James Edgar delves into the origins of our Met League competitors.
Serpentine is a young running club. Our club was founded in 1982 inspired by the inaugural London marathon held the year before (a topic we explored in Issue Two), which makes our club a relative newbie compared to venerable clubs such as Highgate Harriers or Hillingdon, which appeared in their original forms as early as 1877. We wanted to compare some of the histories of the clubs we compete against, and to narrow down the list we picked the founding members of the Met League, our premier cross-country competition.
Hillingdon Athletic Club
The League itself was founded in 1966 by eight clubs at the now demolished Primrose pub on Bishopsgate. However, a ninth club, Hillingdon Athletic Club, was invited to join for the first season and became the oldest founding member. Hillingdon is a result of the merger of Finchley Harriers and Ruislip & Northwood AC (established in 1877 and 1951 respectively). Finchley Harriers was founded at the North Star pub on Finchley Road, just a short jog from Hampstead Heath, by a group called “The Gentlemen of Hampstead”. When the club had to move to Ruislip due to urban redevelopment, they took their twenty-mile race with them. This explains the geographical oddity of the Finchley 20, a race many Serpies have done, being in Hillingdon. That race itself began in 1933 and was called the Finchley 20 until 2017 but it has now (finally?) been renamed after its location.
Hampstead Heath is an important cross-country running location for many Serpies, and also to two more of the founding clubs. As well as Hillingdon, Highgate and Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers were founded within sprinting distance of the heath.
Highgate Harriers was founded in 1879, and quickly rose to become a strong club, winning the men’s national cross-country championships for the first time in 1899 and repeating the feat three times in the first decade of the twentieth century. However, these wins were not at the now famous Parliament Hill course, which did not host a national cross-country until 1950 when the women’s championship graced the course. Instead Highgate won their first nationals at a course listed as “Wembley” on the English Cross-Country Association’s website.
Shaftsbury Barnet Harriers
Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers began life as Shaftesbury Harriers in the old Jubilee Hall at Hornsey in 1890, which stood at the corner of Hornsey Road and Fairbridge Road, not far from Hornsey Road railway station. The club history suggests that the name probably comes from the nearby Shaftesbury Road and given the short distance to the heath it seems likely that the proximity of wide open space would have attracted the runners. In 1986 the club merged with Barnet Ladies, whose own history goes back to 1948 when it formed as the ladies’ section of Hampstead Harriers.
Newham and Essex Beagles
Something was clearly in that Victorian air in the last part of the nineteenth Century, as many of the founding clubs of the Met League have their origins before 1900. Newham and Essex Beagles, for example, started out life as the Beaumont Harriers in 1887, quickly becoming the Essex Beagles in 1891. It wasn’t until 1985 when they merged with Newham AC that it took its current name. The club has had many famous athletes in its ranks, including Daley Thompson, Christine Ohuruogu and Mo Farah.
Kingston AC and Polytechnic Harriers
One of the founding members of the Met League, Polytechnic Harriers, gives us a clue as to what might have been happening in Victorian London that led to so many clubs being founded. Its name came from the Royal Polytechnic Institution, the first of a new type of tertiary educational institution that aimed to teach both purely academic and professional vocational degrees. This institution is the ancestor of today’s University of Westminster, on Marylebone Road. The Royal Polytechnic closed in 1881 but the philanthropist Quintin Hogg took it over and brought his Young Men’s Christian Institute to Regent Street/Marylebone Road. He was a firm believer in the health-giving and character-building qualities of sport and saw it as an integral part of the work of his foundation. In 1883 the Polytechnic Harriers started their club, and Hogg provided 27 acres at Merton where athletics took place.
Polytechnic Harriers is most famous for establishing the marathon distance itself. They organised the marathon at the 1908 Olympics, where the now infamous distance of 26 miles and 385 yards was chosen to ensure it both started (at Windsor) and finished (at the stadium in White City) in front of royalty. The club would go on to hold the Polytechnic Marathon annually between 1909 and 1996, making it the first “London marathon”. In 1985 the Polytechnic Harriers merged with The Royal Borough of Kingston AC, a women’s club that evolved from Surrey AC. It is now known as Kingston AC and Polytechnic Harriers but no longer compete in the Met League.
Ilford Athletic Club
Another founding member, Ilford Athletic Club, also no longer compete in the Met League. It was founded in 1923 and, interestingly, has a “Harriers” section that is suitable for beginners and which specialises in road and cross-country. The word “Harriers” comes from an 1830’s schoolboys game called Hares and Hounds in which “Hounds” would chase “Hares,” who left them paper trails through woods and hills. A group of Londoners took up the game in 1867 as a way to stay in shape and adopted the name Harriers. Since then, the term has become a nickname for cross-country runners.
Thames Valley Harriers and Ealing, Southall, and Middlesex
Some of the founding members have remained in their original form since they began; Thames Valley Harriers came into being in 1887 as East Twickenham Harriers, which, as it grew, became Twickenham Harriers in 1888 and Thames Valley Harriers in 1890. However, mergers have been a key feature of many of our competitor clubs. Ealing, Southall and Middlesex is a combination of Ealing Harriers, Middlesex Ladies and Southall AC. Ealing Harriers was established in 1920, having developed out of the Ealing ‘United Services Boxing Club’ formed by ex-service men. Middlesex Ladies was established just a few years later in 1923. Southall Norwood AC was formed in 1931, becoming Southall AC in 1937. Over the years, these three clubs came together. The first merger was in 1966 between Ealing Harriers and Southall AC with the current club being formed in 1994 with the addition of Middlesex Ladies AC. The latter not only won the first ever national cross-country race for women in 1927, but went on to win it for three years in a row. ESM’s most well-known member nowadays is Kelly Holmes, double Olympic gold medallist over 800m and 1500m at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Woodford Green with Essex Ladies
And our final founding club, Woodford Green with Essex Ladies, is also a result of a merger. Woodford Green AC was founded in 1908, just before the London Olympic Games. The club was formed out of the Harrier section of the Woodford Green Men’s Club, established in 1904. However, its origins go back to the 1880s when it was part of the sports section of the Woodford Green Working Mens’ Institute. The club stayed a men’s only club until 1994 when club rules were changed to admit women to membership. Shortly after this, in 1998, the club merged with Essex Ladies AC to become “WG&EL” as it is today.
Essex Ladies AC was founded in 1921, making it one of the earliest established women’s athletic clubs in Great Britain, although it had only 6 members in 1922 whilst known as Manor Park Ladies AC. The club adopted the name of Essex Ladies AC in 1934. Its most famous athlete was Sally Gunnell who won gold medals in the 1992 Olympics, the 1993 World Championships (with a World Record) and the 1994 European Championships.
The Met League offers some of the highest class of cross-country running in the country, and it is easy to see why when you look at the pedigree of just a few of its members. Continually strengthened and refreshed by new blood from clubs like ours, it is no wonder that the league seems to be going from strength to strength.
James Edgar has been a Serpie for over a decade and is currently learning how to fit running around a new baby.
Grace Mackintosh Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).