The life story of many an old Olympian was recounted in newspapers the length and breadth of Britain during 2012 when the Games came to London. One amongst them was Jack Potts, almost entirely ignored even by diligent athletics historians for more than 70 years but one of the finest distance-runners in the country during the 1930s. He was twice selected at 10,000 metres for the Olympic Games but had the double ill-fortune to miss the first of these because he could not afford to go and then to be listed as a non-finisher at the next even though he almost certainly completed the course. Potts was a member of the Saltwell Harriers club in Gateshead and one of his 10,000 metres colleagues in Berlin in 1936 was Alec Burns, of Elswick Harriers, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; both of them thus from the North-East of England. They were said to be the only athletes in the region to own a track-suit at that time of severe economic hardship.
Potts’s credentials at track running and cross-country are most impressive; On the track he was AAA
champion at six miles in 1932 and in the two miles steeplechase in 1938; at cross-country he was National champion in 1931 and 1936, Northern champion in 1932 and 1936-37-38, and eight times a competitor for England in the International Championship, placing 4th in 1932, 1937 and 1938. He also won one of England’s longest-established road races, Morpeth-to-Newcastle, in 1935. His 1931 National success was the first by a runner from the North-East, and when in 2012 a perceptive columnist for “The Northern Echo” newspaper in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mike Amos, revived memories of such deeds he rightly described Potts as “a reluctant hero, and until now a very much forgotten one”.
Potts died at the age of 80 in 1987, and 10 years later, following the death of his widow, a daughter, Ann Brooker, examined a box of newspaper cuttings, photographs and other mementoes of her father’s athletics career found in the attic of her parents’ home. This treasure-trove of memorabilia was supplemented by the recollections of former friends, work colleagues and fellow-athletes after an appeal was placed in the Newcastle newspaper, “The Journal”, and has been incorporated into a file in the form of a book deposited at a local library. It may even serve to re-write a piece of athletics history because Ann Brooker believes that her father, far from being a non-finisher in the 1936 Olympic 10,000 metres, was actually a highly respectable 7th.
This claim has been supported by a grandson of Potts, David Thompson, who was himself an athlete in his teens before becoming a teacher. He had many conversations with his grandfather about athletics and has said, “He never mentioned being lapped in Berlin. He told me that he counted his pace exactly every 400 metres. So he knew exactly where he was supposed to be during the race”. There’s also some valuable visual evidence to support the belief that Jack Potts did, in fact, finish the Berlin Olympic race.
The 10,000 metres is featured for six minutes or so during Leni Riefenstahl’s epic film of the Games (and is readily accessible via the internet on YouTube). This shows the three Britons – Burns, Potts and another Northerner, Bill Eaton, of Salford Harriers – prominent early on, and Potts is distinctively wearing what appears to be white tape round his spiked shoes. Then in the last 400 metres the three Finns who took all the medals are seen lapping several runners, and though the sequence is brief and indistinct it does seem that one of these could be wearing Great Britain kit and has his shoes taped in white.
There were 30 starters in the race and a difference of some 2¾ minutes between the winner and the last-timed runner. Another six runners, including Eaton, were not timed. This means that as many as 22 of the competitors were lapped, and several of these lapped twice. It is perfectly conceivable that even the hyper-efficient German officials either missed Potts completely or confused him with someone else. The great majority of competitors wore all-white clothing and so were not easy to tell apart,
Exactly this sort of confusion was to happen at the next Games at Wembley in 1948 when it is believed that another Briton, Stan Cox, who coincidentally was officially placed 7th, may have run a lap too many.
Potts’s full first names were John Henry Soulsby and he was born the son of a miner on 17 September 1906 in the curiously-named village of Kyo, a few miles south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – “kyo” is derived from an Olde English word for “cow”. His first experience of competition was an alfresco one during the General Strike of 1926 when miners held races as a form of distraction, with boxes of food as the prizes for the winners, though Potts was denied his because the organisers thought he was a professional runner. He joined the local West Stanley Harriers, starting as a sprinter and then switching to longer distances and surprising everyone, particularly his opposition, by winning the 1928 North-Eastern cross-country title at Gosforth over a course described by the “Newcastle Evening Chronicle” as “10 miles of mud and water”. The precociously talented Alec Burns took his fourth successive “junior” title that .day at the age of 21. Over the next decade Burns was to win the senior race five times and Potts three.
Potts, employed in the mining industry but not as an underground worker, progressed immediately in his running and was one of five Northerners in the nine-man England team selected for the 1930 International Championship at Leamington Spa after finishing 9th in the National. England easily won the team event to end a sequence of four French successes since 1926, with their six scoring runners in the first eight places, led by the individual winner, Tom Evenson, of Salford Harriers. Making the second of 12 appearances in the race was Jack Holden, a future Empire and European marathon champion (20 years in the future !), in 7th place. The only Southerner in the team was an Army corporal from the London club, Hampstead Harriers, J.A. Broadley, and he was a non-scorer, though 10th, as was Potts, 16th.
Victory at the National in a “beautifully calculated race”
The next year, 1931, brought Potts to widespread notice when he won the National at Wickstead Park, Kettering, from Jack Winfield, of Derby & County AC. Potts had finished 2nd to Alec Burns in the Northern, and it was Burns and then Winfield who led for much of the way over the 10-mile National course which included a 200-yard stretch of plough on each of three laps (no doubt there are those among you reading these words who are sighing nostalgically, “Ah, yes, the good old days of real cross-country !). Potts was more than 100 yards behind, but the correspondent for “The Times”, in his long and detailed account of the race, described the closing stages thus:
“When the runners turned for home once more Winfield was seen to be no longer unaccompanied. His companion was shown by his vest and shorts to be an individual entrant, and the first thoughts of the spectators were that Burns had overcome a temporary malaise and caught up. As the runners came nearer to the finish the man in front was distinguished as Potts, not Burns. A great race took place along the level ground by the lake and up the slope to the finish. Winfield managed to raise a good sprint but could not catch Potts, who had spent every ounce of effort in his beautifully calculated race”.
Among the numerous eminent runners outpaced by Potts and Winfield that afternoon were Ernie Harper, the International winner of 1926 and a future Olympic marathon silver-medallist, in 4th place. Evenson, the current International champion, was 6th. Holden was 8th. Wally Howard, the defending National champion, who was a Kettering farmer by occupation, was 13th. Stan Tomlin, who had won the Empire Games three miles the previous year, with Winfield 3rd, was outside the first 20. At the International Championships, held on the Baldoyle Racecourse, in Dublin, a fortnight later, England duly won the team title by a huge margin, though the Irish provided the individual winner, Tim Smythe, with Winfield 2nd, Evenson 3rd, Potts 5th and Holden 6th.
It was going to become a common experience for Potts to finish just outside the first three in this race over the remainder of the 1930s. The next month these four English runners were among those who contested the AAA 10 miles track championship and finished in exactly the same order in the first four places. Later in the summer Potts beat Burns in a two-mile race in Sunderland, and his time of 9:26.2 was 3rd fastest in Britain for the year.
The 1932 International was staged on another racecourse in Brussels, and England took the first six places (all except Holden from the North of England: Evenson 1, Holden 2, Walter Beavers (York Harriers) 3, Potts 4, George Bailey (Salford Harriers) 5, Burns 6. This was clearly a golden era for English cross-country running, but the International was restricted to the home countries, plus Belgium and France, and it’s an intriguing thought as to what the Finns – so hugely dominant in distance-running in those days – might have done, had they been invited to try their skills on the Belgian turf. It would have been an interesting encounter, particularly as Paavo Nurmi was still eligible for amateur competition for a few more months yet.
Burns goes to Los Angeles, but Potts has to stay at home
By the time that the Los Angeles Olympics came round the following August, Nurmi was suspended for contravening the rules regarding amateurism, and Evenson, Bailey and Burns were the only ones among the victorious England cross-country team to make the long journey; Evenson was a joiner by trade in Manchester and Bailey a quarryman in Derbyshire, both taking time off without pay for their six weeks’ absence. Burns was more fortunate as his employers, the Anglo-American Oil Company, continued to pay him while he was away. The British Olympic Association’s appeal to the public for funds fell far short of expectations and a number of other selected British athletes were unable to go because they could not afford to take time off from work or pay their own way..
Evenson and Bailey placed 2nd and 5th respectively in the steeplechase and Burns 7th at 5000 metres. Potts should also have been there, having won the AAA six miles from Holden, in 30:23.2, but was required to pay his own way. The British Olympic Association had estimated that the cost of going to the Games would be at least £150 per competitor – equivalent to £7,320 in value, based on 2018 comparisons, and unemployment in the mining industry in the North-East had reached 35 per cent in 1932. Understandably, neither Potts nor his club was able to raise what would have seemed to them such an enormous amount of money. Even if the funding had somehow been found, Potts would still, most likely, have lost wages while he was away.
The BOA’s official report devotes considerable space to their fund-raising activities and gives exact details of the £10,000 or so which was collected, sufficient for 72 competitors in all sports, but makes no mention of anyone who had been selected and then asked to pay his or her own expenses, whether or not they were able to do so. The BOA had originally hoped to raise £16,000 to £17,000, which presumably would have enabled 120 or so competitors to go. A qualifying standard was set for the athletes, and it was equivalent to the 6th-placed performance at the 1928 Games. By this criterion, Potts qualified at 10,000 metres, as did Holden, and another distance-runner with eligible achievements who also did not eventually travel to Los Angeles was York’s Walter Beavers, who was the AAA three miles champion. The “Manchester Guardian” revealed that Beavers had been seriously considered but “was reluctantly passed over by the selectors ”because of his inconsistency – of which, incidentally, there was little or no evidence..
Had Potts been in Los Angeles for the 10,000 metres and able to reproduce his AAA form, he would have finished 5th. Only five Europeans took part in the race, and they occupied five of the first six places. The winner was Janusz Kusocinski, of Poland, in 30:11.2, from the Finns, Volmari Iso-Hollo and Lauri Virtanen, and they were clearly in a class of their own. In 4th place was Bill Savidan, of New Zealand, in 31:09.0, and 5th was Max Syring, of Germany, in 31:35.0.
Neither Burns nor Potts figured in either the Northern or National cross-country title races in 1933 – both of them won by Evenson – because they were among the hundreds of thousands who suffered from an influenza epidemic which swept the country. So serious was the outbreak that early in March the “Manchester Guardian” reported that 9,671 deaths had been recorded in England and Wales since the beginning of the year. Returning to action on the track, Potts beat Burns in a mile race in Middlesbrough on 22 June, 4:14.4 to 4:14.7, though there is some uncertainty about these times, and again there was only a few yards in it when the pair of them met at two miles in the Northumberland & Durham Championships on the Westoe cricket ground at South Shields on 26 July and Potts won in a time of 9:35.0.
Potts was one of the four Englishmen chosen for the 1934 Empire Games six miles at the White City Stadium, in London, though he had shown no obvious form either over the country or on the track, and they were split only by a Canadian, Robert Rankine (born in Hamilton, in Scotland), in 2nd place as Arthur Penny won in a slow time, with Arthur Furze 3rd, Jack Holden 4th and Potts 5th. For once it was Southerners dominating Northerners because Penny was a member of Belgrave Harriers and Furze had moved from Watford Harriers to Polytechnic Harriers. Walter Beavers won the three miles from Cyril Allen, of Highgate Harriers, with Burns 3rd. Burns, who during the previous winter had frustratingly finished 2nd in the Northern, National and International cross-country races, was unable to run in the Empire Games six miles even though it was on August Bank Holiday Monday because on this occasion his employers could not give him time off, and maybe that was the reason that Potts was selected instead. The one other obvious candidate, Laurie Weatherill, of South London Harriers, took part in the marathon, for which he was reputed to run as much as 30 miles every Saturday in preparation.
On New Year’s Day 1935 Potts won the annual Morpeth-to-Newcastle road race, covering the 13 miles 1100 yards (21.9km) in 1:14:30. Weather conditions were invariably tough for this event but varied markedly from year to year, and the course record was held by Duncan McLeod Wright, the Olympic marathon 4th-placer of 1932, who had won seven times, with a best of 1:12:50. Potts made his next International cross-country appearance in March at the Hippodrome d’Auteuil, in Paris, but neither he nor Evenson nor Bailey could even make the scoring six ! Jack Holden won for the third successive year, with five other Englishmen in the first nine, completed by Burns, and Evenson was 14th, Potts 20th and Bailey 23rd. Potts would then be in the England team every year to 1939 inclusive, subsequently finishing 10th, 4th, 4th again and 16th.
It seems that the next Olympic year of 1936 spurred Potts on to greater efforts, presumably with the intention of making up for his missed opportunity of four years before. He trained hard by the standards of the 1930s – though maybe not as hard as Laurie Weatherill – and was said to run four miles every weekday night and 10 miles at the weekend, though it’s not evident from this statement as to whether it meant 10 miles both Saturday and Sunday. At 5ft 7in (1.71m) in height and weighing under 10 stone (62kg), he was the classic distance-running build. Burns, by contrast, was 6ft (1.83m) tall.
The discipline and fortitude needed for that nightly four-mile run through the dimly-lit streets of a village in County Durham are difficult to comprehend more than 80 years later, but there is a marvelous description in the finest of all athletics autobiographies, “Testament of a Runner”, by W.R. Loader, of just what it was like. The author was a sprinter who was born and brought up in Durham before going to Cambridge University, and he had a visionary perception of athletes, whatever their event. His book was published in 1960, and this is how he described a typical training route for distance-runners in the North-East:
“To the south of the railway embankment a rural village lay on gently rising ground. To the north, approaching the banks of the Tyne, the apparatus of industry had inflicted many mutilations on a sombre landscape. On the one side could be heard the song of a hovering lark, on the other the distant, metallic chatter of pneumatic riveters. But the runner had no eyes for the contrast between farmyards and slag-heaps, meadows and pit-heads, church spires and giant cranes. He had no ears for the puff of shunting engines in the marshaling yard, the buffers clanging like a recurring decimal, the screech of metal wheel upon metal rail. His vision was turned inwards, upon himself, and not upon the external scene”.
A second win in each of the three main cross-country races of the winter
Beginning 1936 in the best possible style, Potts won the North-Eastern cross-country title at Blaydon and then the Northern at Rotherham and the National at Alderley Park, Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, all of them for the second time in his career. At the National he was followed in by Eaton and Burns, who would be his colleagues in the Olympic 10,000 metres, having led all the way and gradually dropped his pursuers. Potts remains to this day the only runner from the North-East to have won the National twice, and there was not to be another individual winner from that region for 41 years, until Brendan Foster, of Gateshead Harriers, in 1977. Nor has there been another for the last 39 years since Mike McLeod, of Elswick Harriers, in 1979.
The six miles event at the AAA Championships was a fine race, won by a Pole, Józef Noji, in 29:43.4, which was only seven seconds outside the World record held by Nurmi and set on the same White City track six years before. It should be noted that Nurmi’s 10,000 metres record of 30:06.2, still standing from 1924, was intrinsically much superior, but even so the media coverage of the AAA race seemed strangely muted, considering that Burns and Potts were close behind Noji, 2nd and 3rd in 29:45.0 and 29:47.0 respectively.
Burns’s time beat the English native record set by Eaton three months earlier and was, in effect, a British record which would stand for 14 years. No British national records were recognised at that time by the authorities; the “British record” then was actually a British All-Comers’ record, of which Nurmi would remain the holder at six miles until 1947. To put these performances in their broader perspective, only nine men, seven of them Finns, had ever run 10,000 metres in the equivalent time of 30:45.0 or faster, though that sort of information may not have been readily available even to the most studious of British newspaper correspondents of that era.
It’s a safe bet that neither Burns, nor Potts, nor any of those who had watched this race were aware that another “record” had been beaten. The previous fastest six miles by an athlete from the North-East of England had remained unchallenged for rather a long time – 73 years, in fact ! Jack White, the outstanding British professional runner of his era who was known familiarly as “The Gateshead Clipper”, had run 29:50 en route to 10 miles in 1863, and this phenomenal performance was to be readily acknowledged in a much later generation when Brendan Foster described it in the foreword to a biography of White published in 2007 as “an incredible feat … one which many well-trained club athletes would find difficult to emulate today in designer spikes and on all-weather tracks”.
In the Berlin 10,000 metres the three Britons immediately went to the front, with Potts in the lead, running in a compact manner, his arms held fairly low, and glancing over his shoulder, maybe to check that his team-mates were there in accordance with some pre-arranged plan, or perhaps just in surprise. He was not kept long in anticipation because before the first lap was completed the one Japanese runner in the race, Kohei Murakoso, who was even shorter than Potts, had gone ahead, with the Britons close behind. F.A.M. Webster – tireless coach and author – had a nicely caustic turn of phrase to describe this situation when he recalled it for one of his numrous books, “Great Moments In Athletics”, published in 1947: “The British in the stands were getting their little Union Flags ready for a private victory celebration quite early on in the race … did such people, I wondered at the time, ever read any news of foreign sporting doings in the daily papers”.
Murakoso was to stay in the lead beyond 6000 metres and then hang on to the three Finns until the last lap. Webster wrote soulfully that “the Finnish juggernaut swept on, as relentless as Time itself … men from Great Britain, the Argentine, Germany, the United States, Norway, Denmark, Italy and Hungary – one by one the representatives of each of those nations were overhauled and dropped with the inevitable beat of a ticking clock”. Potts and Eaton had lost contact after eight laps, but Burns and the AAA winner, Noji, were also in the leading group of six for a long way. Burns finished 5th. Noji faded right away to 14th.
Criticism of the British tactics … but was this fair ?
E.A. Montague, the correspondent for the “Manchester Guardian” and a former Olympic steeplechaser (6th in 1924), was frankly dismissive of the tactics adopted by Potts and Eaton, saying that they “foolishly tried to stay” with Murakoso and were “to all intents and purposes finished at two miles’”. O.L. Owen, in “The Times”, was of much the same opinion (maybe they were seated alongside each other in the press-box), writing, “Eaton and Potts had helped to set a cracking pace for two miles, but they overdid it and cracked”. Certainly, the pace was much faster than they were used to – 8:53.0 at 3000 metres, which pointed to a finishing time, if maintained, of around 29:40, which was more than a minute better than that of which they might have been thought capable. In fact, the pace slowed significantly in the second half, and it could be argued in favour of Potts and Eaton that their gamble was worth taking. In his AAA form Potts would have occupied the 5th place which eventually went to Burns.
Further successes were to come for Potts, though he was to have only one other selection for Great Britain as there was to be no 10,000 metres race in international matches until 1950. He won the 1937 Northern cross-country at Worsley, near Manchester, over a course including ditches and plough, which heavy rain turned into a quagmire, and then retained his title the next year at Stockton-on-Tees. Contrary to the canny manner in which he had come from behind for his first Northern success in 1932, Potts was now an inveterate front-runner and at Stockton he was 90 yards ahead after four miles, having “made all the running and left it to the others to catch him if they could”, according to the “Manchester Guardian”, and he won from Burns and Bailey.
For the 1938 track season Potts turned his attentions to the two miles steeplechase – which might have presented no fears for him after his endeavours though the winter plough-land – and won the Northern title at Wath-on-Dearne and then a rather lacklustre AAA race in 10:39.2, almost exactly repeating that time in finishing 2nd to Roger Cuzol in the GB-v-France match at the White City the following month. There’s no obvious reason as to why Potts was not then selected for the European Championships in September, where the Frenchman took 5th place. E.A. Montague had written when the team was announced that “it is deplorable that there is no British runner in the steeplechase, but there is none with the slightest chance of being placed even in the first six”. Though commenting with the advantage of considerable personal experience of the event, Montague was surely less than generous in this assessment.
Potts was injured early in 1939 and lost his Northern cross-country title to Alf Tyrer, of the Sutton Harriers club in St Helens, and though both qualified for the International at Ely Racecourse, Cardiff, there was a surprise for England, losing their team title to France for the first time in 10 years. despite a fourth individual win by Jack Holden. Tyrer was 15th and Potts 16th, one second apart. On the track Potts won the Northern steeplechase again at Bolton in a personal best 10:32.6 (worth about 9:50 for 3000 metres), with Tyrer a well-beaten 3rd, and was then 4th in the AAA race won by a Belgian, Jean Chapelle, who had been 2nd in the 1938 International cross-country and would still be running in that event in 1949.
Potts joined the RAF later in 1939 and one of his last races before war broke out was in a special handicap mile event organized at the Elswick Harriers Golden Jubilee Sports on 26 July. The star attraction was Sydney Wooderson, the World mile record-holder (4:06.4 in 1937) and European 1500 metres champion, and he duly swept past the horde of runners starting ahead of him, though he only caught Jack Potts (off 65 yards) in the final home straight to win in a time of 4:15.0.
As soon as the war finished in 1945 Potts was among those who re-formed the Saltwell Harriers club and he was promptly elected captain. He worked for a company in Newcastle providing industrial belts for the mining industry. He died in the village of Shurdington, near Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire, on 25 April 1987. Sadly, his former Olympic team-mate, Bill Eaton, had succumbed to pneumonia at the age of only 28 in 1938. By contrast, Alec Burns enjoyed a very long life, celebrating his 95th birthday before his death in 2003.
Note: Thanks are due to Andy Milroy and Walter Fraser for drawing attention to Jack Potts’s interesting life story. A valuable source of track statistics is “1930-1939 UK Men’s Ranking Lists”, compiled by Ian Buchanan, David Thurlow and Keith Morbey, published by the National Union of Track Statisticians in 2006. The biography, “Jack White, The Gateshead Clipper, A Life Of Athletics”, was written and published by Warren Roe, and copies are available from him, cost £4 UK, 6 euros Europe, 36 Ravenscroft Grove, Hornchurch, Essex RM12 6HS, firstname.lastname@example.org.