Great Britain’s team at the 1948 Olympics was a mixture of veterans and novices. Many of them had lost their best years – and some others who could have been at the Games had even lost their lives – during World War II. There were 14 among the men who were making their one and only international appearances, including two each in the 5000 metres, marathon, steeplechase, 400 metres hurdles and triple jump. The three oldest of them were, understandably, all involved in the endurance events, and included Tom Richards, marathon silver-medallist at the age of 38, but the next in seniority was one of the triple jumpers.

Robert Hawkey is an intriguing athlete from several points of view, and not least because nothing has previously been known about him after his retirement from competition. He had appeared in the British rankings in 1939, placing 2nd in the Inter-Counties’ Championships at the White City on 29 May to Jack Higginson, who was a member of the Leyland Motors AC, at Preston, and 2nd again to Higginson in the Northern Championships at Bolton on 24 June with his season’s best of 44ft 10in (13.66m).

Higginson was winning his sixth Northern title in seven years, and his father, also named Jack, had preceded him with six successive wins from 1923 onwards as a member of Preston Harriers. The renowned coach, F.A.M. Webster, was probably the first authority in Great Britain to write about the triple jump in a detailed historical perspective (in his book, “Great Moments In Athletics”, 1947), and he said of the Higginsons: “They were a true case of a genuine athletic partnership, for the father spared no pains in teaching and training his son to break his own record”.

Robert Leslie Hawkey, known familiarly as “Les”, had been born in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, on 19 March 1915 and so was already 24 years old during the 1939 season and would be 33 when he competed in the 1948 Olympics. He was brought up by his family in a street of terraced houses in the coastal village of Dawdon, which had been built round the coal-mine which was owned by the Marquess of Londonderry and had opened in 1907. At its peak in the 1920s the mine employed more than 3,800 men and boys, producing a million tons of coal a year, and young Hawkey would have been well aware of its dominance – and its death-toll. In one year alone, 1923, when he was celebrating his eighth birthday, three 14-year-olds died in different mining accidents.

Hawkey was sent to Ryhope Secondary Modern School, some four miles away, and was exceptional at both studies and sport. In 1933 he long jumped 19ft 10½in (6.05m) at his school sports. That same year the Public Schools’ Championships event was won in rather more competitive circumstances at the newly-refurbished White City Stadium, in London, by a future Olympic 4 x 400 metres relay gold-medallist, Godfrey Brown, at 20-11¼ (6.38). Hawkey – no doubt determined not to go down the mine for a living – had sufficient educational qualifications to be accepted by the Metropolitan Police, in London,in 1935 and served there before moving back North to join the Durham County Police early in 1939. This move homewards must have been a challenging new experience for him because during the 1930s the local coal-mines were a hotbed of industrial unrest, and some of his former neighbours and even friends would surely have been involved among the demonstrators..

He had married a local junior school teacher, Edna May Jackson, and maintained his interest in sport, which was keenly encouraged throughout Britain’s police forces in those days, and was a very capable swimmer and competitive tennis player. In 1939 six of the top 10 ranked British athletes in both the discus and hammer were police officers, including the national discus record-holder, David Young, from Glasgow, and a Durham County colleague of Hawkey’s, E.D. Wright, was 3rd in the National Police Championships 220 yards in Brighton. There was no triple jump at that meeting, but Hawkey was 3rd in the long jump.

There is no evidence of anyone else from the North-East of England showing any proficiency in the triple jump in the 1930s or in the immediate postwar years, and it has to be wondered as to where Hawkey’s motivation came from. Maybe his interest was sparked while in London. He was reasonably proficient at other events because he was selected for the pole vault, long jump (having been 3rd in the 1939 Northern Championships) and discus in a Northumberland & Durham team to meet Durham University, and he won both the horizontal jumps at 21-8 (6.60) and 45-2½ (13.78). This match took place on 15 June 1940, only 11 days after the completion of the miraculous evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, and later in the year Hawkey’s home village of Dawdon was bombed by the Luftwaffe and 12 people were killed.
Hawkey’s club, Darlington Harriers, had been formed in 1891 for runners, as the title implies, and already by 1904 had provided one of the members of the England team, named A. Campbell, in the second annual International Cross Country Championships. Darlington’s most renowned athlete of this era was the remarkably versatile George Butterfield, born in Stockton-on-Tees, who also ran for England in the cross-county International of 1906 and won the Northern 440 yards and one mile titles later the same year ! He was AAA mile champion for three successive years, 1904-to-1906, and ran in the 800 and 1500 metres at the 1908 London Olympic Games. Sadly, he was one of the countless victims of World War I, killed in action with the Royal Field Artillery in 1917.

Darlington’s harrier tradition was ably maintained in the 1930s by Hawkey’s most noted clubmate, Bill Wylie, who won the Scottish national cross-country title in 1935 and finished 2nd in the International that year. He had then been AAA steeplechase champion in 1937 and represented Great Britain against France and Finland. On one occasion Wylie won the Northumberland & Durham 880 yards, one mile and two miles titles in the same afternoon. Wylie had plenty of support as six others from the Darlington club had won the 1933 Northern cross-country team title in his absence, as he was nursing a septic toe.

It was not just the North-East which had been deficient so far as the triple jump was concerned in the 1930s. Members of the Achilles Club collaborated on a 308-page training manual published in 1938, edited by Bevil Rudd, with contributors including Harold Abrahams, Godfrey Brown, Jack Lovelock, Douglas Lowe and Robert Tisdall – all six of them Olympic champions – and there were chapters on every field event except the triple jump. .

By 1940 the World record had advanced to exactly 16.00 metres, while in Great Britain only three men had ever cleared 47ft (14.32m) or better – Edward Boyce and Bertie Shillington, both from Northern Ireland, and Jack Higginson Jnr. No more than four other Englishmen had even exceeded 45ft (13.71m) – Robert Revans (primarily a long jumper), Arthur Gray (a high jumper), William Battrick and Robert Hawkey.

Hawkey re-emerged in 1947 and had by then left the police to become a student at the City of Coventry Teachers’ Training College. An “Emergency Training Scheme” for teacehsr had been introduced by the Government in 1947 because of the shortage of numbers in the profession, and Hawkey’s mature fellow-students included some notable athletes, and even a national champion as Sam Dodd, of Wirral AC, had won the English cross-country championship in 1934. Hawkey clearly was responsible for fitness as the college magazine reported light-heartedly in 1947 that he and a colleague “have a devil’s brew of athletic training and pentathlon tests on the boil”. Hawkey “is easily identify – just look for a body hurtling through the air as if jet-propelled”

In 1947 Hawkey won the first of three successive Northern triple-jump titles at Chesterfield with 45-0½ (13.73), which was a couple of inches less than he had managed seven years before but was still adequate enough to rank 4th in Britain for the year. In fact, the only Englishman more adept at the event was a future AAA national coach, Denis Watts, as the next two ranking positions were taken by an Australian, Anthony Lethbridge, of Liverpool Harriers, serving as an officer in the British Army, and a Nigerian, Prince Adegboyega Adedoyin, who was a student in Belfast.

To open the Olympic season Watts won the Inter-Counties’ title at the White City rather easily from Hawkey on 17 May, 47-2 (14.37) to 45-10½ (13.78), both personal bests. However, by the time of the AAA Championships on 2-3 July Watts was either injured or out of form, and a somewhat lacklustre event was won by George Avery, of Australia, who would nevertheless miss out by only four centimetres on becoming Olympic champion at Wembley a month later.

Oddly, Hawkey was selected for the Games, even though he had placed 4th in the AAA event, an inch behind Sid Cross, of Birchfield Harriers. The two others nominated were Prince Adedoyin and a Scottish university student, Allan Lindsay, who had been 2nd in the AAA Championships. Two days after the team had been announced, Cross broke the English native record which had stood to Jack Higginson Jnr since 1938, but the selectors were saved embarrassment because Adedoyin generously gave up his place, having also been chosen for the high jump and long jump.

This record of Cross’s came about in curious circumstances in a match between Wales and the AAA as part of the Monmouthshire Police Sports at Abertillery on 10 July. Cross cleared 47-6½ (14.49), Hawkey a personal best 47-3½ (14.41) and a local schoolboy, Gwyn Harris, 46-3¾ (14.11), for another personal best and beating the Welsh senior record which had also stood for 10 years. Cross thus improved on his previous season’s best by 73 centimetres, Hawkey by 47 centimetres and young Harris by 51 centimetres. Clearly there was something in the Abertillery air, or maybe it happened to have a helpful runway – rare in those days. The Welsh Championships were held there the next year and Gordon Wells set another Welsh record in the triple jump. Abertillery was a major athletics venue then, with a grass track set inside a cycle-racing circuit.

The qualifying distance for the Olympic final on 3 August was 14.50, which would obviously stretch Cross, Hawkey and Lindsay, whose previous best was 46-11½ (14.31), to their very limit and beyond, and none of them could rise to the occasion – Cross 14.30, Lindsay 13.70, Hawkey’s mark not even known.

In 1949 Hawkey was 2nd in the Inter-Counties’ at the White City to Sid Cross and then won his third Northern title at Harrogate. This brought his competitive career to an end, and at the end of 1950 he ranked 6th on the British all-time list, but even the otherwise excellent Darlington Harriers & AC website history gives him only a passing mention and spells his surname wrong. It would seem, then, that nobody locally knows anything about him, though he had been the first athlete from the Darlington club to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games since George Butterfield at 800 and 1500 metres, also in London 40 years before.

Interestingly, the Darlington club produced another triple-jump international in 1958 when Fred Wyers competed for Great Britain against a British Empire & Commonwealth team. Wyers was born in Oldham, in Lancashire, and then studied at Sheffield University and was an army national serviceman and a member of Bolton United Harriers before joining Darlington. He emigrated to Canada in 1960 and won the national triple-jump title there three years later. So a connection with Robert Hawkey seems improbable.

The name “Hawkey” is of Anglo-Saxon origin and means “keen sighted” – in other words, “hawk-eye” – and though unusual it is by no means unique. There was even another very capable athlete who was a contemporary of Robert Hawkey’s, and he was John Hawkey, who ran for Oxford University in four successive Inter-Varsity cross-country races against Cambridge from 1935 to 1938, successively finishing 9th, 5th, 2nd and 3rd, and might even have a claim to some sort of record for longevity, as he was still at Oxford in 1941 and won the mile in the Inter-Varsity track meeting that year. He had attended Blundell’s public school in Tiverton, in Devon, and there is no reason to suppose that he is in any way related to Robert Hawkey. A near namesake was W.T. Hawkley, of Bromsgrove C & AC, who in late 1947 was named among the 15 “possibles” for the following year’s Olympic 1500 metres.

Nothing more is recorded in any athletics literature about Robert Hawkey’s life after his retirment from competition in 1949, but intense research has very recently tracked down his son in New Zealand, and so it is now known that Robert and Edna Hawkey had returned to his home region after he graduated from college, and he had taught in West Hartlepool until 1953. He then joined the British Army Education Corps and taught in Libya for three years, returning to live in Richmond, North Yorkshire, with his wife and their son (born in 1945) and daughter (born in 1949). He was head teacher at a junior school at the Catterick army base until retiring in 1969.

Robert and Edna Hawkey then emigrated to New Zealand in 1969 where their son and daughter were already living, and continued their teaching careers in the country’s northernmost city, Whangarei, where he became a keen golfer. Robert Hawkey died of a heart attack on 26 January 1976, aged 60, survived by his wife, two children and five grandchildren. Edna Hawkey died in 2017..

In an issue of “Athletics Weekly” in May 1952, one of Britain’s most experienced coaches, George Pallett, contributed an article headlined, somewhat plaintively, “Why not try the triple jump ?” Pallett, who had been a capable triple-jumper himself, among numerous other events, in the 1930s, wrote, “Even in these days of scientific application to athletics there are many square pegs in round holes. A recent Southern champion in this event started off as a quarter-miler”. Triple jumping, Pallett reckoned, “is rising out of the class of Cinderella events”.

Robert Hawkey would surely not have thought of himself as being a sort of Prince Charming of the triple jump, and certainly no magic wands were waved in 1952. There were no British representatives in the triple jump at the Olympics that year, but those keen-eyed readers of “Athletics Weekly” (hawk-eyed, to be more apt) who studied the small print on the results pages might have noticed that a promising 21-year-old named K.S.D. Wilmshurst was 4th at the AAA Championships, one place ahead of Sid Cross. Within two years Ken Wilmshurst would be Britain’s first “50-footer”.

Who could possibly have imagined back in the 1940s, when Robert Hawkey was a lone pioneer of triple-jumping in the North-East, that half-a-century or so later this same region would produce an exponent of the event who would set a World record which would remain unbeaten for so long ?

Acknowledgments: Thanks for great help is due to Colin Kirkham, the former Coventry Godiva Harriers marathon-runner and Durham University graduate, for discovering the facts of Robert Hawkey’s later life. For an expert over-view see “Triple Jump: A Statistical Survey of British Jumping”, No.4 in the NUTS Historical Series Booklets, by Ian Tempest, published in 2002.

Bob Phillips