The most famous Olympic marathon of all is that of 1908 in London, in which the Italian, Dorando Pietri, was disqualified after passing the finishing-line and victory went instead to Johnny Hayes, of the USA. Another feature of this race was the failure of the large contingent of British runners, of whom the best was William Clarke, of Sefton Harriers, in 12th place, and yet there were three English-born runners head of him.
The South African silver-medallist of 1908, Charles Hefferon, had been born in Newbury, in Berkshire, on 25 January 1878, had lived in Canada, and had stayed on in his eventual country of adoption after fighting there in the Boer War, which had come to an end in 1902. In 5th place was Billy Wood, of Canada, who had been born in Plymouth on 6 February 1881 and apparently only began his short running career after emigrating. Harry Lawson, who finished 7th, can certainly be regarded as British in all but the colours he wore on the day of the Olympic marathon. He had arrived in Canada just the year before, and had been born in Leeds in March 1881. Another Yorkshireman who ran in the 1908 marathon for Canada, finishing 22nd, was to gain much greater fame four years later in winning the Olympic 10,000 metres walk. He was George Goulding, born in Hull on 16 November 1884.
Lawson was one of England’s leading cross-country runners before he emigrated and was, coincidentally, also 7th in the inaugural International Championships at Hamilton Racecourse, in Scotland, in 1903, completing the scoring for an England team which won on aggregate from Ireland, Scotland and Wales by a very wide margin. Lawson had finished 6th in that year’s National Championships contested over the Haydock Park race-course, in Lancashire, and both this event and the International were won very convincingly by the finest distance-runner of his generation, Alfred Shrubb.
The next year Lawson was 10th in the National, and his club, Leeds Harriers & AC, was 7th for the second successive year. Incidentally, this was something of a brief fling because no team carrying that city’s name was to figure in the top 10 at the National for another 45 years until the laboriously-titled Leeds Harehills Liberal Harriers & AC placed 3rd, 2nd and 8th in 1949, 1950 and 1951 respectively. They were led home in the first two of these races by that most versatile of runners, Len Eyre (Empire Games three miles champion in 1950 and Olympic 1500 metres representative in 1952). Additionally, his Leeds club may well be unique in winning National cross-country medals in those same two years with an identical sextet, which also included Desmond Birch, 4th in the 1950 AAA six miles, and Alan Lawton, 2nd in that year’s Polytechnic marathon.
Harry Lawson had first come to notice by leading his club to 3rd place in the 1901 Northern, and his finest achievement came about in the Northern event of 1904, also at Haydock Park, in which he caught the leader, J.D. Marsh, of Salford Harriers, on the fourth lap of the 10-mile course and went on to win by 50 yards in a time of 1:01:32. It was the first occasion since the Northern had begun in 1883 that a runner from Yorkshire had won the title, and it was reported that he was presented with a “special gold medal” afterwards.
Lawson had also finished 3rd in the Northern of both 1902 and 1903, and on the latter occasion the winner was James Hosker, of Farnworth Harriers, in Bolton, who had three other Northern wins between 1898 and 1905 to his credit but suffered from “a partiality to drink”, according to Phil Thomas, the author of an excellent centenary history of the Northern Cross Country Association. Hosker ran in the International in 1903 and 1905, but placed only 24th and 17th.
In 1904 Lawson again qualified for the International by finishing 10th in the National at Dunstall Park, Wolverhampton, after holding 4th place early on, but did not take up his England place – presumably either unwell or injured … or making plans for a new life. In August of that year he emigrated to Canada, was married there in 1906, and qualified to run in the 1908 Olympics by winning the 25-mile Canadian Olympic marathon “trial” in Toronto on 6 June that year in a time of 2:38:11.
Lawson was just one of a number of British-born distance-runners who figured prominently on behalf of other countries in the Olympic marathons before World War I, most notably including two winners – Thomas Hicks in 1904 for the USA, who had been born in Birmingham; and Kennedy McArthur in 1912 for South Africa, born in Northern Ireland. Additionally, Jimmy Duffy, who was 5th for Canada in 1912, was born in Ireland and brought up in Scotland, emigrating to Canada only a year before the Games. Jack Caffery, 11th in 1908 for Canada, was the son of Irish immigrants. Both Johnny Hayes, the 1908 winner, and his predecessor of 1906, Billy Sherring, of Canada, were also of Irish decent.
Subsequently, during the 1920s and 1930s, Canada had 24 marathon runners ranked in the World’s top 30 at various times, and at least six of them were British-born: Among them were Harold Webster, born on 18 January 1895 at Newhall, Derbyshire; and Johnny Miles, born on 30 October 1905 in Halifax, Yorkshire: By means of explanation, there was an enormous influx of immigrants into Canada in that era and the country’s population almost doubled from 5.4 million to 10.4 million.
The date of Harold Webster’s emigration to Canada is not known, and nor is there any obvious indication that he had competed beforehand in England. Derby & County AC was a well-established club, but the present-day Derby AC website carries only a very sketchy history. Whatever Webster’s background, he was selected by Canada for the 1928 Olympic marathon but did not go to Amsterdam. Nor did he compete in Los Angeles in 1932, despite having won the Canadian trial race. His finest achievement was to win the 1934 British Empire Games title in London, and he eventually made his Olympic debut in Berlin at the age of 41 but was a non-finisher. His best time was a national record 2:37:46 in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1931, and he competed through to 1943. He was a steel worker by trade, nicknamed “Old Ironsides” by his clubmates, and died in 1958.
Johnny Miles was only briefly a Yorkshire resident – and entirely unbeknown to him ! He was taken to Nova Scotia by his mother at the age of four months, started running at 16, and had his greatest successes in the famed annual Boston marathon, winning in 1926 and 1929. He ran twice at the Olympics, placing 16th in 1928 and 14th in 1932. Miles’s British-born father deserves credit for being one of the very first to recognise the value of high-mileage training. He was a physical education instructor by profession and a former amateur boxer of renown, and under his guidance his son ran 10 miles a day, with the occasional flat-out two miles for variation, and every six weeks he covered the full marathon distance at close to racing pace. Already at the age of 11 he had been earning a living as a mine-worker but still lived to the age of 97, dying in 2002.