Harry Barker was one of the least successful British Olympic athletes in history. After all, you really cannot do much worse than fail to finish in a heat in which there were only two starters. Yet it would be a pity if it is that one debacle for which he is solely remembered, and. it is only in the past year that anything much has been discovered about him after more than a century Since his full identity has become known, his competitive career can be set in a rather kindlier light.
It is not at all surprising that so little had been known about Barker. Even the centenary history of his club, Salford Harriers, published in 1984, mentioned him only once, and that was simply as the entry “H. Barker” in a list of their 13 Olympians. Yet Barker had been the club vice-captain and then captain at the start of the 20th Century when the membership rose to its highest ever total of 520 in 1908, and seven of them represented Great Britain at the London Olympics that year.
Salford Harriers was then one of the most successful clubs in the country, and between 1885 and 1913 produced an Olympic champion (Alfred Tysoe at 800 metres in 1900), 19 AAA Championships track wins, and at cross-country three members of winning England teams at the International Championships, four individual wins and six team wins in the National Championships, and eight individual wins and 12 team wins in the Northern Championships. Even locally, it would not have been difficult to overlook Barker’s contribution to his club among all such success in that era.
To be fair to him, the qualifying conditions in the heats of the steeplechase at the 1908 Olympics, contested over a distance of 3200 metres, were absurd. Even though there were only 24 competitors, six heats were held, with merely the winner of each to go through to the final the following day. Barker retired midway through the third heat, presumably having decided that his one opponent, William Galbraith, of Canada, was too far ahead to be caught. Now recent investigations by members of the National Union of Track Statisticians, prompted by an inquiry from the International Society of Olympic Historians, have revealed previously undiscovered and more noteworthy details of Barker’s accomplishments
Each country at those 1908 Games was allowed up to 12 competitors per event, and this was naturally to the advantage of the hosts; The 11 British steeplechasers also included the remarkably versatile Joe English, of Manchester AC, who won the Northern steeplechase title eight times between 1906 and 1914 at the then popular distance of ¾-of-a-mile and the AAA title in 1907 and 1910 and was also AAA champion at 440 yards hurdles in 1914. Barker had been selected for the Games on the strength of finishing 3rd in the 1907 AAA Championships, and it may be that he was brought into the team simply to make up the numbers as there were so few worthy candidates.. ;
Nevertheless, Barker, English and their fellow Olympic steeplechasers deserve credit for their enterprise because their event was still very many years away of being regularised. Even by 1908 the distance for the Olympic event had not been standardised, and nor would the AAA Championships race be fixed at two miles until 1913. The Northern Counties’ AA opted for ¾-of-a-mile, which was popular at local sports meetings. The number of barriers to be cleared was not universally agreed until 1931 and the international ruling body would not recognise World records until 1954 !
There was a further reason why the steeplechase had been stigmatised from the very earliest years of organised athletics, and this was vividly described by the most authoritative athletics historian of the 19th Century, Montague Shearman, who wrote in 1887:
“The British public, in the true style of those who rejoice in gladiatorial shows, like to see somebody or something come to grief or rendered ridiculous. The result was that for many years the steeplechase was considered as forming the comic part of the entertainment at a meeting, and the managers of meetings made huge water-jumps which nobody could clear so that the on-lookers might see runner after runner tumble into a filthy pool and emerge muddy, bleeding, soaked and groaning”.
Prior to his poor showing at the Olympics, Harry Barker had been accorded a somewhat barbed tribute by the “Sporting Chronicle” newspaper in January of 1908: “For a time his forte was the one mile, where he scored very often. Next the half-mile became his favourite, and from that he joined the versatile brigade who combine gymnastic trickery with pedestrianism and call themselves obstacle racers”.
Nevertheless, a number of Northern athletes had braved the derision of spectators over the years. The very first AAA title in 1880 had been won by John Concannon, of Widnes FC, and he had been succeeded by Tom Crellin (Liverpool AC) in 1887, Edward Parry (Salford Harriers) in 1890 and 1891, Alfred George (Liverpool Harriers) in 1894 and then Joe English in 1907. Even English’s date and place of birth remain unknown, as does that of a club-mate of Barker’s named W. Grantham, who also ran in the Olympic steeplechase heats. The final at these Games was won by Arthur Russell for Great Britain and in 2nd place was Sheffield-born Arthur Robertson, of Birchfield Harriers.
Barker’s proper first name was Henry and he was born on 8 June 1871 in Wosperdale, which is near Barnsley, in South Yorkshire, and is now known as Worsbrough. He died in Oldham, in Lancashire, in March 1944 and seems to have spent most if not all of his adult life in that town. His younger brother, A.E. Barker, born in July 1877, who competed for Leeds AC, had a much more impressive and wide-ranging record at the AAA Championships, with three 2nd places and two 3rd places at distances between 880 yards and 10 miles in the years 1901-02-03.
Harry Barker apparently did not take up running until he was 27, having previously been a successful swimmer and wrestler, and his first cross-country races were on behalf of the Hugh Oldham Lads’ Club, founded in 1887 in memory of a 15th Century cleric of that name who became Bishop of Exeter. He had been born in Ancoats, Manchester, and was responsible in 1515 for the endowment which established Manchester Free School, now Manchester Grammar School. A statue of the Bishop stands in the school grounds in permanent tribute.
Barker then switched to Salford Harriers, and already in 1901 the “Manchester Evening News” was reporting admiringly that “he has proved he is a regular glutton for running over the country”. He placed 8th in that year’s National Cross-Country Championships. This event took place at Oadby Park Racecourse, Leicester, and was the sort of dauntingly tough challenge which was typical of that era. Starting on the steeplechase circuit, the 10-mile route included three laps of the adjoining countryside, each of which involved crossing three fields, with railings and gates to climb, plus a 12ft-wide brook and a stretch of uphill ploughed land. Of the 113 starters, 88 finished. The winner by an overwhelming margin in 1hr 3min 45sec was Alfred Shrubb, at the start of a career which would establish him as the finest distance-runner in the World. In 2nd place for Salford Harriers was a cousin of the Barker brothers from Oldham named W. Ashton, but he never matched that level of performance again.
Harty Barker was thus the second scorer for his club on that occasion, and he continued to perform valiantly for the next six years, with a best placing of 13th in 1904. Maybe his duties as vice-captain and then captain required him to temper his running with rallying of the lower scorers. Despite his efforts, the club gradually slipped back from its golden era of 1889-to-1898 to 10th in the team standings in 1909. Even by 1903, when he was aged 32, Barker had become known affectionately as “Old Harry”, and it was explained in the Manchester-based “Athletic News” that “he is called that by his younger team-mates for he has quite a patriarchal appearance”. The same publication also reported that at one stage of the Northern Cross-Country Championships at Haydock Park that year Barker was “moving so well that some people had hopes in his regard”. He eventually finished 11th as the race was easily won by a volatile character named James Hosker, of Farnworth Harriers, in Widnes. .
Hosker, having previously won the Northern in 1898 and 1899, would go on to a record fourth success in 1905 – a total that would be equaled, among others, by Ron Hill in 1968 and Trevor Wright in 1972 – but Hosker did not make things easy for himself. In the centenary history of the Northern Cross Country Association, published in 1982, the author, Phil Thomas, relates the following tale: “If Hosker failed to establish a more formidable record, it was perhaps because of his partiality to drink which, according to one contemporary at Farnworth, could see him unfit to rise at 10 a.m. on the morning of a race but winning it six hours later”.
After Hosker’s fourth Northern win, the correspondent for “Athletic News” wrote excitedly (but with a sting in the tail), “What a man he is ! Nobody knows Hosker better than he does himself. His friends realise his capabilities pretty well, and so do I,. but he flings to the winds all theories of training, and one can hardly think that home-brewed beer and chipped potatoes are good things to win a championship on”. Not surprisingly, Hosker was unable to sustain his form throughout a full winter and on his two appearances for England in the International Championships of 1903 and 1905 he was respectively 17th and 24th.
Salford Harriers suffered a decline after World War I, and this is very well described by Duncan Scott and Chris Dent in their centenary history of the club. Yet something of the legacy of Harry Barker’s “gymnastic trickery” over the barriers may have survived/ Two of Britain’s most successful distance-runners of the 1930s were George Bailey and Tom Evenson, both members of Salford Harriers. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics Evenson was 2nd and Bailey 5th,in the 3000 metres steeplechase, and the latter might also have got a medal himself but for the officials mis-counting the laps and sending the competitors off on a further circuit. Bailey, who was a quarry worker in Buxton, in Derbyshire, is famously reputed to have shouted at the judges as he reached what he knew to be the proper end of the race in 2nd position, “We’ve bloody finished!”
In the heats Bailey had set a British record of 9:16.0 – though only estimated because he was not officially timed – for the correct 3000 metres distance which lasted for 19 years, and between 1930 and 1936 he won the AAA title twice and Evenson did so three times. Bailey also won the Empire Games steeplechase in Canada in 1930 and Evenson was 2nd in London in 1934. The best time for the two miles steeplechase of 10:13.8 by Evenson, who worked as a carpenter in Manchester, remained a British record for 18 years. Both of them were also among the very finest of cross-country runners as Evenson was International champion in 1930 and 1932 and National champion in 1933 and for four successive years, 1930-33, both he and Bailey were members of the overwhelmingly successful England team at the International Championship, which included all of the first six places in Brussels in 1932 – Evenson 1st, Walter Beavers (York Harriers) 3rd, Jack Potts (Saltwell Harriers) 4th, Baileyu 5th and Alec Burns (Elswick Harriers) 6th : The lone non-Northerner, Jack Holden, of the Midlands club, Tipton Harriers, would himself be International champion in 1933-34-35 and 1939, and Empire and European marathon champion in 1950.
No connection has been made between Bailey, Evenson and Harry Barker, but Barker continued to live in Oldham and we can conjecture that they may be met and exchanged experiences. Bailey lived to the age of 94, and a few months before his death in the year 2000 he was interviewed by the athletics historian, David Thurlow, for the quarterly journal, “Track Stats”. Bailey pointed out that he lost wages whenever he took time off to run for England or Great Britain. “No work, no pay, and so we just had to make do to be able to run”, Bailey recalled philosophically.
David Thurlow reckoned that Bailey might have run as fast as 9min 10sec, had the Olympic distance been correct. That sort of time would still have ranked him 32nd in Great Britain in 2018, and the fastest by a Salford Harrier last year was 9:47.57. .

Bob Phillips