Britain’s least known cross-country champion remembered after 90 years of obscurity

Lewis Payne was the winner of the International Cross-Country Championship in 1927 and died in 2008 at the age of 100. Yet despite his long life he remains one of the least known of Britain’s athletics title-holders of the 20th Century. He was only 19 years old when he gained his greatest triumph, and yet he never ran again in the International Championship – and nor, for that matter, in any other race of major significance in later years.

Even the reports of the event, which was held on the Caerleon racecourse, at Newport, in South Wales, were not particularly informative, and in “The Times” the following Monday more attention was given to a man who lost, rather than the man who won: “The sensation of the day was provided by the defeat of E. Harper, of Hallamshire Harriers. He is regarded as one of the greatest distance-runners in the World today” Of young Payne, who was a clubmate of Ernie Harper’s, it was simply remarked that he “ led practically throughout and won in magnificent style by about 30 yards”. In fact, there was much more to the story of the race than that because Payne and his team-mate, Walter Beavers, had been mis-directed by a course marshal at around six miles and had lost some 60 yards or so. The official history of the International Cross-Country Union, published in 1953, spells Payne’s first name wrongly as “Louis”. The text of the comprehensive centenary history of the Northern Cross-Country Association, published in 1982, refers only briefly to Payne.

Maybe it was the fact that France won the team event for the fourth time in six years which explains the muted contemporary coverage of that race. The Frenchmen were led in by a North African, Seghir Beddari, in 2nd place, while a future World record-holder for 1500 metres and the mile, Jules Ladoumègue, was 22nd, and so not even in their scoring six. Harper was 8th, and Hallamshire provided four of England’s nine runners. All but two of the others also came from the North of England. Surprisingly, Payne was by no means the first man to win the International at his only attempt; three other Englishman had done so: in 1907 (Adam Underwood), 1908 (Archie Robertson) and 1914 (Alfred Nichols). The leading 20 of the 43 runners in the 1927 race were as follows:

1 L. Payne (Eng) 51:40, 2 S. Beddari (Fra) 51:49, 3 H. Galle (Fra) 52:03, 4 F.L. Stevenson (Sco) 52:05, 5 W. Beavers (Eng) 52:08, 6 E. Thomas (Wal) 52:09, 7 H. Lahitte (Fra) 52:16, 8 E. Harper (Eng) 52:18, 9 R Pelé (Fra) 52:19, 10 E.R. Leyshon (Wal) 52:20, 11 E. Chapuis (Fra) 52:23, 12 A.T. Price (Eng) 52:25, 13 R. Miller (Sco) 52:27, 14 D. McLeod Wright (Sco) 52:36, 15 H. Bowler (Eng) 52:48, 16 P. Coyle (Ire) 52:51, 17 G. Leclerc (Fra) 53:01, 18 J. Suttie Smith (Sco) 53:04, 19 L. Thierée (Fra) 53:14, 20 T. Metcalfe (Eng) 53:21. Teams – 1 France 49pts, 2 England 61, 3 Scotland 112, 4 Wales 120, 5 Ireland 145.

The local media understandably took much more interest in Payne than had “The Times”, and when he arrived at the railway station in his home mining village of Treeton, near Rotherham, at 10 p.m. on the following Monday night he was met by a huge crowd, according to the “Sheffield Morning Telegraph”, and by the Rother Vale Brass Band playing “See The Conquering Hero Comes”. The newspaper’s reporter who spoke to Payne “found him boyishly pleased about his success but entirely unaffected by the praise that had been showered upon him, and he admitted that he had little idea of winning before the start of the race”.

Lewis Payne had first made his mark as an athlete at the half-mile and mile, and for one of his most impressive junior mile wins as a 17-year-old at Woodhouse Grammar School there were 8000 spectators in attendance the 40th annual Thrybergh Cricket Club Sports, near Rotherham. After leaving school, Payne got a job in the offices of the Sheffield steel-making company, Arthur Balfour & Co. At the 1927 English National Cross-Country Championships at Crewe, held over 10 miles of “fairly heavy country”, Harper had won from Beavers (York Harriers) and Metcalfe (Hallamshire Harriers), with Payne more than a minute down in 6th place. There had been a record number of starters (409), and Hallamshire had their six scorers in the first 13 to take the team title by a huge margin from Birchfield Harriers.

This was an exceptional performance by the Yorkshiremen because it was the only year in which Birchfield were beaten at the National between 1920 and 1935. Payne was not even the first junior home in the race; in fact, he was not even the first Hallamshire junior home ! That was C.R. Fisher, who placed 4th but was then back in 40th place in the International. Payne had won the Yorkshire and Northern youths’ titles in 1925. Then in the 1926 Northern junior Payne was 5th and Fisher 13th and in 1927 Fisher had won, with Payne 2nd. Fisher, like Payne, never ran in the International again, but he had some good performances in the Northern senior, finishing 7th in 1928 and 2nd in 1930.

The leading finishers in the 1927 National were as follows: 1 E. Harper (Hallamshire H) 1:00:06, 2 W. Beavers (York H) 1:00:25, 3 T. Metcalfe (Derby & County AC) 1:00:39, 4 C. Fisher (Hallamshire H) 1:00:48, 5 G. Forryan (Nuneaton H) 1:00:59, 6 L. Payne (Hallamshire H) 1:01:03, 7 H. Bowler (Hallamshire H) 1:01:12, 8 P. Francis (Blackheath H) 1:01:16, 9 W. Howard (Kettering H) 1:01:22, 10 C. Blewitt (Birchfield H) 1:01:30, 11 J. Beman (Birchfield H) 1:01:44, 12 N. Biddulph (Hallamshire H) 1:01:49. Teams – 1 Hallamshire H 36pts, 2 Birchfield H 106, 3 South London H 216. There were no races for juniors or youths at the National in prewar years.

Payne, who gave much credit for his success to his coach, Jack Engers, also ran in the AAA 10 miles track race in 1927, which was held on 4 July at Stamford Bridge two days after the main Championships, but finished a distant 3rd more than three minutes behind Ernie Harper. Payne’s one victory of note otherwise that year appears to have been in the Yorkshire AAA two miles championship at Brighouse on 6 August.

Why, then, did Payne’s running career come to such an abrupt end ? The answer was provided by the Hallamshire Harriers archivist, Steve Marshall, who described the circumstances as follows: “He was from working-class stock, but in the latter part of 1927 he applied for and got a job in Customs & Excise. This would have been quite an achievement for a Northern lad in those days, as it appears most appointments then were by invite only. He was seconded to Enniskillen to work on drawing up the land boundaries between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He was selected for the 1928 Olympics and asked the British Olympic Association to seek dispensation from his employer to transfer him back to Sheffield so he could continue to train with his coach. The BOA declined the request, and Lewis (not surprisingly) had insufficient private means to go it alone. He never really ran seriously again after that”.

This is intriguing information. The cross-country event at the Olympics had been discontinued after 1924, and so Payne was presumably considered for the 10,000 metres instead. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the leading cross-country runners or 10-mile track runners of that era would have been regarded as contenders for the 10,000 metres because there was no AAA six miles race until 1932, but was Payne advised of his selection some time during 1927, as is implied ? Would it not have made more sense for the AAA – the responsible organisation then before the formation of the British Amateur Athletic Board – to have waited, instead, until 1928, in which case their choice would have been different?

As it happens, neither the National nor International cross-country races of 1928 had any bearing on Olympic 10,000 metres selections, and the chosen four (as allowed in those days) included one Northerner, Walter Beavers, of York Harriers, who had won the AAA four miles, which had been the predecessor to the six miles at the Championships ever since they had begun in 1880. Beavers was to place 9th in the Olympic 10,000 and was to enjoy a long career, eventually winning the British Empire Games three miles in 1934. Incidentally, Ernie Harper was 22nd in the 1928 Olympic marathon and would win the silver medal eight years later.

Lewis Payne had a distinguished career in the Customs & Excise service, and details of it have come to light thanks to the efforts of David Taylor, editor of “The Bond”, which is the journal for retired Customs & Excise officers. Payne rose to the senior position of High Collector for the city of Nottingham and was honoured by the Queen with the award in 1965 of the Imperial Service Order, which is an insignia in the form of an eight-pointed star inscribed “For Faithful Service” and presented to members of the administrative and clerical staff of the civil service. He remained very fit and active throughout his working life and after his retirement in the 1960s. .

A brief article in the “Nottingham Evening Post” for 31 March 2008 stated that Lewis Payne had died on 16 March after contracting pneumonia. He had been a widower for 30 years and there were no children. The reporter, Samantha Hughes, noted: “Mr Payne led a musical life and enjoyed singing in choirs. He joined the Nottingham Harmonic Society in 1960 and became their president in 1997”. The choir’s chairman, John Parry, was quoted as saying, “He was very methodical and very meticulous. He was also a very kind and generous man”. It was added that “he was chosen to compete in the 1928 Olympics, but his employers would not allow him the time off to train”.

The name of Walter Beavers figures more than once in the account above of the career of his fellow-Yorkshireman, Lewis Payne, and Beavers had a remarkable career on the track and over the country, remaining in the front rank of British distance-runners from 1928 to 1937. He deserves to be better remembered than he is, if only for figuring in a devastating England team victory in the 1932 International cross-country and then winning the British Empire Games three miles in 1934.

For the 1932 International at the Hippodrome de Stockel, in Brussels, England fielded one of its strongest ever teams and the result speaks for itself – Tom Evenson 1st, Jack Holden 2nd, Walter Beavers 3rd, John Potts 4th, George Bailey 5th and Alex Burns 6th. At the 1934 Empire Games, at the White City Stadium, in London, Beavers led home another English clean-sweep – Cyril Allen 2nd and Burns 3rd. It was not the first time that England had taken the first six places in the International, and nor was it the last time they would win all the three miles medals at an Empire Games, but these were memorable enough achievements, nevertheless.

Born on 11 July 1903 in York, Beavers ran for the local Harriers, and this was a club which had a share of major cross-country honours in the late 1920s and 1930s even though almost invariably overshadowed by their formidable Yorkshire rivals, Hallamshire Harriers, Beavers won the Northern title in 1928 and 1929 and a clubmate, Henry Clark, took the National in 1937. In addition, Beavers was Yorkshire champion on three occasions from 1927 to 1932 and Clark also took that title in his National-winning year.

On the track Beavers was AAA champion at four miles in 1928 and 1929 and at three miles when it was first contested in 1932

Bob Phillips

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