The victory parades for Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic participants have got me to reminiscing about William Seagrove, the one Olympian that I actually knew.
Just to avoid disappointment and a sense of anti-climax, I should point out straight away that he wouldn’t have met the criteria for Paul Saffer’s series of profiles of British Olympic champions, since he never won a gold medal. He did, however, represent Britain in two Games, he did create the Commonwealth Games (sort of), and – as though all that weren’t enough – he also taught me maths.
William Raymond Seagrove was born in London in 1898, and went to Highgate School, where his athletic ability was first identified and encouraged; in his last year there, he won the school’s annual three-mile steeplechase.
That was in 1917 and, since the Great War was still dragging on, his education was interrupted to allow him to serve as a lieutenant in the Worcestershire Regiment. It wasn’t until 1919 that he got a chance to resume his studies, going to Clare College, Cambridge to study mathematics.
He announced himself as an athlete almost immediately he arrived at university, with a second-place finish in the Freshmen’s Race, a cross-country run over six-and-a-half miles; he recorded a time of 40min 20sec in what was quite a fast race: ‘The going was good,’ it was reported, ‘and there was not much plough to be crossed.’ 
This was considered something of a golden age for Cambridge running, and over the next couple of years Seagrove was to be included in what became known as ‘the great five’, alongside Edgar Mountain, Guy Butler, Henry Stallard and Harold Abrahams.  All were to run in the Olympics, with the latter two being portrayed in Chariots of Fire (1981). Seagrove was not the outstanding member of that group, but he was perhaps the most versatile, competing at a variety of distances on the track, from 880 yards to six miles, as well as in cross-country steeplechases.
He also enjoyed the respect of his contemporaries, being elected Secretary of the Cambridge University Athletic Club in 1920, and ending his university career as President.
In 1920 he was selected for the Olympics as part of the 3000m team race. It’s an event that no longer exists and perhaps therefore needs a word of explanation. Each country could enter between three and six runners, and the scores were calculated from the positions of the first three finishers from each team. The British team on this occasion comprised five athletes, with Seagrove joining Joe Blewitt, James Hatton, Duncan McPhee and – one of the stars of the Games – Albert Hill, who won individual gold in the 800m and 1500m (a double that no British man has achieved since).
In a tightly contested first heat of the 3000m, Britain won – with McPhee, Blewitt and Seagrove finishing in 2nd, 4th and 5th place respectively – and progressed to the final alongside Sweden and Italy; Belgium came fourth and were eliminated. The second heat was slightly less contested: only two countries (France and the favourites USA) were represented, and both were therefore bound to go through, regardless of the result. Consequently, the American athletes took it easy and came second, saving themselves for the final the next day.
The Americans duly won the gold medal. Britain got the silver, with points scored by Blewitt (in 5th place), Hill (7th) and Seagrove (9th). It was an impressive performance, given that – in addition to Hill’s two solo golds – both Blewitt and Seagrove had, earlier that week, already run in a heat and the final of the 5000m.
Originally Seagrove had only been selected as a reserve for this longer, individual event, but there was a drop-out and he was promoted into the team. He came third in his heat to qualify for the final, where he ran a respectable 15 min 21 sec to finish sixth, just behind Blewitt.
He ended 1920 by participating in the annual Oxford-Cambridge cross-country race, run over a seven-and-a-half mile course, in which he came third, ‘running very pluckily with a slightly injured foot, due, it was said, to playing hockey’.  The following year he won the race.
Presumably he was also pursuing his studies at Cambridge, but – judging by the newspaper reports – he might as well have been a full-time athlete, competing not just at domestic meetings, but also abroad: in Italy in 1920, in America in 1921, and on a tour of Central Europe in 1922.
He was becoming a big name, so that by 1923 the fact that he had flu, and would miss a forthcoming Oxford v Cambridge meeting was significant enough to warrant a headline in The Times: ‘Seagrove unable to run’.  His subsequent recovery, enabling him to participate in the next competition, was similarly welcomed in a Daily Express headline: ‘Seagrove will run’.  He wasn’t the fastest runner on the circuit, but his dogged competitiveness and his unusually studious appearance – complete with round, wire-framed spectacles – gave him an image that attracted attention and proved popular.
On leaving university, he took a job as a teacher at a boys’ school, the same career path followed by a number of his sporting contemporaries from Oxbridge, including Guy Butler at Lancing College and Bevel Rudd at Harrow. ‘Increased public school interest in athletics is indicated by the numerous appointments of famous “blues” to masterships during the last ten years,’ noted the press. ‘The benefit the boys have derived from these appointments is proved by the remarkable rise in the standard of performance.’ 
In Seagrove’s case he went to Glenalmond College in Perthshire, and clearly made a difference. In 1926 the school entered the Public Schools’ Sports for the first time and had some success. ‘The greatest credit,’ it was said, ‘is due to their trainer, Mr Seagrove, the old Cambridge Blue and Olympic runner.’ 
He also continued to run competitively in his own right. In the summer of 1924, he won the mile at the Scottish Championships, and the following week triumphed over the same distance at the AAA Championships, which were doubling up as trials for the forthcoming Olympics. His time of 4 min 21.2 sec wasn’t particularly groundbreaking; Paavo Nurmi (‘the Flying Finn’) had set the world record the previous year with 4 min 10.4 sec, while Albert Hill’s British record stood at 4 min 13.8 sec. Nonetheless the AAA mile was, and was to remain, Seagrove’s biggest tournament win, the achievement that he tended to cite in later life.
It was noticeable, though, that he wasn’t selected to represent Britain at the 1500m – the Olympic equivalent of the distance – though he was again chosen for the 3000m team event, the only survivor of the silver-winning line-up from the previous Games.
At the Paris Olympics in July 1924, Britain came second in their heat, with Walter Porter (4th), Herbert Johnston (5th) and Bertram Macdonald (6th) scoring, while Seagrove came in 9th. They qualified for the final, but were a long way behind Finland, who took the first three places with Paavo Nurmi finishing in front. ‘Finland, presumably, is certain to win the final tomorrow,’ shrugged The Times. ‘The chief interest will be seeing whether Great Britain or the United States finish second.’ 
Finland did indeed win, Nurmi setting a new Olympic record as he took the fourth of his five gold medals at Paris. The British team again won silver, this time beating the USA, with strong performances by Macdonald (3rd), Johnston (4th) and George Webber (7th); non-scoring finishers were Porter (10th), Arthur Clark (14th) and, in a disappointing 16th place, William Seagrove, who had been in the leading pack early on, before fading in the second half of the race. It was the last time the event was staged in the Games, so that Seagrove is still part of the reigning silver-medal team.
It was also his last Olympics, but he continued competing for Scotland over the next three years. His last major victory came in 1926, when he won the 880 yards (half-mile) in the Scottish AAA Championships in 1 min 58.2 sec.
His other claim to fame came shortly after his retirement from competition. In April 1929 he wrote to the Manchester Guardian, arguing for the creation of what we would now recognize as the Commonwealth Games:
The subject of Imperial unity and well-being has been dealt with from many aspects, but I have not yet seen it dealt with from the point of view of the athlete. Yet the bond of sport is the strongest of all. The repeated Test matches have done much to promote mutual understanding between Australia and the mother country, while internationally the value of the Olympiads cannot be gainsaid. Might I therefore suggest that the value of an Imperial Olympiad would be incalculable?
He conceded that there were problems, most notably finding sports that were played in enough countries; consequently track and field events were likely to dominate. He concluded:
The idea of an Imperial Olympiad is not new, but it has never approached the first stages of fruition, although Canada has, I believe, indicated her willingness to provide a site, and tentative consideration has been given to the suggestion in several quarters. Could it possibly be organized in time for a small beginning next year? 
He developed the idea further in an article for the same paper the following month. He noted that Canada was taking the initiative in this and that ‘a site has already been chosen in Hamilton, Ontario,’ and argued that it was now time for the British sporting authorities to join in. Canvassing opinion among other athletes, he found different images of what form such an event should take: at one extreme were those who wanted a quadrennial Games on the full Olympic model; at the other were those who felt that maybe there should just be a trial run between Britain and Canada.
Seagrove wanted to go further than that latter suggestion, but felt that a quadrennial commitment might be too much to undertake at this early stage. He wasn’t, however, concerned by objections that an Empire Games might ‘look suspiciously like Jingoism and flag-waving’, nor that setting up a rival Games might upset the Olympic movement:
The day that a man cannot do what he likes in his own house because of what the neighbours might say outside would be a sad one for society.
The main problem, of course, was money (‘Athletic associations are never, at any time, flush with funds’), but he suggested that a public appeal might raise contributions not only from ‘lovers of sport’, but also from ‘those who appreciate the value of a closer link with the Dominions’. Because, ultimately, this was the point of it all; drawing on his own experience of international competition, he believed that sport built bridges between people and that an Imperial Olympiad would be enormously beneficial: ‘nothing could be more desirable from the point of view of Imperial goodwill.’ 
Not everyone agreed. Evelyn Montague,* who had run for Oxford and had participated in international meetings alongside Seagrove, marvelled that two men could draw such radically different conclusions from the same experience. He himself had seen no great spirit of international fraternity; rather, ‘I was chiefly struck by the nervousness of all responsible people lest the heat of competition should kindle unseemly quarrels between athletes of different nations.’ Sport, he insisted, had no role whatsoever to play in fostering international goodwill. He was, though, broadly supportive of Seagrove’s proposal, on the somewhat simpler grounds that big tournaments ‘are very good fun’. 
That summer it was announced that an official invitation was shortly to be extended by the Canadian authorities, and Seagrove was the first to welcome the development, and to approve of the location, ‘for Canada is geographically in the centre of the Empire’.  The British Olympic Association was said to be unsure of how to respond, but by August it was being reported that ‘the scheme is being sympathetically considered by the A.A.A. and is supported by many well-known athletes in this country, such, for instance, as Mr Seagrove, the famous runner.’ 
The first Empire Games took place in Hamilton in August 1930. It was, by modern standards, a smallish affair: at the most recent Commonwealth Games in 2014, seventy-one nations competed in eighteen sports; in 1930, it was eleven countries and seven sports. Still, it was more substantial than it might have been, and Seagrove’s relentless campaigning had a key part to play in engendering enthusiasm amongst others.
Meanwhile, after five years at Glenalmond, he had moved to Sussex, taking over the junior house at Ardingly College. A report in the Dundee Courier informed readers of his physical condition: ‘He has kept amazingly fit, and was tempted to return to the track early in the summer. Ultimately, however, he decided that tennis – and sleeping out nightly under canvas – was possibly preferable.’ 
And then, in 1928, he announced that he was opening his own ‘first-class preparatory school’ (as the adverts put it). 
The place he chose was a building on the outskirts of Seaford, Sussex, that had been erected in 1905 and run as a boys’ school called Lexden House, though this had closed in 1924. Renamed Normansal (I have no idea where this came from), Seagrove’s school opened in 1929, with him as headmaster and maths teacher.
And there it remained until 1980, with only a couple of hiccups along the way. During the Second World War, the building was commandeered for use by Canadian troops, and the school was evacuated to Pudlestone, near Leominster in Herefordshire. And at some point, probably in the 1950s, Seagrove handed over the headship to Rex Hackett. He stayed on, however, to teach maths.
And that was where I met him.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, the British army – like the diplomatic service – had a system called the Boarding School Allowance, which recognized that, with a series of overseas postings, some serving personnel would want their children to have a stable education. This was particularly the case with bandmasters – such as my father – who moved not only with, but between, regiments: from when I was five through to the age of sixteen, we lived in six different houses in England and West Germany.
My maternal grandparents, as well as an aunt and uncle, lived in Seaford, and so, courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, my brother and I both went to Normansal, so that we’d be near someone with a more permanent residence.
It was a good school in a beautiful location, on the edge of the South Downs. Unlike other prep schools of the era, it didn’t go in for corporal punishment. It did have the obligatory paedophile teacher, but most of us found he was easily spotted and resisted. And, in the classroom, even he was a good teacher, as were – in my memory – all of them.
Except for William Seagrove himself. Because where the rest were good, he was truly exceptional.
Despite his impressive athletics achievements, he had never been one of the real greats of the sport; he was no Paavo Nurmi. In this new role, though, he turned out to be an absolutely brilliant teacher. He was in his seventies by the time I met him, and he was gentle, quiet and completely lucid in his explanation of mathematics. It wasn’t my subject, but by the time I left the school, at eleven, he’d taught me pretty much the whole of the O-level curriculum. His influence on my brother, who turned out to be a particularly gifted mathematician, was even more marked.
William Seagrove died in 1980. The notice announcing his memorial service didn’t mention that he’d been an athlete, only that he was the founder of Normansal School. The school didn’t long outlive him; in 1981 it re-opened under new management as Chalvington House. And then that closed, and the building itself was demolished in 2011.
The odd thing is that I can’t remember hearing about his athletics career when I knew him. I’m sure the fact that he’d won two Olympic silver medals would have stuck with me had I been aware of it. Now I do know something about him, it seems rather splendid.
Mind you, it almost makes me feel terribly old, to know that I was taught by a man who was already a war veteran by the time he won an Olympic medal 96 years ago.
* Evelyn Montague was also portrayed in Chariots of Fire, though the film used his middle name – calling him Aubrey Montague – and relocated him from Oxford to Cambridge.
NOTE: In an earlier version of this piece, I identified Rex Hackett as Seagrove’s son-in-law. I’ve corrected this, following Martin Seagrove’s comment below (and note too that the family knew him as Raymond, not William, Seagrove).
 Times 3 November 1919
 Times 22 March 1924
 Times 13 December 1920
 Times 24 March 1923
 Daily Express 24 May 1923
 Manchester Guardian 1 October 1929
 Falkirk Herald 21 April 1926
 Times 12 July 1924
 Manchester Guardian 6 April 1929
 Manchester Guardian 22 May 1929
 Manchester Guardian 23 May 1929
 Manchester Guardian 20 July 1929
 Manchester Guardian 15 August 1929
 Dundee Courier 27 August 1928
 Scotsman 15 November 1928
I read your appreciation of William Seagrove a few months ago – and just about to finish ‘a classless society’ – really enjoying it.
I can remember you from Normansal – we were on the top floor of Seagroves house. I was in the small dorm of 2 at the top of the stairs!
I spent 2 years at Normansal, before going to Clayesmore (where quite a few pupils went). They were two very happy years, mostly I think down to the influence of Rex Hackett, the headmaster.
On occasion, we used to sneak out after lights out to the fish and chip shop. These expeditions were led by Hackett – Pain (who tragically died in a car crash in his twenties). One night we were spotted, and the next day we were called in to see Hackett to explain ourselves. His concern was whether the school was underfeeding us, and ‘you really ought not to do it again’!
I hate to think what approach would have happened at other schools.
Thanks, Hamish. Good to hear from you. Drop me a line sometime via my website alwynwturner.com. Alwyn.
Hello Hamish, William Molesworth here (1970-74). Do you by any chance have school photos for 1973 and 1974? I have 1971 and 1972 if any interest to you. all best, William
By chance I have just come across your item ‘Seagrove will run’: The Olympian I knew, which I read with great interest.
As my name suggests I was distantly related to William Seagrove, as his farther and my grandfather were brothers. Like my 2 half brothers before me, I was at Normansal, in the years 1952 – 1958, so I doubt our paths crossed. If they did, to further cloud the position, I was called Martin and not Seagrove, so as to both avoid confusion and any suggestion of favouritism, of which there was none.
Although William was his first name, family and friends always called him by his second name Raymond. I do not think anyone ever said why, but it may have been because his father was also a William.
When growing up I was vaguely aware that Raymond had 2 Olympic Medals, however you are quite right he never ever mentioned his running achievements and as a family I cannot recall much being said about one another’s achievements, as this seemed somehow to be a bit boastful and rather poor form. Your piece has therefore been a great help in filling in some of the gaps.
When I was at Normansal the only occasion he said anything about his athletics was when he casually told some of the boys he had been once shot at whilst competing abroad. Typically, he just added his assailant must have been a poor shot because the bullet missed. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the context of this disclosure.
Forgive me for mentioning a minor factual error, but Rex Hackett was not Raymond’s son in law. Raymond never married and shared his house with Dorothy Simpkins, one of his sisters, who also did the school’s catering. Mrs Hackett’s mother (I cannot remember her name) did actually live in a house opposite the golf course but it was closer to the school than Raymond’s.
Thanks again for an interesting article.
Many thanks for your comments, Martin. I’ve corrected the bit about Rex Hackett being his son-in-law – I’ve believed that ‘fact’ for nearly half-a-century and now I find it’s simply wrong! You don’t happen to know the origins of the name Normansal, do you?
I remember Mr. Seagrove very well. I was at school with you, Alwyn -probably in the same year as your brother. I remember you, too, Hamish. As for Mr. Seagrove, he took his role as maths teacher seriously and was fair in his dealings with us students. I DO remember, though, the occasional maths textbook flying though the air in the direction of some child who had sufficiently annoyed him. I’m hoping he wasn’t actually aiming to hit the kid.
I was at Normansal in the 1970’s – it was a school that gave troubled children a second chance – a chance I did not deserve – but I made the most of. I am a teacher myself and if I am only one tenth of the teacher Rex Hackett and Bill (Bone) Seagrove was I have not done so badly.
In my first job as a teacher I remember pleading with the head not to expel a boy for fairly serious offences. He asked me why ands I said that 30 years ago Rex Hacket gave another boy who didn’t deserve it another chance. He agreed and the boy finished his school days.
Thank you for your comment – and for reminding me of the nickname Bone. I’d completely forgotten that. Alwyn
He was a very fair man. I was a nightmare and ran away once, going missing for 24 hrs. Poor Hackett had to get the police involved, but resisted the usual 1970s admonishments. Memories of his son Kevin cutting all that grass with his series 1 Landrover / gang-mower combo and letting us boys jump on for the ride. And daughter Jill (??) patiently teaching pottery. The pond with its island and stonehenge; great memories. White: 1972-6
Hi Alwyn et al,
I’ve just been sent this article and comments- fascinating and moving and only wish I’d seen it before. As Rex Hackett’s son, I was in close contact with the school ( it was home for my first 25 years) and knew quite a lot about life there and the pupils and staff that came and went over the years. All the same, my perspective was hardly objective so it’s really interesting to hear it from “your” angle. My father died in 2013 ( aged 91) and my mother in 2019 ( 93)- they had long fulfilling lives……that’s another story.
My cross country running as a teenager was largely encouraged by Seagrove ( by the way his nickname in my time,1962-7, was Bona not bone!), I remember very clearly talking to him about running techniques, one which I always tried to put into action was to take very short steps when crossing ploughed fields. I never won but at least would finish in the top 5. I did talk about his Olympic experience although he always played down his successes and was full of admiration for the “flying Finn” ( Paavo Nurmi). His Maths teaching was way ahead of his time, I remember beginning my teaching career, first in primary education, using some of his imaginative ideas. We as a family had close ties with the Seagroves ( Raymond and sisters), there was much mutual respect and a good deal of social contact- Birthday tea parties in the Shiel drawing room with the Bluthner grand an imposing feature were regular occurrences.
Wow, Jeremy, how well I remember cutting the grass in the 70s with that fabulous series 1 landrover- the rust on the chassis encouraged by the sea breeze induced its untimely demise- might still be running now otherwise. Before that, we used a 1930 Model A Ford in which I learnt to drive aged 12, and would career around the playing fields at any possible opportunity. And Stonehenge…. good memory!
I’d be glad to hear from anyone who’s interested and perhaps meet up for a pint/cup. I live near Barcelona, have been in Spain since 1988, but keep close ties with the UK ( daughter now lives in London) and Covid permitting will spend some longer periods over there soon.
I went to Normansal from 1962-67. My father, Robin Clegg, worked as a teacher at the school with Mr Seagrove after WW11, building the train track, swimming pool, the hut and stage scenery. I have many memories of Mr Seagrove hammering out Jerusalem before assembly, teaching me to swim with a car tyre hung from a bamboo pole, leading carol concerts and playing the piano in The Shiel, quite late at night. I never knew that he had been an Olympian.
I should add that Mr Seagrove gave me a huge amount of his time, encouraging me to sing and play the viola. We was a remarkable chap. Now I appreciate the enormous range of opportunity we had to develop skills and talents. I often wish I had taken more advantage of the sports and learnt how do play properly.
I was at Normansal from 1946 until 1950 (my brother Christopher was a couple of years ahead of me and so started off in Pudleston). My memory of Seagrove is only a distant one but I always associate him with a large hump-backed V8 Ford which used to come and go. I thought that Clegg was made joint headmaster with Hackett but I might be mistaken. Being just after the war many of the teachers were pretty ancient. Miss Bolton, who looked like Whistler’s mother, must have been over 80 then and taught Latin. Mr Wood taught French and was probably the best part of 70. Miss Speridian taught English and was best remembered for finding a mouse in her stew. Miss Ellis was the lovely matron.
The food was I suppose typical boarding school fare. Mouldy bread which had been cut weeks in advance and stored in Huntley and Palmer biscuit tins (and which kept us from getting ill), maggots in the porridge (extra meat ration), High Tea which consisted largely of bread and damson jam, with informal Ovaltine and a biscuit if you wanted it before bed. I must have been in most of the dormitories but ice cold Mercury was my favourite.
My under 11 high jump record (a complete fluke) still stood when I visited for Sports Day in 1957. I wonder how long it lasted.
Incidentally I saw in the paper that Rex Hackett died earlier this year, aged about 100 so I expect it was he.
Hello Tim, We were in the same class. I remember Mr. King and his Shawn off forefinger…not the greatest encouragement for the aspiring carpenter, which I was not. I remember that he spoke fondly of your father. King was rather a terrifying figure but he knew his job. I was Richard Dennis then.
Greetings everyone, young and old boys, who went to Normansal, I spent five wonderful years at Normansal. My terms at Seaford and thereafter at Pudleston, a delightful village in Herefordshire, where the boarding school was evacuated to throughout the war years. The nearest railway station was Steens Bridge. (which has since been reverted to the country landscape). I have many happy, indeed marvellous, recollections of my years at the school with my fellow classmates.
They were very privileged years, full of experiences learnt under the excellent guidance of Mr W.R. Seagrove and his sister Miss Seagrove. I cannot recall the names of all the teachers but do recall Miss Bolton, the delightful old Latin teacher, Miss Pearson, Mr Jarrard and others I can no longer recall. Oh yes, there was the farmhand on the school’s estate called Sam and wife Perkins who was the schools charlady. Then there was Pitchfork Jim, Sam’s pal. Both of whom could bee seen with rabbit snares across their bicycle handlebars. The pigsty with a couple of snorting pigs, close-by the pump house, inside which we had to take turns, on the pump wheel, to pump water up to the school House. I am currently writing a book, in which I have included many pages of life at Normansal. If anyone is able to contribute stories about life at the boarding school during the 1939-1944 era, please do let me know. Some of boys who I recall were there during my time, included, Speirs, Goldingham, Wheeler, Potter, Lee-Browne, Griffiths, Belfrage, Hurst, Forbes, Galpin, Dyer. Please excuse spelling of some names if misspelt. Sincere hearty best wishes to you all, with happy memories of each one of you, Harald Rothschild (at the time called Rothschild II) My email address is email@example.com. Oh, I forgot to mention, I immigrated to New Zealand in 1950 after serving my two years National Service in the Royal Navy. I am now semi-retired.
I just want to congratulate you on a beautifully written article about one of the lesser known heroes of post-war Scottish athletics. While many consider Jimmy Wilson (Olympic bronze in the 10,000 run at Antwerp in 1920) or Duncan McPhee to be the Scottish long-distance superstars of the period, Seagrove was better than both of them in the half-mile and the mile, and his best time over the 3 miles of 14:49.6 was only a fraction of a second slower than Wilson’s. His 4:21.4 set when winning the 1924 AAA miel was in fact the fastest time in Britain that year and, in a post war context, had only been bettered by Albert Hill and Hyla Stallard up to that point. However, his achievements in athletics, together with his efforts in helping to bring about the first Commonwealth Games, elevate him in my eyes above Wilson and MPhee in terms of his sigificance within the sport. As for the origins of Normasal, I can only speculate that the name is related to the naming of Sleaford in the Norman Domesday Book. The word ‘sal’ is Old High German for dwelling or hall (modern German: Saal).