Swing Lowe, but the greatest champion of all said “No!”. A literary mystery

Why is there no biography of the most eminent British athlete among his contemporaries of the 1920s – Douglas Lowe ? And why is so little known about what were long believed to be his Mancunian origins ? Lowe, born on 7 August 1902, won the Olympic 800 metres in 1924 and 1928 and was also an exceptional quarter-miler and miler, but there remains a mystery about his early life. He was educated at public schools in the south of England from the age of 11 onwards, and it is not known if his family moved away from the north when he was still not yet in his teens, and nothing is known of his childhood.
The recent biography of the German middle-distance runner and World record-holder, Otto Peltzer, by the former Olympic marathon runners, Tim Johnston and Don Macgregor, has added enormously to our knowledge of athletics in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it follows on from other extremely informative books about Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell and Cecil Griffiths, who were all competing in the same era. Douglas Lowe merits an equally detailed study.
Lowe has always been described as having been of Manchester birth, but very recent research by the Hyde-based athletics historian Neil Shuttleworth, has revealed that Lowe’s birth was actually registered in Salford, which was then in Lancashire. The city was a prolific producer of Olympic talent during the 1920s and 1930s because Walter Rangeley, the 200 metres silver-medallist of 1928, and Bill Roberts, the 4 x 400 metres relay gold-medallist of 1936, were also born there.
Lowe’s parents were Arthur and Emily Lowe and they lived at 314 Lower Broughton Road, Salford, which would then have been opposite Manchester Racecourse. Arthur Lowe was a wool merchant by profession, and presumably a successful one. Manchester’s economy had been boosted by the opening of the Ship Canal in 1894, thus enabling exports to be sent directly overseas by ship from Salford Quays and therefore not subject to the expensive Liverpool port charges. .
Lowe’s life story would make fascinating reading. In addition to his outstanding athletic prowess, he was a very capable footballer and enthusiastic cricketer, and soon after his retirement from athletics he became honorary secretary of the Amateur Athletic Association. He broadcast on athletics topics regularly on BBC radio. He helped form the British Amateur Athletic Board, and he was an International Amateur Athletics Federation delegate and a council member of the British Olympic Association and chairman of the Universities’ Athletic Union. He had a distinguished law career and was president of the Bar Council and appointed a Queen’s Counsel.
He wrote several books in which he dispensed his advice regarding training and competition. He lived to the age of 78, dying in 1981, and for whatever reason he had declined to co-operate with the “Chariots of Fire” film-makers, which obviously denied him wider recognition, if only posthumously. Maybe would-be biographers had previously approached him and been rebuffed. It’s hard to believe that anyone who led such a prominent life would be shy of publicity, and we know that he was not entirely averse to being interviewed because a tape recorded in 1977 exists in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham in which he talks at length to the athletics historian, John Bromhead.
Even with so few surviving people who would have memories of a man who died that many years ago, it would still be practicable these days to piece together the details of his athletics career, based on contemporary accounts and his own writing. “The Times” has 275 references to “D.G.A. Lowe” and another 204 to “Douglas Lowe”, which should provide an adequate starting-point, though such information that is available about him tells us nothing about what happened between his birth in Salford and his public-school attendance at Harrow and then Highgate from the age of 14 onwards before going to Cambridge University.
Did the family move house to the south of England soon after their son’s birth ? This would seem unlikely as Manchester was a thriving centre of the wool industry which provided the Lowe family with what must been a comfortable enough income to pay hefty educational fees. Or did they send their son away as a boarder to the best public schools which his father could afford ? Why did the youthful Lowe then change schools ? One inconsequential matter of which we can be fairly sure is that Lowe’s father was no relation to the late “Dad’s Army” actor of the same name, though the latter, coincidentally, went to school in Levenshulme, Manchester, in the 1930s.
In his own writing, Lowe shared many of the pre-conceived ideas of his day and, for example, in his book, “Track and Field Athletics”, published in 1935, he devotes to the single matter of style almost four pages of the 26 dealing with middle-distance running, but he does have a neat turn of phrase; In his contribution to the training manual, “Athletics”, by members of the Achilles Club, first published in 1938, he concludes by saying, “It is a pretty safe rule not to allow anyone to pass in the back straight (where most people try) and to fight for the lead round the last bend, and it is a tremendous risk to allow someone to go by, say, 300 yards from home and depend upon a pious hope that fate will check this headlong career before the post”.
The start of Lowe’s’ athletics career was a relatively modest one, as recalled by his Cambridge contemporary and fellow gold-medallist, Harold Abrahams, who wrote in 1934, “As a schoolboy at Highgate Lowe was a fine all-round athlete, with no particular obvious bent for half-miling. When he won the Public Schools’ Championship in 1920 in 2:06.8, there was nothing remarkable in that”. Lowe also played cricket at the Oval for the Young Amateurs of Middlesex against the Young Amateurs of Surrey, but without any distinction, dismissed for a “duck”. batting at No.9, and not being required to bowl. Then, after becoming an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he suffered “about the worst race he ever ran” (Abrahams’s words again) at the 1923 English Championships in Manchester, the neighbouring town to his birthplace, in which he was 2nd in 2:05.4. Yet within a month he won for Oxford & Cambridge against Harvard & Yale at Wembley Stadium in 1:56.6.
Lowe was not even Great Britain’s first choice at 800 metres for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris as he had been beaten for the AAA 880 yards title by a couple of yards by a Cambridge graduate, Hyla Stallard, in what Abrahams described as “a marvelous tussle”. Stallard was carrying an injury in Paris and eventually finished 4th as Lowe just beat Paul Martin, of Switzerland, for the gold. Two days later Lowe, in his turn, was 4th at 1500 metres in 3:57.0, which was equivalent to a mile time some six seconds faster than he would ever achieve. Stallard, despite his ailment, took the bronze medal in that 1500.
In 1926 Lowe had his great 880 yards race at the AAA Championships with the German, Otto Peltzer, as described so vividly in the recently-published Peltzer biography. Peltzer set a World record of 1:51.6, but if Lowe was ever timed it was not revealed, and the general belief is that he ran 1:52.0. Abrahams, of course, was ever present and reported thus: “Peltzer quite deliberately dropped back and waited. The final straight – the German made his second effort, passed Lowe some 30 yards from the tape and won amid the tumultuous applause of a grand crowd”.
The next year Lowe won both the 440 and the 880 at the AAA Championships, but his 48.8 for the quarter maybe only hinted at his potential at that distance, for which the then World record had stood for 11 years at 47.4 by Ted Meredith, of the USA. During 1926 Lowe had gone though in 49.1 on his way to a record-breaking 600 yards. Abrahams enthused that this AAA feat was “one of the greatest doubles of all time in our Championships”, and who could argue with that ? Lowe had easily won a heat and semi-final of the 440 and a heat of the 880 on the Friday evening, and then on the Saturday afternoon he beat the Welshman, Cecil Griffiths, in the half-mile by 10 yards and an Italian, Alfredo Gargiullo, by five yards in the quarter-mile. “The Times” praised Lowe to the skies – “the best and most beautiful runner in the meeting”.
Lowe went to the 1928 Olympics with a season’s best time of only 1:56.6 for 880 yards, in taking the AAA title again, whereas Lloyd Hahn had won the US Olympîc trials race at 800 metres in a World-record 1:51.4 and Séra Martin, of France (no relation to Lowe’s Swiss rival of four years before, Paul Martin), had broken that record a week later with 1:50.6. I commend all readers to watch the film of the Olympic final on YouTube because Lowe produces what must surely be one of the most dominant performances in Olympic middle-distance history. Abrahams rightly wrote that “the rest looked as if they were standing still”.
Lowe ended his career brilliantly with a 1:51 half-mile stage for the British Empire versus the USA and a metric 1:51.2 in Berlin. Sadly, all of his medals were stolen from his home in Hampstead, in north London, a few months later. He stayed active in sport for another 30 years or so, at first playing football for Old Cholmeleians (Sir Roger Cholmeley had founded Highgate School in 1565) and then cricket to the age of 55 – and even improving very slightly as he scored one run at No.8 for a team led by another Old Cholmeleian and former England captain, R.W.V. Robins, in a charity match.
That’s the bare bones of Lowe’s life-story. It all needs telling in much greater depth.

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