The English National cross-country title was won on 16 occasions by members of Northern clubs from its inception in 1883 to the eve of World War II. The golden era was from 1927 to 1937 with eight victories out of 11. Actually, there were only two years – 1928 and 1930 – when the winner was not of Northern birth, but you will find no reference to that in any of the official histories or contemporary newspaper accounts.
The reason is simple. Frank Close, born in York on 23 April 1913, moved south when he was young, did not take up running until he was 18, and throughout his active career represented Reading AC and then Surrey AC. During the early 1920s the “Reading Observer” newspaper made a couple of references to a local member of the National Farmers Union named F. Close; who could conceivably have been Frank Close’s father. There was also a prominent firm of auctioneers and valuers, Frank Close & Partners, in York throughout the 20th Century. These namesakes could, of course, have been mere matters of coincidence, and there’s no apparent link with one of Yorkshire’s most famous sportsmen, Brian Close, whose first-class cricket career lasted from 1948 to 1977 and who, at 18, was the youngest to play for England.
Predicted passionately in the national press as “an English Nurmi in the making?”, Frank Close is not mentioned in the comprehensive centenary history of the Northern Cross Country Association, though he was the 1935 National champion, but this is no reflection on the author, Phil Thomas, whose remit was, understandably, to record only the achievements of Northern clubs.
Had the net been cast wider, another purple patch of Northern cross-country from a different era would have been brought to light as one of the greatest of all British distance-runners would also have of necessity been included. Gordon Pirie was born in Leeds, and one of his finest wins was in the National in 1955 by 26 seconds. His immediate predecessors as champions had included Dr Frank Aaron (Leeds St Mark’s Harriers) in 1949-50-51 and Walter Hesketh (Manchester A & CC) in 1952. Pirie also moved south at an early age.
At the age of three in 1934 Pirie went with his family from their home in Bramley to Surrey, but his father, Alick, had been highly active in Yorkshire athletics for 12 years as a competitor, representing Scotland in the International Cross Country Championships, and as an organiser. Gordon was the youngest of four children and competed for South London Harriers throughout his glittering competitive career, joined at that club for a few years in the 1950s by another famed Yorkshire expatriate, Derek Ibbotson.
Exactly when Frank Close made the same move south isn’t known, but we can thank one of the most respected of Fleet Street sports-writers of that era, Clifford Webb, of the “Daily Herald”, for informing us in graphic detail of how Close developed as an athlete. Webb was primarily a football reporter and was an exception among journalists because of the personal detail concerning those he wrote about which he took the trouble to obtain and publish. Sports reporting then was of a high standard, with matches or races often described ball-by-ball or stride-by-stride, but very little attempt was made to interview the participants.
Close was a shift-worker at a paper-mill in the village of Colthrop, near Newbury, in Berkshire, and until 1931 played football for Newbury Town, before taking up running seriously, coached by a local publican and ex-professional footballer, Bert Hunt, . Obviously a “natural”, Close won the South of the Thames junior cross-country title on 12 November the next year at Epsom Downs. The designation “junior” in this instance referred to experience rather than age, and this annual event had been contested at senior level since 1888, and together with the adjoining North of the Thames race was considered second only in regional importance to the Southern Championships.
Close soon won the senior South of the Thames race, in 1933 and 1935, and on the latter occasion, again at Epsom Downs, beating by 200 yards Dennis Pell, who would become Britain’s No.2 miler to the World record-holder, Sydney Wooderson, before losing his life while serving with the RAF in World War II.
Close’s cross-country achievements in 1935 were such that in March the eloquent Clifford Webb proclaimed under that headline, “An English Nurmi in the making?” in his “Daily Herald” column, “What manner of man is this young fellow from Reading who is turning this into the ‘Close season’ for cross-country running? It is many years since so brilliant a youngster set tongues wagging in the world of athletics”. Close had won the Southern and National titles in his first appearances in the events, and he went on to place 4th in the International Championships at the Hippodrome d’Auteuil, in Paris.
England’s scoring six in the first nine places
One of the strongest England selections ever fielded in the International won the team event with devastating ease – 34 points to 80 for Scotland, 102 for France, 187 for Wales, 201 for Belgium, 207 for Spain and 254 for Northern Ireland. The England scorers were Jack Holden (Tipton Harriers) 1st, Bill Eaton (Salford Harriers) 2nd, Close 4th, Frank Marsland (Manchester Harriers) 6th, Roland Walker (Wakefield Trinity Harriers) 7th and Alex Burns (Elswick Harriers) 9th. Three other Northerners – all of them among the very best British distance-runners of the 1930s – were the non-scorers: Tom Evenson (Manchester AC), Jack Potts (Saltwell Harriers) and George Bailey (Salford Harriers) !
“As for being pampered, or anything of that sort, Close is just the same as hundreds of other enthusiastic athletes all over the country”, wrote Clifford Webb after the National win. “If the catching of an early train to a meeting meant a morning cycle-ride of five or six miles, he would just get the machine on to the road and get going. Sometimes I think our athletes do not make enough noise about their feats. Maybe they like it better that way, and they are in the game because they like it. This cross-country championship must have been much better fun than the dull business which occupied my attention on the same day, and which masqueraded under the name of a First Division football game”.
Close’s impressive National win ahead of a Scotsman, James Flockhart, and George Bailey was widely reported, including by the “Yorkshire Post”, which throughout Close’s competitive career remained unaware – as did the Sheffield newspapers – that he was Yorkshire-born. Their correspondent reported admiringly, “Bailey tried all the wiles of an old campaigner in the attempt to drop Close, but it was a vain endeavour. The young Southern champion not only held his ground, but the race was his when he wanted it”.
Later the same month Clifford Webb again focused attention on Close and informed his readership, “All his training is done after he has finished work at the Colthrop Mill, Newbury, but it is good to hear that his employers have sportingly offered to let him have any time off within reason”. Yet that win in the 1935 National and his contribution to England’s fifth successive International team title were to be the only appearances he ever made in either of those races ! Part of the reason for this was of his own making.
A change of club and a change of job
In February of 1936 he won the South of the Thames title again at Dartford (10½ miles in 52:58, which seems rater unlikely) and the following Saturday his county championship (actually Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire combined, held at West Wycombe), but the next month he resigned from Reading AC and joined Surrey AC. The latter club had been recruiting leading athletes since the 1920s, and an enticement that was offered at a time of high unemployment was a job in the shirt-making factory in the East End of London owned by the club’s president, Ted Vowles.
Vowles’s methods to boost his club’s strength had caused the irate Amateur Athletic Association to ban him indefinitely from all contact with the sport from 1922, but he had been reinstated two years later and, amongst other administrative activities, was now one of the leading starters in the country. He was the man responsible for introducing the distinctive red blazer – surely made in his own factory ? – for officiating starters in the mid-1930s.
It seemed most odd timing for Close to make such a decision, and it certainly alienated the Reading club officials who promptly rescinded Close’s life membership. Protocol was imposed in his case by the Amateur Athletic Association, and he served the required three months before becoming eligible for his new club, thus missing the remaining Southern, National and therefore the International cross-country races that winter, Maybe he already had another objective in mind – the Berlin Olympics.
By now he was building a reputation on the track. The previous summer he had won the three miles at the prestigious annual Oxford University-v-AAA match in 14:39.2 and had also run the fastest two miles in Britain during the year of 9:29.8. His dubious reward had been to be selected for the GB-v-Finland match at Hampden Park, Glasgow, in June, but he and his Scottish team-mate, John Laidlaw, were lambs to the slaughter against the Finns – the Kenyans of the 1930s – and were a well beaten 3rd and 4th.
The “Daily Herald” later remarked darkly, “Fine runner though he is, it was obvious that he needed to improve his track-craft”. The correspondent for “The Times” informed readers that the three miles and the steeplechase (Finland again easily 1-2) “soon developed into examples of those heart-breaking pursuits of a couple of Finns running as a pair like clockwork”. In other words, no amount of “track-craft” would have sufficed for the Britons against Salminen and Askola, who would be 1st and 2nd in the next year’s Olympic 10,000 metres.
Seemingly undeterred, Close must have put to good use for training purposes his enforced absence from the major championship cross-country races early in 1936. On 4 July, in an invitation three miles at the Enfield AC Sports, in Middlesex, he was beaten by 10 yards by the British Empire champion, Walter Beavers, of York Harriers, inches ahead of Jack Holden, of Tipton Harriers. The winning time was 14:27.8, and the prizes must have been too good to resist for Beavers and Holden to travel that far to race only a week before the AAA Championships at the White City.
A 2nd place at the AAA Championships, and selection for Berlin
Close certainly timed his form perfectly for the Olympic selectors because in the AAA race he was much improved, finishing 2nd to Peter Ward, of the Achilles Club, and so earning a place at 5000 metres for the Olympic Games in Berlin. This AAA race was of great historic significance because Ward’s winning performance of 14:15.8 had at long last broken the British record by Alfred Shrubb set 32 years previously, and Close was timed in 14:20.2. His Enfield conquerors mis-judged matters: Beavers was 5th at three miles and Holden 8th at six miles, both missing Olympic selection.
In Berlin Close ran brilliantly in the heats, 2nd to Gunnar Höckert, of Finland, having moved through from 8th place at the bell, while among the numerous notables who failed to qualify in this and other heats were the European champion at 5000 metres from France, the World record-holder at 3000 metres from Denmark and a future British Empire Games winner at three miles and six miles from New Zealand. In the final Close may even have run faster, but he was an un-timed 12th of the 14 starters, one place behind Ward, as Höckert won the gold. This race, incidentally, was to be realistically re-created for the 2014 Angelina Jolie-directed film, “Unbroken”, about the life of the young American, Louis Zamperini, who finished 8th.
Maybe Close was already having health problems because in October the press reported that he had been admitted to Charing Cross Hospital with a serious illness and would be out of activity for six months. Whether this was the considered medical opinion or mere media speculation, Close defied predictions and was competing at cross-country again by the following February and in May ran his fastest ever mile of 4:18.0. He seems then to have largely concentrated on this shorter distance through to the early years of the Second World War and was 6th in the AAA Championships of 1938, though he was also 3rd in the 1938 Southern cross-country and won the South of the Thames again in 1940 – with Sydney Wooderson 17th.
A venture on the boards but shot down in the process
Earlier in 1936 Close had run in the two miles at the AAA Indoor Championships at Wembley but had the misfortune to be hit by a shot propelled forcefully by the British women’s record-holder, Bevis Reid. The “Daily Herald” – still keeping a careful watch on Close’s welfare – reported blandly that “it was decided not to count the throw of Miss Reid’s”.
Close made another change of job in 1939, joining the staff of Banstead Hospital, in Surrey, as a mental health nurse. This move may have been at the suggestion of Stan Belton, who worked at the hospital and was a former Southern cross-country champion and regular rival of Close’s, and certainly was not as unusual a career move as might have been thought. Another prominent athlete to take up the same occupation was Tom Richards, who left his native South Wales to work as a mental nurse at another Surrey hospital, as did several others among his local running community, and would eventually win the silver medal in the 1948 Olympic marathon.
Frustratingly for Close, he found his best miling form in 1941 when competition was naturally scarce and his duties at Banstead Hospital, now dealing with military patients, were ever more demanding. In a match between the Armed Forces and the Civil Defence on a five-laps-to-the-mile grass track at Epsom in July, he was 2nd to Austin Littler, of the Pilkington’s club at St Helens, who was one of those rare beings who competed for Great Britain both before and after World War II. With the 1938 Empire Games champion, Jim Alford, 3rd in this race and Sydney Wooderson 4th, it was thus tantamount to an unofficial AAA Championship.
Close had run his fastest time of 4:17.6 the previous month, and though this might seem of little consequence almost 80 years later, it is worth noting that previously only three others with any sort of North of England connections had done better – and then only by narrow margins.
Fred Bacon, of Ashton-under-Lyne Harriers, had won the 1896 AAA mile in a World best 4:17.0 and had been Northern cross-country champion in 1893, though he was born in Essex and was also a member of Frank Close’s club, Reading AC. Bacon was resident in the North for some years, firstly because he was in the Army and then after completing his service and competing as a professional he was trainer to Manchester United FC. Vernon Morgan, born in Bucklow, Cheshire, in 1904, went to Oxford University and did all his running with the Achilles Club or London AC, with a best mile of 4:16.4 in 1929. John Moore, originally a member of the Sheffield YMCA club, ran 4:17.4 in 1932, but by then he had also moved south after winning two Northern Counties’ one-mile titles.
Frank Close died at Banstead on 12 February 1970 at the age of 56. A former opponent of his, Geoff Pearson, wrote in “Athletics Weekly”, “I suppose Frank Close is hardly a name to many present-day athletes, but to those of us who ran with or against him in pre-war days he will always be remembered as an outstanding cross-country runner”.
In all probability, Close had never competed in the county of his birth.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Stella Bacon, life member of Reading AC.