Memories of Steve Backley, Mick Hill, Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson over the last 30 years or so cloud the fact that javelin-throwing in Britain was very much one of the poor relations of the sport in earlier times, and even more so than most of the field events. Though the AAA Championships began in 1880, and for the best part of a century were regarded as one of the major meetings in the World, as they were open to all-comers, the javelin was not introduced until 1914, and between then and the end of the 1950s it was won by only nine different Britons – and five of them were from the North of England. Even before AAA acceptance, one of the handful of brave pioneers of javelin-throwing in Britain had been Frederick Kitching, born in Cockerton, County Durham, in 1886, who set a British record of 143ft 3in (43.66m) in May 1914 but was killed in action in World War I before the year was out.
The domestic standard would have thus been much the poorer but for the Northern contribution even in difficult circumstances. Writing in the centenary history of the Northern Counties Athletic Association in 1979, Edgar Illingworth noted regretfully that the field events in general had been “neglected both by clubs and sports promoters”. Certainly, the opportunities for British javelin-throwers during the 1920s and 1930s were few and far between, and of the 25 men’s international matches from 1921 to 1939 in which England or Great Britain teams met Finland, France, Germany, Italy or Norway, and which were regarded as the major meetings of non-Olympic years, the javelin was only part of the programme on six occasions. Thus, for example, no more than 15 men represented their country in the event in such matches during the 1930s or at the British Empire Games, and none were sent to the Olympic Games (1932 and 1936) or European Championships (1938). Five of these men came from the North. Three of the others served in the army. Two were South African students. Two were Midlanders. One each was from London, Northern Ireland or Scotland.
In later years a Rotherham schoolteacher, Peter Cullen, was one of a small band of home-grown throwers who at long last started to give domestic respectability to the event, and in 1957 he won the AAA title for the second successive year and became the first man to exceed 70 metres at the Championships, actually throwing a British record of 236ft 7in (72.12m). Cullen had previously been an English schools’ high-jump and long-jump champion while at Rotherham Grammar School, and prior to him in the 1930s and the postwar years there had been four others of Northern origin who had won the AAA javelin: William Abell, of Derby & County AC, in 1933; Lieutenant Charles Bowen, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, based at Wellington Barracks, in Bury, in 1934, Stanley Wilson, of Carnegie College of Physical Education, in Leeds, in 1937; and Maurice Morrell; of Wirral AC, in 1954 Worthy title-holders though they were, none of these throwers would for one moment have claimed to be World-class.
William Abell was a very capable (“able”, if you like) competitor who won the first of his five Northern titles in 1927 while a student at Nottingham University, but his career best throw of 175ft 9½in (53.50m) in 1932 looked very puny in comparison with the World record of 74.02m which had been set just 12 days before by the greatest exponent of the event of that era, Matti Järvinen, of Finland. Lt Charles Bowen commanded a mediocre AAA bunch in 1934, with a title-winning throw of merely 169ft 9in (51.74m). Stanley Wilson did very much better three years later, setting a British record of 194ft 2in (59.18m). Maurice Morrell, whose very lengthy career was to include numerous age-group records as a distance-runner in years to come, was to describe his AAA success of 1954 at 198ft 10in (60.60m) as a “fluke”, but how many other javelin-throwers of any merit could point to also having won their county cross-country title, as Morrell had done in the Cheshire race at Hyde that same year ?
It is worth noting that Wilson’s British record of 1937 was only recognised in retrospect many years later. Until after World War II the official British record could be set by anyone of any nationality competing on British soil, and so it was naturally a foreign monopoly in the field events. In the case of the javelin, it was held at the end of the 1930s by a Hungarian, József Várszegi, at 237ft 3½in (72.33m) from 1938 at the White City Stadium, in London. Wilson did, at least, receive official credit at the time for an English native record.
The pre-World War II years of British javelin-throwing were so modest by international standards that even the national records of Puerto Rico and Chile, among others, were superior, and those of Egypt and Liechtenstein only marginally inferior. Yet, as Edgar Illingworth indicated, the fault could be laid at the door of the administrators and organisers for their lack of encouragement as much as the athletes for their lack of endeavour. In those six rare international matches in which the javelin was held one lone British representative managed a 2nd place – against Norway in 1938 – and he was the South African, Ralph Blakeway, who was an undergraduate at Oxford University. That same year Blakeway won the AAA title and provocatively suggested in a training-manual to which he contributed that “anyone could become a moderately good javelin thrower”. A cynical reader might have observed that very few Britons even aspired to that undemanding level.
This was a pity because, of course, the javelin event could provide an enthralling spectacle when allowed to occupy centre stage. F.A.M. Webster, the leading field-events coach in Britain in the inter-war years, described in one of the many books which he wrote (“Great Moments In Athletics”, 1947) an August Bank Holiday contest he had seen near Sheffield in the early 1930s. Oddly, he did not name any of the competitors, though Stanley Wilson and William Abell are readily recognisable from his account. “The committee decided to make the javelin throw, as the tit-bit of their programme, the last event of the day”, Webster wrote. “When the time arrived, and all the racing was over, the crowd surged upon the ground to get a close view of the javelin-throwers and was, with difficulty, persuaded to form a long, narrow lane. The competitors were compelled to make their throws between two solid walls of people. Those 130-to-180 feet away watched in deadly peril of their lives”.
Yet the major hazard that late afternoon was provided by a spectator who deliberately walked in front of a competitor as he was about to throw. The thrower was described by Webster as “a big, fair-haired lad from Nottingham”, who was surely William Abell, and the intruder was firmly dealt with by another competitor “who was wearing shoes with particularly long and very sharp spikes and put his foot against the man’s curved latter end and pushed him over”. Webster concluded, “Despite the yells and blasphemy that followed, the lad from Nottingham then took his last throw and with it won the contest”.
Ralph Blakeway’s best of 202ft 4in (61.68m) in 1938 was the furthest by any British thrower during the 1930s, and this did not remotely approach the top 50 in the World even for that single year, of which Finland provided 20, the USA 11, Germany six, Sweden four, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia and Switzerland two each and Norway one. Furthermore, throughout the 1930s only two home-born Britons threw beyond 190 feet – Bill Land and Stanley Wilson. Like Peter Cullen many years later, Land had begun as a high jumper, becoming the youngest ever British international in the event as a boy soldier at the age of 16 in 1931, and. Wilson – who had strong Northern connections – beat Blakeway when he won the 1937 AAA title, but the experience of Land and Wilson against the mighty Finns in the match at Glasgow’s Hampden Park in 1935 had been a salutary one.
The correspondent for “The Times” waxed lyrical about what he called “the soaring masterpieces” of the visiting virtuosi and added the most cautious words of encouragement for Land, who had set a national record of 191ft 7¼in (58.81m) and “made one feel that he might reach the 200ft mark before long, which hope enforced the reflection that Järvinen has flung a spear over 251ft”. Wilson was 4th and last on that occasion but would go on to make a much more lasting contribution to the sport.
He had been born on 23 January 1909, but despite rigorous research by athletics historians his place of birth has never been established. There are several possibilities – South Shields, Hartlepool or Tynemouth in the North-East, or Ampthill, in Bedfordshire, or Portsmouth, in Hampshire. The fact is that throughout Wilson’s competitive career from 1931 onwards, when he won the Northern title at the Pimlico ground, Ilkeston, and did so again the next year at the Leeds University ground at Weetwood, he was resident in the North, though he was a member of the Birmingham club, Birchfield Harriers. He was a student and then a lecturer at Carnegie College of Physical Education, which was the first of its kind in England but was not founded until 1933, and as by then Wilson had already won two Northern titles it would seem most likely that he already had a regional qualification by birth. He achieved the unparalleled feat of winning the Northern javelin title in 1931 and 1932, the Midlands title from 1935 to 1938 and the Southern title in 1939.
There’s an obvious reason for his being a Birchfield member because so, too, was the best of the British javelin-throwers of the 1920s, the Scots-born James (“Jock”) Dalrymple, who was still active through to 1934 while working as a railway-carriage cleaner at Bedford Station and being coached by the one man in Britain who had a real knowledge and appreciation of the event, F.A.M. Webster.
At Carnegie College (now Leeds Metropolitan University), Wilson established an academic reputation which has lasted ever since. After graduation, he became assistant physical education organiser for London County Council and wrote a widely-acclaimed book in 1939, “A New Approach To Athletics”, and published texts on vaulting and agility exercises which are still highly thought of today. Leeds continued to be a hotbed of pioneering work in physical education because two Directors of P.E. at Leeds University, R.E. Morgan from 1938 onwards and later A.D. Munrow, also wrote books of key importance concerning the subject.
The late Wilf Paish, who was one of the World’s leading javelin coaches and had himself been a Carnegie student, said of Stanley Wilson in the year 2008: “He is one of the foremost people in the realm of physical education, and when I met up recently with a group of former Carnegie lecturers of my age and mentioned Wilson’s name they all said, ‘Ah, yes, vaulting and agility’. Wilson didn’t write very much about javelin-throwing but was concerned with basic material aimed at physical education teachers”.
Wilf Paish returned to Leeds in 1964 and stayed until his death in 2010, having become a lecturer at Carnegie College. He coached Tessa Sanderson to Olympic gold in 1984 and Mick Hill, who is now the senior high performance coach at Leeds Metropolitan University, to six major Championships medals, including European silver and World bronze. Paish was a great enthusiast and in his 1974 book, “Introduction to Athletics”, he wrote: “The javelin throw is one of the most beautiful of all events to watch. The javelin thrower has to be the complete athlete, fast, strong and flexible”. .
There is some excellent film footage on YouTube of Wilson demonstrating his javelin technique at Carnegie College, and certainly it is not his energetic style that can be criticised. “The Times” said of him in 1939, “There is a splendid power in his throwing, but evidently the almost perfect technique which enabled Järvinen, the Finn, to cast his missile over 250sft has yet to acquired”. This was a fair enough assessment, but Wilson was by no means alone in falling short of the fabled Finn’s high standard. Not a single javelin-thrower from throughout the British Empire had ever got within 10 metres (33 feet or so) of Järvinen, and the one who had come closest was a New Zealander, Stanley Lay, back in 1928 !
Though Wilson ranked among the leading three Britons every year from 1931 to 1939 (and in 1st place in four of those years), his major Games opportunities were rare – well, to be absolutely precise, unique. There was no British selection for the men’s javelin at the Olympic Games of 1932 and 1936 or the European Championships of 1934 (no GB team was even entered) or 1938. Wilson was also, understandably, not among the few athletes sent by the home countries to the 1938 British Empire Games in Australia, which – apart from all considerations of expense – required a four-month absence to take account of the long sea journey. So his one chance had come at the previous British Empire Games of 1934, held at London’s White City Stadium, where the Northern representation in the javelin was surprisingly strong.
In the absence of any foreign opposition, the AAA title had been won that year at a very modest distance by the Lancashire Fusiliers officer, Charles Bowen, and he was chosen for the England team together with the next three – Wilson, John Duus (Manchester AC), who was the Northern champion that year (and whose surname suggests Norwegian origin), and Joseph Heath (Birchfield Harriers), the Midlands champion. None of them did anything of note at the Games, where a Canadian, Bob Dixon, won at a mediocre 196ft 11in (60.02m), which was still, of course, far too good for the host country’s contingent, of which Wilson was the best in 4th place. Even with the Games on their doorstep, neither Northern Ireland, nor Scotland, nor Wales could raise a single javelin-thrower between them.
At the inaugural British Empire Games of 1930 in Hamilton, Ontario, a Grenadier guardsman, E.R. Turner, usually known by his second name of “Robert”, had also finished an unassuming 4th for England, but he had become a local hero after witnessing a bank robbery while walking through the town one day and then supplying the local constabulary with a full description of the criminals and their getaway car. Such a deed would become no more than a matter of duty for Turner in the future as he joined the Birkenhead police force and became a member of Port Sunlight AC after leaving the army in 1933. Born in Luton, in Hertfordshire, in 1909, he was Northern javelin champion every year from 1936 to 1939 and again in 1948 and 1949. Turner is well remembered by Maurice Morrell, who was also a police officer by profession, and received in his teenage years valuable javelin advice and guidance which helped towards his winning the AAA junior javelin title in 1950.
Having referred to Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson at the start of this article, it might seem like an afterthought to only now come to mention women’s javelin-throwing, but it has to be said that it, too, was at a low ebb in Britain in the 1930s. This was perhaps hardly surprising, as the most influential of British athletics journalists of that era had remarked in his report of the 1930 Women’s AAA Championships “how unsuited the feminine form is to the throwing events”. This was a widely-shared opinion in that era, but the writer in this instance was Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100 metres gold-medallist, who had also made the first outside radio broadcast of a sports event in Britain – the Oxford University-v-Cambridge University athletics match in 1927 – and from a year before had been a AAA official. He would become one of the most powerful administrators in the sport. Thus, even from the inside, so to speak, women who presumed to throw things about on an athletics field were under attack.
There was another contentious issue concerning women’s athletics at that time. Five of the 10 Women’s AAA javelin titles during the 1930s were taken by Northern athletes, but Edith Halstead, who won in 1932 and 1934, underwent a corrective operation in 1944, becoming Edwin Halstead and then a husband and father. The fourth of a series of Women’s World Games were held in London in 1934 and Edith Halstead had been one of the British nominees for the javelin, but the event was won by a German, Lisa Gelius, with a throw of 139ft 2¼in (42.43m), which was unimaginable by British standards. There was so little attention paid to the selected home competitors that it is not even known whether Halstead actually competed.
In thankfully conventional circumstances, Katharine Connal, of Leeds University, who had been born in Bramhope, near Leeds, in 1912, was WAAA champion in 1936, 1938 and 1939 and has the distinction of being the first British woman to compete in an Olympic Games javelin, though failing to reach the final in Berlin in 1936. Leeds University had been one of the very first supporters of women’s athletics, sending a team to the inter-university meeting organised by Manchester University in 1921, two years before even the WAAA Championships were established. Of the 11 women in the British team at the Berlin Olympics the only other Northerner was another Leeds University student, Grethe Whitehead, in the hurdles, who was born in Dewsbury.
Oddly, Katharine Connal’s first name appears as “Kathleen” in all the statistical references to her athletics career, but during research for this article contact was made with her daughter in Australia, who confirmed that he mother’s first name was, indeed, Katharine. Her preparation for the Olympics had been rudimentary, to say the least. She had no coach and her only advice was from a university groundsman who watched her throw and then told her how her style compared with photographs which she had painstakingly collected ! The first time she ever saw a cinder-surface run-up for the javelin, rather than grass, was when she stepped out on to the Berlin stadium in-field !
As captain of her university women’s athletics team, she was clearly an enterprising leader because she and the men’s captain arranged for a Norwegian, Alf Lommerud, to spend four days a week during January and February of 1939 coaching the university’s athletes. Lommerud then went on to Scotland for a further four months’ coaching. Ironically, he had been one of the few visiting javelin-throwers not to win the AAA title, placing 3rd to Blakeway and Wilson in 1938. The outbreak of World War II in September of 1939 put an end to any likelihood of Katharine Connal properly benefiting from the Norwegian coach’s visit. It might be reasonable to assume that Miss Connal received some coaching from Wilson, her Leeds neighbor, but this is by no means certain.
She had set two reasonably respectable British records, the better of which was 120ft 9¼in (36.81m) in 1937 while representing the English Universities. This compared with the existing World record of 153ft 4in (46.74m) by Nan Gindele, of the USA, from 1932. Those readers of a mathematical frame of mind might therefore like to know that when measured against the respective existing World records the British men’s record by Stanley Wilson in 1937 was worth about 77% (Järvinen again the World record-holder at 77.23) and the British women’s record was better, worth 83% of Gindele’s effort.
Miss Connal graduated with a BSc honours degree from university in 1939. She retained close contact with university sport because she and her Olympic and university team-mate, Grethe Whitehead, were appointed honorary secretary and assistant honorary secretary respectively to the Women’s Inter-Varsity Athletic Board. The WIVAB had pioneered national and international sports competition for women at British universities since the 1920s, and its responsibilities covered hockey, lacrosse, swimming and tennis, in addition to athletics. Miss Connal continued in office until 1943 and Miss Whitehead ‘(who became Mrs Russell Jones) until 1946.
Katharine Connal served as an officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force during the war, and she was still javelin-throwing at the age of 33 in 1945, placing 2nd in the WAAA Championships, She later married, becoming Mrs Stukely, emigrated to Australia, set up an athletics club in the small town where she lived, and officiated at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Western Australia. There she would no doubt have been mightily impressed by the winning javelin throw of England’s Sue Platt at 164ft 10½in (50.26m). Katharine Stukely died in a car accident in 1983.
Two other Northern women had also figured previously among the British record-holders of the pre-war era. Olive Pennington, of Bury & Radcliffe AC, threw 106ft 0½in (32.32) at the North West Championships at New Moston, Manchester, in 1934, and Constance Lee, of Sheffield University, 108ft 9½in (33.17m) at an inter-university meeting in Sheffield in 1935. Miss Lee’s university had also been prompt to encourage women’s athletics, joining in the inter-university competition against Manchester and Leeds in 1924. Neither Katharine Connal nor Constance Lee would even have known that they were record-holders until many years later because the 1934 North West winner was actually Edith Halstead who threw 114ft 8in (34.96m) and achieved several feet further on other occasions.
Note: a great deal of statistical information about the early years of women’s athletics hs been gathered and published in handbook form, and in the forefront have been two experts from the North of England. The late Eric Cowe lived at Crossflats, Bingley, and John Brant lives in Hull.