Introduction: Various theories have been put forward for the origins of the pole vault, and the York-based athletics historian, Ian Tempest, sums them up neatly in his 2008 handbook about the event published by the National Union of Track Statisticians. He notes that the first recorded competition in the United Kingdom was at Penrith, in Cumberland (now Cumbria), in 1839, which was won “at the astonishing height of nearly nine feet”. Whatever the claims of other localities, the North West of England established a pre-eminent right to being regarded as the focal centre of the activity in the latter 19th Century, but a mystery remains.
Montague Shearman, in his history of athletics first published in 1887, remarks cheerily that “we believe that the Ulverston lads are often to be seen after their day’s work practising pole-jumping on the cinder heaps which are so conspicuous an ornament of that flourishing town”. Ulverston was then in the north of Lancashire, and so it was a neighbouring county of Cumberland, and one wonders what the particular attraction was for energetic local workmen to spend their leisure-time landing from a considerable height on craggy piles of industrial waste. Furthermore, Ulverston was a market town (current population less than 12,000), and surely there were abundantly more ”cinder heaps” in the major citadels of the Industrial Revolution in the North of England such as Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and elsewhere to encourage such painful exercise?
Perhaps the answer is that Penrith and Ulverston were among the long-established venues for the extensive round of Lake District Sports throughout the furthest North-West, of which the most notable was at Grasmere, which had been established at least since 1852. Ulverston itself was the setting for successive “pole jumping” performances noted by Ian Tempest of 10ft 2in (3.10m) in 1859, 10-11(3.32) in 1865, 11-1 (3.38) in 1876, and 11-2¾ (3.42) in 1879. These last two clearances were by Edwin Woodburn and then Tom Ray, who developed the hand-over-hand pole-climbing technique into a fine art. Woodburn was born in Ulverston but did not fit the bill as a horny-handed son of the soil – his family owned a local mill which he later inherited. Ray, whose birthplace was in the heart of the Lake District, moved to Ulverston at a young age and set 10 British records, including the first in the event to be recognised by the AAA at 11-5¼ (3.48) in 1886. His successor was Ulverston-born Ernest (“Lat”) Stones, with an albeit unratified 11-8½ (3.57) at Grasmere in 1889.
You won’t find any reference to this important era of athletics history in the wikipedia internet description of Ulverston, which concentrates its attentions instead on another native of the town who admittedly became world-famous for his antics. There’s no record of Stan Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson) trying his hand at pole-jumping, but then he was born in 1890 and was therefore too young to have been inspired at first-hand by Woodburn, Ray or Stones. At 20 Stan joined Fred Karno’s renowned “army” of slapstick comedians alongside Charlie Chaplin, and their highly successful cinema careers were launched.
As Stan Laurel was treading the boards, Robert Dickinson and his much younger brother, Miles (born in 1869 and 1886 respectively), were maintaining Grasmere’s tradition in pole-jumping, and the latter cleared 11-7 (3.53) there in 1911. This is regarded as a non-competitive “exhibition” performance, but I wonder whether that is a proper description because well into the 20th Century in the UK any clearance above the one at which a high jump or pole vault had been won tended to be regarded as being outside the contest. Both the Dickinson brothers were by then classified as professionals because of their earnings at Lakeland Sports, but whatever status is applied to the younger Dickinson’s effort no British amateur would go higher until 1928.
High jumper, pole vaulter, long jumper and hurdler, p.e. lecturer, author, coach, field events judge – the lasting legacy of John Dodd
All of this discussion so far is by way of setting into perspective the career of another pole vaulter of a later generation who was also born in the North West and who helped to maintain that particular regional legacy until after World War II. He was John Hickson Dodd, born in Carlisle on 10 March 1914 (Hickson was his mother’s maiden name), who was adept at both the high jump and pole vault. The long-term significance of Dodd’s contribution to the sport is that he eventually became an authority of national importance on athletics training, as principal lecturer at Carnegie College of Physical Education, in Leeds, and is the author of three booklets about athletics in general, running and jumping in the widely-read “Know the Game” educational series published from 1955 to 1970.
John Dodd had won the Northern Counties’ pole-vault title in 1936-37-38 and again in 1946-47-48, and before him Joe Birkett, born in Keswick, had won every year from 1921 to 1924, and Frank Phillipson, born in Colton, Ulverston, had done so on nine occasions from 1926 to 1935. Thus the event in that series of Championship meetings was almost entirely a North West monopoly from its inception in 1880 until 1948. The only apparent intruders are J.W. Ellmore, of Sheffield United Harriers, in 1929 and Robert Davies, of Manchester University, in 1939. Neither Phillipson nor Birkett seem to have competed in 1929 when 2nd place was taken by B. Ellmore, of the Hull Health & Strength Harriers, who was presumably a brother or cousin of the winner.
Both Phillipson and Dodd had taken part in their youth in the Grasmere Sports, earning money for doing so, and had successfully applied to return to the amateur ranks, and Phillipson won his first Northern title aged only 16. Birkett had moved to the Liverpool area after army service in World War I and had always remained an amateur. Dodd’s true status in the eyes of the zealous AAA authorities, and the reason why he was denied international competition, still remains unexplained despite his reinstatement. By contrast, studying physical education with a view to making a career of it was no bar to Frank Phillipson or to England’s leading javelin thrower of the 1930s, Stanley Wilson, representing Great Britain. Wilson was at Carnegie College of PE, in Leeds, at the same time as Dodd.
In 1934, having left Carlisle Grammar School, where he had started as a high jumper in 1931, Dodd won the Grasmere pole vault at 11-3 (3.43) – respectable enough by British standards, especially as he was in his first year at the event – and was 2nd in both the high jump and long jump. He then went that year to the College of St Mark and St John, in Chelsea’s Fulham Road, to begin his studies to be a teacher (this college is now part of Plymouth Marjon University, in Devon) and graduated in 1936. He obtained a Diploma in Physical Education at Carnegie College and then taught at Hymer’s College, in Hull, from 1937 to 1939 and moved on to Waverley Grammar School, Birmingham, but within two months he enlisted in the Army, serving until 1946 and reaching the rank of Captain. He was appointed a lecturer in physical education at the City of Sheffield Training College in 1946-47 and then joined the staff of Carnegie College, which is now part of Leeds Beckett University. Throughout his academic and even military career he continued to compete as he served in Northern Ireland during the war and took part in the annual match against Eire, as Ireland was then named.
While studying in London Dodd had joined Belgrave Harriers, and the club soon realised what an asset they had. After he had placed 2nd in both the high jump and pole vault (to Frank Phillipson) at the Northern Counties’ Championships at Ilkeston in June of 1935 “The Belgravian” newsletter reported, “We may be sure that in a year or so he will be an AAA Champion and International. We trust that Dodd’s studies will be followed by a London appointment, and that we may have his services for many years to come”. As it happens, expectations of a future place in the Great Britain team were not fulfilled, but that was not Dodd’s fault and doesn’t detract from his achievements. By the end of the 1935 season he ranked equal 6th Briton in the high jump and 4th in the pole vault.
He made no statistical progress in 1936, though winning both the Northern high jump and pole vault, plus 3rd in the long jump, but that pause was hardly surprising as he was completing his physical education course. At the start of his teaching career in Hull in 1937 he joined Hull Harriers and he obviously had more time for training and competition as he won the AAA title at the White City Stadium, in London, on 17 July and vaulted 12-6 (3.81) at the County Police Sports at Wigan on 2 August to rank 2nd of all-time in Great Britain to the Olympic 6th-placer, Richard Webster. Taking the attractive first prize at such meetings as at Wigan was not easy as Dodd was regularly conceding as much as 20 inches on handicap to opponents. He also won the high jump at Wigan that day at a personal best 6-1 (1.86), ranking as 5th best Briton for the year. There had been a France-v-GB match in Paris on 24 July, but Dodd was not selected.
The defeated British pair in the pole vault in Paris were Alfred Kinally, of the Army, and Alexander Gibson, of Edinburgh University, who had been 2nd and 3rd to Dodd in the AAA Championships. Furthermore, Richard Webster and Kinally competed against Germany at the White City on 14 August and Kinally and John Clarke, of Northern Ireland, who was a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, went on the September tour to Finland and Norway. In all of those four international matches in 1937 GB lost the pole vault by maximum points. Was Dodd passed over because of his brief early teenage sorties to the Lakeland Sports for minor financial rewards – and if so, why ? Officialdom had been much more forgiving of Frank Phillipson, also reinstated, whose first success had been in the Under 16 pole vault at Grasmere in 1923, and who had competed five times for GB in 1934-35-36 and taken part in the 1934 Empire Games. To be fair, Dodd may simply have been unavailable for the Scandinavian visit, which involved at least 10 days away. “The Belgravian” newsletter reiterated its support for him, enthusing that “he hopes to be back with us shortly, following on his studies in the North, and we shall have a welcome for him”.
An overnight journey to the indoor championships
The only English representatives in the Empire Games high jump and pole vault in Sydney in February of 1938 were respectively John Newman, 5th, who worked for Lloyd’s Bank, and Richard Webster, 4th, and again it may simply have been a matter of who could afford the time off – in this case four months’ absence on account of the trans-global sea voyages. On 16 April Dodd was the only Yorkshire athlete to enter the AAA Indoor Championships at Wembley, and a writer for the “Yorkshire Post” named M.J. Olivier commented admiringly, “We could not have desired a better representative. In spite of travelling all the night before to take part, Dodd vaulted magnificently to take 2nd place”. Webster won that event/
Outdoors, the Northern Championships were held at the Wath Athletic Grounds, near Rotherham, on 25 June and Dodd cleared 6-3¾ (1.92) in the high jump, thus winning a second title in this event and in the process beating Benjamin Howard Baker’s meeting record which had stood since 1921. It would be the best high jump by a Briton throughout the 1930s. Dodd used the “Eastern Cut-Off” style, which was a modification of the traditional “Scissors”, and very few of his British contemporaries had progressed to the more efficient “Western Roll” – importantly raising the body’s centre of gravity – but then landing-areas were often a continuation of the untended turf from which the jumper had taken off. Almost invariably, not even sand, let alone air-cushions, were provided for the jumpers to land on, and the same applied, with the even greater potential hazards, to the pole vault. In both events, it was essential for the personal safety of competitors to land on their feet or on hands and feet.
The writer of the “Get Set” column on the sports page of the “Hull Daily Mail” a week later observed reprovingly of Dodd’s record leap, “I don’t think the full merit of that jump has been realised in local athletic circles. No local athlete who can seize the opportunity to see one of Dodd’s jumping and pole vaulting exhibitions should miss it”. Dodd also set a Championship record in the pole vault at 12-3½ (3.75), and it certainly wasn’t the opposition that spurred him on that day as 2nd places were taken at 5-11 (1.80) and 11-6 (3.50). Additionally, Dodd was 2nd in the 120 yards hurdles. His high-jump clearance would have easily got him 2nd place at the Empire Games in Sydney.
At the AAA Championships Dodd was 4th in the pole vault as Mario Romeo, of Italy, won at 13-0 from Webster’s English Native record (the best by an Englishman in England) of 12-9½ (3.90), with the Scot, Alexander Gibson, again 3rd. According to a “Lancashire Evening Post” report of Dodd’s favoured Wigan Police Sports on 1 August, “Dodd had to accomplish a new Northern record of 12ft 6in (3.81) to win” overcoming the handicap advantage enjoyed in 2nd and 3rd places by two brothers from the Blackpool & Fylde club with the curious surname of Rawstrone.
Dodd had either preferred this meeting to the British Games the same day at the White City, or maybe simply had not been invited south, and for matches against Norway in July and France in August the British selectors opted for Webster and Kinally and then Webster and Gibson. Such faith in the AAA Championships form is understandable, but the correspondent for “The Belgravian” was adamant the following year that Dodd “would already have gained International honours but for the fact that he is barred by the International rules”. Why, though, did those rules not apply to Dodd’s fellow Northerner, Frank Phillipson?
On 9 July – the second day of the GB-v-Norway match at the White City – Dodd was instead giving a display of pole vaulting, shot putting and javelin throwing at the garden fete organised by the Roman Catholic Marist College for Boys in Hull, where the alternative attractions were a football match between police and priests, a “Donkey Derby”, greasy-pole climbing (which Dodd apparently did not enter) and bicycle polo. He had high jumped 6-2 (1.88) at Winterton, in North Lincolnshire, two days before, which was a lot better than either of the Britons did against Norway. Dodd was married that year in Hull to a Miss Frances Graham.
Britain’s high-jump selections for the European Championships in Paris were Hubert Stubbs, of Polytechnic Harriers, whose Welsh record of 6-3 (1.90) would stand from 1938 to 1961, and Robert Kennedy, a Cambridge University graduate and medical student in London. Stubbs was equal 6th. but Kennedy did not take part, presumably injured or ill. Dodd’s Northern title winning jump would have strongly challenged for 3rd place as that medal went at 1.94.
Army service in World War II but still competition to be had
In 1939 he suffered a knee injury in a competition at the Seaforth Police Sports in Liverpool in June which required a hospital x-ray, and so he did not achieve anything of note that summer. Briefly continuing his teaching in Birmingham, he and his wife lived in the village of Abbey Manor, Evesham, in Worcestershire, where Mrs Dodd did voluntary work with children evacuated from the bomb-threatened cities. Then came John Dodd’s Army service with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, but accompanied by a reasonable amount of competition in the comparative safety of Northern Ireland, with the Nigerian-born future British Olympian, Prince Adegboyega Adedoyin, as a main opponent. Along with Company Sergeant Major Instructor Cyril Holmes at 100 and 220 yards (at which he had been British Empire champion in 1938) and Corporal Sydney Wooderson in the mile (for which he had set a World record pre-war), Lieutenant Dodd won a first post-war Army high-jump title at Aldershot on 21 July 1945.
For the next three years he continued to achieve very respectable results – 3rd in the AAA pole vault in 1946 and the leading Briton in an admittedly low-key year at 11-9 (3.58); Northern champion in the high jump and pole vault in continuous rain in 1946 (well, the venue was Fallowfield, Manchester!) and for the fifth and sixth times in the pole vault in 1947 and 1948; Inter-Counties’ pole vault winner in 1947; the expected additional Yorkshire titles throughout those years but also the javelin in 1947; and still 3rd– ranked Briton in the pole vault in his final full season of 1948 at the age of 35.
In addition to his authorship of those valued training manuals he served as a coach and field events judge for most of the rest of his life, based at the Doncaster LNER (London & North Eastern Railway) club. There he helped and even competed alongside Leslie Pinder, who would win the AAA decathlon title every year from 1951 to 1954. When the first comprehensive British all-time lists were published by Ross and Norris McWhirter in 1957, Dodd still ranked 10th in the high jump and equal 11th in the pole vault, and the only two others in the top 20 in both events were both Scotsmen – Norman Gregor (best performances in 1951 and 1954 respectively), who was also banned from international competition because of briefly competing as a professional when young and knowing no better, and Bill Piper (best performances in 1954 and 1955).
John Dodd died in his home town of Carlisle in 1988 at the age of 74. Seemingly bearing no grudge against the officials who had denied him any international opportunity and maybe even Empire Games and European Championships medals, he had served athletics in one form or another for more than 50 years.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Alan Mead for researching the Belgrave Harriers archives. An excellent club history is to be found at cityofhullac.co.uk.