, outwardly unemotional, an enormous pride in his achievements, a self-confidence and stubborn refusal to accept defeat. Training methods far in advance of his time in distance and quality, meticulous preparation particularly his remarkable ability to judge and gauge his form to perfection. Readers will not be surprised to learn that in his late seventies he retains his athletic physique and interest in fitness. Inspired by his example several of his club-mates also achieved international selection - Tommy Kay and Jack Corfield most notably, and the teams too enjoyed great success. Staffordshire champions 15 times (1926-1949), runners-up in the Midland 13 times in 16 years and finally winning in 1949. They were 3rd in the National in 1928, 1930 and 1946.

Road relay racing had also captured the interest of the club since about 1928, the annual highlights being the Manchester to Blackpool and London to Brighton races (both 10 stages in those days). These were great social as well as athletic occasions until their demise in the 1960's. In both of these events the club finished 2nd in 1932. Palethorpe, the sausage/meat pie tycoon, took the club to his heart when he became president in 1929, and became its greatest single benefactor. His munificence ranged from hampers of pies for the team at major events, through 'surprise' cheques wiping out any debt which might arise. Hospitality at dinners and 'smoking concerts', gifts to Holden following his greatest successes, to his greatest contribution - the provision of a new headquarters building and training facilities on his factory site in Sedgley Road East in 1936. The H.Q. building, and particularly its bathing facilities, were "much used, envied and admired" by home and visiting sportsmen Across the road the sports field, maintained throughout in bowling green condition by grounds man Holden, provided blissful underfoot conditions for the increasing numbers who were preparing for 'flatracing' as track running was then often termed.

The Decline . . .

Despite the successes of the Holden / Palethorpe era and the immediate post-war period, the Second World War had a long term disastrous effect on the club. Its athletes had aged and few young men had emerged to replace them. By the mid 1950's the club had reached the nadir of its fortunes. Ken Rickhuss, Bert Harbach and Geoff Eales maintained the reputation in middle-distances, filling three of the first four places in the 1957 Midland one mile championship, but Captain Ken suffered the humiliation of knocking on doors and begging reluctant and unfit athletes to turn out for major championships. However it was Rickhuss and Harbach who inspired the beginning of the revival which ultimately led to the success of recent years. Pursuing objectives laid down by the club's new president, George Price, at an emergency meeting in 955, they worked to build up membership, to nurture and develop talent at all levels of ability, to promote a new club spirit and "to see the name of Tipton more prominent". Between 1955 and 1958 a strong youths section was built up, the nucleus from one school. Three of whom (Geoff Wood, Doug Fownes and Jim Wright) were to become cross-country Internationals. In 1961 their potential was fully revealed in winning the National Junior Championship on the club's favourite course, Parliament Hill Fields. When the club finished 4th in the Manchester to Blackpool Relay in May 1961, six of the team were juniors and its average age only 22. The foundations had been laid and significantly those athletes remain at the core of Tipton's present day strong Vets squad.

And Rise . . .

Friendly competitive 'needle', regular group training sessions, social events and regular travelling to seek top competition developed a unique spirit, camaraderie and improved standards. In the autumn of 1965 the club finished first or second in seven relays and road races in Leicester, St. Albans, Hornchurch, Luton, Cambridge, Brighton and Liverpool in as many weeks. Home-bred talent such as Tony Burkitt, Alan Richards, Mick Orton, Brian Cole, and later Keith Rollason (National junior cross-country Champion 1970) was reinforced by "imports" who became the team stalwarts of these years Alan Whittle, Ron Franklin, Dave Denton, Melvyn Evans and later Keith Boyden among others. All that was lacking for the major titles to come within grasp was one big star. In 1965 this crucial signing occurred when Allan Rushmer, then on the threshold of his International career, joined the club.

Although one of Britain's leading 3 mile/ 5000m runners for the next six years, Allan was, and still is, a fine clubman, ready to run in all major fixtures without jeopardising his own personal career on track or country. In 1966 he finished 3rd in the Commonwealth Games behind Kip Keino and Ron Clarke, his time of 13m 08.6secs represented a U.K. record. He also finished 4th in the European 10,000m during the same year. In 1967 he ran a mile in 3m. 58.7secs and set an English native and A.A.A. National 3 mile record of 13m. 09.2secs. 1970 - 4th in Commonwealth 5000m behind Stewart, McCafferty and Keino in 13m. 29secs, then among the six fastest of all time. In 1978 he gained Olympic selection at 5000m but became a victim of Mexico's altitude. Over the Country he represented England on numerous occasions, his best placing in the International Championship being 7th in 1968. Probably his greatest season over the country was 1972, 1st in the Midland, 3rd in the National through gruelling Sutton Park blizzard conditions (organised by Tipton Harriers!) and 15th in the international despite illness and virtually running through the field. And who in Tipton will ever forget his incredible his 'come-back' run into 14th position in the 1981 National at Parliament Hill.

When the major team success came it was overwhelming in its scale. At Parliament Hill Fields in March 1969 the team of Jim Wright (11th), Allan Rushmer (14th), Alan Richards (19th), Doug Fownes (33rd), Keith Boyden (45th), Bill McKin (53rd) scored only 175 points, 256 ahead of the nearest rival and the largest winning margin in the history of the competition. Mick Orton (61st) and Alan Hodges (62nd) could not make the count! Tipton had arrived in the big time and were to stay there. Sharing in the victory ceremony on that occasion as Junior Champion was a young Birmingham University athlete who was soon to make a major contribution to Tipton's sustained story of success - Andy Holden.

When Andy joined the club after leaving University he was just the man needed. Already an International in Steeplechase and cross-country, he loved racing and would run in anything. He has been seen competing for the club in events ranging from 100m hurdle to 30 miles on the road! His quiet, yet magnetic personality has attracted many of his contemporaries to the club and won the admiration and respect of young athletes, and his selfless commitment to all aspects of the sport is recognised and respected by all. His unmistakable figure, the short buttering stride, the red hair, the head on one side, the shoulders tensed in effort has been an essential feature of virtually every major Tipton victory since 1973. Again the most indelible image of him was in the 1981 National at Parliament Hill following a fall, covered in mud from head to foot, like a Black and White Minstrel surging back through the field into a magnificent 11th place and selection for the England team.

Other stars have contributed to these successes. Some of them, like brilliant meteors, have appeared briefly or intermittently and then passed on, some never to reappear. Significant among these have been Jim Harvey, Paul Venmore, Ian Stewart, John Davies, John Wild and perhaps most brilliantly, the enigmatic Mike Kearns. In the Ovett class in ability he has produced world class performances from 1500m, 3m. 36.8secs, a British record set in 1977 to the marathon 2hrs. 13mins. 51secs set in 1982. Kearns however was not been able to sustain fitness and motivation for long periods. Yet the foundation of success has remained, thanks to the perennial Brian Cole, Doug Fownes and Jim Wright, the gifted Tony Milovsorov, Steve Emson, Peter Griffiths, Bob Westwood, Eddie Wedderburn, all Internationals. Bob Cytiau, John O'Meara, Mark Pountney, John Eariston, Charles Perkins and Ronald Bentley Jr.

In the 15-year plateau of achievement certain peaks stand out in the landscape. 1972 was a year of celebration following three outstanding successes. The National cross-country Championship regained against every kind of adversity in Sutton Park, the National 12 stage relay won the first time against the predictions of all the pundits, and the remarkable victory of the ultra-long distance men. Mick Orton (the outstanding individual winner), Bill Carr. John Malpass, Tony Burkitt, Ron and Gordon Bentley who competed succesfully in the gruelling 54 mile Comrades' Marathon from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in S. Africa. This was the culmination of years of dedication by these iron men via numerous victories in the London to Brighton, Exeter to Plymouth and Two Bridges races. In November 1973 Ron Bentley achieved immortality and a place in the Guinness Book of Records by covering 161 miles 545 yards in a 24 hour track race, a National, British Native, U.K. Allcomers, European and World best performance.

Clean Sweep 1977-78

At last in the winter season 1977-78 the clean sweep of all three National titles was achieved, as was every age group in the Staffordshire and Midland cross-country championships. This was followed with victory at the National championship at Leeds. The one remaining peak was almost scaled in 1981 when Kearns, Rushmer, Holden, Milovsorov and Emson just failed to win the European Clubs Championship at Varese in Italy, succumbing only to Sporting Club Lisbon, i.e. the Portuguese National Team. With the addition of John Wild their, supremacy as a genuine club team was clearly established by their remarkable win, by a margin of 129 points from Gateshead, in the National Parliament Hill Fields. In the meantime in 1970 the club had moved to its new and present H.Q. at Gospel Oak. Created from a refuse tip by years of self-help and fund raising, loans and grants from the Local Authority and Government Departments. It was built in union with other local clubs, a 19 acre sports complex had been created including a cinder running track and training and social facilities superior to any in the club's previous history. Unlike many top clubs, until recently Tipton have enjoyed little help from local authorities in the provision of facilities. Today, with more support from these sources and invaluable sponsorship from the Tipton and Coseley Building Society, the club can, now look forward to a steady improvement and expansion of these facilities.

Originally written by Geoff Wood & Doug Fownes for 'Running Review' March 1984