“Herkers”: stalwart of the high jump and hammer and a discus international at 43

British field-events athletes were of no great consequence in the 1920s and 1930s, with the notable exceptions of the Liverpool high jumper, Benjamin Howard Baker, and the Cambridge University hammer-thrower, Malcolm Nokes. Even so, one of their contemporaries who was never quite of international class but nevertheless enjoyed a remarkably long competitive career – and, for that matter, a most interesting life – was the Yorkshire-born W.E.B. Henderson, among whose numerous noteworthy lifetime happenings was to have had his death prematurely announced in “The Times”.

Baker and Nokes were impressively versatile, but even they could not match Henderson’s feat of attaining a very respectable level at each of the disciplines for which the other two were most renowned. He was equal 2nd in the AAA high jump in 1902 and 4th in the hammer the next year. He was also 6th in the shot in 1912 before concentrating his attentions on the discus and ultimately placing 2nd in the Championships of 1923 only six inches behind the winner, George Mitchell, of London University, and two places ahead of Nokes. Henderson then appeared for England against France at the age of 43; his previous international appearances having been before World War I, in the Olympic Games of both 1908 and 1912. He competed again in the 1924 season and was 3rd in the hammer at the English Championships. He then appeared for a final time in the discus at the AAA Championships of 1925 – a quarter-of-a-century after his debut at the meeting.

Henderson had won the discus at the first English Championships, also held in 1923, which had been instigated by the innovative coach, Captain F.A.M. Webster, largely in the hope of improving domestic standards in the field events. The Championships were staged that year at Fallowfield, Manchester, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was one of Webster’s keenest supporters in this regretfully short-lived venture – the meeting only survived for three years. Webster himself was 2nd in the discus and won the javelin.

Walter Edward Bonhôte Henderson was born in Leeds on 21 June 1880, and we can reasonably assume that he came from an affluent family because he was sent away to be educated at one of the country’s most eminent public schools, Winchester College, from 1894 to 1899. The forename “Bonhôte” is unusual but not unique as a contemporary of Henderson’s was a noted London actor, H. Bonhote Wilson. A former pupil at Winchester, George Stuart Robertson (later Sir G.S. Robertson QC), was a capable hammer-thrower, winning at the Inter-Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge in 1893-94-95, and was a competitor in the discus at the first Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, but it’s unlikely that he inspired young Henderson in any way. Those 1896 Games received very little publicity abroad, and at least one of the British competitors only knew that they were taking place because he had spotted an advertising poster in a Thomas Cook’s travel-agency window.

Henderson went on to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1899. He represented Oxford in the Inter-Varsity match on four occasions in the high jump, three in the shot and two in the hammer, winning the high jump in 1900. At the 1908 Olympics he took part in the standing high jump, standing long jump, the freestyle and classical discus, and the javelin without achieving anything of great note as his only appearance in a final was equal 8th in the first-named of those events. In 1912 he was 32nd of 41 competitors in the discus, but his best ever throw of 128ft 4½in (39.13m) at Mortlake, beside the River Thames, a month later was the third of his British records. It bore no comparison with the first official World record of 156-1 3/8 (47.58m) by James Duncan, of the USA, the same year, but was a sign of some worthwhile domestic progress, nonetheless.

Despite winning a discus trial event for the 1920 Olympics, Henderson was not selected for his third Games He was one of the first members of the Achilles Club for graduates and undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities and he then joined London AC, for which he was elected as president in 1930 and appointed a life member.

His record throw of 1912 was not to be beaten until 1928, and no one from the North of England threw further until a Sunderland policeman, Alfred Fielder, did so in 1936 – by half-an-inch ! Henderson remains the only Northern-born athlete to have ever achieved a British record in the event. Though Mark Pharaoh, who set 10 records from 1953 onwards and was 4th in the 1956 Olympics, was closely associated with Manchester, to which his family moved when he was six years old, he was actually born in London.

Henderson had qualified in the legal profession in 1904, and after serving as a Lieutenant with the Royal Garrison Artillery during World War I he had joined the solicitors’ department of the Ministry of Labour and continued working there until his death at the age of 64. Thus from the age of 14 onwards, at school, then university, and then in the civil service, he had moved away from Leeds. In his spare time he was a talented writer; the author of several novels and two volumes of verse which are still much sought after a century or so later. He also wrote short stories for the magazine “Truth”. A slim volume of his poems, published in 1908, is accessible on the internet and they are very largely of a romantic nature, inspired by the ancient saga of Lancelot and Guinevere, and are even perhaps, by Edwardian standards, verging on the erotic.

What a perfectly rounded life was led by this Yorkshireman of good stock ! By day, a sober-suited civil servant processing the endlessly dull but worthy paperwork of a government department. By night, back in his fashionable Chelsea home composing his risqué verses or adding another chapter to one of his titillating novels. On Saturday afternoons, for vigorous recreation, throwing a discus or hammer across a sports field. How interesting that his superiors at the Ministry raised no objections to his salacious literary pastime. The Minister of Labour at the time that Henderson’s novels first appeared in the early 1920s was Thomas Macnamara, a Canadian-born Radical Liberal who presumably was broad-minded about such matters.

Even “The Times” – essential reading for the ruling classes in the England of that era – carried an alluring advertisement by Hurst & Blackett, the London publishers of Henderson’s first book in June of 1921, proclaiming provocatively that “the theme of this challenging novel is the dominant sex impulse of Woman”. Within a month “The Sleeping Fire” was being described by Hurst & Blackett as “a striking novel which is being widely discussed”. In September they announced a second edition, and maybe it was in a mood of celebration that Henderson went off to Stamford Bridge the next day and won the discus at London AC’s annual autumn meeting.

The following year Henderson’s follow-up novel, “Summer Lightning,” was being touted in much the same vein by his publishers as “a remarkable study of a temperamental girl who, after years of repression by old-fashioned parents, suddenly comes to the breaking-point”. But Henderson also had a sense of humour because he once won second prize in a “New Statesman” poetry competition, beginning with the lines

“Give ear, tun-bellied tosspots each and all;
Honour thy wife, the crowned bosom’s Queen,.
Thy nurse, thy friend, thy lawful dalliance-ground”

It hasn’t been recorded whether or not Henderson was married, and even these lines don’t necessarily prove that he was. The “New Statesman” awards were decided on satirical merit.

Walter Henderson died in Chelsea on 2 September 1944, having been incorrectly reported as dead the year before, and a touching obituary was written for “The Times” by Harold Abrahams’s elder brother, Sir Sidney Abrahams, who had also competed in the 1912 Olympics and served as London AC president. At Oxford Henderson had been known to his friends as “Herkers”, though Sir Sidney wrote of Henderson that “his classic head and beautifully proportioned body suggested Apollo rather than Hercules”.

Sir Sidney concluded his tribute to Henderson by saying: “Popular and admired by his athletic contemporaries, he will be held in affectionate remembrance by that little group of field-event men who endeavoured to popularise and improve that branch of athletics in which this country was so lamentably weak. Those who were admitted to a closer intimacy will cherish the memory of a loyal friend, a sympathetic listener and a delightful companion with a richly stored mind and a delicate wit tinged with irony but never cutting”.

 

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