Malcolm Tozer, 1 August 2014
London Athletic Club: The First 150 Years, by Richard Solomons, London AC, 2013, £39.00 including postage and packing. Available from the Club, 1 Wheelers Yard, Oxford Road, Sutton Scotney, Winchester SO21 3QZ.
For the first one hundred years since its founding in 1863, the London AC was the most prestigious and most successful athletics club in Britain – and perhaps in the world. Today, as the club celebrates its 150th anniversary, it languishes as the bottom club in the Southern Men’s League, Division 1 Central. There must be a good story to tell – and there is.
This celebratory text is packed with facts, records, disputes, personalities, anecdotes, illustrations and curiosities. Founded as The Tea Trade Club in the same year that the Football Association and Yorkshire Cricket Club began life, the club’s name evolved through The City Club and Mincing Lane Athletic Club before settling on London AC in 1866. Tea traders may have dominated early membership but it did not take long for more gentlemanly professionals, landed gentry and young aristocrats to come to the fore: think Chariots of Fire and you get the picture. Based at various west London venues for the first decade, the club settled in 1877 at Stamford Bridge, later to be taken over by Chelsea FC. Now with a membership of over 900, and with 6000 paying spectators attracted to its meetings, the club was a sporting, business and social success – and continued so until after the Second World War.
Standards were high. In 1876 club members held 9 world records from 220 yards to 10 miles and that same year saw the club compete in the first international match. By the end of the century its teams were travelling to America for matches and in 1896 Teddy Flack won the club’s first Olympic gold at the inaugural games in Athens. He was to be the first of many LAC Olympic greats.
The club was much involved in the mid-Victorian disputes over what constituted an amateur – first voting for tradesmen to be admitted, later closing the door. More happily, LAC helped to create the Amateur Athletic Association in 1880 to govern the sport nationally; club members won 7 titles at the first AAA championships. Great names performing great deeds litter the text that covers the next eighty years: W G Grace, C B Fry, Harold Abrahams, Lord Burghley, Jack Lovelock and Douglas Lowe – to name but a few LAC members – grace these pages with their exploits.
Anecdotes galore include those that tell of beer-and-steak training breakfasts, a club secretary absconding in 1883 with £1000, betting on results, and obstacles races in club championships. Numerous glossy illustrations trace the evolution of the hurdle, record vast crowds at club meetings, note runners going clockwise around tracks, and reveal details of early meetings from club programmes. And the curiosities? How about a sheep tripping up runners, solid gold medals at the first AAA championships, fisticuffs after betting on rigged races, the hand-spring start for sprinters, and a walk-over for a gold medal in an Olympic final.
The club played a pioneering role in the development of schools’ athletics, providing the first opportunity for competition beyond annual sports days. Easter holiday races for a 440 yards cup were introduced in 1890 and the programme was expanded to seven events in 1897. For the next century, the LAC Schools’ Championships was a major event on the sport’s calendar – restricted to ‘recognised public schools’ until 1948, moving to the end of the summer term in 1973, before disappearing under examination pressure in 1999. At its peak, the meeting hosted 200 schools and 1000 competitors. The club extended its missionary role by sending travelling teams across the southern half of England to compete against schools.
The LAC maintained its eminence and Olympic successes through to the 1950s and, when British league athletics was introduced in 1969, the club was in the inaugural first division – but its days in the top flight were numbered. Where previously its fame had attracted a nationwide membership, now there was strong competition from major regional clubs with better facilities. In addition, many of its stars had enjoyed dual club membership, a practice that was incompatible with league athletics. Thereafter dwindling numbers and a smaller income, the loss of a permanent club base, and attempts to merge with other London clubs trace its decline. The LAC in the new century became just one more local athletics club.
This beautifully produced book is targeted at club members but it is also a veritable mine of information for the sports historian. Whether as a source of facts for A-level projects or lines of enquiry for post-graduate research, it deserves its place on the shelves of school and universities libraries.