Robert Hawkey the forgotten Olympian

Robert Hawkey
Written by David ‘Bob’ Phillips,

Great Britain’s team at the 1948 Olympics was a mixture of veterans and novices. Many of them had lost their best years – and some others who could have been at the Games had even lost their lives – during World War II. There were 14 among the men who were making their one and only international appearances, including two each in the 5000 metres, marathon, steeplechase, 400 metres hurdles and triple jump. The three oldest of them were, understandably, all involved in the endurance events, and included Tom Richards, marathon silver-medallist at the age of 38, but the next in seniority was one of the triple jumpers.
Robert Hawkey was an intriguing athlete from several points of view, and not least because nothing is known about him after his retirement from competition. He had appeared in the British rankings in 1939, placing 2nd in the Inter-Counties’ Championships at the White City on 29 May to Jack Higginson and 2nd again to Higginson in the Northern Championships at Bolton on 24 June with his season’s best of 44ft 10in (13.66m). Higginson was winning his sixth Northern title in seven years, and his father, also named Jack, had preceded him with six successive wins from 1923 onwards. F.A.M. Webster was probably the first authority in Great Britain to write about the triple jump in a detailed historical perspective (in his book, “Great Moments In Athletics”, 1947), and he said of the Higginsons: “They were a true case of a genuine athletic partnership, for the father spared no pains in teaching and training his son to break his own record”.

Robert Leslie Hawkey had been born in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, on 19 March 1915 and so was already 24 years old during the 1939 season and would be 33 when he competed in the 1948 Olympics. He was brought up by his family in a street of terraced houses in the coastal village of Dawdon, which had been built round the coal-mine which was owned by the Marquess of Londonderry and had opened in 1907. At its peak in the 1920s the mine employed more than 3,800 men and boys, producing a million tons of coal a year, and young Hawkey would have been well aware of its dominance – and its death-toll. In one year alone, 1923, when he was celebrating his eighth birthday, three 14-year-olds died in different mining accidents.
He went to Ryhope Secondary Modern School, some four miles away, and was exceptional at both studies and sport. In 1933 he long jumped 19ft 10½in (6.05m) at his school sports. That same year the Public Schools’ Championships event was won in rather more competitive circumstances at the newly-refurbished White City Stadium, in London, by a future Olympic 4 x 400 metres relay gold-medallist, Godfrey Brown, at 20-11¼ (6.38). Hawkey – no doubt determined not to go down the mine for a living – had sufficient educational qualifications to be accepted by the Metropolitan Police, in London, and served there before moving back North to join the Durham County Police. This must have been a challenging experience for him because during the 1930s the local coal-mines were a hotbed of industrial unrest, and some of his former neighbours and even friends would surely have been involved.

He maintained his interest in sport, which was keenly encouraged throughout Britain’s police forces in those days, and was a very capable swimmer and competitive tennis player. In 1939 six of the top 10 ranked British athletes in both the discus and hammer were police officers, including the national discus record-holder, David Young, from Glasgow, and a Durham County colleague of Hawkey’s, E.D. Wright, was 2nd in the National Police Championships 220 yards in Brighton. There was no triple jump, but Hawkey was 3rd in the long jump.
There is no evidence of anyone else from the North-East of England showing any proficiency in the triple jump in the 1930s or in the immediate postwar years, and it has to be wondered as to where Hawkey’s motivation came from. Maybe his interest was sparked while in London. He was reasonably proficient at other events because he was selected for the pole vault, long jump (having been 3rd in the 1939 Northern Championships) and discus in a Northumberland & Durham team to meet Durham University, and he won both the horizontal jumps at 21-8 (6.60) and 45-2½ (13.78). This match took place on 15 June 1940, only 11 days after the completion of the miraculous evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, and later in the year Hawkey’s home village of Dawdon was bombed by the Luftwaffe and 12 people were killed.
Not a mention of the event in the training manuals

He was a member of Darlington Harriers which had been formed in 1891 as a club for runners, as the title implies, and already by 1904 had provided one of the members of the England team, named A; Campbell, in the second annual International Cross Country Championships. Darlington’s most renowned athlete of this era was the remarkably versatile George Butterfield, born in Stockton-on-Tees, who also ran for England in the cross-county International of 1906 and won the Northern 440 yards and one mile titles later the same year! He was AAA mile champion for three successive years, 1904-to 1906, and ran in the 800 and 1500 metres at the 1908 London Olympic Games. Sadly, he was one of the countless victims of World War I, killed in action with Royal Field Artillery in 1917.

The harrier tradition was ably maintained by Hawkey’s most noted Darlington clubmate, Bill Wylie, who won the Scottish national cross-country title in 1935 and finished 2nd in the International that year. He had then been AAA steeplechase champion in 1937 and represented Great Britain against France and Finland. On one occasion Wylie won the Northumberland & Durham 880 yards, one mile and two miles titles in the same afternoon. Wylie had plenty of local support for his racing and training, as six others from the Darlington club had won the 1933 Northern cross-country team title
It was by no means just the North-East which had been deficient so far as the triple jump was concerned in the 1930s. Members of the Achilles Club collaborated on a 308-page training manual published in 1938, edited by Bevil Rudd, with contributors including Harold Abrahams, Godfrey Brown, Jack Lovelock, Douglas Lowe and Robert Tisdall – all six of them Olympic champions – and there were chapters on every field event except the triple jump.

By 1940 the World record had advanced to exactly 16.00 metres, while in Great Britain only three men had ever cleared 47ft (14.32m) or better – Edward Boyce and Bertie Shillington, both from Northern Ireland, and Jack Higginson Jnr, who worked for Leyland Motors in Preston.. No more than four other Englishmen had even exceeded 45ft (13.71m) – Robert Revans (primarily a long jumper), Arthur Gray (a high jumper), William Battrick and Robert Hawkey. Battrick, who was from Plymouth, had won the Inter-Counties’ title for Devon in 1936, but was ignored by “The Times”, whose correspondent concluded a long report of the various events that day with the abrupt comment that “nothing great was accomplished in the field events, though D.R. Bell in the discus beat his own English native record”. Douglas Bell was also 4th in the hammer and made up the numbers with 5th place in the triple jump!

William Battrick thus remains another of these neglected and valiant English exponents of the hop, step and jump. Matters would, of course, be rather different from the 1950s onwards, with a succession of ever-improving practitioners, leading eventually to another Devonian product, Jonathan Edwards, who was not actually born in that county but was brought up and went to school there before his career before becoming a professional athlete took him to the North-East

Robert Hawkey re-emerged in 1947 and had by then had left the police to become a student at the City of Coventry Teachers’ Training College. He won the first of three successive Northern triple-jump titles at Chesterfield with 45-0½ (13.73), which was a couple of inchesless than he had managed seven years before and was adequate enough to rank 4th in Britain for the year. In fact, the only Englishman more adept at the event was a future AAA national coach, Denis Watts, as the next two ranking positions were taken by an Australian, Anthony Lethbridge, serving as an officer in the army, and a Nigerian, Prince Adegboyega Adedoyin, who was a student in Belfast (profiled in the previous issue of “Track Stats”).

To open the Olympic season Watts won the Inter-Counties’ title at the White City rather easily from Hawkey on 17 May, 47-2 (14.37) to 45-10½ (13.78), both personal bests. However, by the time of the AAA Championships on 2-3 July Watts was either injured or out of form, and a somewhat lacklustre event was won by George Avery, of Australia, who would nevertheless miss out by only four centimetres on becoming Olympic champion at Wembley a month later.

Somewhat oddly, Hawkey, by now a member of Darlington Harriers & AC, was selected for the Games, even though he had placed 4th in the AAA event, an inch behind Sid Cross, of Birchfield Harriers. The “Coventry Evening Telegraph” made no comment at all that a local student had been selected for the Olympics. The two others nominated were Adedoyin and a Scottish university student, Allan Lindsay, who had been 2nd in the AAA Championships. Two days after the team had been announced, Cross broke the English native record which had stood to Jack Higginson Jnr since 1938, but the selectors were saved embarrassment because Adedoyin generously gave up his place, having also been chosen for the high jump and long jump.

This record of Cross’s came about in curious circumstances in a match between Wales and the AAA as part of the Monmouthshire Police Sports at Abertillery on 10 July. Cross cleared 47-6½ (14.49), Hawkey a personal best 47-3½ (14.41) and a local schoolboy, Gwyn Harris, 46-3¾ (14.11), another personal best and beating the Welsh senior record which had also stood for 10 years. Cross thus improved on his previous season’s best by 73 centimetres, Hawkey by 47 centimetres and young Harris by 51 centimetres. Clearly there was something in the Abertillery air, or maybe it happened to have a helpful runway – rare in those days. The Welsh Championships were held there the next year and Gordon Wells set another Welsh record in the triple jump. Abertillery was a major athletics venue then, with a grass track set inside a cycle-racing circuit.
All three are non-qualifiers at the Olympic Games
The qualifying distance for the Olympic final on 3 August was 14.50, which would obviously stretch Cross, Hawkey and Lindsay, whose previous best was 46-11½ (14.31), to their very limit and beyond, and none of them could rise to the occasion – Cross 14.30, Lindsay 13.70, Hawkey’s mark not even known. The distance which Cross had previously achieved for his English record was exactly equaled by the 8th-placed athlete in the final, and he was the future double Olympic champion and World record-holder, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva!

In 1949 Hawkey was 2nd in the Inter-Counties’ at the White City to Sid Cross and then won his third Northern title at Harrogate. This brought his competitive career to an end, and presumably he went into teaching. At the end of 1950 he ranked 6th on the British all-time list, but even the otherwise excellent Darlington Harriers & AC website history gives him only a passing mention. It would seem, then, that nobody locally knows anything about him, though he had been the first athlete from the Darlington club to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games since George Butterfield at 800 and 1500 metres, also in London 40 years before.

Interestingly, the Darlington club produced another triple-jump international in 1958 when Fred Wyers competed for Great Britain against a British Empire & Commonwealth team. Wyers was born in Oldham, in Lancashire, and then studied at Sheffield University and was an army national serviceman and a member of Bolton United Harriers before joining Darlington. He emigrated to Canada in 1960 and won the national triple-jump title there three years later. So a connection with Robert Hawkey seems improbable.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that Hawkey seems to be forgotten; Clive Williams, co-editor of the history of Welsh athletics, recalls meeting Gordon Wells, who was also a Welsh rugby-union international, some 40 years after he had set his triple-jump record: “I said something like ‘You were a great rugby player, but an even greater hop step and jump performer’, and he was astounded that someone knew of his athletics feats!”

In similar vein, the English record-holder, Sid Cross, gets short shrift in the history of his club, Birchfield Harriers, published in 1988. He was their only male athlete selected for the 1948 Olympics; but the brief references to this were as follows: “The London Olympics was the major event in 1948, but as far as Birchfield were concerned the big news of the year was the victory of the ladies in the National at Oxford”, and on the following page, “Although Winnie Jordan won the WAAA 100m, and she and Gladys Clarke (Javelin) and Sidney Cross (triple jump) made the Olympic team, cross country and road running was still the club’s strength”.

Born in Birmingham on 7 July 1925, Sidney Ernest Cross took up athletics after leaving the Royal Navy in 1946, and his first success of note was in the Warwickshire county 440 yards hurdles in 1947 in a modest 60.5sec. He then switched to the triple jump, and maybe the simple reason for this change of direction was that his club had no one else doing the event or perhaps the AAA national coach for the Midlands, Allan Malcolm, had some influence in the matter. Under the leadership of the charismatic chief coach, Geoff Dyson, Malcolm took a particular interest in the field events.
Whatever the motivation, Cross went on to win the Midlands title for four successive years, 1949-52, and on the first occasion he beat a Championship record which had stood since 1928, and the “Birmingham Daily Gazette” reported that the previous holder, Harold Langley, was there as a judge to see him do it. Cross was also AAA champion in 1950 and 1951, but none of this excited much attention even in the specialist press, and no comment was made at all by “Athletics Weekly” about the first of his AAA wins on the Friday evening of the meeting, though space was found for a paragraph about the Tug-of-War event.
Newspapers in the Midlands gave Cross plenty of coverage, and there was, for example, in the “Coventry Evening Telegraph” a thoughtful and informative résumé of the 1951 Warwickshire Championships at Rugby on 2 June by an athletics correspondent who – in the custom of that era – wrote under a pseudonym, “Fleetfoot”

“The hop, step and jump, which incorporated an attack on the British Native record, was left until the end, and spectators were allowed to go on to the centre green and watch the contest at close quarters. As a result, the crowd displayed great interest in the efforts of all the entrants, and particularly Sid Cross, who failed by a couple of inches to set up new figures. It seemed to me that Cross was doomed from the first jump, for whBy 1940 the linen tape showed 48ft 10in his elation was obvious – and his disappointment equally so when the use of the surveyor’s chain reduced the distance to its correct 48-2½. The psychological effect cannot be over-estimated”.

Note that the “British Native record” referred to was 48-5¼” (14.77) by the Ulsterman, Edward Boyce, which had stood for 17 years.In 2nd place in that competition at Rugby was Denis Field, who was still only 20 years old but had already made his GB debut as a teenager the previous year and was to win the Midlands title for the next six successive years. He was a member of Birchfield Harriers and it seems likely that he might have been advised, or at least inspired, by Sid Cross, although the club history makes no mention of any such eventuality. .
Cross, who worked for the Post Office in Birmingham, achieved a further English native record of 48-3¾ (14.72) in the 1950 Warwickshire Championships, again at Rugby on 3 June,, and a wind-aided 48-6 (14.78) – once more denying him a “British Native record” – in winning the Civil Service title at Chiswick on 7 July 1951. During 1950 he won all seven of his domestic competitions and was one of only three Englishmen ranked in the top 10 in the event in Britain The leader was William Laing, a student from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) at St Andrew’s University, with 48-5¾ (14.77), but he lost to Cross at the AAA Championships
By now Cross had joined another Birmingham club, Small Heath Harriers, but there is no mention of him in the club’s history which is posted on the internet. He had placed 10th in the 1950 European Championships in Brussels, and in four international matches for Great Britain within 28 days in August and September of 1951 he won against France, Yugoslavia and Greece and his only defeat in 12 competitions during the year was to the European bronze-medallist, Ruhi Sarialp, of Turkey. Everything depended on Cross for valuable points-scoring during that fateful Balkans tour as an epidemic of illness in the team meant that his makeshift partners in his event were hurdler Harry Whittle and high jumper Ron Pavitt. Cross’s 2nd place against Sarialp was his only defeat of the year in 12 triple-jump competitions, though he was also called up as an emergency long jumper against Greece and earned a point for 4th place..
Cross won the Midlands triple jump again in 1952 and continued competing at a lower level through to 1955 before retiring to devote more time to his family and his work. All in all, he had had a very commendable career in an event yet to be taken seriously in England and he deserves greater recognition for his fortitude. Even the highly esteemed AAA National coach, Geoff Dyson, had a blind spot regarding Cross’s event because in 1951 he co-authored a book with a leading physical educationist, Joseph Edmundson, entitled “Athletics for Schools”, which proved so popular that three further editions were produced through to 1958 – and nowhere in more than 300 pages is there any mention of the triple jump.

In an issue of “Athletics Weekly” in May 1952, one of Britain’s most experienced coaches, George Pallett, contributed an article headlined, somewhat plaintively, “Why not try the triple jump?” Pallett, who had been a capable triple-jumper himself, among numerous other events, in the 1930s, wrote, “Even in these days of scientific application to athletics there are many square pegs in round holes. A recent Southern champion in this event started off as a quarter-miler”. Triple jumping, Pallett reckoned, “is rising out of the class of Cinderella events”.

Neither Robert Hawkey nor Sidney Cross would surely have thought of themselves as Prince Charming, and certainly no magic wands were waved in 1952. There were no British representatives in the triple jump at the Olympics that year, but those keen-eyed readers of “AW” who studied the small print on the results pages might have noticed that a promising 21-year-old named K.S.D. Wilmshurst was 4th at the AAA Championships, one place ahead of Sid Cross. Within two years Ken Wilmshurst would be Britain’s first “50-footer”.

Acknowledgments: Thanks for helpful information to Clive Williams, Alan and Brenda Currie, Keith Morbey and Colin Kirkham. For an expert over-view see “Triple Jump: A Statistical Survey of British Jumping”, No.4 in the NUTS Historical Series Booklets, by Ian Tempest, published in 2002.

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