Birchfield Harriers, that wonderful Midland combination which is the pride of friend W. W. Alexander, veteran of stalwarts for amateur athleticism, and the embodiment geniality and wisdom, achieved a great performance in winning the National Cross-Country Championship for the fourth successive year, at Lord Burnham's fine place Beaconsfield, South Bucks, on Saturday.
Only once previously has the feat been performed, and that was in the far-away 80's by old Moseley Harriers, when fields were not so large and competition nothing like so keen.
Salford Harriers, notable absentees as a club on Saturday, and Hallamshire H. have three successive wins to their credit.
The Birchfielders were, however, also came near to setting up an actual record for team scoring, finishing their first six men (and counters), out of a field of over 300 runners, in the first sixteen, or 'excluding individuals,' in the first twelve.
Their points total, 36, has only been beaten twice previously - in 1884, when Moseley H., at Four Oaks, scored 32 points when the field only comprised 50 runners, and in 1877, when Thames H. and H. won with 33 points at Roehampton, the competitors only totalling 33!
Birchfield's dual performance, comparatively, is the finest now on record.
Individually, too, the Birchfielders contributed to as fine a contest as spectators with long experience of such functions can remember ever marking a National Championship, for C. E. Blewitt, after appearing beaten sixty yards from the tape, produced a great finish to beat by three yards the Southern, South of the Thames, and Services champion, Lance-Corporal Cottrell.
And one worthy tribute to their excellence is reflected in the choice of four of their number for the English International Race appointed to take place in Paris on the 24th inst., but which, by the way, may not take place there or then at all.
Saturday's contest and its attendant incidents must have first consideration.
Hall Barn, the seat of Viscount Burnham, C.H., is admirably suited as the venue of a cross-country championship of the first grade, offering in the park itself a nice fast course of undulating grassland, with an ample get away and freedom from the bottle-necks. The country outside is good, and there was a nice stretch of plough available. A complete lap in the park of about a mile and three-quarters was arranged for Saturday, and the remainder of the required ten miles was made of two laps extending into the 'country'.
The only disabilities in the arrangement were that the trail paper was too thin in places, the leaders having to be shouted back on to the course at one point, and that the two main laps took such big slices out of the affair that the spectators only saw the runners three times.
Let me add here that the working out of the details at the finish occupied a tremendously long time, and that the Press stewards again were conspicuous by their modesty, and I have done with any adverse criticism.
One was cheered to find so large an assembly of spectators, the contingent from the North being much in evidence, and Lord Burnham, splendid sportsman that he is, expressed to me his delight at being able to do something for the sport and at the pleasure which was being manifested in the affair. 'The National Union asked me to let them have the use of this place.' he remarked, 'and I was delighted to so, for I am out always to help clean and healthy sport.'
Lord Desborough who no doubt would recall the successful National race at Taplow in 1911, was an interested spectator, and so was Earl Cadogan, while there were several other notabilities present, whose patronage national cross-country enthusiasts were delighted to enjoy.
Of the thirty clubs entered only two - Salford and Sparkhill - failed to field teams, and the individual or non-club entrants also materialised well. The Frenchman, J. Schnellman (third last, year), made the trip over to England on Friday, but a compatriot told he was not feeling well.
The runners were well bunched for half a mile, with Cottrell, Freeman, Ruffell, J. E. Webster (Birchfield). A. T. Wigton (Woodford Green), and H. S. Price (South London) in the van, and only some sixty yards separating the leaders from the last man, J. A. Heath (Belgrave).
After negotiating one lap of the fast park land, Birchfield were seen to have very decided ambitions for team and individual honours. In a bunch of ten that passed to enter upon the first of the big laps were five of their number, Blewitt (destined to achieve so thrilling a victory), Freeman, Beman, Wal Monk, and A. H. Rodway (the latter to provide one of the surprises of the race).
With them were E. Harper (the Hallamshire harrier, who so distinguished himself as a junior at Blackpool), Lance- Corporal Cottrell (who finished so splendid a second despite his Eastern Command performance during the week), A. Pepper, of North Staffordshire, looking very fit and well; F. Walker, of Hallamshire; and Harold Eckersley, of Warrington A.C., the youngster who was so prodigious a second to Guillemot last year.
Immediately on their heels came W. Nelson, the Salford Harrier running as an individual, A. H. Dare, of the Orion Club, and J. E. Moreton (Nuneaton), while Eddie Kenrick seemed to have been crowded back.
Entering upon the second, and final, big circuit Harper, Freeman, and Cottrell were running shoulder to shoulder fifty yards ahead of Blewitt. Harper looked the freshest of the lot but, unwisely I believe, he had been advised to wait upon the men named when he might have been profiting by the good time he apparently was enjoying. The three were causing no end of excitement, however.
Following Blewitt at a respectable distance were Rodway and Beman so that Birchfield, at this stage, actually had four men in the first six, or excluding Cottrell for team purposes in the first five. But their next men were Wal Monk 18th and R. Stanton 20th, while F. G. Ward was 31st, and Webster was looking none too happy well in the rear.
Next to Beman came Nelson who was surprising and pleasing by his forward running. Pepper had dropped to eighth place, Dare had moved up to ninth, Mills (the Marathon champion) was tenth, Bulleyment (last year's international) eleventh, Walker twelfth, V. White (the Northern champion) thirteenth, and Kenrick fourteenth.
The placings of other well-known men here were: Bowler 15th, Chris Vose 22nd, A. N. Sewell 24th, D. Phillips and D. Richards (Newport H.) 26th and 27th respectively, Hardwick 33rd, Dear 34th, Vincent 36th, and Callard 37th. Schnellmann never attained any degree of prominence, and I learned after the race that he finally gave up at the plough after vainly trying to race with Bowler.
Hallamshire now had five men in 35, while Surrey had four in 34, and Newport three in 29. The Midland champions seemed assured of the team honour, but a big struggle for second and third places now began.
The great finish between Blewitt and Cottrell, with Harper coming up fast twenty yards behind, riveted attention at the finish however, Cottrell was first to view from the winning post, but Blewitt completed the task with the greater fire and was a thoroughly deserving winner.
Along with the twenty-year-old Harper they had put a display that was something of a consolation for the Northerners who found the exigencies of the train service so exacting as to deprive them of the hospitality of Viscount Burnham when, later, he entertained his guests to tea at the noble Hall Barn.
We left with very happy recollections of the 1923 National, however, and to discuss at some leisure the decision of the special committee who precluded Payne from the select band of internationals.