A Grand National, a tour de force, a wonderful success – well, almost – and 90 years later Sam would still have been 5th !

Marathon races in Liverpool with some form of civic backing have been held intermittently since 1927, and in that first promotion of 90 years ago the winner was Sam Ferris in a time of 2:35:27 which still would have been only a shade over 1½ minutes behind the winner in 2017! Ferris was one of the very finest marathon-runners of his era, competing three times in the Olympics and placing 2nd in 1932, and though the courses through Liverpool’s city centre and surroundings have varied over the years comparisons are interesting nonetheless. In 1927 there were 25 finishers. In 2017 the marathon was part of a weekend of races from one mile upwards involving some 20,000 runners.
The most notable winner in recent years has been Ben Fish, of Blackburn, in 2014 in a time of 2:25:19, finishing 15min 54sec in front of the runner-up! Sam Ferris, who after his retirement from competition became a renowned road-race reporter for the magazine, “Athletics Weekly”, would no doubt have been impressed, though he would surely have remarked on the fact that his time of almost nine decades before would have earned him an easy 2nd !
Now the Liverpool Marathon is part of a worldwide series organised by the Chinese-owned Competition Group Inc. and claiming to provide a unique atmosphere of musical accompaniment and cheer-leading for the competitors and spectators. I seem to remember much the same sort of thing happening when I ran in the first of the London Marathons in 1981, but so long as everyone enjoys themselves the promoters can be allowed their hype, surely? The next promotion of theirs in Liverpool will be on 19-20 May 2018.
That first Liverpool Marathon of 1927 had been feverishly heralded by the “Liverpool Echo” newspaper with a headline across the full width of the first of the sports pages proclaiming the “Greatest Athletic Event The City Of Liverpool Has Ever Known”, promising in the article that followed a “fine collection of famous champions”. Oddly, the race was held on a Wednesday afternoon, though maybe the reason was that this was early-closing day for shops. (Pathe News Link)
In any case, it formed part of the celebrations of the city’s Civic Week and the following morning the special correspondent for the “Echo”, who wrote under the pseudonym of “Bee”, was guardedly enthusiastic: “It was all very wonderful, this baptismal Marathon for the city of Liverpool … this was indeed amateur sport at its dearest; a Grand National, a new Grand National, a tour de force, a wonderful success in every respect but one – the cyclists in their thousands were so keen to follow the movements of the runners that they impeded them”.
Such was the congestion that the “Liverpool Daily Post” reported that the chief judge “attempted to prevent some of the followers from following too closely and hampering the runners’ path, and here an unfortunate incident occurred – he was set upon by three or four cyclists and a fight took place before the police were able to put matters right”. Sam Ferris ran on apparently unperturbed and when asked after halfway if he’d like a drink cheerily replied, “No thanks. I’ll have a sponge when we reach the 20-mile station”.
It was also said of Ferris that “he talked at times with his nearest and most dangerous competitor”. Of the 47 starters, 22 failed to finish, but it was not reported whether lack of fitness or reckless bike-riders was the problem. The race had begun on the forecourt of the city’s magnificent St George’s Hall and finished at the Anfield football ground, where 20,000 spectators waited, having been entertained meanwhile by a schoolboys’ match.
The starting-time for the race was 3.30 p.m., and so even some of the competitors who lived and worked in the locality would have needed to ask their employers for time off . Ferris was a storekeeper for the Royal Air Force, serving at Uxbridge, in Middlesex, and presumably his commanding officer considered him to be a worthy advertisement for the service. Ernie Leatherland, the 4th-placed man who had run in the 1924 Olympic marathon, had a job with a paper-bag manufacturer in his native Nottinghamshire and must have taken a day’s leave, whether paid or not (most likely the latter). Two others who finished in the first 10 were members of the Birmingham-based clubs, Birchfield and Sparkhill, and so had a distance to travel to the race.
The Civic Week in Liverpool featured a splendidly-varied programme of events to delight the public. Six ocean-going liners were anchored on the Mersey quayside and were open to the public for inspection. George Henry Lee’s, the city’s main department store, advertised “Demonstrations on Living Models of the Celebrated Gossard Corsets”, with daily lectures by “Miss Norris, the eminent London Corset Expert”. Another store of which the name, Frisby Dyke, would later become a radio catch-phrase for the comedian, Deryck Guyler, was offering felt hats at 10s 11d (55 pence) and velour coats at 59s 6d (slightly less than £3). A mouth-organ contest proved rather more popular in terms of entries than the marathon, attracting 85 eager blowers. The celebrated actress, Fay Compton, was in town to recite a poem extolling Liverpool’s virtues.
The leading positions in that “baptismal” Liverpool marathon were as follows: 1 Sam Ferris (RAF) 2:35:27, 2 Harold Wood (Makerfield Harriers) 2:45:13, 3 C.E. Mitchell (Chesterfield C & AC) 2:54:03, 4 Ernie Leatherland (Mansfield Harriers) 2:58:14, 5 E. Robinson (Leigh Harriers) 2:59:43, 6 J.H. Maloy (Birchfield Harriers) 3:01:45, 7 E.L. Morris (Sutton Harriers) 3:03:00, 8 J.C. Hall (Sefton Harriers) 3:05:02, 9 Arthur Farrimond (Leigh Harriers) 3:06:06, 10 Tom Heeley (Sparkhill Harriers) 3:10:01, 11 C.F. Ackers (Liverpool Harriers) 3:11:09, 12 Myles Morris (Sutton Harriers) 3:11:33.
This race seems also to have marked one of the very earliest appearances of a competitor representing a charitable cause as W.H. Grindley, aged 57, who finished last but one in 3:57:15, was an employee of the National Playing Fields’ Association and when interviewed afterwards must have delighted his superiors as he remarked perceptively of the spectators, “If there was a more general response to the
demand for more playing fields they would see a larger proportion of runners completing the race”.
Ferris wins again and sets a British record in the process
This first series of Liverpool marathons continued only until 1931, and Ferris, having won the inaugural event by almost 10 minutes, was even more dominant in 1928, improving to 2:33:00 and beating Harold Wood by nearly a quarter-of-an-hour. Not only that, but Ferris’s time was the fastest ever by a Briton, superceding Harry Payne’s 2:34:34 at the AAA race the previous July. Payne got the record back the next year with 2:30:57.6, again in winning the AAA title, and this would last until Jim Peters first broke 2:30 in 1951. There is some brief British Pathé cinema newsreel footage surviving of the 1928 Liverpool race, and Ferris looks completely composed at the finish as he is greeted by the usual jostling melee of officials and hangers-on trying to hog the camera and a laurel wreath is thrust unceremoniously on to his head.
Having finished 8th in the Olympic marathon just the month before, Ferris ‘s Liverpool time was only three seconds slower than the Olympic-winning performance by Boughéra El Ouafi, of France. Harold Wood, whose career included 11th place in the 1928 Olympic marathon, won the 1929 and 1930 Liverpool races in 2:45:22 and 2:41:28. There were 132 runners in 1929, and again a British Pathé newsreel film shows the start and finish, with a caption claiming that 300,000 people were on the streets to enjoy the spectacle.
Some evocative memories of the 1930 Liverpool marathon, again held on a Wednesday afternoon, were recalled by one of the competitors, Charlie Bourne, of the Liverpool Pembroke club, when he was interviewed by Neil Shuttleworth for the book, “Manchester Marathons”, which Shuttleworth wrote in collaboration with Ron Hill in 2003. Bourne remembered: “I was 16th in a little over three hours. It started in St George’s Square. I was 18 at the time and felt like a schoolboy as most of them were men in their 30s. For this, my first one, I was an apprentice who took the afternoon off with a pal who paced me on a bicycle. He did a good job and when we got to the grounds of the Wavertree they would not let him in. He had all my money, and so I had to walk the 10-to-12 miles home to Litherland. It rained all the way. Next day it was work as usual”.
There was not to be another marathon in Liverpool until 1948, presumably for economic reasons, and the winner on the resumption in that London Olympic year was John Henning, who had missed the Games by an agonisingly narrow margin, having finished 4th in the Polytechnic/AAA trial over the Windsor-to-Chiswick course on 19 June a mere 30 yards behind 3rd place. Henning was an Ulsterman from the Duncairn Nomads club, and his life-style and training régime would seem insupportable in this day and age. A night-shift manual labourer by occupation, he averaged only five hours sleep a day and ran up to 57 miles a week and walked another 32 miles ! His running was achieved in just three sessions, including as much as 24 miles on a Saturday. Henning, whose time in Liverpool was 2:43:30, had begun racing at 880 yards and the mile in 1929, was to be four times Irish marathon champion, and was coached by Sam Ferris and by Franz Stampfl, who later advised Roger Bannister in his successful bid to become the first sub-four-minute miler..
McMinnis and Keily – leaders of their family dynasties
This sequence of marathons in the city lasted until 1961 and it was not until another Olympic year, 1952, that Ferris’s “city record” was beaten when Bill McMinnis led throughout and won by over four minutes in 2:32:39. McMinnis was a remarkably durable member of a family dynasty at the Sutton Harriers club in St Helens, who was an active competitor from 1936 to 1982, represented England in the International Championships cross-country of 1953 and won the AAA marathon in 1955.
He was succeeded as the Liverpool winner by another Northern stalwart with brothers almost as fast as he was – Arthur Keily, of the Derby & County club, who improved to 2:30:28 in 1954 and 2:29:51 in 1957. In between times the 1956 AAA marathon was held on the roads around the Lever Brothers factory and model village of Port Sunlight, across the River Mersey from Liverpool, and was won by Harry Hicks in 2:26:15 from Stan Cox, 2:27:17, and Eric Smith, 2:27:35. Hicks was rewarded with Olympic selection that year and was 15th in Melbourne. Cox had been a non-finisher in the 1952 Olympic marathon and Keily would place 25th at the 1960 Games.
Further Liverpool wins were registered by Bob Pape in 1958 and Sam Hardicker in 1959. Pape beat one of Arthur Keily’s brothers, Joe, by over four minutes and his excellent time of 2:27:09 would rank 9th in Britain for the year. Pape was a solidly-built individual rather in the mould of a future Australian Commonwealth Games champion and World record-holder, Rob de Castella, and somehow managed to combine a prolific road-racing schedule with service in the Royal Navy. Hardicker, from Manchester, was another of that legion of fine British marathon-men inspired by Jim Peters, achieving his fastest time of 2:20:58 for 2nd place in the Poly race of 1961 and still competing on the road more than 30 years later, winning the national over-65 title at 10 miles.
In an era when no one gave any thought to the idea of selecting Olympic marathon-runners at least six months in advance to give them time to prepare properly, the 1960 Liverpool marathon was of particular significance – though it was held on 30 July and thus only 42 days before the Olympic event. The race was organised by the Road Runners’ Club, starting at Huyton, on the city outskirts, and the winner was a diminutive Irishman from St Albans City AC, Denis O’Gorman, in a sensational time of 2:18:15.6, which was the fastest in the World for the year to that date. In 2nd place was Fred Norris in 2:19:08, with three others – Colin Kemball, Brian Cooke and “Ghost Runner” John Tarrant (uncharitably barred from amateur competition for much of his career) – all sub-2:23. O’Gorman was given an Olympic place alongside Arthur Keily and Brian Kilby and finished 16th.
In 1961 the winning time in Liverpool was much slower – 2:24:22 – but this marked the debut at the distance of Ron Hill, then aged 22 and a future European and Commonwealth champion, and there is a characteristically graphic description of the circumstances in his biography, Hill had entered the race for no better reason than that he could not find any other competition taking place that day, 12 August.
He then tells the story that he and John Tarrant were leading at 13 miles when a car in which the distinguished former distance-runner, Joe Lancaster, was a passenger drew alongside. Lancaster was Tarrant’s coach and leaned out of the window and shouted, “Don’t do all the donkey work, John !” Hill, never having run further than 15 miles before, eventually got away on his own but recalled that “very suddenly I became extremely tired”. His reaction after he finished was unequivocal: “Never again. I had no intention of becoming a marathon runner”. As we know, he fortunately had a change of heart.
At the end of 1961 Jim Peters still led the British all-time rankings with his 2:17:39.4 at the 1954 Poly, but the times set by O’Gorman, Norris and Kemball in that 1960 Liverpool race were placed 2nd, 4th and 9th respectively.
A couple of marathons were apparently held in Liverpool in 1967 and 1968, with 60 finishers on the latter occasion, but it was not until 1982 that the Liverpool marathon was revived on a regular basis amidst the euphoria which followed the success of the first London marathon the year before. The 1985 winner was that most stylish of runners, Jeff Norman, from Altrincham, who had taken part in the 1976 Olympic race (26th) and had now turned 40 to qualify for the veterans’ ranks. His time of 2:20:09 would rank 79th in Britain for the year, whereas more than 30 years later in 2017 it would have been 12th at time of writing !

The 1986 winner was a very solid local runner named Ian Corrin got close to O’Gorman’s “city record” with 2:19:29 and won again in 1988 in 2:21:18, but all previous performances in the city would be knocked asunder in 1989 when the race, by now known as the Mersey marathon, was designated as the qualifying trial for the following January’s Commonwealth Games event in Auckland.

As it happened, there were not that many obvious candidates for victory in Liverpool. Tony Milovsorov, who had been the first Briton to finish in the London Marathon the previous April (6th), was resting on his laurels, reasonably expecting to be selected automatically. Paul Davies-Hale preferred the Chicago marathon in October, which he was to win in 2:11:25. Steve Jones and Steve Brace were already certain of their places for Wales in Auckland. Kevin Forster would compete instead in Venice, also in October. Dave Long, who had run in the Olympic race of 1988 and would do so again in 1992, was another who opted for Chicago, where he was 3rd. This left as the likely if little-known favourite John Boyes, from Bournemouth, who had been 20th in the London race in 2:13:45. During the year Bill Bedell, of Tipton, had run 2:17:40 and Tony Duffy, of Manchester YMCA, 2:18:30.

The winner, though, was Carl Thackery, from the renowned Hallamshire club, who after injury had ruined his chances of a Commonwealth Games place at 10,000 metres was making his marathon debut, apart from a pace-making stint for Steve Jones. The brilliantly talented but inconsistent Thackery showed admirable restraint in running the first half in 1:08:55 and the second half in 1:05:24 for an aggregate time of 2:14:19 to earn his selection and a £5000 training grant. In 2nd place was Geoff Wightman, of Dartford, in 2:15:00, whose comment afterwards that “today was a chance for the oblivion boys – we’ve all come out of the woodwork for this one” was a fair assessment of the enigmatic nature of the occasion. It was, also, incidentally a foretaste of a future career for Wightman as a loquacious marathon-race and stadium announcer. Tony Duffy was 3rd in 2:17:09. Wightman improved further in Auckland, 8th in 2:14:16, but Milovsorov and Thackery were non-finishers.

The Mersey Marathon continued until 1992 when there were only 490 finishers, compared with more than 3,100 in 1983 and 1984, and Ian Corrin won for the third time in 2:23:00. It ranked him 46th in Britain for the year. Exactly half that number of Britons broke 2:23 in 2011, when the Liverpool Marathon made a further reappearance and was won by a local schoolteacher, John McCole, in 2:34:41, which was just three-quarters of a minute faster than Sam Ferris had run more than 80 years before.

McCole had given sterling service to Liverpool Harriers in previous years on the track and road and over the country and had once run 1500 metres in 3:50.64 and the steeplechase in 9:12.0. Sam Ferris, who always had a thought for the less celebrated loyal club runners in his “Athletics Weekly” reports, would surely have had a word or two of commendation for McCole’s valiant effort.

Footnote: “The Long Hard Road”, by Ron Hill, is a splendidly detailed and entertaining autobiography published in two volumes by the author in 1981. “Manchester Marathons”, by Ron Hill and Neil Shuttleworth, published by Ron Hill Running Enterprises in 2003, is a comprehensive and highly informative description of such races in that city.

Bob Phillips