William Summers, the unfairly treated Yorkshire sprinter of the early 1930s

The early 1930s was not a vintage era for British sprinting. Harry Edward, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, all of them great champions and Olympic medal-winners of the 1920s, were long retired. So far as Jack London and Walter Rangeley, the Olympic silver-medallists of 1928, were concerned, London had another year or so of club competition and Rangeley would go on racing to a high standard throughout the decade but not to his previous level. The future generation of Cyril Holmes and Arthur Sweeney was only just setting out.

At the successive Olympic Games of 1920, 1924 and 1928 Great Britain had won a gold medal, three silver medals and four bronze medals at 100 metres, 200 metres and the 4 x 100 metres relay, but there would be no medal at all in those events in Los Angeles in 1932 – except for the valiant women relay runners – and it was to be exactly the same outcome in Berlin in 1936.

Even so, there were some very capable British male sprinters during the years 1930 to 1933 – most of them inevitably long since forgotten except by the most diligent students of the sport. The one man to win a title of note in those years was Stanley Engelhart, of York Harriers, at 220 yards at the first British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1930, but there was another Yorkshireman, William Summers, who is something of an enigma but was capable of beating anyone in the land on occasions He even set a British record which was arbitrarily disallowed and is still a matter of dispute to this day. The era of Sweeney and Holmes began in 1934 with Sweeney’s wins at 100 and 220 yards in the next Empire Games in London, and Holmes would repeat that double four years later in Sydney..

The British record for 100 yards at the start of the 1930s stood at 9.7sec by the brilliantly versatile Olympic 400 metres champion of 1924, Eric Liddell, and so any man who is credited with times of 9.7, 9.8 and 9.9 within a fortnight in 1932, and then 9.8 again the following year, must be taken seriously, though there is a bizarre side to the Summers story. In a series of profiles of leading athletes compiled in 1934 by an anonymous author named “Irrepressible” it was said of Summers that after his 9.7 “he was hailed as a certain Olympic champion by the ‘sensational’ newspapers … it was rather a bitter pill for them to swallow when the record was disallowed”. The writer then adds the disparaging comment that “Summers is famed for attempting to beat the gun … in the Anglo-Italian match at Milan last September he had a man after his own heart in Edgardo Toetti”.

That 1933 race was won for Great Britain by George Saunders in 10.7, with Toetti 2nd and Summers 3rd, and later in the afternoon the GB 4 x 100 metres relay team of Summers, Kenneth Yates, Walter Rangeley and Saunders also won in 42.0. The outcome of the match, however, was rather easily in Italy’s favour, 85-62, and was highlighted by Luigi Beccali’s World record at 1500 metres of 3:49.0. Toetti, incidentally, had been one of the Italians responsible for the profusion of false starts in the England-v-Italy Stamford Bridge match of 1931, and he had a false start again on this latter occasion. He regularly appeared prominently in AAA 100 yards finals, placing 3rd in 1929, 2nd in 1930 and 3rd again in 1931.

William Henry Summers was born in Hull on 9 March 1908, and the parental home was in Newstead Street, which was a working-class area of terraced housing in the city. He attended Hymers College there which had been founded in 1893, built from money left in a will for the purpose by a local clergyman, the Reverend John Hymers. Summers must have been academically gifted because he won a place at Sandhurst as an army officer cadet and showed promise there as a hurdler until in the 1931 Army Championships final of the 120 yards hurdles he fell at the sixth barrier and broke his arm. This mishap made such an exercise too risky for him to continue with it. Until the mid-1930s the barriers used in hurdles races were solid and of an inverted T-shape and the competitor needed to clear them cleanly – otherwise, if you hit them, you were very likely to fall, as Summers had painfully discovered

He turned to sprinting instead and came to startling athletic prominence as a 24-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, which had been formed in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In a match between the army club, Milocarian, and South London Harriers at Aldershot on 21 May 1932 he won the 100 yards in 9.7 to equal Liddell’s British record and beat by one-tenth the English native record which had first been set by Jack Morton in 1904 and subsequently equalled by Morton himself in 1905 and then successively by Victor D’Arcy in 1911, Henry Macintosh in 1913 and Willie Applegarth in 1913 and 1914. As Morton had won four successive AAA titles and D’Arcy, Macintosh and Applegarth had been Olympic relay gold-medallists in 1912, Summers was in fast company, indeed !

The media reaction to Summers’s unexpected achievement was predictably mixed. Naturally, the “Hull Daily Mail” joyfully splashed a headline which read “Hull Man’s Great Sprint” and reported the performance unquestioningly. The “Edinburgh Evening News” – no doubt jealously guarding the reputation of Liddell, their Scots record-holder, and an Edinburgh University graduate now on a religious mission to China – was much less accommodating. “One does not like to disparage a brilliant performance, but there must be serious doubt”, wrote their correspondent under the pseudonym, “London Scot”. He continued, “Summers may be an improved runner, but it is a fact that he has done nothing previously to cause him to be included among the best half-dozen sprinters in the country. He has not won a single important race in the past two seasons”.

This assessment was a harsh one. Summers certainly had done very little sprinting previously, and his hurdling injury would have put paid to the rest of his 1931 season, but he had performed very capably alongside some illustrious team-mates. The Army had been giving great encouragement to sport ever since the experience of World War I when so many conscripts were found to be totally unfit for duty. Athletics was given a high priority both at home and overseas, and the hurdlers alone in the Army ranks included the Olympic champion of 1928 at the 400 metres distance, Lord Burghley, and other Great Britain internationals Ian Tubbs, John Sheffield and Oliver White. Alongside these four Summers appeared in an event which, sadly, has long since been abandoned – the shuttle relay, involving four or even five members of each team running in succession parallel sets of 120 yards hurdles in alternate directions !

The report in “The Times” of Summers’s record 9.7 refers to “a slight following wind”, but on whatever available evidence it was later decided that the race was wind-assisted. This seems to have been an entirely summary judgment by the AAA, who would have been responsible for ratifying records, because in the days before wind-gauges had come into general use the decision as to whether or not a sprint vent was wind-assisted was taken on the day by the chief track judge or the meeting referee, and sometimes, of course, that could be a matter of mere guesswork.

Summers won by the race by three yards from a very capable sprinter, Leonard Hobbs, of South London Harriers, who was the son of the famous cricketer, Jack Hobbs. Then at the Army Championships, at Aldershot on 3-4 June, Summers won his heat in 9.8 and the final in 9.9 by a margin of five feet from Lance-Corporal E.J. Kelly, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. No one suggested that the Army timing was at fault or whether there might have been any wind assistance

The AAA Championships on 2 July, held for the first time at the White City Stadium, in North London, provided the ultimate test for all aspiring Olympic sprinters because the team for Los Angeles would be named immediately afterwards. Fred Reid, of Edinburgh University, worked hard for the double which won him his place, contesting heats, semi-finals and finals at both 100 yards and 220 yards. All three rounds of the 100 yards were on the Friday evening of the meeting, and Reid took the final by inches from Ernie Page, of Blackheath Harriers, and Stanley Fuller, of Great Yarmouth AC, was in 3rd place another foot behind. In 4th and 5th places were Everard Davis, of Achilles, and Billy Green, of Birchfield Harriers. Summers was last and was not to appear in another AAA final. Neither Reid nor his British sprint colleagues at the Olympics – Page, Fuller and Stanley Engelhart, – got further than the 2nd round of their events in Los Angeles.

Maybe Summers was suffering from an injury in the AAA final, or it was just one race too many for him within the space of a couple of hours, because he had shown much better form in the preliminaries, equalling the fastest time of the series in winning his first-round heat in 10.1 and then finishing inches behind Reid’s 10.0 in the semi-finals. Summers was not present at the Inter-Services’ championships at Uxbridge later in July when Pilot-Officer Arthur Sweeney won in 10.1 for the RAF ahead of L/Cpl Kelly.

Summers certainly was not the most consistent of sprinters, and when he turned out for the 100 yards at the Northern Championships at the Leeds University grounds at Weetwood three weeks after his 9.7 clocking he was beaten in the heats by G.E.Winpenny, of Middlesbrough Harriers, who ran 10 3/5 ! There must have been some reason for this as no sprinter’s form can fluctuate by 10 yards or so simply because of the weather or the state of the track. Summers told the “Hull Daily Mail” that each year he did not start serious training for sprinting until March, but then he occupied himself fully during the winter months. He had played association football for Sandhurst and then as a rugby-union wing-threequarter starred in the Army Cup Final won by the 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment against the Training Battalion of the Royal Engineers in 1931. The Duke’s men 21, the RE nil!

In 1933 Summers beat Ernie Page in an Aldershot Command-v-Metropolitan Police match in 10.0 but was then 3rd by 2½ yards to George Saunders (10.0) in the prestigious Kinnaird Trophy inter-club meeting. Once more the Army Championships seemed to bring the best out of Summers because he had a valid 9.8 in the heats at the Oval Ground, Tidworth, and again won the final in 9.9 by half-a-yard from 2nd Lt Richard Craddock, of the 2nd Battalion The Buffs. At the AAA Championships the pattern of the previous year was largely repeated: Summers won his heat easily enough in 10.3 but did not survive the semi-finals. Yet at the Inter-Services’ Championships at Portsmouth later in July he tied for 1st place at 100 yards with Pilot-Officer Arthur Sweeney, who together with Cyril Holmes was unquestionably the leading British sprinter of the decade.

In 1934, and by now promoted to Lieutenant, Summers ran a 10.0 at Woolwich in early May and the following month was Army champion for the third successive year with another 10.0 clocking. The contribution which the armed forces made to British sprinting in the 1930s is well illustrated by the fact that nine of the 24 Britons who ran 10.0 or faster in 1934 were servicemen (five from the Army, three from the Royal Navy and one from the RAF), including the legendary Sergeant Jack Hart, of the Army, then serving with the Cheshire Regiment in India and leading the rankings at 9.7.

Summers seems to have ended his career at the Inter-Services’ Championships at the White City on 25 July 1934, finishing 1½ yards behind Pilot-Officer Sweeney’s record 9.9 clocking. It was only 10 days later on the same track that Sweeney won the British Empire Games title in 10.0. Service duties presumably took precedence as Summers did not defend his 100 yards title in the Army Championships of 1935, by which time he had transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps. He was promoted to Captain in 1937 and his wife, Marjorie, gave birth to a son in March 1939, when they were living at Solihull, in Warwickshire. He was made Colonel in 1955 and Brigadier in 1958 – quite an achievement for a working-class lad from a back street in a Northern city. He retired from the Army two years later. He died at Liphook, in Hampshire, on 11 May 1970.

Incidentally; the other eminent Yorkshire sprinter of the early 1930s, Stanley Englehart, was born in Selby on 3 February 1910 and had an international career lasting from 1929 to 1933. He was rather a 220 yards specialist and was 2nd in the AAA final in 1929, aged only 19, with an estimated time of 22.1 which was a British junior best. He won the AAA 220 the next year and gained his greatest success at the same distance at the Empire Games in Canada the following month.

At the 1932 Olympics he suffered muscle problems, though he was in the 4 x 100 metres relay team which finished 6th and last in the final but in a very respectable time of 41.4, only half-a-second away from the silver medals. At 100 yards he was an AAA finalist in 1929 and 1930 and was the leading Briton in the latter year in 3rd place. He won five Northern titles (two at 100 yards, three at 220 yards) between 1929 and 1933. His best times were 9.9w and 21.8. He died in the town of his birth on 9 September 1979.

After Engelhart’s success at 220 yards in 1930, no other Yorkshiremen won AAA titles in the sprints until Brian Shenton did so at 220 yards in 1954 and Roy Sandstrom at 100 yards the next year. Sandstrom, like William Summers, was born in Hull.

Bob Phillips

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