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A history of Leeds AC

Written by John Lunn


Chapter 1: The roots of Leeds AC

Leeds City Athletic Club was formed by amalgamation at the end of September, 1967, from three constituent Clubs. The oldest constituent Club was LEEDS St. MARK'S HARRIERS - and old it was, being the second Harriers' Club founded in Yorkshire, in 1880. As the name suggests, it typified one of the places where urban running started in Victorian times - it was a church-based club, and as late as the 1960s was still operating from church halls. St. Mark's had always been very traditional in its outlook - suggestions that the Leeds & District Cross-Country League should run more than one race a year were vigorously opposed in the 1930s. It did, however, produce two of the City of Leeds' outstanding distance runners of the 20th Century - Frank Aaron (active 1937-52), the only man in the 20th Century to win three consecutive English Cross-Country Championships (1949-51), and Mike Baxter (active 1962-82), for ten years an England International and a finalist in the European and Commonwealth 5000-metre Championships. It also founded the Aaron Trophy races, in memory of Frank's younger brother Arthur, Leeds' only World War II V.C. By tradition it had a strong connection with Roundhay School, and many of its members' including those mentioned above, were Old Roundhegians. By the 1960s it was still a reasonably active Club; a younger generation of runners was coming along, but it was, with few exceptions, still very 'harrier' in its ways.

The second-oldest constituent was LEEDS ATHLETIC CLUB, the only one of the trio which had any pretensions to do more than cross-country. It had been founded as Harehills Harriers in the 1880s (this leads to some confusion, as will be seen.) In 1890 the new Headingley Grounds were opened, mainly for Yorkshire County Cricket Club; as well as the Leeds St. John's Rugby Club (now the Rhinos), Harehills Harriers were invited to make Headingley their home. Leeds did not have a 'proper' public athletic track until the cinder track at Templenewsam was opened in 1950; such athletics meetings as there were took place on the cricket ground, and understandably there weren't many field events! The most notable name of the later years of Leeds A.C. was probably one of the best track runners the city has ever produced - Adrian Metcalfe, Olympic silver medallist in the 4x400m Relay in 1964. His achievement, however, came in the same year in which the Club was expelled, at very short notice, from Headingley, an event from which it really never recovered.

The third club was HAREHILLS LIBERAL CLUB HARRIERS - illustrating another focus for runners in the early days, pubs and clubs. (So what's new???) This was very similar in activities and attitudes to Leeds St. Marks - a close-knit local club with traditional ideas - but it had been singularly more successful than the others at high level. Between 1945 and 1963 it had twice won team medals in the English Senior Cross-Country Championship - "The National" - and had also won team medals at Youths' level. It had had among its members a National Junior Cross-Country champion in Desmond Birch and a Junior international in Stewart Dobson, one of the outstanding track internationals of the immediate post-war period in the miler Len Eyre, and International marathon runner Eric Smith. It also produced one of the founders, and for many years the only Yorkshire winner, of the Three Peaks race - Jack Bloor, who won the second race in 1954 and was still competing right up to his death thirty years later. (Literally - he dropped dead after running a leg of the Leeds University Relay!)

The last two were part of what at the time was somewhat unusual for a small Northern Club - a strong team of marathon runners. Led by Eric, and backed up by Ken Pawson, Arthur Cockcroft and Allan Lawton, the latter being good enough himself to have finished second in the A.A.A. Championship in 1953 they gained a considerable reputation in long events. Harehills had also been more active than St. Mark's in track competition after the War, though not in great strength by modern standards. In the 1960s Harehills was probably the most lively of the three in competitive terms.

When the writer first knew them (he joined Leeds A.C. in 1957) the three clubs were very typical of their time and their place - small, very local and very limited. One of the reasons that Northern athletics was by and large in a much less developed state were the attitudes of clubs at the time. The Northern tradition was almost entirely 'harrier' because it had developed as a working-class sport at a time when the working classes didn't have a lot going for them. Wages were low, working hours long, the mass of jobs manual and social facilities limited when the original harrier clubs formed; and the three that formed Leeds City were at one time only three out of anything up to a dozen in the City. The only survivor of those days is Bramley and District Harriers, and even that metamorphosed in the 1970s into Pudsey & Bramley Athletic Club, though it maintains more of the 'harrier tradition' than most clubs. Training at such clubs involved running round the streets of the area, seldom included any organised form of speedwork ('interval training' was a post-war invention) and weekend competition took the form of 'inter-runs' and mob matches with other clubs, often involving a 'paper chase.'

Track competition never developed strongly in Yorkshire, for the good reason that before the War there were precious few tracks. The use of Headingley has been mentioned; clearly there wasn't much prospect of developing throwers within reach of the Test Match wicket! Apart from the County Championships most competition took place on grass (and even they did sometimes); the main form of competition was the handicap meeting, usually promoted by bodies outside athletics, such as miners’ welfare clubs or company sports clubs, than by athletic clubs; and they were either promoted to raise money or as a day’s entertainment for the local community. They were usually described as ‘sports meetings,’ often held on a cricket field and almost invariably on grass, and included cycling events and races for younger children. The main interest was to 'work your handicap' by not finishing too well up until you were in with a chance. The star attraction, however, was often a two-mile team race. These lasted until the 1960s; the writer recalls taking part in a team race on Bradford Park Avenue cricket ground with 64 starters, and also outsprinting Roger Norton for third prize - a combined cigarette case and lighter! - in a mile handicap on Roundhay Arena. Spare money for travel was limited, and so the clubs had grown up with extremely parochial attitudes. The writer's father, for instance, was a member for a few years of Holbeck Prospect Harriers; he ran a couple of Yorkshire Cross-country championships, but never a Northern or National, and seldom even raced as far afield as Halifax. As far as the writer knows he never ran a track race.

The sport had developed differently in the South and the West Midlands. In London and Birmingham it was often an activity for the middle classes, and particularly for ex-public schoolboys and university students - who were vary much rarer then. Some clubs, such as Birchfield or Blackheath, had wealthy members who could afford to back the clubs; Birchfield at one time owned its own stadium at Perry Barr. Track and Field played a bigger part. The only part of the North where such conditions in part developed was around Manchester, and even there it was limited. The writer recalls meeting with the 'culture clash' of athletics when he went up to Oxford; it was the first time he actually got to know any field-event athletes, and the shock of participating in a track meeting in November - to say nothing of finding himself lining up against Olympic champion Herb Elliott - was quite something.

By the time of the amalgamation, however, a change was coming about. All sorts of factors were involved, but above all others the Second World War and the 1944 Education Act were vital. People studying the history of the War tend to look at the military side, and forget its biggest social effect; military service stirred up the 'social classes' in Britain more than anything had previously done.

Furthermore it encouraged the feeling that if everybody had got stuck in during the War they should all get something out of the peace; and the string of laws passed in the five years immediately following the War by the Attlee government did a lot towards that. From 1945 onward the 'working class' were not going to be anything like as content with the sort of lifestyle they'd previously been stuck with; and a start was made towards the situation in which the overwhelming proportion of the people headed towards the home-owning, salary-earning, pension-paying middle class.

Of all the laws the Education Act had the biggest effect. It was in the writer's opinion this law which did more to change the face of Britain than any other, and in the process it pulled athletics with it. It threw open every area of education to anyone with the ability and will to make use of it; it opened 'white-collar' and professional jobs to a class of people to whom they had been largely out of reach before 1939; and in general terms it broke down many of the barriers which had made society 'parochial.' About a quarter of the population of the working-class areas of Leeds, for instance, were exposed to the 'Grammar School' type of education, which with all its faults - and it had plenty! - permitted huge numbers of people to enjoy social and economic advancement. In an extreme case - the writer's own - it allowed a kid from a house in a street off Burley Road (not a slum by any means, but certainly with an outside toilet) to graduate from Oxford University - and that, before the War, would have been an impossibility.

Among the social aspects it introduced a lot of people to sports they would never have considered participating in - like athletics; one of the motivations for Leeds City Council to build the Templenewsam track was that more schools were running something like 'proper' athletics on their fields. The writer remembers as a primary school child going to Headingley cricket ground to watch an area 'sports day' which included such things as sack races and potato races; a few years later he was running half-miles in inter-school matches which had clearly picked up influence from the other great eye-opener of the period - television.

As well as seeing more of the world 'on the box,' the immediate post-war generation was more likely than its parents to have spent some time away from home. The 'young marrieds' of the 'Fifties would have seen war service, often abroad, or been in organisations such as the Women's Land Army. The Grammar Scholars were increasingly likely to go away to University; and for the rest of the male population there was another activity that moved them around - National Service. The writer is not getting into the argument about the character-building attributes of two years' military service (he reckons it's hogwash!), but for some young athletes - if they fell into the right posting - it could have a lot of advantages. Certainly one of the older people connected with Leeds City - veteran Barrie Knowles - had a whole new athletics career opened up to him while serving as an officers's batman in Germany; he improved so much he almost 'signed on!'

Development of athletics had been held back in Leeds, as in many other places, by lack of facilities. At the time of amalgamation Harehills still trained in the winter from the Liberal Club on Seaforth Avenue, St. Marks had led a peripatetic existence around various churches (most recently St. Stephen's at Kirkstall) and Leeds A.C. was virtually moribund, apart from a group of sprinters coalescing around active sprinter and developing coach Ray Barrow. In summer everybody went to Templenewsam Arena, at least after the pavilion was opened in the early 1960s. (Before that, the wooden hut which was used for changing accommodation was liable to disappear on polling days!)

At least Leeds had a track; the only other 'real' cinder tracks in Yorkshire the writer remembers from his early days were Horsfall Playing Fields at Bradford, the track round Castleford Cricket Club's ground (square, and on a slope), and Marley Stadium at Keighley. There was also Leeds University's at Weetwood; but the groundsman was likely to chase off any plebeian who set foot on the hallowed ground reserved for students!

By the time of the writer's university days, however, change was coming. The clubs were less insular in many ways; the younger members had taken to training together from each others' homes, as well as meeting up at Templenewsam, and this trend intensified in the period the writer was working and studying elsewhere. When he came back to Leeds he began to notice differences; joint training nights had been arranged, and the question of one good club to put Leeds on the map was openly discussed. Perhaps the strongest influences of that time were the virtual collapse of Leeds A.C. after its expulsion from Headingley, and the close friendship between St. Marks' promising youngster Mike Baxter and Harehills' even more promising Clive Kingswood (who dropped out of the sport to make his name as a prominent Fraud Squad officer.) The latter broke down some psychological barriers; the former got Ray Barrow behind the idea.

The change was also part of a wider move. There were quite a lot of amalgamations among athletic clubs at the time; the older pattern of small neighbourhood clubs in urban centres, and not only in the North, were beginning to be seen by the younger generation as inadequate to further the development of the sport, or create worthwhile team competition. One voice raised in favour of such moves at the time was a voice to be heard on many aspects of athletics - that of Wilf Paish. A coach whose technical knowledge, particularly of field events, has been proved outstanding over many years, Wilf was in the 1960s just beginning his long association with athletics in Leeds, and with Carnegie College in particular; and in 1967 - in actual fact shortly after the amalgamation took place - he gave his views on the matter. Considering the limitations of Track and Field as then practised, he wanted to see more graded meetings aimed at raising performance, more competition between inter-city teams, and the amalgamation of city clubs. He cited Sheffield as an ideal example (in fact, he picked the city where strong club rivalry has led to the greatest resistance to amalgamation ever since.) He called for greater imagination in competition and better use of facilities; and noted that hammer-thrower Hugh Richardson had never competed for Leeds A.C., in spite of being a long-term member, because the Club took part in few team competitions. Forty years on some people are putting forward the same ideas - and meeting the same resistance.

The writer is at a disadvantage about when the real impetus towards amalgamation began to grow, between 1965 and 1967; at the time he was resident in Darlington, and out of the action. A number of meetings were held during 1967 between delegates of the Clubs to discuss the matter; Ray recalls one taking place in the rather spartan surroundings of the Templenewsam track pavilion. The principal influences behind the move appear to have been Ray, Leeds St' Marks' fell-runner Dave Hodgson, and Harehills' youth team coach Arthur Cockcroft. In a communication with the writer Dave - still active in his 'seventies with fell-running club Horsforth Fellandale - mentions the above, and also Leeds A.C.'s former secretary George Stead, as leading spirits in the move; the writer recalls George saying years later that he wasn't really keen himself, but he felt that that was what the active athletes wanted, so it was right that they should have it. More will be said about many of these people later, as they remained active well into the new Club's formative years.

When towards the middle of 1967 things got sufficiently advanced to drawing up a new constitution, however, another name to be enlarged upon was called upon - Harehills' Jim Exley, whose expertise in all things connected with athletic laws, based on his long service as a Northern Counties' official, was ideal for the job. There was still plenty of 'traditional' resistance, however; indeed as late as four months before the amalgamation actually took place Leeds St. Mark's had passed a resolution that they would approve of the idea - "under our name!" When it did, in the summer of 1967, it was very swift. Only a few diehards voted against at all three General Meetings called by the clubs to approve the forming of the new Club; and to the writer's recollection only one active member, St. Marks' long-serving county runner Adrian Jackson, resigned in protest. The younger generation clearly did not want any of the three old names; Leeds City Athletic Club was decided upon. The Club was formally to come into existence at midnight on September 30th, 1967.

There was, in fact, a fourth constituent Club, but this was not absorbed until the early seventies. If in 1967 Leeds A.C. was moribund, Leeds Women's A.C. was dead. It existed, but had virtually no active members, and women's athletics in Leeds did not exist in all essentials. It was, as will be told later, the catalyst of outstanding young 800-metre runner (as she then was) Joslyn Hoyte being forced to join Dorothy Hyman Track Club at Barnsley through lack of local opportunities that persuaded the surviving officials to propose an amalgamation. Leeds Women's last outstanding member, in the late 1950's, was 400-metre international Lesley McKinnon - granddaughter of first Labour prime minister Ramsay McDonald. How the fusion finally came about is told later.