Chapter 4 – The Cinder Track Years (1961 to 1969)
Off the track, the 1960’s were dominated by the opening of the cinder track at Melbourne Park – and by a successful fund raising scheme to build a proper HQ at the new hub of Club activities. The opening of the new Clubhouse meant that the Waterhouse Lane hut that had been used since the early days of the club could finally be discarded.
In terms of personnel, as well as the everlasting Roy Meadowcroft, the other leaders of the club in his decade were Norman Skingley (Chairman), Joe Radford, Gordon Harris, Bob Rust and Graham Smith. The club also relied for its reputation on a large team of volunteers, including Ron Wicks, who began by raking pits, and ended up as an experienced Field and then Track Judge.
Trans-Atlantic links continued to be a feature of the club during the 60’s. Buddy Edelen’s arrival was covered in Chapter 3, and he was joined by a US Airman from USAAF Weathersfield called Andy Davis, who became one of the club’s most popular members.
Jennifer Farley’s win in the National School’s hurdles in 1960 launched a new era for the Ladies section of the club, as their numbers swelled to match the men. Irene Gould, Babs Horton, Angela Jones and Mary Tucker were some of the leading lights, and in 1964 Penny Gardner became the first Junior in the world to break five minutes for the mile – a record she held for three years.
Another section was revived when Don Cox joined the club in 1967, and began a long and successful walking career.
In 1965 the Club took the lead in making a major change in Athletics by organising home matches on a Sunday. For a long time, Sunday’s had been out of bounds for competition because the Sunday Observance Act prohibited charging for admission, and clubs were, until the 60’s, in the habit of charging spectators. Sunday’s had therefore become the preferred day for training. Chelmsford took the lead in making the change.
The Dyson Affair
Athletics was poised to become ungovernable in January 1962 after controversial National Coach Geoff Dyson resigned, violently accusing some officials of gross incompetence.
Dyson’s supporters put down a vote of censure, accusing officers of the AAA of wild maladministration – which others vociferously opposed. Those managing athletics were likely to end up not on speaking terms with each other, and chaos loomed. Fortunately, Johnny Johnson of Hornchurch, coach to 4-time Marathon world record breaker Jim Peters, persuaded the S.E. Essex clubs to propose a compromise amendment striking out the vote of censure and substituting an expression of ‘alarm and dismay’.
Chelmsford AC then took the lead in attempting to resolve the overall dispute by asking for more information at the Southern Counties AGM, and by circulating a summary of the position to all clubs. The club also put the S.E. Essex proposal to the AAA President – Lord Exeter, who sent Harold ‘Chariots of Fire’ Abrahams to an all-Essex public protest meeting to investigate. Following his attendance at the meeting, Abrahams advised Lord Exeter to back the Chelmsford-initiated amendment, which he did.
With Abrahams in attendance at the Southern Counties AGM, lobbying for the amendment, it was carried by a large majority. This took the heat out of the dispute, and common sense returned. AAA Secretary Ernie Clynes was subsequently quoted as saying that Chelmsford had saved the day!
In April 1962, Lord Exeter visited Chelmsford personally, to officially cut the tape, and open the new Melbourne Park stadium. The local paper proudly proclaimed “the new athletic stadium, with its seven-lane track, provisions for all field events and stand accommodation for 1,000 spectators, estimated to have cost in the region of £20,000”.
Former Olympic Gold Medallist Lord Exeter acclaimed “this beautiful track”, and speculated upon the future Olympic champions that might owe their success to the new facilities, and the eternal gratitude that youth of the district would express to the club.
To mark the occasion there then followed a match between a team raised by the Secretary of the AAA (Jack Crump), and a team of Essex and Eastern Counties athletes put together by the Secretary of the Essex County Association (Jim Perkins). It was reported that “many well-known athletic personalities took part” and that the AAA team won by 114 points to 87 points.
Local star Brian Hill-Cottingham won the 1 Mile event, in 4m 11s – and the Essex team won the Relay when the AAA team dropped the baton! Two lady Chelmsford athletes performed with credit – in the Hurdles Jennifer Farley (former English Schools Champion) set a new club record with a time of 11.7s, while 15-year old Irene Gould finished third in the 100 yards with 11.6s.
The club followed this up with their first Inter Club match – against Metropolitan Police, Welwyn AC, St Albans AC and Hornchurch Harriers, with the wave of excitement carrying them to a 30 point victory. Amongst the winners on the day were:
I. Pulley – 100 yards
Nick Torry – 100 yards second string
Buddy Edelen – 880 yards AND 3 miles (twice!)
Jack Gardiner – Triple Jump
B Cottingham-Hill – 1 Mile
In addition to Buddy Edelen, several of the men doubled or even trebled up on the day, with Peter Bailey running in both the 440yds Hurdles AND the 3000m Steeplechase, Dudley Courtman running the 880 yards AND the 3 Miles, and Brian Cottingham-Hill running the 1 Mile twice!
Jennifer Farley finished second in the Ladies Invitation Hurdles, beating an Olympic finalist, while Irene Gould crossed the line third in the Invitation 100 yards. Irene still holds four club records for sprinting.
A Galaxy of Talent
After such a decisive win in the Opening Meeting, the local press became very excited at the Galaxy of Talent which had appeared at the club in the past few years. At the National Schools Championships, Nick Torry led the way by winning the 100 yards in 1959, followed by Jennifer Farley (Senior Hurdles) and David Rutty (Junior Pole Vault) in 1960, and then Richard (Jack) Gardner (Intermediate Triple Jump) and Roger Turner (Junior Pole Vault) in 1961. They were to be followed by three second places (when the English Schools Championships were hosted at Melbourne Park) by Irene Gould (100 yards), Penny Gardner (1 mile), and John Archer (880 yards with 1m 55.4) in 1963. Also Angela Jones was 3rd in the Junior 150 yards, Roger Turner came 3rd in the Intermediate Pole Vault and Dave Gill was 3rd in the Senior Pole Vault. Mike Erith, Bob Chapman, Gareth Jenkins & Richard (Jack) Gardner were also in the Essex team which included no fewer than ten athletes from the club!
Irene Gold went on to win the English Schools Senior 100 yards in 1964.
In 1965 Bob Chapman ran away with the Essex Mile. Although he was disappointed with only 5th place in 4m 10.4s in the English Schools Final, officials and coaches still remember an astonishing blanket record-shattering finish. His time 1500m time of 3m 52.4s, is still a club junior record.
Another English Schools Champion, Jackie Philp, in 1967 was unbeaten in the intermediate 80m Hurdles all year as well as winning the National Junior Indoor title at 60m.
Penny Gardner won several Essex titles at 880 yards as a Junior and came 2nd in the 880 yards in the ESAA Championships at Chelmsford in 1963. In 1964 she was invited to attend the WAAA Lilleshall course for aspiring Olympic athletes, and in the same year she came 2nd in the WAAA Mile, setting an age 18 World Record of 4:56.9.
In the winter of 1964/5 she was taken ill after playing in a mixed hockey match, spent her 19th birthday in hospital (Feb 1965) and never raced again.
Penny Gardner, world junior ‘record’ holder, wins easily at Melbourne Park
A week before the Opening Meeting Buddy Edelen broke the U.S. Record for ten miles by over two minutes when winning the A.A.A. Championship in 48.31.8, the first American to win an A.A.A. title since E.C.Carter won both the 4 m and 10 m in 1887.
Buddy winning the A.A.A. 10 miles
English Schools Championships at Melbourne Park 1963
After an interval of 30 years, the ESAA Championships returned to Essex, to be staged at the new Melbourne Park stadium. Over 16,000 spectators watched the event over the two days, with hundreds turned away each day. 1,797 athletes took part in competitions over “two glorious days of sunshine”.
Officials of the ESAA were very impressed by the facilities at the new stadium, and described the cinder track as “suitable for the Olympic Games”, while the athletes, many of whom stayed with local residents, described their time in Chelmsford as “fabulous”.
The organiser behind an event described as “now second only in size to the Olympic Games” was Sydney Rose – secretary of the Essex Schools AA – and the two days reportedly went without a single hitch, and right on time. Amongst the challenges falling to Mr Rose was the distribution of 3,000 packed meals on the two days!
Each day saw an opening parade of athletes, headed by the English Schools AA Standard, carried by Chelmsford’s Richard Gardner, of Braintree County High School, flanked by two Essex High Jumpers – Linda Knowles and Janice Hopkins.
Hopes were high that Essex would carry off the County Shield, but in the event they finished just three points behind the victors – Yorkshire.
Andy Davis – Chelmsford’s Second American
Suddenly in 1964 another Chelmsford runner from America was grabbing the headlines, here and in Europe. Andy Davis, who joined the club during the 1961 track season and competed for the club at every opportunity, was by 1964 a major figure in middle distance running. Within a few short weeks, he carried off the Essex 880 Cup for Chelmsford, the UK USAF 880 title at Melbourne Park itself and then the USAF European 880 in record time in Germany. He is fondly remembered and efforts are being made to trace him in the U.S.A.
The New Headquarters 1969
“We must build a proper Headquarters”, the Club committee resolved vigorously in the mid-fifties. This involved a huge fund raising effort. The first H.Q. cost just over £150, most of it donated by Mrs Keene with help from the Mayor, Sydney Taylor. The only helpful factor was that the Education Department, whatever the political control, had a large fund for capital projects for youth facilities. Although this was long before the lottery, the Government was urging voluntary organisations to find 50% of the cost as they were anxious to pay out the other 50%, so important were youth facilities regarded. Further, the National Playing Field Association would make a loan for equipment and a club member signed a guarantee. Brian Hill-Cottingham qualified as an accountant at the right moment to make the arrangements.
Gordon Harris was the main driving force behind the campaign. As well as many special events, the Weekly Football Goal scoring cards were the main source of income and the club devised an ingenious summer equivalent based on the week-end county first innings cricket scores in the then championship for the summer months. As the fund grew, the Borough Treasurer chipped in by offering the top rate of interest for loans to the council, usually reserved for city bankers. Joe Radford, the treasurer, was startled to get documents to counter-sign entitling him to attach the council’s rate income if they defaulted!
The Council granted a long lease on the land and, in 1969, the Club President, Councillor Ron Wicks, welcomed Harold Abrahams - Chariots of Fire, British Board Chairman, BBC commentator and Olympic Gold Medallist at the opening of this long awaited and much needed facility.
Ron Wicks and Harold Abrahams at the new Club House
A Summary of the 60’s by Mick Elliot
Mick Elliot was a Chelmsford AC Team Manager, and local newspaper athletics correspondent. He wrote a summary of an outstanding decade for the club:
“The last decade has been one of staggering progress for Chelmsford Ac, which has been transformed from a relatively small club with a ramshackle headquarters in 1960, to a complete athletic club with a plush new £8,500 club house at Melbourne Park in 1969.
“During these years, many famous clubs and athletes have competed in Chelmsford. The club itself has produced three international athletes in Bill Cornell, Brian Hill-Cottingham and Rupert Legge. Another international to run for Chelmsford was the then multi-American record holder Buddy Edelen, who at one time held the world’s Marathon record. He has clocked 2hrs 14mins 26secs when winning the Poly Marathon in 1963.
“Other Chelmsford athletes to become well-known, over the year, in the athletic world were Terry Povey, Andy Davis, Roger Jiggins and John Archer, who is now teaching at the Grammar School.
“Though it is the athletes who have hit the headlines over the years, the club’s administrative staff have also become the envy of most clubs in Essex. The backbone of the club during these progressive years has been Roy Meadowcroft, who has held the posts of secretary, press officer, men’s and women’s team manager, track and cross-country secretaries, canteen-organiser and last but not least, home-meeting organiser!
“It is in this latter capacity that Roy and Chelmsford AC have really made a name for themselves in recent years, with regular crowds of over 1,000 witnessing some of the best presented inter-club athletics in Great Britain today. Others, such as Joe Radford, treasurer for over 20 years; Bob Rust, Norman Skingley, Gordon ‘Pussy’ Harris and Graham Smith have all served on the committee for the past decade.
“A major breakthrough for athletics in Chelmsford came in 1962, with the opening of the new cinder track at Melbourne Park, which is now amongst the finest tracks in the county. (It is feared by some that the track is haunted; phantom runners having been spotted twice in recent years running round the track late at night).
“During the past decade, two club members served as Mayor of Chelmsford. They were Ron Wicks and Walter Landers, the club’s current president.
“Of the 188 listed Chelmsford club records, only 12 (11 men and 1 lady) were set prior to 1960.”
The Trophy donated by Cllr Ron Wicks is presented to Mick Elliot and Jackie Philp.