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AGK Brown's Selfless North American ADVENTURE

A.G.K’s selfless North American adventure a year after Olympic gold A “Track Stats” inquiry

Rivalled only by Sydney Wooderson, Godfrey Brown was the most famous of British athletes in 1937. He had lost the 400 metres at the Berlin Olympics the previous year by the narrowest of margins and then anchored the 4 x 400 relay team to a famous victory over the Americans. Frequently the headline to any press report about him read no more than “A.G.K. Brown”. Readers knew to expect that another record had been broken or at least seriously challenged. Whether or not Brown himself endorsed the “record attempts” so frequently predicted on his behalf in excited media coverage is another matter.

The target most often set for him could scarcely have been more formidable: the World record 440 yards of 46.4sec by Ben Eastman, of the USA, from 1932, set under the blazing sunshine of Stanford, California. Brown, by extreme contrast, started his post-Olympic competitive activity at Cambridge University in the depths of winter, as was the custom of the era, and yet even so ran 200 yards on 19 February in 19.5sec, which was only one-tenth slower than a British record which had stood to Willie Applegarth since 1912. On 4 March Brown was in even sharper form, with 300 yards in 30.5, which beat by one-tenth the British record set 11 years previously by Guy Butler. 

The deciding factor as to whether Brown could really improve five yards or more on his Olympic form (46.7 for 400 metres) was not remarked upon in the newspaper coverage. In any case, he had other broader reaching commitments, and in the all-important Inter-Varsity match against Oxford at the White City on 20 March he won the 100 yards in 10.0 and the 440 yards in a series record 48.4, beating Olympic sprinter Alan Pennington in both races. To Brown’s even greater satisfaction, Cambridge won by nine events to two. Such loyalty to team success above individual glory would seem to characterise Brown’s almost every race during the remainder of a long and demanding – if fractured – season.

Unfortunately, the key word in reports about Brown during April and May was “injury”, and this had happened in the most incongruous of circumstances, severely pulling his right thigh muscle after the last changeover in a 4 x 110 yards relay for the Achilles Club (Oxford and Cambridge University undergraduates and graduates) against Epsom College. The reason he was there was that Achilles members regularly visited schools for matches in which they gave away generous handicap allowances to their eager young opponents. On Whitsun Holiday  Monday, 17 May, Brown was at least partly recovered and won the Inter-Counties 440 at the White City Stadium, in London, from Olympic relay team-mate Freddy Wolff in a tentative 49.7. Brown was supposed to have also attacked the World record for 300 yards at that meeting, and presumably he was not averse to the idea because he apologised for not being fit enough to do so and for any disappointment he might have caused the crowd. 

This record has the distinction of being the last to be recognised officially by the IAAF for the event, and it stood to the credit of a Hungarian, József  Kovács, who is long since forgotten by all except the most assiduous of historians but was an exceptional all-rounder, with times of 10.6, 21.6, 47.7 and 400 hurdles in 53.3 (joint fastest European) during 1937 alone. In 1935 he had set a European record of 33.3 for 300 metres (328 yards), passing 300 yards in 30.0, which improved on Guy Butler’s previously mentioned 30.6. Kovács’s record was not an easy one to beat, and in later years when one of the greatest of all quarter-milers, Herb McKenley, managed to do so it was only eventually by four-tenths of a second in 1948.

In June Brown was back in some form, winning the 880 yards for Cambridge against the ruling body Amateur Athletics Association team in their annual match on 5 June in a ground record 1:54.6 and then the following Saturday setting a Northern Ireland all-comers’ 440 best at the Royal Ulster Constabulary Sports in Belfast, though it required only a time of 51.2 to do so. In any normal year the next challenge would have been the AAA Championships at the White City on 17 July, but Brown was otherwise engaged that same day some 3000 miles away. He had gone off to the USA as captain of a combined Oxford & Cambridge Universities team for matches against Harvard & Yale, Princeton & Cornell and Canadian opposition in Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal. Considering how heavily Oxford had lost the Inter-Varsity match, their representation was surprisingly strong – nine of the 22 athletes in the group – but the over-riding objective regardless of Dark Blue (Oxford) or Light Blue (Cambridge) affiliation was victory in a long series of such international contests which pre-dated even the first Modern Olympic Games by two years. 

Maybe the transatlantic sea voyage did Brown some good because he was in a remarkable state of fitness during the visit. Against Harvard & Yale on 10 July he won the 440 in 47.7, which was the fastest ever by a Briton, though Brown and Bill Roberts had, of course, been  much quicker in Berlin at 400 metres, 46.7 (46.68) and 46 (46.87). Brown also won the 880 in a personal best 1:54.3, and a Press Association news agency report claimed that Brown would attack the 440 yards World record against Princeton & Cornell on 17 July. There was no indication that Brown shared such confidence.

The consensus of media opinion at the time is that if Brown had any idea about the World record he changed his mind on the day, and the Oxford & Cambridge miler, Jack Emery, was innocently to blame for that. Emery had run 4:13.8 to win against Harvard & Yale, which was far faster than he had ever done before and was actually at that date the best time of the year by a Briton, and so was apparently expected to gain another decisive 1st place against Princeton & Cornell. Instead, he was well beaten by Pete Bradley, 4:13.4 to 4:15.8, and Brown decided to win the 440 as economically as possible and then run the 880 again to ensure overall match victory. He won that event by half-a-dozen yards in 1:52.2, which was a time only ever beaten among Britons at either 800 metres or 880 yards by Olympic champions Douglas Lowe and Tom Hampson. The AAA title winner that same day was Arthur Collyer, 1:53.3; while Sydney Wooderson won the mile for the third successive year (extending the sequence to five by 1939) in 4:12.2 and in August would set a World record 4:06.4.

Brown’s US opposition was of some consequence. His Harvard & Yale quarter-mile adversary was James Hamilton Hucker, described perhaps not too extravagantly as “the most brilliant undergraduate athlete in America”, who had finished a close 2nd in the US AAU 440 hurdles final in Milwaukee on 1 July. Against Princeton & Cornell, Brown won rather easily from John Meaden, and one cannot help but wonder about opportunities lost. At Princeton on 19 June Elroy Robinson had run 1:51.0 for 800 metres, and on 11 July – the day after Brown was at Cambridge, Massachusetts, running his 48.4 and 1:54.3 – Robinson was a mere 200 miles away at Randall’s Island, New York, setting a World record of 1:49.6 for 880 yards. The previous record of 1:49.8, incidentally, had been achieved at the Princeton track by Ben Eastman in 1934. On 17 July, at a meeting in Dallas which was a forerunner to the Pan-American Games (which would not start until 1951), Johnny Woodruff, the Olympic champion, ran 1:47.8 for what the officials claimed to be 1.52 metres short of 800, thus denying him a World record. Robinson finished 2nd, and one can only rue the fact that Brown never got into such a race.   

The Oxbridge team defeated both their US opponents by the same score of seven events to five, and by the time they reached Hamilton on 21 July Brown was starting to feel the strain of travelling and competing, with the onerous additional responsibilities of captaincy, though he had the support of two experienced team managers in Rex Woods and Evan Hunter. One of his team-mates was Michael Melford, who had run the half-mile for Oxford against Cambridge, and he was to write almost 30 years later, by which time he was a respected sports correspondent for national newspapers, the “Daily Telegraph” and “Sunday Telegraph”, “The wear and tear of travel and hospitality was beginning to tell and at Hamilton the almost unbelievable had happened at the end of a slow run quarter, Brown had been passed by Loaring”. Brown had led the 440 by several yards into the home straight but was caught and beaten in 48.8 by John Loaring, another exceptional athlete of the 1930s who was silver-medallist at 400 hurdles at the Berlin Olympics and would be British Empire champion at 440 hurdles in 1938.  

Melford vividly described the impression that Brown had made on him: “Tall, with fairish wavy hair, he looked at the World through horn-rimmed spectacles with unfailing cheerfulness and placidity. He ran with an effortlessness and apparent reserve of power which I have never seen equalled”.  This could not have been more evident than in the anchor stage of the relay (440 x 220 x 220 x 440) which would decide the outcome of the final match the next night in Montreal. Brown had been knocked over in the individual 440, which had not been run in lanes, and had been taken off to hospital to be treated for his numerous abrasions from sliding along the cinder track, but he unexpectedly returned in time to run an astonishing anchor stage, making up a deficit of some 35 yards for victory.  

The composition of the Oxford & Cambridge team makes interesting reading. Half of them would represent Great Britain or had already done so – Harry Askew (long jump), Godfrey Brown, Jack Emery, Peter Hincks (shot), Robert Kennedy (high jump), John Knight (hurdles), Alan Pennington, Maurice Scarr (sprints), Vernon Scopes (hurdles), Arthur Selwyn (high jump) and Richard Webster (pole vault). Emery set a Canadian all-comers two miles record of 9:20.6 in Hamilton and would achieve much faster UK records in 1938 (9:07.6) and 1939 (9:03.4), beating the legendary time of Alfred Shrubb which had stood since 1904! Emery’s record, in turn, would last until 1952, to be then beaten by Chris Chataway. Emery was also International Cross Country champion in 1938. Pennington had wins on the US tour at 220 yards (straight track) in 21.3 and 21.4. 

There was also unaccustomed success in the field events. Kennedy achieved a career best high jump of 6ft 3¼in (1.91m) against Princeton & Cornell, with Selwyn 2nd. Webster also won at that match and had further triumphs in Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal. The Turkish shot putter, Irfan Sahinbas, known familiarly as “Ali” (maybe not entirely to his liking), won against Harvard & Yale. Some further useful demographic information emerges about the long jumper, Henry (“Harry”) Askew, from Walney, Barrow-in-Furness, which was then in Lancashire. He had gone on to Cambridge from his local Grammar School, having placed 2nd in the 100 yards and long jump at the 1935 AAA Junior Championships. Askew was still only 19 years old in 1937, and it can be imagined what an experience a US visit would have been for him! His subsequent life story was told in the UK history quarterly; “Track Stats”, in  2023.

The Oxford & Cambridge athletes – or at least some of them – returned home from North America in style in the ocean liner, “Queen Mary”, docking at Plymouth on 2 August after a voyage lasting four days, seven hours and 36 minutes. Nobody paid too much attention to the victorious arrivals on the gang-plank – the newsreel cameras rolled instead for film actresses  Sonja Henie, Beatrice Lillie and Madeleine Carroll, who were also on board – but Brown wasted no time getting back into the sort of centre-stage action he preferred. The following Saturday, 7 August, he ran a 440 for Achilles at the Ponders End Sports, in London, in 49.9, and then the next day flew to Amsterdam, where he won a 400 metres in 48.9 and was 3rd at 200 metres in 22.1 to two of Europe’s best sprinters, Marthinus Osendarp, of Holland, and Paul Haenni, of Switzerland. Brown was also in a winning 4 x 100 team in 42.2, running the third stage, with Kenneth Richardson, Don Finlay and Cyril Holmes. The British athletes took a return flight home that night.

Six days later Brown was a key figure in a memorable 69pts-to-67 win over Germany at the White City. Brown had completed maximum points at 440 yards behind Bill Roberts and then held off Rudolf Harbig on the half-mile anchor stage of the medley relay (440 x 220 x 220 x 880 yards), with Roberts, Arthur Sweeney and Pennington) to decide the match in Britain’s favour. Harbig was still a couple of years away from his historic World record 800 metres of 1:46.6 but had run 1:50.9 in Berlin the previous month. 

Then Brown went to Paris for the International Universities Games, winning the 400 at Colombes on 27 August in 48.4 and contributing to both winning relay teams two days later: Brown, Sandy Duncan, Pennington and Holmes 41.8 for 4 x 100;  John Horsfall (an Australian), John Barnes, Pennington and Brown 3:14.0 for 4 x 400. There followed a Scandinavian tour – 47.7 (1), GB v Finland, Helsinki, 4 September; 47.2 (1) Stockholm, 7 September, beating the US champion, Ray Malott; 47.8 (1) GB v Norway, Oslo, 12 September.  Brown was also in the winning 1000 metres relay teams (100 x 200 x 300 x 400) in Helsinki and Oslo.

Brown’s fastest 400 metres subsequently was 46.9 in Oslo, 15 September 1938, having won the European title at Colombes in 47.4 11 days previously. Frustratingly, his half-miles in 1937 remain his last performances of note in the event, as he won the 1938 Inter-Varsity race in 1:56.2 and otherwise merely ran a 1:56.0 in his home town of Derby – where his father was a Methodist minister – and in 1939 he rather casually took the AAA title in 1:55.1. A week later, in Milan, Harbig ran his 1:46.6 and in August set a 400 metres record of 46.0. 

World War II put an end to so many athletics ambitions. In 1941 Harbig broke the World record for 1000 metres by more than two seconds, thus becoming the only man to hold the records at 400, 800 and 1000 metres, but even such renown did not merit any privileged treatment. He served as a Sergeant in the German army in Poland and Ukraine and was killed on 3 March 1944. 

Absolved from military duty because of poor eyesight, Godfrey Brown had begun a teaching career at Cheltenham College in 1943 which would eventually lead to the head-mastership of the Royal Grammar School Worcester (1950-1978), but he seems to have had some further track ambitions because in 1947, while still on the staff of Cheltenham College, he won the Gloucestershire 440 yards title and an inter-county race against Somerset and Worcestershire. He turned out for the AAA against Oxford University at Iffley Road on 5 June and was 2nd in an estimated 50.0 to a South African undergraduate, Peter Wallis, 49.5, which must have caused some hearts to flutter at the possibility of Brown and his 1936 Olympic colleague, Bill Roberts, appearing again at the next year’s Olympics, but Brown then strained a tendon and that brought his career to an end. 

A.G.K. Brown (his first names were Arthur Godfrey Kilner) was certainly continuing to give  much thought to his events because in August 1946 he wrote a thoughtful article for the UK monthly magazine, “Athletics”, which was the predecessor to “Athletics Weekly”. Describing his ideas for half-mile training, he concluded, “Train under the distance and not over it. Don’t be afraid of the last 100 yards, for racing will give you the strength you require there if anything will. It is certainly a fact that my best half-miles were run after a period of training for the quarter, and my best quarter-miles when I was running nothing over that distance”. Brown died in 1995, a few days before his 80th birthday.   

Thanks to John Edwards and Neil Shuttleworth for details regarding the Oxford & Cambridge North American tour of 1937.   



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