Harrow County School for Boys


 Below are two articles written by Olympic athlete Jack Powell. The first was published in the local press in September 1932 and describes his journey to the Los Angeles Games. It takes us back to a time before air travel when the great liners still plied the North Atlantic.


The "Ship of Good Hope" was the apt name applied to the RMS Empress of Britain, which sailed from Southampton in the middle of July for Canada. A downpour of rain at the start did not depress the chief statesmen of England bound for the Imperial Conference at Ottawa, or the leading athletes of the country who were on their way to Los Angeles for the Olympic Games. Both parties, the former under the leadership of Mr. Stanley Baldwin, and the latter, under their captain, Lord Burghley, were determined to do their best for their country in the face of much discouragement and criticism from many sources prior to their departure. The rough seas through which the boat ploughed its way for three days were, possibly, a reminder that the way of the respective parties would not be smooth, but we were deterred neither by big waves nor mal-de-mer. Happily, I was about the whole time and discovered that the older people were usually the better sailors. Mr. Baldwin had one bad day, as did Mr. "Jimmy" Thomas.


During the latter part of the journey there were many enjoyable and interesting informal talks between politicians and athletes. The commander of the boat placed the first class decks at our disposal for training purposes, and our efforts each morning were keenly watched by many passengers. The politicians especially made frequent enquiries as to the nature of training for the respective events. It was no uncommon sight to see Mr. Baldwin in the midst of a crowd of athletes conversing on varied subjects. The journey went all too quickly and a pleasing feature of the last few hours was the informal address given by Mr. Baldwin in the tourist lounge. He was accompanied by Lord Hailsham, and we were all personally introduced to them. Among other thrills was my first view of an iceberg, the holding up of the ship in a dense fog for many hours culminating in a collision with a smaller ship, the sighting of a whale, and a fire on board in the Empress Rooms.


A great thrill was the ship’s arrival at Quebec. As the boat sailed slowly and majestically up the St. Lawrence River it was greeted with blasts from every ship in the harbour, the dipping of many aeroplanes, and the loud cheers from numerous persons on board smaller boats who were sight-seeing all around us. Officially, of course, the "fuss" was directed to the Imperial conference delegation, but we of the Olympic team felt that we were entitled to a little of the tumultuous welcome. The Heights of Abraham were an impressive sight. Our special train was awaiting us, and without much ado we journeyed through the night, reaching Toronto the following morning. En route we had our first experience of sleeping in Pullman cars with negro attendants. It was just like the shots in American films which we see in England.


At Toronto I had my first glimpse of skyscrapers, and for three days we enjoyed Canadian hospitality. The stop was made to enable us to stretch our legs, and the serious work really started here. We viewed the city by car, thus having the first experience of travelling on the right hand side of the road. If everyone in England drove as they do in Canada and the United States there would many, many more cases in our police courts for dangerous driving. The traffic regulations were not so strict as in England, though the automatic signalling system is used a to greater than in our country. As a party we visited the famous Niagara Falls, and although I had heard much about this world wonder, I was not disappointed, and thought them truly magnificent. A journey across Lake Ontario was made to reach the falls.


We were looking forward to seeing Chicago. A few of our party had been favourably impressed when they visited it two years ago for the British Empire v. U.S.A. match. I was speaking to several Americans in the station waiting for the civic reception to begin, and they expressed surprise that the English in particular always seemed to travel in their oldest clothes. They said they put on their "Sunday best" when travelling. But perhaps they did not realise that in England one can travel in good clothes without fear of damaging them, whereas in America a clean shirt or trousers are dirty within an hour on account of the dust and dirt which accumulates in the carriages, not only from the countryside, but also from the really dirty smoke emitted from the terrific engines. Although Chicago has not paid its school teachers for two months, and is reputed to be full of and run by gangsters, it appeared to me to be a happy place. It was a glorious sight to see the thousands flocking down from the city to the side of Lake Michigan to get away from the sweltering heat of 105 degrees in the shade. Following a training spin, many members of our team swam in a "private plunge" and later Tom Hampson and I slipped off for a swim in the lake - just to be able to say that we had swum in Lake Michigan. We must have looked visitors, however, for we were quite white compared with the other bathers, all of whom were deeply tanned.


With a police escort we toured the city in the afternoon. The escort was to enable us a free run through the traffic. However, when we were downtown and the "speed cops" sirens were going really well, many with guilty consciences must have been relieved to find that it was only a party of Olympic athletes on tour. We all boarded our special train that evening and said "Au revior" to the gangster town.

The journey across America then started in real earnest. We travelled on the Santa Fe Railroad, which is a southerly one. The scenery was uninteresting for the first part of the journey, but the fact that I had not been such a journey before counteracted that. Several stops were made, and at each station there were large crowds. It would not be over-estimation on my part to say that thousands came many miles to see our train go through their town. At Kansas City, for instance, I know of one man who brought his wife nearly 50 miles to see us. One person said of one of the party, "Isn’t he small!" and another, of a weight lifter, "Surely he cannot run!" It was very amusing.


It was surprising to most of us to see everyone looking so prosperous, even in the very small towns. All over America people seem to be living well above their means. There are indications that they will have a crisis soon, which will be far worse than that experienced in England. Albuquerque was our last stop before Los Angeles was reached, and it was near here that a real Red Indian reservation existed, and we saw several of them in various parts of the town, all quaintly dressed. If they retain much of their ancient appearances, they have also gained some American business instincts, and they were not slow to impress on us the "cheapness" of their wares - and with the dollar only worth 13 shillings. The altitude was too great for training purposes at Albuquerque, and the team was content to sunbathe by a constructed beach high up in the mountains, as with the approach of the Games, swimming was barred. We reached Los Angeles after travelling for over a fortnight.


In this second article, written in 1981 a couple of years before his death, Jack describes his career in athletics.



Running has been around in my life from the very earliest memories. It was a happy and quicker way of getting about. There was no problem when W.H. (Bill) Turner, the School's PE master before Alec Amos came on the scene, took away by bicycle permit, and made me run to school from Wealdstone. I still run from my home in Felpham to post letters and take part in the Annual Fun Run organised by the local Sports Council. But as I live by the sea I am now a devoted half a mile swimmer each day from May to September. So fifty or sixty years ago is just part of a continuing experience up to the present day, with the basics much the same, even if the fringe activity has changed somewhat.


For many readers fifty years ago is unbelievably a long time ago. Going back that far in history might conjure up visions of athletes stumbling about in long shorts and long-sleeved singlets, wearing tennis shoes, and with bits of string across the end of a race held by a couple of judges lolling by a post. Actually it all happened very much like the present day, bearing in mind the differences between the Bannister Track on say a Wednesday evening, and the Crystal Palace Stadium at a big weekend international. Those years ago there were occasions when we had to slosh around amongst wet cinders or on bumpy wet grass. The County School ground at Gayton Road wasn't exactly plush with its five laps to the mile, with a downhill finish and a slog all the way up (or down) the back straight. Even Stamford Bridge, and the White City which took over in 1932, were slow tracks by modern synthetic standards.

Compared with the massive training programmes of today, even those of us in the International scene trained but two or three times a week, with competition at weekends and sometimes mid-week as well. We were always warned about the hazard of 'going stale' with too much work.

Athletics of the really modern era grew out of the 1928 Games at Amsterdam. Harrovian Douglas Lowe (twice winner of the Olympic 800m) was challenging the World Record Holder, Otto Peltzer at Stamford Bridge, with 50,000 spectators. My initiation to the sport was a visit to see these two run in the late twenties. Of course we had the top-class athletic elite but everyone competed for the fun and added spice of life spin off; the spectators were still the accidental part of the sport.

A limited number of tracks were better than average. Stockholm had the best track in Europe, and Los Angeles in 1932 was the best the world had seen so far. Motspur Park in Surrey moved into this category later.


It was on these tracks that may of the world records of the time were made. There were three in which I finished up with the record breakers. Tom Hampson's 1.49.8 at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, Glenn Cunningham's (USA) 1.49.7 at Stockholm four years later and Sydney Wooderson's One Mile in 4.06.0 at Motspur Park still later. My second place and 1.50.8 to Cunningham's record gained me top European ranking in the Berlin Olympics year of 1936, and sixth best time in the world. Our British Empire Two Miles relay team (4 x 880 yards) soundly beat the USA team in 1932 at San Francisco to establish a new world record, and it was four years later at the White City after the Berlin Olympics, when the USA team reversed the result and made a new record, when I chased the Olympic champion John Woodruff, and came abreast of him on the home straight, before a record crowd of 93,000 people. Jesse Owens, of course, was the 'star' of the meeting. I had trouble parking my car in the car park though I was given a police clearance on the wrong side of the Western Avenue due to the fantastic traffic jam, in order to get to the stadium on time.

The world records at 46.2 for the 400m, 1.49.7 for the 800m and 4.06.0 for the mile were achieved in less favourable conditions and with far less training compared with today's standards. Performances like these would win a lot of races in 1981 as would my own personal bests up till then of 47.5, 1.50.8 and 4.07.0 respectively.


Club competition was the basis of athletics at that time. The club provided for both competition and the training facilities. The big inter-club competitions were the Kinnaird at the Polytechnic Stadium at Chiswick, the Waddilove at Birchfield's Perry Barr Stadium in Birmingham, and later the Sward Trophy was amongst the best. For international selection, everyone had to go through the club competitions, and this qualified for entry into the County, the Regional and the AAA Championships. I recall that in 1931 I surprisingly won the Middlesex title breaking 2 minutes for the first time; two weeks later was third in the Southern in about 1.56.0 (on grass in Southend), and two weeks after that third Englishman in the AAA Championships (German Otto Peltzer was first) in about 1.54.0. All that led to selection for England (it did not become Great Britain until 1932) in the three internationals, against France, Italy and Germany. I managed 1.52.5 in the German match away from home, showing an eight second improvement in about six or seven weeks running.


We did not have the pressures of modern day competition. It was purely a question of self-discipline as to how much training one did. Guy Butler was my coach and in the early days I personally paid him a fee; but one's programme was one's own and the dominance of the coach (which I would not have liked) came much later. We paid our way all along the line including the entry fees for the championship competitions. In AAA and International matches we got travelling and hotel expenses paid by the respective national bodies. We did not get 'break time' payments and most of us (for instance those not at university) worked for a living. Up to 1938 I was a reporter on the Observer series in Harrow and Wembley; they generously paid my wages for the six weeks away for the Los Angeles Olympiad, and gave me a month's pay and four months leave of absence when I went to Australia and New Zealand in 1935. This small team of four was the first British team ever to visit the Antipodes; we went specifically for the Victorian Centenary Games in Melbourne. Up to and including the Berlin Olympic Games we had travelled everywhere by train and ship, and only after 1936 there were some trips made by air. A small team from the London Athletic Club was invited to compete in Strasbourg and we did the first leg and back to Paris by air and thence by train - the first team ever to fly to an athletics fixture. Later a selected team flew to Cologne, the first AAA representatives to go by air to an International meeting. It was in 1937 when I was on the first complete British side to take to the air, a trip from Oslo to Helsinki to make the first night landing ever at their new International Airport, as part of an English Trade Fair Week in that country.


One experience in the thirties which illustrates the now and then concerns the year when I won the AAA Championship. On the Friday evening I qualified for the final by winning a heat round about 6pm. Because I had to earn a living I went back to Kenton and reported for my newspaper on the Consecration of a new Church. On Saturday morning I had to go into the office, and as soon as I was through drove my Austin Seven off to the White City. By 3pm I had won the Championship. We used to have little irritating pressures from the Press media (there was always a journalist who could tell you how to win every race), there was no television, no sponsorship, no cash payments (backhanders or 'under the table' in Union parlance), no commercial exploitation and dare I say it, no suspicion of drug taking.


Running at this level was fun and excitement all the way - not to the Bank - but to travelling the world, and by about 1937 I had the tag of being Britain's most travelled athlete. Unless one did something stupid, it was not difficult to stay at International level for a long time. By 1939 after 33 representative and international matches behind me, I was looking to a third Olympics in 1940. But the outbreak of War put paid to all that; the Great Britain v Germany match scheduled for Sunday 3rd September 1938 in Cologne was only cancelled on the previous Friday morning. There was a lot of athletics around during the War in the Middle East, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf area. My last race was at Motspur Park in 1947 when I came in 3rd in the London AC 880 yards championship. Overall I had competed in 28 different countries over my 20 years in senior competition; I have made and kept many friends in all parts of the world, for friends made through sport I find nearly always last a lifetime.


By 1931 it was obvious that being a first claim member of Old Gaytonians AC - a closed club - was not the best way of progressing up the athletic ladder. I was banned from running at the LAC in the British Championship 4 x 440 yd relay at the time as I was but second claim; there was an unsettled dispute at that time about 'closed' club and 'first claim' definitions. So I had to change to first claim LAC and it was in their colours that I ran by big races. I was sorry especially as about that time I was the Hon. Secretary of the OGAC. But the LAC was one of the strongest clubs in the country in the thirties. Seven or eight of our members were in Olympic teams. Founded in 1863 it is the oldest athletic club in the world. Up to 1880, when the AAA was formed, the Club organised the British Championship, and in January this year Lord Byers, a member, invited the LAC to hold their annual dinner at the House of Lords so that senior members of the AAA might have our hospitality at the point of reaching their centenary (which ends in 1981). As senior past president of the LAC I had the privilege to entertain, on the one side, Squire Yarrow, the President of the AAA and on the other Sir Dennis Followes, Chairman of the British Olympic Association. The content of the evening's conversation and speeches ranged over the long history of our sport back to 776 BC when the ancient Games began, and lasted 1000 years to 1896, when the modern Olympics were revived. Baron de Coubertin defined the amateur as 'one who participates in sport solely for pleasure … and to whom participation in sport is nothing more than recreational without material gain'. I could not but agree with Sir Dennis's comment to me as we sat together 'The Thirties were the halcyon days of athletics and the Olympic movement'. Both Sir Dennis and Squire Yarrow are concerned for the future of the sport and how the great problems will be resolved. The AAA has already before them a recommendation that 'Athletics may now receive cash prizes (these not to exceed 500 without prior consent …), appearance money and benefits of advertising' and the rising professionalism and nationalism are items high on the International Olympic Committee's agenda. Somehow, I am sure, we all wish the Olympic Games to continue. But whatever happens, club athletics will continue to be the backbone of the sport and the broad base, which we have to have for survival.

Articles supplied by Dennis Orme

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