A World-beater on his day. So why was Walter Beavers denied Olympic selection?

Even in an era when Britain was blessed with a host of talented and tenacious distance-runners Walter Beavers was an exceptional achiever. On the track he won a British Empire title, three AAA titles and nine Northern Counties’ titles. At cross-country he was twice Northern champion and on his three appearances for England in the International Championship he placed 5th, 6th and 3rd. At the Olympic Games of 1928 he finished a commendable 9th at 10,000 metres. His career is well documented and yet he remains something of an enigma. One newspaper neatly summed up his capabilities: “When he likes, he can be the best runner in England over three and six miles”.

It can be readily guessed as to why he did not go to the 1932 Olympics, even though the man he beat by eight seconds in the AAA Championships three miles the previous month, Alec Burns, was selected and was 7th in the 5000 metres final. The venue for those Games was Los Angeles and the British athletics team was restricted to 19 men and five women after the national Olympic Association’s appeal for funds fell a long way short of its target. Furthermore, a number of eligible athletes were unable to accept selection because they could not afford or could not obtain the time away from work. Burns was able to go because his employers in Newcastle, the Anglo-American Oil Company (now Esso), gave him time off with pay, whereas according to Burns’s recollection Beavers, who worked as a railwayman, could not get such dispensation.

Yet a different story was told at the time by local press reporters in Yorkshire who obviously had a special interest in Beavers, as has been discovered by the eminent athletics historian and author, Ian Tempest, who lives in York. In the issue of the “Hull Daily Mail” for 6 July 1932, appearing on the Tuesday after the AAA Championships, it was stated as follows: “The omission of Walter Beavers, of York, from Britain’s Olympic team is explained. Mr F.W. Beresford, of Manchester, who acted as referee in the Championships at the White City on Saturday, was in consultation with the selection committee when the merits of runners were fully discussed and Beavers’s record thoroughly examined. It is suggested that as consistency is the first essential in selection Beavers was reluctantly passed over, although the selectors fully appreciated the fact that the York runner is capable of beating the whole world on his day”.

The four-man selection team consisted of Arthur Turk, from Essex, who was the Olympic team manager; E.J. (“Billy”) Holt, of South London Harriers, who also travelled with the team to Los Angeles; A.E. Machin, of Sparkhill Harriers, a vice-president of the AAA; and J. Russell Rose, of Yorkshire Walking Club, who was chairman of the Yorkshire AAA. The exchange of views regarding the merits of Beavers must have caused some heart-searching for Rose, and pertinent questions might well have been asked of him afterwards by his county colleagues. One wonders quite why Fred Beresford, who was a member of the Lancashire club, Broughton Harriers, was brought into the deliberations, and certainly the phrasing of the comments in the Hull newspaper suggest that he had an influential say in matters. The fact is that the committee’s claims of inconsistency on the part of Beavers do not stand up to close examination.

What was evident was that Beavers had an eccentric way of running races. Of the AAA three miles, “The Times” reported that it “was won in curiously erratic fashion by W. Beavers, who rushed to the front, then fell well back behind the leaders, then rejoined the leaders with a sprint, and after looking quite exhausted ran the last lap as if he were running his first … the turn of speed which Beavers produced, almost jocularly, was enough to disconcert anyone”.

In the Northern Championships three miles the previous month at Leeds Beavers had languished a hundred yards or so behind the leaders at one stage, as instructed by his coach, Jimmy Dawson, and was accordingly barracked by the spectators, but then came through spectacularly to win in a time of 14:38.4 which beat the meeting record by 55 seconds. He finished 1½ yards ahead of Tom Evenson, who was sent to Los Angeles for the steeplechase and was the brilliant silver-medallist there. The other track distance-runner apart from Alec Burns to be selected for those Games was Evenson’s clubmate at Salford Harriers, George Bailey, who was 5th in the steeplechase final, having run the fastest ever time by a Briton in the heats. Had it not been for a mis-counting of laps by officials, Bailey might well have had a medal alongside Evenson.

Leaving aside the unmatched experience of Beavers at international level, which had evolved from his placings in the International cross-country of 1927 and 1928 and the Olympic 10,000 metres of the latter year, his list of performances during 1932 hardly justified any claims of inconsistency. In February he had won the Yorkshire cross-country title at Wakefield by 59 seconds. In March he had placed 8th in the National at Wolverton, in Buckinghamshire, won by Burns from Bailey, and thus qualified for England’s team at the International in Brussels. There he had excelled himself by finishing 3rd in what can unquestionably be described as England’s finest display in the event since it had begun 29 years before – Evenson 1st, Jack Holden 2nd, Beavers 3rd, Jack Potts 4th, Bailey 5th and Burns 6th ! Of the Olympic selectors, Turk was a vice-president of the National Cross-Country Union and Machin a past president, and so both would have been well aware of these results.

One of the first track encounters that year among leading British distance-men had been on 16 May in an invitation four miles (about to be replaced by the three miles on the AAA Championships schedule) during the British Games at the newly-renovated White City Stadium in London. Burns won from Potts, Holden, Bailey and Beavers, and as there was a margin of victory of half-a-lap Beavers was not the only one to be run out of it that afternoon. Ten days later Burns beat the three miles record for Oxford University’s Iffley Road track by 23 seconds in a time of 14:22.0 which would be the fastest in Britain for the year. On the weekend in June after Beavers had defeated Evenson in the Northern three miles the World record was taken below 14 minutes for the first time by Lauri Lehtinen, of Finland, Olympic champion-to-be at 5000 metres in controversial circumstances. Beavers’s winning three-mile time at the AAA Championships was much the same as Burns’s at Oxford – 14:23.2.

As if to point out to the selectors the error of their ways, Beavers then showed fine form for the rest of the season. He won the two miles at the Huddersfield Police Sports on 23 July and followed that with a remarkable three miles at Ibrox Park, Glasgow, on 6 August, which was the day after the Olympic 5000 metres final, recording a time of 14:43.8. The conditions that day were not uncommon for a Scottish summer as there was a “high and blustering wind which impeded the runners, heavy rain which fell during most of the afternoon, and a sodden track”. Allowing for those disadvantages, as compared with the immeasurably better circumstances in California, a fair guess is that Beavers might have run sub-14:40 for 5000 metres, given his Olympic opportunity, and that would have got him in the first six in Los Angeles. The varying fortunes of British athletes of the 1930s are full of such tales of “what might have been”.

Apparently not too discouraged by his Olympic rebuff, Beavers continued running with success for several more years, most notably finishing 2nd to the Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Janusz Kusocinski, of Poland, in the 1934 AAA three miles and then winning the British Empire Games title at that distance a month later, with Cyril Allen (Highgate Harriers) 2nd and Burns 3rd to complete a clean-sweep for England. Beavers was 2nd again in the AAA three miles the next year, won by a future Olympic 5000 metres finalist, Aubrey Reeve, of Polytechnic Harriers, and then 5th in 1936. Beavers also ran in international matches against France (twice) and Germany during 1934-35 and was even credited with a 14:05.0 three miles at Ashford, in Kent, in the latter year, which beat Alfred Shrubb’s UK record standing since 1903, but there were exceptionally fast times in a number of races at that meeting, and there remain doubts about the true dimensions of the track.

Almost 70 years later a former clubmate, Herbert Barker, by now aged 92, would fondly reminisce to the “York Press” newspaper that Beavers “was the greatest runner in those days and he was a fine strong-built chap”. Barker said that Beavers and his York Harriers club-mates trained on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Sunday mornings, changing clothes in a local stables, and that Beavers was particularly astute when it came to making the most of the prizes awarded at local handicap meetings. On one occasion he bought a tie-clip for a penny with his £3 voucher and thus came away with £2 19 shillings and 11 pence change. As the average income in those days in Britain was £3 12 shillings a week, and Beavers’s employment as a railway maintenance worker no doubt earned him rather less than this, it can be appreciated that ability as a prize-winning runner could be a most welcome boost to a household’s budget. Beavers, born on 11 July 1903, was short and compact in build, at 5ft 5½in (1.67m) tall and weighing 9st 4lb (59kg), and when he died in 1965 at the age of 62 he was survived by his wife, Lucy, whom he had married in the midst of his athletics career in 1930, and by a daughter, Patricia.

What is intriguing is to speculate further about the selection policy for those 1932 Olympics. The British team was announced two days after the AAA Championships, and so the selectors must have already been aware of Beavers’s situation. Did they ask potential Olympic competitors even before the AAA Championships to confirm their availability? Certainly, a number of athletes in various events – maybe even a dozen or more – were invited to join the Olympic team … but at their own expense. This was 1932, remember, when the World was still in an economic recession, and it was quite impossible for those on a weekly wage to consider giving up their earnings for a month or more.

Beavers, or anyone else in a similar situation, could hardly have been expected to contact his employers and get an immediate reply between his winning on the Saturday afternoon and the announcement of the team in the Monday-morning newspapers. Beavers was not the only AAA track winner left out as so, too, was Jack Potts, who had beaten Jack Holden by a narrow margin of less than four seconds at six miles, and both would certainly have been in the first six of the Olympic 10,000 metres on that form, Britain thus sent no one for that event.

Bob Phillips

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