Ninety years, a true Brownhills sportsman

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Geoff Harrington from Brownhills wins the semifinal of the Powderhall 130 yard professional sprint at Edinburgh on 1st January, 1951, setting a new world record of 11.85 seconds. Those faces – you can see the pain and triumph. Image from ‘Around Pelsall and Brownhills in old photos’ by David F. Sodden.

Not many of my generation or younger would realise, but Brownhills has quite an illustrious sporting history – from the likes of top footballer Dicky Dorsett ‘The Brownhills Bomber’, to Cecil Poynton; we were home to notable motorcyclists, drivers and power-boaters.

What I wasn’t really aware of until I started running the blog was the sporting dynamo that is Geoff Harrington. Geoff, now in his 90s, was a top professional runner, and latterly a respected snooker and billiards referee.

If the name sounds familiar, Geoff is also a noted local historian who worked on some of the best and most popular local history photo books, including “Memories of Old Brownhills’ and ‘Memories of Brownhills Past’, which he compiled with Clarice and Bill Mayo.

The young David Evans was kindly invited by Geoff to talk about his sporting days, and Geoff produced the following article he wrote a couple of years ago, which I’ve transcribed below, featuring images from Geoff’s fascinating life.

We also have the video of Geoff competing, and further archive press material to come – but at 3,000 words this article is a whopper already. The film really is something to look forward to.

I have immense respect for Geoff, in his advanced years still an active member of the community and an example to us all. My thanks to David Evans, too, for pulling a whole bunch of stuff together.

Please, if you have any memories of Geoff, or anything to add, please do so. Comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Thanks.

Geoff Harrington wrote:

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Geoff Harrington at home, as photographed by David Evans.

A short time ago an article about me was put on the internet concerning my running days. The article was first published in the Brownhills Gazette and was written by a good friend of mine Mr Albert Jobberns way back in the 1960s. I was born in New Road Brownhills in a small cottage one up two down and no hot water and no flushing toilet.

As quite a few people know, I have had a great life in sport.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

I won my first race when I was 4 years old, the prize was a new suit, I remember to this day going to a Mr Webb at the bottom of Chasetown for it. The event was at the Chase Miners Horticulture and Sports Day. In my school I won a great many races and helped my different schools win the Victor Luduram I was only beaten once in all my school days, that was by a lad named Norman Roberts, he was twice as big as I was, but he beat me. I shall never forget his name. The one race I remember was I ran in an hurdle race, had to give one lad that much start, they wouldn’t put him over the first hurdle so they put me back 5yds behind the start I still managed to win the race but no one could understand where I had come from. Most nights my mate Ken Green and myself would race each-other round the church walk just to help keep us fit and find something to do.

While at school I was in the school football team, and was also chosen to play for the district team.

I left school at 14 which in those days was the usual leaving age, and went to work at Birmingham, where I stayed until I was called up into the RAF, one good thing about it was I had to run to the fish shop every day, and that was one way of trying to keep fit. A lot of the time when we were on nights was spent in air raid shelter, due to the bombs dropping. I was one ofthe very lucky ones when I was in the RAF as I never saw an enemy until I came back to this Country, I was always attached to Maintenance Units. Most of my time was spent in helping to building Spitfires and Thunderbolts, which meant we were never anywhere near the action, I was pleased to say.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

When the war with Japan finished I was playing football for the station team Kankiara and the competition for the Generals cup was started again. This is a competition open to all South East Asia Command, not only did we enter, but we won it. The final was played at Calcuttta in front of a crowd of just over 6000, we won 2-1. The two things I remember about the semi final was the best player on our side broke his neck and I broke a small bone in my wrist, he had to be put in plaster from the top of his head to the bottom of his stomach, so he had to miss the final. I was lucky I played with an elastic bandage round my wrist, then after the final I had to have it put in plaster. I came home from India in 1947.

I could not get a job for quite a while due to the big freeze we had in 47-48, as everywhere was at a standstill. I did get a job in the finish, but by this time all the money I had off the RAF was gone.

It was about this time I started to take an interest in running again, told my uncle Jack about my running in India, but to this day I don’t think he believed me, and I had to prove to him I wasn’t telling lies. At this time in my life I didn’t think for one second I would finish up breaking a record that had stood for a 140 years, but I will come to that later on. The only place we could find to train was at the side ofthe railway track up by the Shant bridge by the Rising Sun, it was cinders and about l OOyds long. I ran between the end ofthe railway sleepers and the embankment, it was just over a couple of feet wide but it was ok as I always ran in a straight line.

The professional runners New Year Powderhall Sprint Handicap is the Blue ribbon of professional running. Some people may think a race on New Years day in the middle of winter as a foolish time of the year to race men over 130yds is silly, but an explanation here will put that point straight. Racing at new year calls for technique of the highest quality from the trainer and a strong spirit and determination from the athlete who is not long in finding out if he is strong in mind, physique and performance.

In 1948 my uncle Jack took me to run at Halifax, I was a complete novice and was cheated out of a £100 because I ran too fast, and the promoter said a novice couldn’t be as good as I was. So I had to go to the AAA at Birmingham, to prove I had never run as an amateur. This was when I was told by them, that no way would I be allowed to run for my country, because I had entered a profession race. And I was still pulled back 3yds. When I went back to Halifax the following week for the final, I came third. My uncle Jack was still set on me trying for The Powderhall Sprint. He took me up to Edinburgh on the last day ofthe year as the race was on the 1st-2nd January. I won my heat but I was beaten in the semifinal. This was January 1949.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

Unknown to me at the time a gentleman from Carlisle was watching me, and it wasn’t long before he sent a letter to G. Harrington Brownhills. it’s a good job the postman knew who I was, or I would never have got it. I am pleased I did.

He wanted to know if I would be interested in going to Carlisle for a couple of months with the idea of hem training me to run for them at Powderhall. He came down to see me in the summer to talk about it, as there was a lot to consider, whether I could get the time off from work, how much they would give my wife for my loss of wages each week. We agreed on this and they said if I won they would give me £500, no matter how much they won, which to me way back in 1949 was like winning the football pools.

So I travelled up Carlisle at the start of November to start training for the race on the 1st-2nd January 1950. I thought I knew everything about running, until I met people who did it for a living, and I realised that I knew nothing.

First evening I was there I was taken to meet the gentleman who was finding the money, he was Chairman of Carlisle football club, Johnny Corriarie, he owned a big fish shop in Carlisle. Next day I went down to the football ground to have a look round, and met the great Bill Shankly who was the Manager at the time, but later with Liverpool became world famous, we remained very good friends with him until he passed away, most times when Liverpool were in the Midlands I would spend the Friday night with him.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

But back to what I had come to Carlisle for… From the very first day until we went to Edinburgh on the last day ofthe year, each day was exactly the same. Get out of bed at 8 o-clock, wash and dress ready for breakfast, which was always the same, Grilled lamb chop about the size ofyour hand with a small bone about the size of your thumb nail in it. We used to call them powder hall chops. Then there was a poached egg on top. After breakfast you were sent back to bed to rest for a couple hours before going to the gym to spend half an hour on a punch ball then get massaged. Then it was back to the house for a light lunch and back to bed, until it was time to go to the track to do what ever they decided was to be done that day. I have spent above one afternoon just practicingjust getting out of my holes, · as starting blocks were not allowed by Professionals in those days. Then back home for a good hot meal and way back to bed just before 6 o’clock to rest your legs, and you were there until the next morning. This was done every day, including Xmas day and Boxing day, but you really felt fit after 2 months. Sadly after all this I pulled a muscle in the Semi-final, I ran in the final, but it proved too big a handicap and I finished third.

I came home, and went back to work, but went to a Mr. Hipkiss in Birmingham who treated my leg, I have never had any more trouble with it. So I was invited to go back the following November to try again, unknown to me my sponsor and the trainer had words but it didn’t make any difference to me as I had the same arrangement as before. This time the sponsor was also the main trainer, he was also a Powderhall winner himself. The training was the same but I was massaged a lot more, which was a good job, because in the Semi-final I was drawn against the great Australian Eric Cummings, who the day before had run 9 yards inside evens. Every one thought the race was over, but he had to give me 4 yards and I proved just that bit too good for him, but I still maintain until Bolt came on the scene he was the greatest runner I ever saw in my life.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

So came the final, which was easy with Cummings out of the way, I set a new record which stood for a number of years. The record I had broken had stood for 140 years. I ran 122.5yds on an ash track covered in places by frozen water in 11.85 sec on January 2nd, which as you know is in middle of winter.

The prize money when I won was £150, today its £4000. In today’s money values I won for my sponsors very close to £250,000.

The year after I came home the Boss where I was working asked me to run an exhibition so I asked Freddy Kelly – he played centre forward for Walsall – if he would help, so we decided to run over 120yds, I gave him 9yds start, I had caught him before he had run 80yds. The comical thing about this was Alf Owen·sent Fred and myself £1 each.

A few months before I had won appox £10,000 for my two sponsors.

I ran one or two exibition races after, but never in competition.

After I finished running I turned to my old sport o f billiards and snooker. I played in the local snooker league for Ogley Hay Working Men’s Club. While playing for them I applied to for my Referees licence which I passed and became a top grade Billiard and Snooker referee.

In 1987 I was asked if I would like to referee the All England Amateur Snooker Final along with Vera Selby from Newcastle on Tyne, she was a former world champion herself. Of course I jumped at the chance, and went Bradford for a few days, which was quite enjoyable.

Later I travelled the country with The Staffs and West Midland Billiard team. To referee snooker is quite easy, but billiards is a different job, not only do you have to work with both players but have to keep two lots of numbers in your head at the same time, not just what their score is but how many different Hazards they have made.

It was just after this I was asked by Jim Chambers, a profession snooker player and Mr. John Pace another well known gentleman from Walsall if l would do the refereeing for them in Charity nights they were going to put on. They did one or two a year and this is how I got to know all the top players – Steve Davis, John Parrot, Alex Higgins, Steven Hendy, Mark Williams, Dennis Tayor, Jimmy White, Willie Thome, and lots more, not forgetting the greatest of them all Ronnie O’Sullivan, the night I refereed Ronnie he played 6 frames of snooker in 50 minutes, and had 5 breaks of between 103 and 126. My feet at the end were red hot! I also refereed John Parrot when a lad aged 10 beat him, the lad did knock in a break ofnearly 70, in fact John had my gloves of me when the lad had got up to about 30, and referee’d the game, as it was all for Charity every one enjoyed it. I can honestly say I had some great nights with them. I had finish doing it because my wife Nancy who I had been married to for 63 years had started with Vascular Dementia, so I had to help my daughter Margaret look after her. Sadly she passed away in August 2006.

I was lost for a couple of years but as we had no conversation with her for two years, I was used to the silence.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

Not long after this I was asked by a friend Alan Winters why didn’t I try the Tea Dance they held at the Memorial hall on a Friday afternoon, which I did, and thanks to Yvonne and quite a lot of other people not only did I enjoy the music but the company was great. Sadly I had to finish because my legs were causing me a lot of pain, but I still take my granddaughter Trudi on a Saturday night once a month, so I still see my old friends.

I now play Short mat indoor bowls on a Monday and Wednesday afternoon and enjoy it as I only have to hobble to the end ofthe mat to deliver my bowl then sit down again. Not only do I enjoy it, but it keeps your brain working and you still try to beat the other team.

A short time ago Mrs Noke and myself applied to the Big Lottery for a grant to start a bowling club at the Memorial Hall to help people who couldn’t get to the bowls on an afternoon to come and enjoy themselves on a Tuesday night. I am pleased to say they gave us a grant of £3,100 with which we were able to start a new club, some nights we get as many 16 to 18 people enjoying themselves.

As a youth I was always taught to try to win as nobody remembers who comes second. In 1950 at Powderhall I came third but no one remembers that. I was also taught at school to treat everyone with respect and in 99 times out of a I00 you will get respect back.

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Image generously donated by Geoff Harrington.

When I came back to Brownhills after winning Powderhall, the Councillors at the time were so thrilled that someone had put Brownhills on the map they offered me the chose of having a new road named after me or having an Illuminated Address. I chose the later and it has hung on my wall for the last 64 years. The race was on the Gaumont British News – don’t forget TV had not long come out when I won, but my granddaughter Trudi got me a DVD of it a good many years later from America, in fact over 55 years later. But to me it was worth waiting for. Sadly my wife never saw it, as she had passed away but she was at Powderhall when I won.

I have been introduced to quite a lot of well-known people apart from the ones I have already told you about I met Larry Gains, boxing champion; Brian Bevan, Australian Rugby International; Ivor Broadis, Football English International; Mcdonald Bailey, Sprint champion; Barney Ewell, World and Olympic Sprint Champion.

In later years the two people I owe most to are my daughter and son-in-law who I could not do with-out, for my own safety they bath and shower me, and help me to dress, so you can see how I have managed to reach 93.

So as I have already written, I won my first race when I was four years old, and after 90 years I still try to be on the winning team even if it is only short mat bowling.

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28 Responses to Ninety years, a true Brownhills sportsman

  1. Pedro says:

    Great man, great story, great pictures. And 30 years since the Black Ball Final!

  2. Julia Willett says:

    Lovely story from a true gent, see you at the tea dance Geoff xx

  3. David Evans says:

    HI Bob
    and a big thankyou to you for this excellent presentation. Greatly appreciated.
    kind regards
    David

  4. Clive says:

    Thank you for sharing your memorys with me Mr Harrington, totally enjoyed it from the beginning to the end, you take care.

  5. Dave (Eddy) Edwards says:

    Lovely story from a great man. Thanks to all concerned for presenting it

  6. Warren Parry says:

    superb, made me late for work but who cares.

  7. Martin. says:

    He is a remarkable man, his slide shows of old Brownhills he use to take around different venues were a must to see. he mention Jonny (Jack) Harrington, who was a Profession footballer and played for Wolverhampton Wanders and help Geoff with some of his training
    I have great respect for Geoff and if I meet him in Brownhills, he always calls me young man, which is not bad when I am in my mid sixties, give’s me a boost for the Day.
    Kind Regards.
    Martin.

  8. ian perry says:

    what a great man

  9. Chris Lawrence says:

    I have the pleasure of playing bowls every Tuesday with Geoff
    He is great fun, grateful and a true gentleman

  10. Pedro says:

    Dundee Courier 3 January 1951…

    Geoffrey Harrington, a 25 year old engineering factory employee, who lives at Darlaston, near Walsall, yesterday won the 130yards handicap, the blue riband of pedestrianism, in the record time of 11.85 sec at the Powderhall meeting in Edinburgh.

    Harrington started off seven and a half yards. He was a hot favourite for the £150 prize and gold medal and never looked like losing.

  11. Chris Lawrence says:

    You can now view the record breaking race….

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  14. Mike .J.Pritchard. says:

    .A true gent,an honour to have known and refereed alongside him for many years.

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  17. Glynis Edwards (nee Parkes) says:

    my Dad Ron Parkes always talked about Geoff Harrington and referred to him as his cousin ? Sadly my Dad passed away in 2013 aged 93 and I never really found out which branch of the family or if this was true ? Anybody know ?

  18. Geof says:

    Yes I knew your dad very well and aunty Doris sadly lost touch with your mother when your dad died tell you more if you get in touch.

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  20. john lakin says:

    I remember geof Nancie Margret and daughter Trudie my nan Phyllis and jack lakin live next door in mill Rd

  21. Gerald Bickley says:

    I lived by Geof Harrington for good many years,what a wonderful and remarkable man.

  22. Steve says:

    Takes me back to when many an afternoon spent with my grandad “Bert Cottle” when he used to iron the tables at the Top Club many moons ago

  23. Steve theo says:

    Great article as you say Geof was a gentleman

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