History / Sport

‘Seagrove will run’: The Oympian I knew

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-seagrove-1922-OxCam-cross-country

Seagrove winning the Oxford-Cambridge cross-country, 1921

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.’ [1]

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. [2] 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.

There 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 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 come in 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’. [3] 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’. [4] His subsequent recovery, enabling him to participate in the next competition, was similarly welcomed in a Daily Express headline: ‘Seagrove will run’. [5] 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 contemporaries, 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.’ [6]

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.’ [7]

william-seagrove-1924-winning-mile

Winning the AAA mile, 1924

He also continued to run in his own right. In the summer of 1924, he won the mile at the Scottish Championships, and the following week replicated the feat 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 comprehensively beaten by 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.’ [8]

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? [9]

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.’ [10]

william-seagrove-1922Not 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’. [11]

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’. [12] 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.’ [13]

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 kept readers informed 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.’ [14] And then, in 1928, he announced that he was opening his own ‘first-class preparatory school’ (as the adverts put it). [15]

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 his son-in-law Rex Hackett. He continued, 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 stable 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 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 his athletic career, 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 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.

seagrove-stallard-1922

William Seagrove and Henry Stallard in a mile relay, 1992


* 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.


[1] Times 3 November 1919

[2] Times 22 March 1924

[3] Times 13 December 1920

[4] Times 24 March 1923

[5] Daily Express 24 May 1923

[6] Manchester Guardian 1 October 1929

[7] Falkirk Herald 21 April 1926

[8] Times 12 July 1924

[9] Manchester Guardian 6 April 1929

[10] Manchester Guardian 22 May 1929

[11] Manchester Guardian 23 May 1929

[12] Manchester Guardian 20 July 1929

[13] Manchester Guardian 15 August 1929

[14] Dundee Courier 27 August 1928

[15] Scotsman 15 November 1928

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