Tuesday 9 October 2018

NEHL Gosforth Park - History in the making


When the North East Harrier League stage the third fixture of the season in Gosforth Park on October 27th, this will be a return to the park which over the years has hosted many prestigious cross country events.

The first ever North East Senior and Junior Men`s Cross Country Championships were held over the Race Course in 1895, with Thomas Dove (St.Paul`s Harriers) crowned  first ever NECCA senior champion and area`s first Harrier Club, Newcastle Harriers taking the team title. C Calvert (Darlington Harriers) winning the junior title led his club to the team honours. Pre-World War 1, Stockton Race Course was the favoured championship venue, although the event returned to Gosforth in1909, but was poorly attended.

The first Championship to be staged after WW1, once again saw Gosforth Park the chosen venue and a further fourteen championships were held over the Race Course until 1959. Significantly for local club Gosforth Harriers, John Bell was their first ever NECCA senior champion at the 1959 championship.

With local athletics administrator William Rainbow at the helm in his year as English Cross Country Union President, the City of Newcastle somewhat controversially hosted the International Cross Country Union Championships at Gosforth Park in 1924. The year before the ICCU had chosen England to organise the championships, the French unsuccessfully requested the competition to be held in the south of England, but in their wisdom the ECCU chose Newcastle and despite a strong French protest the race went ahead. Rainbow had been responsible for the Newcastle arrangements, and afterwards stated the race had stimulated much local interest in the sport of cross country.

In May 1915, the inaugural Northern Military Command Cross Country Championships were held at Gosforth Park. At the time long before mass participation, an original entry exceeded 2,000, but it was decided to cut the entry to only 12 per team instead of the original 15. The NECCA were given the huge task of arranging the championships. Rules of competition were hastily arranged, including requesting each company with pretensions of individual honours lining their nominated runners in two lines at the front. On the day as was often the case, military movements meant some 600 runners were absent, nevertheless a world record field of 1,384 completed the course of 5 miles 1,150 yards. Competitors were advised to travel on the 1.15pm express from Newcastle Central to Killingworth, with spectators urged to travel on the slow train at 1.30 to ease congestion. 

Two circuits of the race track were covered before the runners were sent through a wooded spinney to the west of the lake, leading to rough country to the south of the lake before heading back through another wooded spinney and on to the straight mile. The deviation from the race course, due to the heavy going put to the test the stamina of the hundreds of competitors. Private John Hatton (Sherwood Foresters) almost unbeaten in his time in the north east during the war, won in 31 minutes 15 seconds. This was reported as only a shade slower than the pre-war course record set at the NECCA Championships in 1909. The local press reported a record entry for the district but also a record that has no parallel in the athletic history of the world and a mammoth task for the officials. 

The following year due to military reasons the second regional championships were postponed two weeks to May 20th. Once again, another 2,000 entries were received. Hatton, following the effects of influenza withdrew after 4 miles, allowing Sapper Barbour (Northumberland R.E.) to take the honours. In fourth place Tom Minniken (1st Northern Cyclists) and Heaton Harriers, is described in Heaton`s centenary publication as proving his class in what for the time must have been one of the biggest races ever. Note these championship races were `All Out` and not like the Northumberland and Durham Paperchase League where the `Whipper In` principal was common until 1949

There is certainly nothing new in league cross country being held at Gosforth Race Course. In the first 50 years of the N&D Paperchase League or North East Harrier League as it is known today, the Park was often used. In particular, this terrain would be well known to Gosforth Harriers, as after WW2 cross country training was held at Hudspeth`s North Brunton Farm, opposite the Park gates.

A Jenkins
September 2018

Not long after the start of the Northern Military Command Cross Country Championships in Gosforth Park in May 1915, where a world record was set with 1,384 finishers.

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