Harold Wood, Wigan miner, World-ranked marathon runner

Sam Ferris and Ernie Harper are understandably the best remembered British marathon runners of the 1920s and 1930s. Both of them were Olympic silver-medallists. Yet neither won as many marathons as did the much lesser known Harold Wood, who raced the distance on 29 occasions from 1924 to 1939 and was victorious 13 times. The reasons for Wood’s lack of recognition are readily apparent: all of these successes came in the North of England and on his one Olympic appearance in 1928 he was a commendable but not headline-grabbing 11th.

Wood won the Manchester marathon on six occasions and had four 1st places in Blackpool, two in Liverpool and one in Sheffield. His ventures elsewhere in England were less successful as he failed to finish in two AAA Championship races and was once 5th, while in the Empire Games race of 1934 he was 4th. Over a period of 15 years until the outbreak of World War II he consistently ranked in the top half-dozen in Britain, and in 1932 he was the fastest in the country with his lifetime best of 2:36:12, winning in Manchester. Only two Britons were sent to the Los Angeles Olympics that year, and Ferris was 2nd and Duncan McLeod Wright 4th.

In their immensely detailed and entertaining book, “Manchester Marathons”, published in 2003, Ron Hill and Neil Shuttleworth refer to Wood on numerous occasions, and his six victories in such events in the city are described comprehensively by means of contemporary newspaper reports – many of these from the remarkable daily, the “Sporting Chronicle”, which was published in Manchester throughout the inter-war years and gave very extensive coverage to athletics. There’s a splendid description of Wood’s physique and modest disposition by a fellow marathoner, Charlie Bourne, who was interviewed in his latter years by Neil Shuttleworth and remembered of Wood: “He was a dogged individual. Worked down the mines. His shoulders were hunched. Certainly not a classic runner, but a nice chap. They say a friend came into his house and asked what the trophy on the sideboard was for. Harold said, ‘Running’, and the enquirer said, ‘Running whippets ?’, as they would be popular in the area then”.

Wood was born in Wigan, which was then situated in Lancashire, on 28 November 1902. There were 1,000 coal-mine shafts within five miles of the city centre and some 30,000 men employed as miners. When Harold Wood was six years old, a gas explosion killed 76 at the inaptly named Maypole colliery and two years later 350 died in another disaster at nearby Atherton. Wigan remains famous for its “pier” – actually a small jetty on the Leeds-Liverpool canal – and as the birthplace in 1904 of one of Britain’s most famous entertainers, George Formby. Also originating in Wigan were Heinz Baked Beans, Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls (“Keep You All Aglow”) and Beecham’s Pills, plus a dialect all of its own. “Willy Eckerslike” is not the name of another local celebrity: it’s a reply which means “I don’t think he will”. “Izmiatonreet” translates as “Is my hat on straight ?” “Art suppin bowt” means “Is your glass empty ?” Readers of this article – other than those from Wigan, presumably – will be relieved to know that the remainder of this article will be written in English, not “Wiganese”.

Wood did not start running until he joined the local Makerfield Harriers club in December of 1922 at the age of 20 but soon showed exceptional untutored cross-country talent, placing 3rd in an inter-club match against Bolton United Harriers and then 12th in the prestigious West Lancs Championship. The winner of this latter event in 1920-21-22 was Chris Vose, of Warrington AC, who was 2nd and 4th in the International Championship in the first two of those years. The International in those days was restricted to England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France and was very largely dominated by the English, but it still carried great prestige as the major cross-country event of the season. Individual winners in the years between the two World Wars included five from the North of England: Ernie Harper (Hallamshire Harriers) 1926, Lewis Payne (also Hallamshire) 1927, Harold Eckersley (Earlestown Viaduct AC) 1928, Tom Evenson (Salford Harriers) 1930 and 1932, and Bill Eaton (also Salford) 1936.

Unusually for that era, Wood turned to marathon running at a young age, making his debut in the Manchester event in 1924. Generally speaking, British marathon runners between the wars were grizzled veterans who had lost whatever turn of speed they ever had but were still endowed with dogged endurance, though Sam Ferris was an exception – not yet 24 when he competed in the 1924 Olympic marathon, having taken up running while on service with the Royal Air Force in India.

The series of Manchester marathons has a history lasting more than a century as they had begun in the city with a Northern trial race for the 1908 Olympic Games and have continued on and off ever since. The 1924 event, held in May, also took the form of an Olympic trial and was won by the Nottinghamshire-born Ernie Leatherland, of Polytechnic Harriers, in 2:48:43.8, with Wood, aged 21, in 6th place in 2:59:59.2. The “Sporting Chronicle” made mention of the latter, saying, “Wood is young and has years to develop”.

Leatherland and the 2nd man home, Arthur Farrimond, of Leigh Harriers, were selected for the Olympic marathon that year, together with the first three in the Polytechnic marathon, who were Duncan McLeod Wright, of the Scottish club, Shettleston Harriers (and later a member of Maryhill Harriers); Sam Ferris, now serving with the RAF as a store-keeper at Uxbridge, in Middlesex; and an England cross-country international, Bobby Mills, also of Polytechnic Harriers though born in Lincolnshire – plus a Midlander, Jack McKenna, of Small Heath Harriers. At the Games Ferris was 5th, Farrimond 17th and McKenna 27th, but the others failed to finish.

Another Manchester-based marathon was held in August of that year, a month after the Olympics. Sponsored by the “Sporting Chronicle”, the race started from the Fallowfield stadium. Ferris, having been the highest placed British runner in Paris only 34 days before, was the clear favourite and went ahead after the 15-mile mark but was mis-directed off the course and lost much ground. To add to his woes, his fellow Olympian, McLeod Wright, and Billy Maleedy, of the Sacred Heart club in nearby St Helens, inadvertently took a short cut at around 20 miles and McLeod Wright went on to win from Maleedy in 2:36:25, with Ferris more than 11 minutes behind and Wood 4th in 2:51:33, in his turn 10 minutes or so ahead of Farrimond. The 1925 Manchester marathon was again won by McLeod Wright, in 2:44:07.8, with Wood repeating his 4th place, in 2:59:43, as only nine of the 20 starters finished on a warm and windy day. At the Northern cross-country championships in February Wood had finished 9th.

As a matter of comparison, it is worth noting that the World leader in the marathon in 1925 was Albert Michelson, of the USA, who won on a point-to-point course finishing in Port Chester, outside New York, in 2:29:01.8, and Sam Ferris ranked 3rd with his 2:35:38.2 win in the Polytechnic event (also run point-to-point from Windsor to Stamford Bridge). There were 30 men with times under 2:52 on accurately-measured courses – 10 from the USA; four from Germany; three each from Canada and Great Britain; two each from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Japan; one each from Belgium, Finland, Italy and Rumania. The Finnish total is surprisingly low, considering that the Finns were totally dominant in distance events on the track during the 1920s, but the major “marathon” in the country that year was contested over courses of 40-to-40.6 kilometres.

The 1926 Manchester marathon, held on 12 June, took place in straitened circumstances because the General Strike was by then in its seventh week. The coal miners – Harold Wood among them – had joined the strike, doubling the number of unemployed to 1.6 million. Sam Ferris, who had won the combined AAA/Polytechnic event a fortnight before, was on the Manchester starting-list but failed to appear, probably because of travel difficulties caused by the strike. The defending champion, McLeod Wright, was able to make the journey from Scotland, and one of his fellow Olympians, Ernie Leatherland, was also among the competitors, but the former’s bid for a third successive win was foiled by Wood. The “Sporting Chronicle” gave a delightfully detailed description of the manner of Wood’s achievement:

He calls for very special reference indeed … he has run in previous marathons, and all along has been showing considerable promise, but his success on Saturday, and more so the outstanding character of it, was in the nature of a huge surprise. He had intended entering for the Southern Marathon, but six weeks ago he suffered an attack of influenza, and he decided to concentrate on Saturday’s event. A collier – asked how he trained, he said he had done so ‘on strike pay’. His training runs had been about 12 miles, fairly frequently, but he had done very little walking. Twenty-three years of age, single, he is of sturdy physique. His build is of complete contrast to Leatherland’s. He is almost thick-set, with powerful looking legs and shoulders. In running he inclines well forward, never raises his heels much, while he swings outwards with his arms, particularly with the left one. He put in a tremendous amount of running after 20 miles but was quite fresh at the finish”.

Wood’s Manchester win ranks him No.6 in the World

There were 21 starters and Wood was already in the lead when the runners left the Fallowfield grounds after completing the first mile on the track. At five miles (31:44) and 10 miles (1:02:40) a trio of Wood, Leatherland and a Salford Harrier named, J. Chappell was in front, and then Wood and Leatherland were still together at 15 miles (1:34:26.2), with McLeod Wright only 14 seconds behind. At 20 miles Wood (2:05/40.2) was less than two seconds ahead of the Scotsman, but the latter was briefly reduced to a walk soon afterwards and Wood went right away to an easy win – Wood 2:43:51.8, McLeod Wright 2:51:12.4. In the World rankings for the year Ferris, winner of the “Poly” in 2:42:24.2, and Wood were 5th and 6th as a Finn, Ilvari Rötko, led at 2:34:25.3.

The 1927 Manchester promotion was accorded the honour of incorporating the AAA Championship and was held on 30 July, and yet of the 40 starters the 16 who completed the course included only three others from the South apart from Ferris (who was actually born in Northern Ireland). At 15 miles the experienced 33-year old Ernie Leatherland, now a member of Mansfield Harriers, led in 1:33:22, but Ferris was only a few yards behind and by 20 miles (2:04:41.6) he had the race won as he was an estimated half-a-mile ahead of Leatherland, while Wood had soon dropped back after being at the front early on and retired with stomach trouble at 21 miles. Ferris finished in 2:48:46.4, and the next man home, Tom Heeley, of the Birmingham club, Sparkhill Harriers, was almost 12 minutes behind. Less than two months later Ferris won again by a huge margin in Liverpool in 2:35:27, beating his own British best time of two years before, but Wood recovered his form with 2:45:13 in 2nd place. Ferris’s Liverpool time ranked him 3rd in the World in 1927 behind Albert Michelson, winner at Port Chester in 2:31:11, and Verner Laaksonen, of Finland, 2:35:21.4 in Helsinki. Wood ranked 18th.

The 1928 Manchester marathon was held on 19 May, a week before the “Poly”, but the scribe for the “Sporting Chronicle” assured the 36 starters that “the event will be closely watched on behalf of the British Olympic authorities”. Wood led from the start at a much faster pace than previous years – 1:29:14.8 at 15 miles, 1:58:21.8 at 20 miles – in cold and rainy weather and left the opposition far behind to win in 2:39:29.2. It was said that Wood was coached by Tom Smith, the secretary of Makerfield Harriers, and had prepared for the race by running nine or 10 miles each Tuesday and Thursday. No doubt such little training by 21st Century standards was typical of even the front-rank marathon-runners of that era.

Seven days later Ferris won the “Poly” for the fourth successive year in 2:41:02.2, but all the Olympic contenders were still required to run the AAA title race over the same course on 6 July. As it happens, Ferris was injured and did not start and Wood dropped out after leading at 10 miles, and so the title went to Harry Payne, of Woodford Green AC, in a British best time of 2:34:34, with McLeod Wright and Ernie Harper also under 2:40. These three, plus Ferris, Wood and Herbert Bignall (Highgate Harriers) were selected for the Amsterdam Olympic marathon on 5 August.

All six commendably finished in the first 22 – Ferris 8th, Wood 11th, Payne 13th, McLeod Wright 20th, Bignall 21st, Harper 22nd – though even if there had been a team race Britain would still have lost to Finland by 22 to 32 three-a-side, 36 to 52 four-a-side, 51 to 73 five-a-side or 75 to 95 six-a-side ! Ferris (2:37:41) and Wood (2:41:15) were reasonably close to their fastest times, but the winner in 2:32:57 was the Algerian-born Frenchman, Boughéra El Ouafi, to hint at future North African domination of the event. No one, apparently, appreciated the warning at the time.

Ferris, indefatigably, turned out for the Liverpool marathon less than two months later and won in exactly 2 hours 33 minutes to beat Payne’s short lived “record”. Wood was a distant 2nd almost a quarter-of-an-hour behind. El Ouafi and Ferris had the two fastest times in the World for the year and Wood was 15th on the list. Five Britons had broken 2:40, together with three from the USA, two each from Finland (including the Olympic bronze-medallist, Martti Marttelin) and Japan, and one each from Canada, Chile (the Olympic silver-medallist, Miguel Plaza) and France.

More trophies for the runner’s home “like a jeweller’s shop”

Despite their minimal training by modern standards, British marathon men of the 1920s were happy to race frequently, and only 11 days after winning the 1929 Liverpool marathon in 2:45:22 Wood was 2nd in the Bolton Civic Week event to Billy Maleedy, 2:53:18.6 to 2:57:50. For no obvious reason the Manchester marathon was not held in 1929 or 1930, but in the latter year Wood raced twice more at the distance and won in Blackpool and Liverpool. Accordingly, he was awarded the trophies for both races outright, and one newspaper headlined his achievements and life-style with the words, “House Like A Jeweller’s Shop”. Another victory in the revived Manchester marathon of 1931 was no doubt aided by the fact that Wood, now married and living at Ashton-in Makerfield, near Wigan, had left the mines and was employed as a labourer at the Vulcan locomotive works at Earlestown, near Warrington.

Wood was also 1st home in Sheffield and Blackpool that year and had thus won his last five marathons in succession, all of them in the 2:41-to-2:49 range. Ferris, yet again the “Poly” winner, had the fastest British time of the year, 2:35:31.8, to rank 8th in a World list again led by the American, Albert Michelson, who had finished one place behind Ferris in the 1928 Olympic race. Wood was 28th at 2:43:15, and there were 19 men sub-2:40, including in addition to Ferris seven Americans, six Japanese, two Canadians, two Finns and an Argentinian (the future Olympic champion, Juan Carlos Zabala).

Wood’s new job did not last long because by the time of the Blackpool marathon in June 1932, in which he finished 3rd, he was again unemployed. Yet a month later he improved by more than 11 minutes – maybe benefiting from the albeit unwelcome break from heavy manual work ? – and recorded what was to be the fastest time of his career in winning a marathon sponsored by the “Daily Dispatch” newspaper and finishing at the Belle Vue speedway track as part of the annual Manchester Royal Infirmary sports. Wood came home in 2:36:12, with the Blackpool winner, Harold Doggett, of Salford Harriers, who made his living as a coal merchant lifting hundredweight sacks, 2nd in 2:37:59.

It’s invidious to compare marathon times set on different courses, but the fact is that either of these doughty Northerners might have done very well in the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles where 7th place went to Albert Michelson in 2:39:38. The winning time by the Argentinian, Zabala, was 2:31:36, with Ferris only 19 seconds behind for the silver medal and McLeod Wright 4th. Apparently, another Scot, Donald McNab Robertson, who had won the AAA race in 2:34:32.6 by only a few yards from McLeod Wright, declined selection because he could not obtain or could not afford time off from his work as a railway-coach painter in Glasgow. Whether Wood and Doggett were ever considered as replacements is not known, but their Manchester race may have come too late as it was only 22 days before the Olympic event. Wood ranked 13th in the World for the year, and there were 22 men under 2:40 – Japan seven, Great Britain five, USA four, Finland three, and Argentina, Canada and Germany one each.

There’s a splendidly heartfelt description which could perhaps equally have applied to Harold Wood but which was of Harold Doggett in the 1984 centenary history of Salford Harriers written by Duncan Scott. “Harold, to me, was a sort of Alf Tupper without the chip on his shoulder … for Harold and his generation, of course, personal gain was not on the agenda. Running out with the Harriers was a break from the smoke and grime and the drudgery. It was both a flight of imagination and a way of keeping healthy on a diet of poverty unalleviated by vitamin pills. Harold once told me he had not been to a doctor in 50 years”.

Though Wood was to run another 10 marathons over the next seven years, he only once came close to his best time, winning the 1935 Blackpool event in a course record 2:37:20. The previous year he had run for England in the Empire Games marathon, finishing at the White City Stadium, and had placed 4th behind the Derby-born Canadian, Harold Webster, with McNab Robertson 2nd and McLeod Wright 3rd. In 1936 Wood beat the eminent cross-country runner and steeplechaser, George Bailey, of Salford Harriers, by 12 seconds for his sixth win in Manchester. It must have been an immensely exciting finish to watch because the two of them entered the Fallowfield stadium together and Bailey went ahead only for Wood to pass him and win by 40 yards. Three months later Wood made a gallant bid for another Olympic place, finishing 5th in the AAA Championship trial. In Berlin Ernie Harper would be 2nd and McNab Robertson 7th.

Harold Wood’s running career ended in 1939 and he spent the war years in the coal-delivery business. He died in 1975, aged 72, and by then his club, Makerfield Harriers, had ceased to exist, but during the 1960s he had helped with the development of Wigan & District Harriers. His son, Roy, carried on the family athletic tradition as a distance runner for some 20 years and was a member of the powerful Lancashire team which won the 1964 Inter-Counties’ cross-country title. A “Harold Wood 8” road race was held each year from 1976 to 1991. Further Manchester marathons have been contested intermittently from 1947 onwards and the winners included Ron Hill in 1969 and 1971 and Ian Thompson in 1984. The fastest time set in the city is 2:11:54 by Steve Kenyon in 1981.

Harold Wood’s marathon-running career

31. 5.24

6th

Manchester

2:59:59.2

Duncan McLeod Wright 1st 2:53:17.4

16. 8.24

4th

Manchester

2:51:33

McLeod Wright 1st 2:36:25

8. 8.25

4th

Manchester

2:59:43

McLeod Wright 1st 2:44:07.8

12. 6.26

1st

Manchester

2:43:51.8

McLeod Wright 2nd 2:51:12.4

30. 7.27

dnf

Manchester (AAA)

Sam Ferris 1st 2:48:46.4

28. 9.27

2nd

Liverpool

2:45:13

Ferris 1st 2:35:27

19. 5.28

1st

Manchester

2:39:29.2

John Slaney 2nd 2:51:07

6. 7.28

dnf

London (AAA)

Harry Payne 1st 2:34:34

5. 8.28

11th

Amsterdam (OG)

2:41:15

Boughéra El Ouafi (France) 1st 2:32:57

26. 9.28

2nd

Liverpool

2:47:52

Ferris 1st 2:33:00

18. 9.29

1st

Liverpool

2:45:22

Herbert Bignall 2nd 2:45:58

29. 9.29

2nd

Bolton

2:57:50

Billy Maleedy 1st 2:53:18.6

7. 6.30

1st

Blackpool

2:46:44.8

Dick Fish 2nd

17. 9.30

1st

Liverpool

2:41:28

Jim McKenney (Ire) 2nd 2:47:17

6. 4.31

1st

Sheffield

2:49:26

Payne 2nd 2:52:56

20. 6.31

1st

Blackpool

2:43:15

Gerry Malcolmson 2nd 2:46:38

25. 7.31

1st

Manchester

2:43:18.4

Robert Forshaw 2nd 2:50:55

11. 6.32

3rd

Blackpool

2:47:25

Harold Doggett 1st 2:42:20

16. 7.32

1st

Manchester

2:36:12

Doggett 2nd 2:37:59

5. 8.33

dnf

Manchester

Arthur Chamberlain 1st 2:56:37

2. 6.34

4th

Blackpool

2:58:26

Chamberlain 1st 2:52:28

30. 6.34

1st

Manchester

2:56:11

Sydney Brooks 2nd 3:04:59

7. 8.34

4th

London (BEG)

2:58:41

Harold Webster (Can) 1st 2:40:36

18. 5.35

1st

Blackpool

2:37:20

Sam Dodd 2nd 2:39:32

13. 7.35

dnf

London (AAA)

Bert Norris 1st 3:02:57.4

11. 4.36

1st

Manchester

2:40:02

George Bailey 2nd 2:40:14

11. 7.36

5th

London (AAA)

2:41:45

Norris 1st 2:35:20

7. 5.38

1st

Blackpool

2:41:58

Alfred Mitchell 2nd 2:42:20

7. 8.39

3rd

Warrington

2:42:04

George Birchall 1st 2:35:45

Summary: 29 races – 13 1st places, three 2nd places, two 3rd places, four 4th places, one 5th place, one 6th place, one 11th place, four non finishes. Note: times are given to the nearest decimal place where relevant, though they would have been recorded to the nearest one-fifth.

British Top Ten for the Marathon – end of 1939

2:30:57.6

Harry Payne (Woodford Green AC)

(1)

London SB (AAA)

5. 7.29

2:31:23.2

Ernie Harper (Hallamshire H)

(2)

Berlin (OG)

9. 8.36

2:31:55

Sam Ferris (RAF)

(2)

Los Angeles (OG)

7. 8.32

2:32:41

Duncan McLeod Wright (Maryhill H)

(4)

Los Angeles (OG)

7. 8.32

2:34:32.8

Donald McNab Robertson (Maryhill H)

(1)

London WC (AAA)

1. 7.32

2:35:20

Bert Norris (Polytechnic H)

(1)

London WC (AAA)

13. 6.36

2:35:45

George Birchall (Warrington H)

(1)

Warrington

7. 8.39

2:36:12

Harold Wood (Makerfield H)

(1)

Manchester

16. 7.32

2:36:39.6

Jack Beman (Birchfield H)

(1)

London WC (AAA)

16. 7.38

2:37:40.4

Bobby Mills (Polytechnic H)

(1)

London SB (Poly)

17. 7.20

Note: SB Stamford Bridge, WC White City.

A marathon on Saturday, a 40-mile walk on Monday: George Birchall, of Warrington AC, who finished in 22 marathons between 1928 and 1947 – all of them in the North of England – and set a personal best of 2:35:45 at the age of 39, was said to be still covering 50 miles a week in training at the age of 81 ! He was also a prolific long-distance walker, becoming Centurion No. 101 in 1936 by walking 100 miles in 24 hours. The same year he was 3rd in the Manchester marathon on Easter Saturday and was a member of the winning team in the Sunderland-to-Darlington walking event of 40 miles-plus on Easter Monday. In 1954 he and his son, also named George, walked the 100 miles from Blackpool to Manchester and back in 24 hours. George Snr, born in 1900, lived to the age of 86.

Bob Phillips

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