Squire Yarrow: the Upright, Distinguished Squire of the Marathon from London's East End
When Squire Yarrow died at the age of 78 in 1984 the obituary writers could naturally have been tempted to describe him as having given a lifetime’s service to athletics. He had represented Great Britain at the marathon both before and after World War II and had continued competing until his mid-40s. He had written authoritatively about road-racing pace and strategy. He had been very widely involved in administration and had been appointed president of the Amateur Athletic Association in 1978, continuing a distinguished line of which Harold Abrahams and the Marquess of Exeter were his immediate predecessors. Yet it still didn’t quite add up to a lifetime of involvement because he had not taken up running until he was 26, and there can be few who have matched his achievements as a runner after so late a start.
His full name was Squire Stevens Yarrow, which seems more appropriate to a rubicund character from the depths of Wessex figuring in a Thomas Hardy novel than to someone born in Hackney, in the working-class East End of London, on 28 July 1905. He was well educated as he went to Cambridge University, and he was an enthusiast for motor sports during the 1920s, racing on the Brooklands circuit in Surrey and driving in the Monte Carlo Rally, and he became a youth organiser in Leeds in the 1930s for the organisation which was the forerunner of the Central Council of Physical Recreation. He joined Polytechnic Harriers, where he came under the coaching care of the Olympic 800 metres and 1500 metres champion of 1920, Albert Hill, whose most notable protegé was Sydney Wooderson.
Yarrow was also closely involved with the east end club, Victoria Park Harriers, and though only second-claim he was thought of so highly that he served as president from 1937 to 1952. His other affiliations included Leeds AC and the Achilles club, but it was in the Polytechnic colours that he achieved his first performance of note with 3rd place in the 1935 Southern six miles track championship at Paddington in a time of 32:26.0. The race was won in 32:13.0 by Leslie Griffiths, of Herne Hill Harriers, who would become a marathon rival of Yarrow’s in future years.
Yarrow waited until 1938 to make his marathon debut and was perhaps encouraged to do so by the example of a Polytechnic club-mate, Bert Norris, who was silver-medallist at the British Empire Games in February of that year and had been competing very successfully at the distance throughout the 1930s. The annual Polytechnic Marathon had first been held in 1909 from Windsor to the Stamford Bridge Stadium, in London, but the 1938 “Poly” finished on the track at the new stadium at Chiswick, on the western side of London, and would continue to do so until 1972. For much of that time it would be the most renowned of all marathon courses, with World best times set as follows:
2:20:42.2 Jim Peters (Great Britain), 14 June 1952
2:18:40.4 Peters, 13 June 1953
2:17:39.4 Peters, 26 June 1954
2:14:28.0 Leonard (“Buddy”) Edelen (USA), 15 June 1953
2:12:00.0 Morio Shigematsu (Japan), 12 June 1965
That first Chiswick finish in 1938 was conducted at a rather more sedate pace, as one would naturally suppose. The 85 competitors were led by George Latham, of Westbury Harriers, until five miles from the finish when Henry Palmé, of Sweden, who had placed 13th at the Berlin Olympics, went ahead and won in 2:42:00, but only by 150 yards or so from Yarrow (2:42:35), who had steadily worked his way through. Norris, not at his best, retired at 15½ miles. A South African member of Herne Hill Harriers, Tommy Lalande, who had been 27th in Berlin, was two minutes further back in 3rd place and Latham finished 4th.
The European Championships were to be held in Paris in September of that year, but it was not until after the AAA title race on 18 July that the marathon selections for the Great Britain team were decided. Here the winner with some considerable ease was Jack Beman, of Birchfield Harriers, described by “The Times” newspaper as “a cheery veteran though he did not look it”, whose time was 2:36:39, almost 3½ minutes ahead of Francis O’Sullivan, of Herne Hill Harriers, who had been 5th in the Poly, with Latham 3rd and Lalande 4th. Beman was 42 years of age and had been a distance-runner of note since the early 1920s, but because of a contravention of the rules by his club regarding payment of expenses he had been banned from international competition since 1931. Thus Yarrow and O’Sullivan were the two chosen to go to Paris.
Yarrow ran splendidly on his international debut, taking the silver medal behind the Russian-born Finn, Väinö Muinonen, 2:37:28.8 to 2:39:03.0. Yarrow had led at 31 kilometres and “The Times” said of him that “the younger and less experienced of the two British competitors was the only man capable of pressing the Finn in the closing stages”, and then added: “That Yarrow should have finished 2nd in his second serious marathon and beaten H. Palmé, the Swedish winner of the Polytechnic marathon, into 3rd place promises well for the future”. The next year Yarrow had another noteworthy 2nd, in the AAA race which started and finished at the White City. He and Donald McNab Robertson, who had placed 7th in the Berlin Olympic race, were together at 20 miles before the Scot drew relentlessly away, 2:35:37 to 2:37:50, with Lalande more than six minutes behind in 3rd.
At 34 years of age when the war broke out, Yarrow served in the Royal Air Force as a Flight Lieutenant and presumably at first took it for granted that the athletic “promises for the future” predicted by “The Times” were now a thing of the past. In fact, there was a considerable amount of competition during wartime in Britain, including a number of road races each year such as a re-routed Poly marathon on the roads near Chiswick Stadium and the Finchley 20 miles event in North London. Yarrow was 2nd in the 1940 Poly to his pre-war track opponent, Leslie Griffiths, and 8th in 1942 when the winner was again Griffiths, with a future Olympian, Stan Jones, also of Polytechnic Harriers, 5th.
Peace is resumed and the European title challenge is revived
The first major road event of 1946 was the Finchley 20 on 27 April and was won for the sixth time in succession by the future Olympic silver-medallist, Tommy Richards, of South London Harriers, from George Scutts (Portsmouth AC), Jones and Yarrow, while the winner of the Kent 20 at Chislehurst on 25 May was Cecil Ballard, of Surrey AC, from Yarrow. With the European Championships being revived, those with marathon aspirations were again expected to establish their claims at the Poly in June and the AAA Championships in July … and preferably both. The Poly was won by almost four minutes by Horace Oliver, of Reading AC, crossing the line smiling and waving in 2:38:12. Jones was 2nd, Ballard 3rd, Richards 4th and Yarrow 5th in 2:43:27. The AAA race was only 35 days afterwards, held in conjunction with the track Championships, and Yarrow won from the man who had beaten him in the same race seven years before, McNab Robertson, but this time in the most dramatic of circumstances.
The AAA Championships that year were not well organised and it seemed to come as a complete surprise to the officials – and certainly was for the bemused spectators – when Yarrow and McNab Robertson arrived unannounced via a narrow gateway which led on to the White City track from the adjoining greyhound-racing circuit. In his centenary history of the AAA, published in 1980, Peter Lovesey aptly noted that “probably only the experience of the runners – they were both 40 and had rivalled each other for years – enabled the race to come to a result”. The problem was that the two miles steeplechase was in progress and in the laconic phrasing of the correspondent for “The Times” the marathon leaders and the steeplechasers “mingled”.
The report in “The Times” concluded: “Yarrow was obviously the fresher of the two, but Robertson, almost all in, was determined to get home 1st. He strained yard by yard to keep with Yarrow round the last quarter-mile, but the Polytechnic man just held him off in a desperate finish to win by a yard. Never can a more close or desperate finish have been seen to a marathon”. Yarrow’s time was much the same as at the Poly, 2:43:14.4, with McNab Robertson two-tenths behind, Richards 3rd in 2:44:10, Jones 4th, Duncan McLeod Wright (aged 49, who had been 4th in the 1932 Olympic marathon) 5th and Ballard 6th. The Poly winner, Oliver, did not run, and he and Yarrow were the two selected for Oslo. Yarrow’s success denied McNab Robertson a seventh AAA marathon title as he had won in 1932-33-34-36-37 as well as in 1939.
Yarrow, at the age of 41, was a commendable 7th in the European Championships race as the title went to another Finn, Mikko Hietanen, with the 46-year-old defending champion, Muinonen, in 2nd place, and in the breathtakingly comprehensive history of the Championships (1,160 pages !)published by the Spanish statisticians’ organisation in 2010 is to be found an unusual photograph of the 15 runners lined up for the start of the event in the stadium, with Yarrow gazing skywards as if seeking divine inspiration. Yarrow’s somewhat baggy shorts are almost twice the length of the rather sleeker Hietanen’s alongside him, but the Briton still presents a tall, upright and distinguished-looking figure. The times were remarkable – Hietanen ran 2:24:55 and Yarrow must have been astonished to see 2:30:40 registered for him – but the course was only 40.2 kilometres in length. Had it been full distance, Yarrow would have run approximately 2:39. His team-mate, Oliver, was in 7th place at 30 kilometres but failed to finish.
The short distance was not an error on the part of the organisers as races at 40.2 kilometres had been regularly contested in Scandinavian countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s; the reasoning being that this was almost exactly the same as 25 miles – actually 25 miles 82.7 yards. It is worth pointing out at this stage that the classic 26miles 385 yards devised for the 1908 Olympic marathon did not become the standard distance at those Games until 1924. The man responsible was a British delegate to the IAAF, Percy Fisher, who had proposed the idea in 1921. He had been one of the committee members who haddecided the 1908 course.
The 1946 European Championships represented the end of Yarrow’s marathon career, but he continued for several more years to take part regularly in such events as the Finchley 20. He was now employed as welfare officer at the British Reinforced Concrete plant at Stafford, in the Midlands of England, and his care and interest in people extended throughout athletics in that region and then nationally. He joined yet another club, Stafford AC, and founded and was the first secretary of Rugeley AC. He was invited to become president of Stone AC and assisted in the formation of Cannock AC and the Wolverhampton & Bilston club – all of them in the Midlands area. His list of appointments was endless, most notably including presidency of the Midland Counties’ AAA and chairmanship of the AAA committees for coaching and for development and facilities. Even if his introduction to athletics had been later in life than usual, he packed very much more than a lifetime’s work into his half-century of involvement.
He was an assistant manager for Great Britain at the 1948 Olympics and attended the Games on frequent further occasions as a spectator and tour-group leader. He was in charge of numerous parties of runners sent to major overseas marathons and was referee of the London Marathon from its inception in 1981. He was a committed campaigner against the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and on his death a heartfelt tribute was paid to him in his obituary in the British magazine, “Athletics Weekly”, contributed by Mike Farrell, the 1956 Olympic 800 metres finalist who was general secretary of the AAA:
“He was a fine man of strong conviction and ideals and will be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues. He once said, ‘Amidst what seems to be a lowering of standards in all I see and hear, I hope that athletics will retain the honest principles on which it was founded and be an example to the World that all men and women should be given an equal opportunity in life to live and play together in harmony’ ”.