When a ray of sunlight shone on British vaulting: the life of Joe Birkett

An English Championships was held during the 1920s with the primary intention of bolstering the field events which were then so shamefully neglected. Unfortunately, the brave venture was ill-supported and short-lived, lasting only from 1923 to 1925, but there is an intriguing sequel almost a century later. A medal inscribed “Pole Jump St Albans 4th July 1925 Winner” has recently come to light and was brought to the attention of a long-serving Cheshire athletics enthusiast, John Driscoll. Further research suggests that the original recxpipent of the medal, J. S. Birkett, had much to offer in what was a neglected event in England in those days.
Joe Birkett was one of a handful of British pole vaulters in his era who was not either an undergraduate at Cambridge University or a recent graduate from there. At those English Championships he placed 2nd in 1923 and won for the next two years, and although his best vault in that series was no more than 10ft 2in (3.10m) he cleared 10-6 (3.20) at the 1930 Northern Counties’ Championships at Crewe, and there is strong evidence that he achieved considerably better because it has been discovered that a trophy inscribed “Wallasey AC 1929 Pole Vault Winner J.S. Birkett 11ft 1in” is owned by Birkett’s daughter. It is conceivable, but unlikely, that the height referred to included a handicap advantage.
This noteworthy performance appears to have gone unreported despite the extensive coverage given to such local fixtures in the “Athletic News” and “Sporting Chronicle” publications of that era. A vault of this level was exceedingly rare anywhere north of Cambridge – of the 11 Britons who are known for certain to have cleared 11ft (3.30m) or better during the 1920s, all but one had been to or was still at Cambridge University!
Birkett, whose second initial “S” stood for a family name, Seatree, was a member of the athletics club at Port Sunlight, in Bebington, on the Wirral peninsular bank of the River Mersey. The club was part of the very extensive recreational facilities provided for the employees of the Lever Brothers soap-manufacturing company, and. William Lever (later Lord Leverhulme) was the enlightened benefactor who had authorised construction of a model village of 200 acres to provide accommodation for 6000 employees, for which work began in 1899. Some 900 Grade II listed buildings, including the imposing Lady Lever Art Gallery, still exist as a haven of architectural tranquility a couple of miles or so off the M53 motorway into Liverpool. Sunlight soap was first marketed in 1884 by Lever Brothers (later Unilever) and remained a brand name in Great Britain until 2009, and it is still in 2019 being sold under that name in some other countries.
Lord Leverhulme had no obvious interest in sport in his privileged youth, educated at Eton College and Cambridge University, but he was described in A.G. Gardiner’s book of 1914 about “Pillars of Society” as “a moral athlete who has trained himelf down to the last ounce and wins the race by first winning the victory over himself”. His Lordship pragmatically believed that a healthy and happy workforce was a more productive one. Working for Lever Brothers throughout the 19th and much of the 20th Century was prized ane envied – new employees respected their managers because they had worked their way up the promotion ladder themselves. The workers felt that they were part of a family and every recreational interst was catered for – a gymnasium and swimming-pool opened in 1902 and a football ground followed the next year, with the League professionals from Everton providing the illustrious opposition for the Port Sunlight players and winning 5-0. Within the next seven years there were 28 different clubs and societies set upby the company.
A recreation ground (now known as Bebigton Oval and still in use with an all-weather track) was opened on 19 July 1919, and the Port Sunlight Athletics Clyb was formed in 1921, with training-nights advertised for each Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening. Some form of athletics had already been encouraged by the company because as early as 1907 the gymnastics club had included high jumping among its activities.
Port Sunlight AC held its first annual meeting in 1922 offering to competitors what their secretary, E.L. Austin, proudly described as a “splendid cinder track, fine dressing-rooms, hot and cold shower baths”, and within two years records were set at one mile, two miles and three miles – but on a lightweight motor-cycle ridden by George Baker, from Birmingham, who put on such displays at local sports throughout the 1920s. The runners took centre stage at the 1928 Port Sunlight meeting, featuring a two miles team race in which Salford Harriers beat Birchfield Harriers and Wirral AC, watched by a massive and precisely counted crowd of 35,030 gathered for the company’s annual open day. In much later years the venue made a further small but significant contributions to athletics history.
It was there in 1973 that Sebastian Coe won his first national title – the English Schools’ intermediate 3000 metres – and a decade after that the venue provided the film setting for the 1924 Olympic Games scenes in “Chariots of Fire”. The Schools’ Championships had also been held at Bebington Oval back in 1950, from which the winners are, inevitably, long since forgotten even by the most ardent enthusiasts, save for Derek Johnson (220 yards) and June Foulds (100 yards), who would both be Olympic silver-medallists six years later.
Joe Birkett had been born in Keswick, then in Cumberland (now Cumbria), on 11 September 1894, and was the youngest of 12 in a family keenly interested in sport. He was employed as an ironmonger’s apprentice in Keswick in his teenage years and then served in the Army during World War I as a physical training instructor with the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), rising to the rank of Company Sergeant Major and awarded the Military Medal in 1916. This rather suggests that he must already have been active in sport before the war. He certainly had some athletics competition during his military service because a second trophy of his which has survived was awarded to him for winning the high jump at the 270th Infantry Battalion sports on 1 August 1917.
He was married in Tottenham, in North London, on 24 August 1918 while still serving in the Army, and he and his wife, Jessie, whose first husband had been killed in the war, and her daughter, Dorothy, lived briefly in Stoke Newington, also in North London. It was at this time that Birkett met up with the renowned coach, F.A.M. Webster, and took part in weekly pole-vault coaching sessions and monthly competitions at the Regent Street Gymnasium, in London. These were organised by Polytechnic Harriers and were surely the first regular indoor demonstrations of such field events ever in Britain, as the high jump, long jump and shot were also included, but unfortunately no details of performances seem to have survived.
Even so, Birkett left his mark – literally, in one instance – as Webster related in his 1938 book, “Indoor Athletics and Winter Training”: “On one occasion the 16lb shot was propelled into the gallery, to the discomfort of certain spectators, but the pièce de resistance was produced on the night when Birkett, having cleared the bar, dropped his pole clean on the nose of a fellow competitor who was watching rather too closely … to add insult to injury Birkett then landed clean on his disgruntled rival’s chest”. Quite how both Birkett and his pole managed to hit the same unfortunate individual is difficult to envisage, but no matter – it makes for a good story.
Birkett clearly was interested in the techniques of the event and in coaching others. Of lasting educational value to would-be pole-vaulters, he devised a simple but effective training exercise which Webster was to use extensively in future years, including at the AAA Loughborough Summer Schools, which began in 1934. Webster called it the “Birkett Exercise”, and it required the instructor to stand at the take-off point with the bar at a low height – Webster suggested 5ft 6in – and grasp the pole as the vaulter planted it in the ground at the end of his run-up and then help the vaulter swing over the bar.
Webster refers to one of the Regent Street meetings taking place in November 1919, but his prolific coaching work soon took him elsewhere, and these innovatory indoor sessions came to an end. In any case, the Birkett family moved north to Bebington, which was then in Cheshire, where Joe became a physical education supervisor at the Port Sunlight gymnasium, and over the years his family expanded to four children. In the fullness of time Joe Birkett’s training exercise was endorsed at the most authoritative level because Geoff Dyson, the charismatic AAA chief coach, discussed it at length alongside several illustrations in his 1951 book, “Athletics for Schools”. The next year K.S. (”Sandy”) Duncan, a AAA senior coach and secretary of the British Olympic Association for 26 years, co-authored a book entitled “In Athletics … Do It This Way”, which was also aimed at a youthful readership and never mentioned the pole vault at all even when a further edition was re-printed in 1960!
By now already aged 25, Joe Birkett was 2nd in the 1920 Northern Counties’ Championships pole vault to Percy Kellett, of Barrow AC, who had also won in 1914, and Birkett then took the title very year from 1921 to 1924 inclusive and went on competing into the 1930s, regularly finishing 2nd to the best vaulter to be produced by the North of England in the inter-war years, Frank Phillipson, of Salford Harriers. Phillipson was also Cumbrian-born and had learned his skills from the age of 12 at the various Lakeland Games in the North-West which had produced so many agile pole-climbing experts in the closing years of the 19th Century. He won the Northern Counties’ title nine times between 1926 and 1935 and represented Great Britain in five matches against France, Germany and Italy in the last three of those years. He was AAA champion in 1934 – admittedly in the absence of any foreign opposition – and he was that lone confirmed British 11ft-vaulter in the 1920s who had not been to Cambridge University.
Even at Northern Counties’ level the amenities for the pole vaulters could be primitive, and after the 1923 Championships in Blackpool the correspondent for the nationwide sports newspaper, “Athletic News”, correspondent wrote aggrievedly on the following Monday, “There was no pit for the pole or high jumps – though, be it added, the competitors therein passed this over in sportsmanlike fashion”. The arrangements for the entire Championships clearly were appallingly inadequate because the same observer complained bitterly, “It would be interesting to hear the candid opinion of those few who favoured the meet with their patronage as to representative sport presented by the NCAA on this occasion. It is a very long while since I participated in such a lifeless and altogether unsatisfactory meet”. He said sympathetically of Birkett, who had cleared 10ft (3.05m) despite the hazards awaiting his landing, that he “must have longed for Bebington”.
What audacity such pole vaulters as Birkett in those days must have had, falling from heights of 11ft or more on to unyielding grass!
Of course, the standard of performance in Britain, even by Frank Phillipson, was moderate. Phillipson’s best was 12ft 3in (3.73m) in 1932 and 1934, by which time the World record had been raised to 14-1 5/8 (4.37) by Bill Graber, of the USA. During 1934 there were 39 Europeans alone from 14 different countries who cleared 3.80 or better, but none of them were British. Yet these stark statistics should not be seen to devalue the contribution of Phillipson, Birkett and Isaac Towers, of Darlington Harriers, or J.W. Ellmore, of Sheffield United Harriers, who won the 1925 and 1929 Northern titles respectively, at a time when their event was regarded with disdain by the domestic athletics authorities and largely so by the so-called specialist newspaper correspondents.
There was never any real hope of a British pole vaulter making an impression at the Olympic Games during the 1920s. Birkett was one of 24 Northern athletes nominated for “special training” in February of 1924, but as the Paris Games were less than five months away this was far too late in the day. There is no indication of what form the training took, and in any case it was hardly effective as none of the Northerners gaind selection. Britain’s only pole vaulter in Paris was an Australian-born Cambridge University undergraduate, John Campbell, who fauiled to qualify for the final, as did Laurence Bond – also from the same university – at the 1928 Games.
Joe Birkett, in all probability, had no such Olympic ambition but still found a huge and appreciative audience for his skills. In March of 1924 the Port Sunlight Gymnasium & Boxing Club held its annual display watched by a sell-out crowd in the company’s vast auditorium, and the “Liverpool Echo” reporter could not contain his excitement: “To merely mention that the exhibition of pole jumping was given by Mr J.S. Birkett at once informs you that the display was top-hole in more senses than one, for we all know the excellence of the three times Northern amateur champion”. .
Mention should also be made of a further significant contribution to the event from the North of England shortly before and after World War II. John Dodd was another Cumbrian who had studied and later lectured at at Carnegie College of Physical Education, in Leeds. He won the Northern title in 1936-37-38 and again in 1946-47-48, and had a personal best height of 12-6 (3.81) in 1938 and was still clearing 12ft a decade later at the age of 34. He was also three times Northern high-jump champion, in 1936, 1938 and 1946, and at various times he was a member of Hull AC, the London & North Eastern Railway AC at Doncaster, Sheffield United Harriers and Belgrave Harriers in London, He even won the AAA pole vault in 1937, beating a foreigner – though one of modest ability, Fethi Giray, a Turk living in England – and in 1955 he wrote a 40-page paperback training manual entitled “Jumping (Know the Game)”
In contrast to the indifference of the establishment, there is some clear evidence that the athletics-going public enjoyed pole vaulting’s spectacle and drama. When Jack Perry, also a member of the Port Sunlight club and ranked in the top six vaulters in Britain, got married in 1939 the “Liverpool Echo” noted that he had won 52 prizes and the “Liverpool Evening Express” remarked particularly on the popularity of his vaulting exhibitions for charitable causes “all over the country”. Perry had started vaulting at 13, which was probably in 1928, and no doubt that helped develop his other sporting skills which were as goalkeeper for the Port Sunlight FC.
Port Sunlight, in fact, seems to have developed something of a pole-vaulting “nursery”, and it seems highly probable that Joe Birkett was the driving-force there. There was other coaching expertise in the family because the holder of the British high-jump record from 1921 to 1946, Benjamin Howard Baker, who was born and brought up across the Mersey from Port Sunlight in Liverpool, had paid tribute to the advice given him byone of Joe’s elder brothers, Fred, who was the senior of the two by 13 years. Fred had himself been a very capable athlete, winning the Northern Counties’ high jump in 1907 and setting a personal best of 5ft 10½in (1.79m) which was beaten by only five other Englishman throughout the first decade of the 20th Century.
Fred Birkett had also competed as a professional “pole jumper” at the Grasmere Lakeland Games before World War I and had cleared a very respectable 10ft 6in (3.20m) there in 1912, by which time he would have been more than 30 years of age. He had moved to Waterloo, Liverpool, before the war and seems to have been reinstated as an amateur because he vaulted again as a member of Liverpool Harriers in 1914. Joe was to benefit from his brother’s rare expertise and from up-to-date technology from the outset of his competitive career. After the war Fred set himself up as a coach and vaulting-pole supplier, advertising in the “Athletic News” in April 1921 as follows.
“Bamboo vaulting poles, personally selected, price 30 shillings each, including carriage, 16 to 18 feet long. Advice and instruction on vaulting free”.
The two available photographs of Joe Birkett show him clearing the bar horizontally with the pole certainly several feet longer than the height at which the bar was set. Of course, there was no bend in these bamboo poles to catapult the vaulter into the air as fibre-glass would do when it was introduced from the 1950s onwards, but bamboo was certainly rather more reliable than the ash or hickory poles previously used – most importantly, less liable to snapping with what could be serious consequences for the athlete who risked being impaled on the jagged ends.
Bamboo vaulting poles had been in use since the Frenchman, Fernand Gonder, set three World best performances and won the 1906 Olympic title, and clearly athletes in the Merseyside and Cheshire areas took advantage of the service offered by Fred Birkett. By the early 1930s Port Sunlight AC had two other vaulters, W.S. Dennison and W.A. Parsons (the latter was 2nd to Phillipson in the 1931 Northern Championships), and nowhere else in the country other than Cambridge University, which provided five of the top 10 in the rankings that year, could improve on that degree of commitment.
Jack Perry vaulted 11-6 (3.50) every year from 1937 to 1939, and 2nd place at the 1936 Northern Championships was taken by another Port Sunlight member, Jack Walker, who had vaulted 11-9 (3.58) while at Oxford University three years before and had competed in the 1934 British Empire Games. Port Sunlight AC was still active into the 1950s, but the main sporting legacy of the Lever Brothers’ benevolence is now the Port Sunlight Wheelers cycling club, formed in 1948.
The field events in general were very well supported by Port Sunlight members in the years immediately before and after World War II. The most noted exponent was javelin-thrower Robert Turner, a former Grenadier Guardsman who had competed in the 1930 British Empire Games and had set two UK records. Serving as a police officer in neighbouring Birkenhead, he won the Northern title every year from 1936 to 1939 and again in 1948 and 1949, by now aged 39. He was 3rd for Cheshire in the Inter-Counties’ Championships in 1939 and 3rd again 10 years later. Enterprisingly, there was also a Liverpool & District Field Events League in operation in the 1930s supported by Liverpool Harriers, Liverpool Police, Bounday Harriers, Bootle Police and Wallasey AC.
In addition there was valiant backing for the decathlon, which was an event equally as neglected as the pole vault. The Port Sunlight club organised a competition for 26-27 August 1939, though the results don’t seem to have survived. The AAA decathlon championship was due to be held the next month at Loughborough but was cancelled in timely fashion as war was declared on Sunday 3 September. Once Hitler was out of the way, Port Sunlight revived its enthusiasm for the decathlon and organised the Northern Championship in 1948 and 1949 and the AAA Championship in 1952.
Maurice Morrell’s association with athletics at a national level reaches back to 1954, when he won the AAA javelin title, and continued well into his veteran years as an award-winning distance-runner. He was 85 in 2018 and was a member of Wirral AC, and he says, “I only knew Joe Birkett as a judge of field events from when I started competing at the Bebington Oval in 1948, and I did not know of his background. I knew more about Jack Perry, who was groundsman at the Oval and an ever-present when meetings were staged there. The first Cheshire Championships were held at the Oval in 1948, and Jack won the pole vault with a jump of 11ft 6in, which was recorded in my programme and in subsequent championship programmes. As Jack had been vaulting since the 1930s, I didn’t know if that was a personal best”.
Morrell taught himself to pole-vault at school and remembers that the rules for the event included the instruction that “only one hole in which to plant the pole at take-off shall be dug and shall not be more than one foot across” and that “the lower end of the pole may terminate in a single metal spike or wooden peg”. He adds, “I assume that constructed boxes were not the norm, but I do recall a box being set in the ground at the Oval to provide a facility for the vaulters”.
Laurence Bond, who was one of the numerous Cambridge University vaulters in the inter-war years and in 1928 broke the British record which had lasted since 1891, wrote passionately about his event in the first edition of the training manual, “Athletics by Members of the Achilles Club”, published in 1938: “The pole vault is perhaps the most arresting of all field events to watch, and is certainly, for beginners and experts alike, one of the most enjoyable in which to take part. As a body-building form of exercise it can hardly be equaled, for in its performance practically every group of muscles is brought into play”.
Bond also had an eye for the practicalities of the event, advising, “As soon as possible acquire your own pole. You can often get just as good a one by going to an importer of bamboo and choosing one yourself from the large stock there, as by getting one from an athletic outfitters. Be careful to choose a well-seasoned one for whip”. Judging by the vast amount of advertising in local and national newspapers during 1938 for bamboo-made furniture and screens, there was no shortage of the material in Britain. Laurence Bond qualified as a pathologist but died at the age of 37 in 1943 from complications after suffering appendicitis.
During World War II Joe Birkett was assigned to the Ministry of Defence as an anti-gas instructor and the Port Sunlight gymnasium was used to replace the bombed-out village shop. After the war he became a lecturer at the company management training centre This is now a 4-star hotel, though the Port Sunlight site remains part of Unilever’s research department. Joe married for a second time, to Florence Mercer, of Bebington, who was the aunt of Joe Mercer, the England football team captain and later manager. Birkett died in January 1961, aged 66,
Progress in the pole vault in the North of England remained slow for many years even after World War II. When the first ever comprehensive British all-time lists were published by Ian Buchanan and Norris and Ross McWhirter in 1957, there were only 33 vaulters who had ever cleared 12ft (3.66m) or better, and of those just four were Northerners – Frank Phillipson in 1932, John Dodd in 1938 and Ian Ward (Bury AC) and Raymond Petitjean (Manchester AC), both in 1955.
Note: Many thanks to John Driscoll, of West Cheshire AC, and to Don Siddorns, grandson of Joe’s first wife, and to one of Joe’s daughters, Patricia Abel, for so much valuable information regarding the Birkett family. Bebington Oval, the athletics venue originally built by Lever Brothers, is still in regular use for training and competition on its all-weather surface, though much of the cavernous grand-stand which featured in “Chariots of Fire” is, regrettably, partitioned off because it is unsafe.
Another pioneer of pole vaulting in the North West might be Bill Rimmer, who was originally a member of Boundary Harriers and then of Liverpool Pembroke Harriers until his death in a road accident at the age of 80 in 1964. Rimmer, who was a bricklayer by trade, was 6ft 4in (1.93m) tall and nicknamed “Tiny”, and was certainly a fine all-rounder, long jumping and discus throwing until more than 40 years old, and an enthusiastic official for the rest of his life. As yet no pole-vault marks of his have come to light.
Literary references: “Pillars of Society”, by A.G. Gardiner (1914); “Sunlighters: The Story of a Village”, by Sue Sellers (1988); “So Clear, Lord Leverhulme, Soap and Civilisation”, by Brian Lewis (2008); “Yesterday’s Wirral: Port Sunlight, A Pictorial Hiostory 1888 to 1953”, by Ian Boumphrey & Gavin Hunter (2009);

Bob Phillips

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