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Hyla Stallard: His Olympian Mind-set


“Quiet, chivalrous, generous to opponents”: the Olympian mind-set of Hyla Stallard


Athletics successes in Great Britain in the years between the World Wars, 1918 to 1930, were socially divisive. The Olympic gold medals were usually won by undergraduates or graduates from Oxford and Cambridge Universities – most notably, Harold Abrahams, Lord Burghley, Guy Butler, Douglas Lowe, Tom Hampson, Godfrey Brown. Even the iconic New Zealander, Jack Lovelock, was at Oxford. Titles in the more prosaic 50 kilometres road walks were taken instead by less privileged members of society; one of them a railway-depot labourer, the other a motor-racing mechanic. Of the 586 athletes who represented Great Britain in that era, 118 were from Oxford or Cambridge.


Not quite in the highest Olympian class but not far off it was Hyla Stallard, also from Cambridge and 4th in the 800 metres and 3rd at 1500 metres in the 1924 Paris Olympics. When in 1930 the Amateur Athletic Association came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding, Stallard was called upon to contribute two key chapters to the accompanying jubilee souvenir book boldly entitled “50 Years Of Progress”. By now completing the medical studies which would eventually lead to him being universally recognised as a pioneering eye surgeon, Stallard’s chosen themes were “The Value of Athletics” and “The Olympic Games”. Authors also included Lowe (“Athletics in the Schools and Universities”) and another Cambridge graduate, Malcolm Nokes, who had been Olympic hammer-throw bronze-medallist in 1924 (“The International Matches”).


The AAA had been established at the Randolph Hotel, in Oxford, in 1880, when some 30 delegates from throughout the country responded to the joint invitation of the Oxford University and Cambridge University Athletic Clubs. The AAA president since 1916 had been Sir Montague Shearman, who was one of the three founding figures from Oxford, and when he died in January 1930 he was succeeded by Baron Desborough of Taplow, who had also been at Oxford, and was an astonishingly accomplished sporting all-rounder. Yet the AAA had moved on by 1930 to become a commendably egalitarian institution, as none of its eight life vice-presidents nor its eight vice-presidents had been to Oxford or Cambridge – one among them had even been born in the grimy Lancashire industrial town of Rochdale, which was about as far as you could get in social environment from the “dreaming spires” of Oxford.


In his evaluation of athletics Stallard wrote, “Competition throws an athlete into contact with other men. It forces him to make observations, comparisons, and deductions about his fellows and their merits. In victory he sees that he is not to be unduly elated, but to be quiet, chivalrous and generous towards opponents. Condescension and a patronising air are loathsome traits. In defeat – and it comes sooner or later to everyone – not to be depressed and downcast; to give the victor his due; and to fill oneself with determination to come back and fight it out again another day”.  


Such a high moral stance no doubt reflected the feelings of his “Oxbridge” contemporaries, but Stallard had some surprisingly vehement criticism to make of one of the mainstays of athletics competition in Britain between the World Wars and even into the 1950s – handicap racing and its prize-giving system. In 1930 the AAA limits in value of prizes were set at £7 7 shillings for 1st place, £3 3 shillings for 2nd place and £1 1 shilling for 3rd place, and as the average annual income was £155 a year, and for factory workers £100, and the unemployment rate ranged from 15 per cent to over 18 per cent, such prizes were highly attractive to those masses of runners who led nowhere near such a comfortable life as did Stallard. “These material emblems”, he wrote of prizes, “do much to ruin the spirit and highest ideals of athletics. How much nicer it is to do one’s job and go quietly away when the last race is run. Prizes exist because we have lost our sense of values”. 


Yet Stallard was no narrow-minded reactionary, and he had some observations to make about women athletes which were far in advance of the general opinion of that era. He wrote, “Through the medium of sport men and women of all nations are drawn together on common ground, and in these days of feminine emancipation I feel the urge to say something quite brief about the entry of women into the arena of athletics. There is a great gulf between the days of their Spartan sisters and modern times, and during that interval women have been subjected to domestic and sedentary occupations, with little or no freedom for the pursuit of the more violent forms of physical activity.  It is probable that in the meantime their minds and bodies have suffered physiological transitions and modifications. It is, at the moment, impossible to prophesy the extent to which feminine athletic prowess will go. In spite of the conflicting opinions that have been expressed, I believe that training and judicious competition will widen a woman’s outlook, teach her the value of team spirit, and help to make her a pleasant companion”.


Of course, Stallard expressed his ideas in terminology which was perfectly acceptable in society then but now jars in these days of obsessive political correctness, and he should be given his due for meaning well. When he was writing, it was only two years since women’s athletics had been brought into the Olympic Games, and the over-wrought response by officialdom to the finish of the 800 metres prompted the banning of the event from the Games for a further 32 years, though the women athletes had shown little difference in their composure to their male counterparts. Stallard had been a spectator at those Games in Amsterdam, and we can take it that he was properly impressed by Karoline Radke, of Germany, who had won that 800 in a World record 2:16⅘. No British women had been sent to Amsterdam, but  Stallard makes no reference to this.


Instead, he fulsomely appraised the Olympic spirit – or at least his patriotic interpretation of it: “Those of us who were present at the Olympic Games at Amsterdam came away with a feeling of pride in our British heritage. Both the victorious and the vanquished in our team showed the fine qualities of determination and doggedness in the face of odds that belong essentially to the British. The Press pour forth much criticism, mostly adverse, at the termination of each Olympic Games. These critics could never have moved amongst the athletes of the various nations, as they would not say or write the  things they do”. Stallard’s remarks were timely as there was a widespread feeling in Britain that the Olympics were becoming too serious, too costly.  


Hyla Bristow Stallard had been born in the gracious cathedral city of Bath on 28 April 1901. Bath is in the county of Somerset and therefore contained within England’s highly picturesque but now regrettably tourist-ridden West Country. He had two younger brothers and was named after his father, Hyla Holden Stallard, who was one of Bath’s most prominent citizens: manager of the National Provincial Bank, member of the Board of Management of Bath Royal United Hospital, advisor to municipal committees, invitee to the grandest Mayoral receptions, vice-president of Bath Cycling & Athletic Club, honorary treasurer of various other worthy groups, including Somerset Athletic Association, until his retirement with his wife to Bournemouth in 1927. The experts are divided as to the origin of the unusual first name shared by father and son, but it is a matter of no great importance because some time in later life the younger Stallard took on the first name, ”Henry”, presumably because he didn’t like his given name or he wanted to distinguish himself from his father.   


Henry Stallard’s birthdate was fortuitous because he was sent to Sherborne public school, in neighbouring Dorset, in 1914 and stayed there until 1919, thus not required to be conscripted for the Great War, as it was then called, and avoiding the horrendous death toll which claimed so many of his age. In his last term at Sherborne he ran 23 for 220 yards, 55.0 for 440 yards, 2:14 for 880 yards and 4:57 for the mile, and he also took part in boxing, cricket, hockey, rugby football, swimming and tennis, which was by no means out of the ordinary for a public schoolboy in England then. He went on to Caius College, Cambridge University (where Harold Abrahams was already an undergraduate), and improved remarkably to 1:59 for the half-mile in December, when a match between the university and the AAA was staged at Fenner’s and produced some lively performances despite the inclement weather – snow falls from time to time ! Stallard beat a seasoned Northerner, G.L. Morgan, of Salford Harriers, by 25 yards and was thus transformed in a single outing from being just a gawky teenage novice.


In March of 1920 he won the first of three successive mile races in the annual Inter-Varsity match against Oxford, and by 1 May, only three days past his 19th birthday, he was a World record-holder. He had gone off to the USA as part of a combined Oxford/Cambridge quartet invited to run the 4 x 880 yards at the prestigious Penn Relays, in Philadelphia, already regarded as one of the major meets of the season. His colleagues on the transatlantic voyage, during which the liner, “S.S. Adriatic”, at one stage was forced to a halt by gale-force winds, were Bevil Rudd, who would win the Olympic 400 metres and place 3rd at 800 metres for South Africa later that year; Wilfred Tatham, who would run the 400 metres hurdles at the 1924 Olympics and the 800 metres in 1928; and William Milligan, who surely derived no less satisfaction from winning the Inter-Varsity mile for Oxford in 1923. Yet the reputation of their trainer outshone them all – he was the legendary distance-runner, Alf Shrubb. 


A seemingly omnipresent coach and prolific journalist and book-writer of the 1920s and 1930s, F.A.M. Webster, was a great admirer of Stallard’s and gave close attention to this Penn relay when he recalled his “Great Moments in Athletics” in 1947. There is no proof that Webster was there for the race, but his sources were impeccable and his account has a ring of authority to it. Tatham had run the first stage, and according to Webster, “Stallard took over the baton at speed and was away like an arrow in 6th place and a score of yards behind the leaders. A furlong from home he started what looked like a 100 yards sprint, and the crowd rose to him. He came into the lead rounding the last bend of his relay, swept on at a furious speed, sent Milligan off with a 20 yards advantage, and then passed out in a complete dead faint”. Milligan and Rudd completed the distance in a World record 7:50, winning by 50 yards, and Webster provides a complete set of “splits”, which no subsequent statisticians, even those of the IAAF, have picked up on: Tatham 1:58.2, Stallard 1:56.4, Milligan 1:58.2, Rudd 1:54.4. Webster for once didn’t check his facts because these times add up to a lot faster than the final result !


Stallard then suffered the first of the foot injuries which would plague his career, and he missed out on Olympic selection, but he was recovered fully by 1921 for the AAA Championships mile, which far into the future was to be described in the year after Bannister broke four minutes as “ a race which is still considered one of the finest gems in the treasury of British miling history”. The author of this phrase was George Smith, assistant secretary of the AAA, who wrote a highly informative history of the mile in 1955, even including a preface by John Paul Jones, the first official mile record-holder in 1913, by now aged 64, who recalled a leading US coach, Jack Moakley, telling him that same year, “Some day four minutes will be beaten”.  Smith had solid credentials beyond administrative capability for writing his book, having raced against Stallard, Lovelock, Wooderson and Olympic 1500 metres silver-medallist Jerry Cornes during a 20-year miling career and then having attended major championships from the 1936 Olympics onwards. 


By 1921 the mile record was 4:12 by another American, Norman Taber, from 1915, but Sam Mussabini, the coach to Albert Hill, the front-line war veteran who had won both the 800 and 1500 metres at the 1920 Olympics, had set his sights on 4:08, in consultation with the legendary Walter George, who had run 4:12¾ as a professional in 1886. The AAA race at London’s Stamford Bridge Stadium provided the one opportunity of the season for such an exploit, but circumstances were hardly favourable, as George Smith graphically explained;


“In those days heats were not contested in the AAA mile, and any athlete could enter, regardless of his previous performances. On a dry and dusty track 44 competitors, arranged in just over four rows, lined up for the start of the race, the nearest of the long bends being only 20 yards away. Albert Hill had the inside berth and at the gun he raced to get in front so as to avoid the scrimmage that always took place round the first bend. At this early stage of the race a certain robustness was necessary to survive the charge of spikes,  weaving bodies and the cloud of dust as each contestant tried to gain room adequate for a miler’s stride. The first lap was covered in 59 seconds”. Thus the well-laid plan was already thrown aside, but Hill forged on to a UK record time of 4:13, with Stallard on his heels in 4:14⅕. Only Taber among amateurs had ever run faster.


Acclamation for both Hill and Stallard from the attending newspapermen was lavish. “I have nothing but the strongest praise for Hill and his effort, who roused the spectators to a pitch of enthusiasm I have never before seen at a championship meeting”, wrote “Achates” in the 180,000-circulation Manchester-based “Athletic News”, “but in doling out the bouquets another has to come in for a share which is really scarcely less than that accorded to the Olympic champion. He is H.B. Stallard, whose forcing tactics and sustained pace made possible the time recorded”. In the London “Daily News” it was said of Stallard by “Astrad” that he “merits our sympathy in finding the form of a lifetime only to discover a rival in the same happy mood”. F.A.M. Webster was to write more than 20 years later, “It was as thrilling a race as I have ever seen”.


Among the excited 25,000 spectators was Walter George himself, now aged 62, and after the race he told the press – no doubt hanging on his every word – that he thought the time was worth two seconds faster, considering the state of the track, and he suggested that “2:03 instead of 2:04 for the half and 3:09 instead of 3:11 for the three-quarter mile would have seen a new World record hung out”. He predicted that with four laps of 62 seconds each Hill would run 4:08, but unfortunately that was never to happen as Hill retired from competition the next year after a winter wracked by illness. A natural conclusion for athletics historians is that if Hill had fulfilled that prediction, spurred on again by Stallard, and if the fabled “Flying Finn”, Paavo Nurmi, who was to set a mile record of 4:10.4 in 1923, had run the 4:04 which he reckoned after retirement he was capable of, then the sub-four-minute mile would have come about much earlier – either in the USA in the late 1930s or in neutral Sweden during World War II. 


Stallard was beaten again in the next year’s AAA mile, which was probably a surprise to everyone except the knowing supporters of the durable winner, Duncan McPhee, of the West of Scotland Harriers, who had been 3rd in 1914 and 2ndin 1920. He was to accumulate 11 Scots titles at 880 yards and the mile by 1923, and it was in that latter year that Stallard at last got his AAA win to begin a sequence which has never since been emulated, also winning the 880 in 1924 (by two-tenths over Douglas Lowe) and the 440 in 1925. At the AAA or subsequent UK national championships since 1880 no one else has won all these three events or their metric equivalents. 


Perceptively, George Smith was to point out in his 1955 book, “It may have been this versatility, with its sequel in the widespread demands made upon him to run in college, hospital and club contests in races ranging from 100 yards to long-distance cross-country, that prevented Stallard from gaining the high rewards of specialisation. Misfortune in the form of a recurrent bone fracture in his foot clouded his Olympic prospects, preventing his selection in 1920 and 1928 and undoubtedly affecting his running against Nurmi in 1924. It is beyond question that early in his career Henry Stallard was capable of breaking the existing World’s record for the mile, but his latent powers were never fully used. With the retirement of Hill, there was an absence of stimulating competition that lasted for some years, and by then he had become too involved in his professional work to train adequately for the mile record”. Douglas Lowe never ran the AAA mile, despite his 4th place behind Stallard in the 1924 Olympic 1500 metres won by Nurmi, and instead there was a social mix among the leading Britons. Cyril Ellis, winner in 1927-28-29, was a mine-worker, and Reg Thomas, his successor in 1930-31 and 1st again in 1933, a Sergeant in the Royal Air Force. 


It would be justifiable but too facile to suggest that Henry Stallard reached his peak in 1921, still aged only 20. After all, he went on to run his best ever times of 1:53.0 for 800 metres and 3:55.6 for 1500 metres (a UK record for seven years and equivalent to 4:14.2 for the mile) at the 1924 Olympics. He won at 1500 metres in the intensely important matches against France in 1921, 1922 and 1923 and at 800 metres in 1925. His fastest 880 was 1:54.6 in beating Lowe at the 1924 AAA Championships and he ran 1:54.0 for a relay stage in the post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA match that year. Even by September 1927 he was capable of 1:55.2 for 800 metres, narrowly beaten in Hanover by the next year’s Olympic silver-medallist, Hermann Engelhard, and ranking 3rd in Britain to Lowe and Cyril Ellis. Throughout his competitive career photographs showed the same slim figure, almost gaunt-faced, 6ft 1in (1.86m) tall and under 12st (75kg) in weight. In 1964 Harold Abrahams – by now a long-established athletics administrator and journalist – was to write, “If ever a runner deserved to win an Olympic title and failed to do so, Stallard is the man”. 


Henry Stallard became a universally-renowned opthalmic surgeon, famed for his development of cobalt plaque radioactive treatment, and gave up that lucrative career to serve as a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II. While in the Middle East he ran up and down the 146.6-metre high Great Pyramid of Giza in 13min 23sec as part of his lifelong keep-fit régime, and he began work on what would become a standard textbook on eye surgery. He was awarded the MBE, was a member of the AAA medical advisory committee from 1950, continued running into his 60s, and was appointed president of the Opthalmological Society in 1972. In the film, “Chariots of Fire”, a decade later he was portrayed by Daniel Gerroll. In 1950 the citation for Stallard’s nomination for an honorary degree at St Andrew’s University, in Scotland, described him as “agile in mind and body” and said of him, “Mr Stallard typifies what the British race excellently produces, unashamedly admires and vociferously extols. He entered Cambridge University after the First World War, and in the lean days showed that the nursery of our race could still re-stock the youth so prodigally mowed down in Flanders Fields”. 


Hyla Bristow (“Henry”) Stallard died at Hartfield, in Sussex, on 21 October 1973, aged 72.


70 years ago: a “blanket finish” for the famed mile record-holder


Almost 30 years after Henry Stallard had written his articles to mark the AAA jubilee, prizes at local sports meetings the length and breadth of Britain were still of great attraction to all those club athletes whose aspirations he had either overlooked or ignored. In that age of innocence (or, at least, largely so) in the 1950s, even those of international calibre, and even the most famous among them in the land, interspersed their representative commitments with visits to rough-and-tumble village carnivals and factory sports days. Such a way of athletic life is unimaginable in this age of rampant professionalism, and no better personification of it is to be found than Derek Ibbotson, who in July of 1957 ran a World record 3:57.2 for the mile.  Had it been 70 years later, he would have made a tidy fortune. In 1957 his rewards were rather more modest – actually, a very great deal more modest.


In 1960 he was newly married and his “autobiography” appeared, “as told by” a pungent Fleet Street athletics writer, Terry O’Connor, in which a tale was related of post-record-breaking adventures: “In Manchester, October 19th, I had my 48th race of the season. It was at a mile and I finished a poor 3rd. I could not whip up the enthusiasm which had given me two victories in an evening in Birmingham a fortnight previously. Then my first race had been at two miles, which I won, and the prize was valued at six guineas (£6 6 shillings). Madeleine and I were building up our home, and we wanted some sheets and blankets which were among the prizes, but they were valued at £8. So I decided to run in the mile event later in the evening, as I knew that if I could finish in the first three my prize would be worth the extra couple of pounds needed. Two hours later I lined up again and the desire for success drove out tiredness. I managed to win by a few yards and Madeleine and I got our prizes”.


“Ibbo” ran 55 races during 1957. He was employed nominally as a salesman in London and his native Yorkshire, and though complying with the strict rules regarding amateurism he was still able to race in Belgium and Finland twice each, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Poland and the USA. He gives no clue in his book as to what other material benefits he may have enjoyed from such a punishing schedule, but he was still an active athlete into the 1960s and was understandably reticent about such matters. It would be another 20 years after he retired before athletes could legitimately strive for financial recompense.     



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