South London Harriers

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The First Gazette

Taken from the April 2008 Gazette (vol 124 no 1)

There's a bit of me that's an anorak.  There again, there is a bit of an anorak in most runners, as they pore over their latest result or performance, and scrutinise who they beat, or who beat them, and by how much.

Perhaps it was that trait that Ferdie Gilson saw in me some fifteen years or so ago, when he photocopied the original first two editions of the Gazette from 1995, and handed them to me.  They have been kept secure and precious ever since.  

Our first editor was one G. Lacy Hillier; no-one in the Club in those times had a Christian name (and they certainly weren't 'forenames' that far back).  He had the foresight to number it not only 'No 1', but 'No 1 Vol 1'!  He clearly believed in legacies... He was also a decent runner.

The masthead, or in lay terms, the heading on the cover, looks very similar to the last Gazette produced in 2007, yet this first edition dates back one hundred and twenty two years.  But, of course, the club dates back to 1871, so for fourteen years presumably the only general communication was by letter or word of mouth.

This first Gazette is a magnificent example of period Victoriana.  The editorial, though, starts with the first letter in illuminated format like some monk might have added in his medieval monastery.  It announces: 'This year of grace, 1885, sees the birth of the South London Harriers' Gazette, as a medium of inter-communication between members of the club'.  Grant stuff indeed... It goes on to say we are in debt, albeit modest, and bangs the drum to get our best runners out and representing the club.  Well, 123 years on, at least we aren't in debt!  Other things haven't changed!!

Of course, we were not based in Coulsdon then, or training at Crystal Palace.  Head-quarters were the Bedford Hotel in Balham.  Cross-country runs used this site for their base, and SLH had a number of hotels or pubs for their home over the years from our founding up to 1913, prior to moving into our hall.  Other long established clubs such as Orion and Ranelagh have yet to move away!  Train times to Balham were listed for members' information, as it was that, or omnibus!  The car share was not an option...

The club in those days was very 'professional' in terms of its membership.  Most, if not all, its members were well bred and well educated ,with a smattering of titles and honours in the ranks.  Many members wuld have worked Saturday morning in the City prior to racing after lunch.

The fixtures for January and February 1885 included the 'Members Ten Miles Steeplechase'.  This was scheduled to start at 3:45pm, so one wonders how good the January light would have been for even the fastest, never mind the laggards.  Of course, there weren't too many older runners and certainly precious few joggers in those days.

Evening training was Tuesday and Thursday, so little has changed there, except that the start time then was 8pm!  So when did they drink?  We are also told that some 'hurdles have been procured for jumping practice'  I wonder where they got to...

The AGM report says that this had been the most important year in the Club's early history.  Membership had risen from 245 to 307, despite 13 expulsions.  What had they done?  Maybe just not paid their subs and not had the decency to resign in writing!

There were details from the (cross-country) National recorded.  The good news, SLH was third.  The bad news, only five teams competed.  Oh well!

However, the year also saw the Southern Counties Cross-country Association formed, and their first championships.  Eleven teams entered this and there were over 100 runners.  SLH won, by the way, and we did have seven of the first eight finishers.  

Also detailed was a series of six International matches held during the summer between SLH and an American team, MAC.  (There is no explanation as to who MAC were; it must have been presumed everyone knew).  I don't, though I think it might all be revealed by the notices on the Clubhouse stairwell)!  These meetings had been hugely controversial in the press, and the press covered such things was not unlike Arsenal or Chelsea's in football today.  We were accused of holding the meetings just ot make money.  Worse still, there were allegations that the athletes involved were getting paid!  Scandal indeed, in a very amateur sport.  

This is all recorded in the report of the Committee ending 1st October 1884, which is also at pains to report that the meetings lost money and that several other clubs had tried to undermine the events.  Not quite the Surrey League, by all accounts.  

Looking at the events at the first meet, apart from the 120 yards scratch race (3 prizes, 6 entries, 4 starters, you get the feel?), was the two mile scratch walking race and the five miles bicycle scratch race.  There as a bike race at every one!

Boxing Day had appeared in the fixture calendar, but for a 'ten miles level race', which I presume meant there was no handicap involved.  How ironic, one of the few Club races not to be a handicap should be held on the one day in the year when we do have handicaps on the start line.  Anyhow, there were 17 runners at Crystal Palace for this event, nine of whom beat the hour, described as a 'most meritorious performance' . Well, no Sauconys in those days, or even Green Flash or Tigers.

Intriguingly the report also records that SLH acquired the outstanding lease, for seven years, of Balham Grounds, in Oldridge Road.  The cost was a substantial sounding £105 per annum, but there was an existing tenant, in a local tennis club, so we charged them (an even more substantial) £10 a month to continue.  Sound like good business.

Oldridge Road still exists, but the grounds appear not to.  The whole area is now heavily built up.  

The Club had hoped that this would be the start of something huge.  'There is every reason to believe that these grounds will be the means of causing the Club to attain a position in the athletic world far in advance of what it could otherwise have done, and give it a great advantage over other clubs...'.  Whatever happened?  Perhaps the value of the land for housing far outweighed what we could afford.  Maybe all is revealed in a later Gazette.

As befitted an organisation of our style, status and reputation, we held an annual dinner.  It was noted as held at the Holborn Restaurant, under the chairmanship of Viscount Bury.  It says much about how the sport and the Club were in 1884!  But, perhaps, the final note should go to a small entry on the back page, under the heading 'Football' (sic).  It records a match, SLH v Old Citizens FC.  There were fifteen a side, and we won by one try and two touches down to nil.  Indeed, a different world, a different sport, but still our Club.

Peter Emery