Track Stats - John Powell
A brilliant runner carrying the heavy burden of Britain’s “long ascendancy”
John Powell was one of Britain’s leading 800 metres runners of the 1930s, competing twice in the Olympic Games. Profiled by Bob Phillips. Published in “Track Stats” November 2007.
Great Britain’s pre-eminence at 800 metres during the 1920s and early 1930s is well enough known to bear little repetition. The Olympic title was won at four successive Games from 1920 to 1932 by Albert Hill, Douglas Lowe (twice) and Tommy Hampson, while Sydney Wooderson set World records at both 800 metres and 880 yards in 1938. By contrast, at the 1936 Olympics the only British finalist, Brian MacCabe, finished last, and he and a number of others who also reached a high level in the event during the 1930s tend to be less well regarded – Powell, Scrimshaw, Cooper, Stothard, Handley and Collyer most prominent among them.
John Powell is a particularly interesting case in point. A member of London Athletic Club, he went to the Berlin Olympics with the weight of history plumped firmly across his shoulders – and it bore him down. He was eliminated in the semi-finals, and yet less than three weeks later he ran a time for 800 metres which only Hampson among Britons had ever beaten. Unlike Hampson, who far excelled himself on the major occasions, Powell was a temperamental athlete whose performances throughout the 1930s in international and national championships varied markedly, and that, of course, makes an examination of his career all the more appealing. Though a finalist at the AAA Championships for seven successive years, he only ever won the title on one occasion. Guy Butler, Britain’s triple Olympic medallist at 400 metres and 4 x 400 metres from 1920-24, coached Powell in his latter years and described him as “one of the classic examples of a runner of wonderful ability who has so often failed to produce his best on the big occasion”.
The 1930s was an era when the domestic season followed a regular pattern of county, district and AAA Championships, with the occasional international match for the top two or three (and even then not in every event), and the Olympic and Empire Games every four years. The European Championships did not begin until 1934 – and Britain did not enter that year. Powell’s international career lasted from 1931 to 1937, including the Olympics of 1932 and 1936, and he made more appearances for his country than any other British middle-distance runner during that decade, even including Wooderson. This still amounted to only 12 selections – so limited were the opportunities in that era. Despite his inconsistency Powell was clearly no introvert. After his death in 1982 he was described as “bubbling” with energy, enthusiasm and goodwill.
John Vincent Powell (often referred to as “Jack”, though he preferred to be known as “John”) was born at Hendon, in Middlesex, on 2 November 1910 as one of twins in a family of six children, and he was an outstanding athlete at Harrow County School in the 1920s, winning the Middlesex grammar schools’ 440 and 880 yards in 1925. He joined the ex-pupils’ club, Old Gaytonians, in 1927 and two years later, still aged only 18, held every club record from 100 yards to the mile. In 1928 he had also become a member of the powerful London Athletic Club to benefit from better competition, and there he eventually met up with two future fellow-Olympians, Freddy Wolff and Brian MacCabe, who joined in 1931 and 1933 respectively. The club-members trained three times a week at their White City Stadium headquarters, but Powell had become a reporter with the “Harrow Observer” newspaper and his long and irregular hours of work meant that he often had to fit in training when he could. On occasions – even for international meetings – he would arrive at the stadium only shortly before his event was due to take place.
His running was supplemented by swimming and lengthy skipping sessions, and in contrast to his racing he became so disciplined in training that Guy Butler was to say of him: “As his adviser for a number of years, I had the pleasure of holding a stopwatch on his practice spins, and his judgment of pace was superb. Time and again he has been within a fraction of a second at each lap over distances of up to five or six laps”. At 5ft 7in (1.71m) tall and 10st 6lb (66kg) in weight, Powell was relatively slightly built, but he possessed an abundance of both speed and stamina, ranking as high as 4th in Britain at 440 yards and 9th at the mile.
1931: Making an impression at the Southern championships
Powell soon made an impression with his new London AC colleagues, winning the 1931 Middlesex county 880 yards title at Edmonton by 10 yards from Tom Scrimshaw, of Belgrave Harriers, in 1:59.4. Scrimshaw, who was to become a GB international colleague of Powell’s later that year, was the holder of the title, and if Powell’s time seems ordinary then it should be noted that Tommy Hampson won the Surrey event at Guildford the same day in 1:58.0, and the Hertfordshire, Kent and Sussex races all produced winning times of two minutes-plus. At the Southern championships, held at Southchurch Hall Park, in Southend, on 20 June, Powell was 3rd to Hampson and Stuart Townend, of Achilles, and attracted fulsome praise from the correspondent of “The Times”, who described him as “an elegant runner with a lovely action”.
The report was written under straitened circumstances because the writer added that “the finishes of the quarter-mile, half-mile and 220 were obscured by a crowd of officials”. Hampson and Townend had led in the first lap and then Powell had raced ahead with a furlong to go and looked to be the winner, but “The Times” report concluded aggrievedly: “Hampson, however, must have slipped by in the last few yards, for he won by a yard and a half in 1min 56 1/5sec, from Townend, who beat Powell by a yard”. The excellent NUTS handbook of 1930s rankings, published in 2008, lists times of 1:56.5 for Townend and 1:56.8 for Powell.
At the 1931 AAA Championships, which were the last to be held at Stamford Bridge before transferring to the newly-refurbished White City the following year, Hampson won the 880 rather easily in 1:54.8 from Townend and the German World record-holder, Otto Peltzer, with Scrimshaw 4th, Hjalmar Johannesen (Norway) 5th and Powell 6th. Hampson, Scrimshaw and Powell were selected for the England team against France in Paris on 2 August and duly took maximum points at 800 metres in that order (Hampson winning in 1:55.4). On 30 August England met Germany in Cologne in a match for which all but one of the track events were relays, and without Hampson the visitors lost at 4 x 800, 7:45.4 to 7:46.8. Powell ran the third stage. His best time of the year from the Southern championships gave him 5th ranking in Britain and 45th ranking in the World.
1932: Challenging for an Olympic place
For the Olympic year of 1932 Powell began by placing 3rd to Hampson and Jerry Cornes in the Oxford University-v-AAA 880 yards on 26 May (times of 1:54.4, 1:55.0 and 1:55.5) and then winning the Middlesex 440 at the White City on 4 June in a record-breaking 50.4 by nine yards from J.E. Tosh (Cadogan AC). This latter success elicited a further comment on Powell’s style from “The Times” man, who referred to “extraordinarily long and even strides for so short a body”. The only reason that Powell had not defended his county 880 title was that he could not get to the meeting in time (presumably because of his newspaper reporting duties). At the Civil Service championships at Stamford Bridge on 11 June Powell beat Scrimshaw again in an invitation threequarter-mile handicap with a time of 2:56.8. Both started from the same mark of 65 yards, and Powell won by eight yards, comfortably holding off Jack Lovelock, who ran 3:02.2 from scratch. Powell’s time equated to about 3:06 for the full distance, which suggested he was probably capable of around 4:15 for the mile.
The Southern 880 yards title race at the White City on 18 June was a cracker, with Hampson leading all the way, hotly pressed by Scrimshaw, and Powell a stride further back. Hampson won in 1:55.4, with Powell only two yards behind. The following Saturday the AAA 4 x 440 yards relay was held in conjunction with the LAC-sponsored junior championships at Stamford Bridge and the services’ club, Milocarian, took the title by a yard in 3:20.2, with Crew Stoneley running a 48.8 anchor leg to Hampson’s 49.2 for an Achilles team which included two other Olympic gold-medallists past and future, Lord Burghley and Bob Tisdall. Powell was timed in “about 49” on the final leg for LAC in 3rd place. This all seemed to augur well for the AAA Championships on 2 July and Olympic selection, and Powell duly finished 2nd to Hampson but presumably suffered the first of his crises of confidence as he “did not show any of his dash of the previous week”. Hampson had “a placid task” in winning in 1:56.4, with Powell well ahead of Scrimshaw in 1:57.3. The following Saturday at the White City Powell beat Scrimshaw by four yards in a time of 1:13.2 for 600 yards.
In a small team of 19 men and five women selected for Los Angeles, Hampson and Powell were the only ones named at 800 metres. As is well enough known, Hampson went on to take the Olympic title in brilliant fashion in a World record 1:49.7. Powell was inevitably overshadowed but deserved more credit than he got for qualifying in his heat with a time of 1:55.6 and then far exceeding anything he had previously achieved with 1:53.1 for 7th place in the final. Rather ungenerously, the British Olympic Association’s Official Report concentrates entirely on Hampson’s achievement and makes no mention at all of Powell’s gallant effort or of the fact that he had been suffering from flu. At the USA-v-British Empire match in San Francisco 12 days later on 14 August Powell ran the 4 x 880 yards relay leadoff leg for an immensely powerful Empire team which was completed by the three Olympic medallists at 800 metres – Hampson and the Canadians, Alex Wilson and Phil Edwards. The quartet won by a huge margin in 7:40.2 to break the World record, but the composite nature of the team denied them official recognition of their feat. In Montreal five days later Powell ran an estimated 1:55.6 for 800 metres behind Hampson’s winning 1:54.9. Powell ranked 2nd in Britain and 12th in the World for the year.
1933: Hampson departs and the search is on for a successor
Hampson’s retirement after his Olympic triumph left the way open for a successor to emerge and hopefully maintain the British tradition. The next year, after winning a 1000 yards race at the White City on 3 May in 2:15.8, Powell returned to the stadium for the Anglo-Italian Sports on 27 May in aid of the Children’s Holiday Fund, with several of Italy’s leading athletes taking part, including the 400 metres hurdler, Luigi Facelli, and there were resplendent trophies on offer which had been donated by various dignitaries. Powell made a rare venture into miling, perhaps attracted by the lure of the “Benito Mussolini Challenge Cup”, and won by a margin reported as being seven yards from the Universities’ Athletic Union champion, Basil Page (London University), in a respectable 4:21.8, “without pulling his lovely easy style to pieces”, according to “The Times”. Page’s time is given as 4:23.7, which suggests that Powell was much further ahead at the finish.
It seems a pity in hindsight that Powell did not try this distance more often; as it is, his performance ranked 9th for the year in Britain. One of the articles which Powell wrote about his competitive career contained a claim that he had run a 4:07.0 mile, but there is absolutely no evidence that he ever remotely approached such a time. Had he done so, it would have caused an immense stir, considering that at the end of the 1930s the World record was still Sydney Wooderson’s 4:06.4. This “4:07.0” remains a complete mystery, and one can only wonder whether this was a mis-print for “4:17.0”, which itself is a performance not to have found its way into the record-books.
The Middlesex championships, due to take place at Durant’s Park, in Enfield, were postponed until August because of a thunderstorm (the 880 eventually being won in Powell’s absence by a future rival, Jack Cooper, in 2:01.4). The Civil Service Sports were held at the White City on 17 June and in an invitation 600 yards event Powell beat his LAC clubmate, Freddy Wolff, by 1½ yards, with Scrimshaw a further two yards back. This race might well have been intended as an attack on Douglas Lowe’s British record of 1:10.4, as a pacemaker led for 300 yards before dropping out, but a gusty wind ruined any such plans and Powell’s time was a full three seconds slower. Incidentally, Lowe’s all-comers’ record was to survive another 18 years until Arthur Wint ran 1:09.7 at Motspur Park in June of 1951. Powell continued his 1933 season at the Kinnaird Trophy inter-club meeting, beating the Los Angeles Olympic 4 x 400 metres silver-medallist, Godfrey Rampling, at 440 yards in 50.6.
The Southern championships the next Saturday were again held in Southend and the 880 produced a memorable race. Powell was a few yards in front coming into the home straight and was still leading close to the finish, only for Mike Gutteridge to make a supreme effort and win by the narrowest of margins. Gutteridge, whose time of 1:54.8 beat Hampson’s meeting record by three-fifths, was an army officer and a highly experienced GB international who had finished 3rd in the AAA 880 in 1929 and 4th in 1930. The AAA Championships final at the White City on 7 July produced an even more startling result, being described in “The Times” as “an extraordinary race in which an almost unbelievably fast first lap was responsible for the third fastest time in the history of the championships and for completely upsetting form”.
The pacemakers feel the strain, and even the milkman passes them!
Cooper and Powell ran the first 220 yards in a breakneck 24.8sec and led at the quarter-mile in 52.4, which was astonishingly precocious for an era in which half-mile races tended to be performed at best at even pace. On the last bend five of the six runners were still together, but Powell “had run himself almost to a standstill” and the unheralded Clifford Whitehead, of Salford Harriers, won in 1:54.2 from Scrimshaw and Leslie Pearce, of Portsmouth AC. For some reason, it remains unclear as to whether Powell or Cooper was 4th, though they certainly shared 4th and 5th places. Whitehead, who had been a miler as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, had qualified for the final merely as one of the two fastest runners-up in the four heats on the previous evening. Pearce, aged 23, was also 3rd in his mile heat, and had taken up serious running just the previous year. He worked as a milkman and had made two delivery rounds on the Friday morning before travelling up to London! His only subsequent achievement of note was to reach the 1934 AAA mile final, but he was still racing in 1936 when he won the British Workers’ Sports Association 880 at Reading in 2:01.5, representing the Transport & General Workers’ Union.
Guy Butler, Powell’s coach, was also a leading writer and film-maker and made profuse reference to Powell in his excellent book, “Running & Runners”, published in 1938. Butler analysed Powell’s style and character in intimate fashion, and of the 1933 AAA final he commented tersely: “In such a fashion did his nerves take control of him that he allowed himself to be inveigled into covering the first lap at the impossibly fast pace of 52.4 seconds, when in practice he could hit exactly the 55 which suited him best”.
Though having been well beaten at the AAA Championships, Powell then had the opportunity to make three appearances for Great Britain before the end of the 1933 season. Against France, at the White City on 29 July, he was perhaps a surprise choice to run the 440 anchor leg in the medley relay, but with Gutteridge as the lead-off half-miler Britain won rather comfortably. Scrimshaw and Whitehead had finished 2nd and 3rd to Jean Keller, of France, in the individual 880. With each country fielding three athletes per event in these Anglo-French encounters, and the whole meeting decided in an afternoon, fresh runners were often brought in for the relay. Germany were the visitors to the White City on 19 August, and Whitehead and Scrimshaw easily took maximum points at 880 yards (a two-a-side match), and Powell ran the anchor 880 leg for the winning medley relay team, but Britain still lost overall by 16 points. Against Italy in Milan on 17 September Powell ran the 400 metres and showed much sharper speed than ever before in taking an excellent 2nd place to the army officer, Christopher Ward (times of 49.4 and 49.5), but Britain again lost the match. Powell’s estimated 1:54.9 in the Southern 880 ranked him equal 4th in Britain and 27th in the World.
1934: The Empire Games come to London
Powell and Cooper became the dominant English half-milers in 1934, with the British Empire Games to be held at the White City in August as their major target for the season. Powell began the season at the White City on 2 June with a mile at the Kinnaird Trophy inter-club meeting, which he narrowly lost to Aubrey Reeve, 4:22.8 to 4:23.5. As Reeve was to then beat Sydney Wooderson by four-tenths in the Southern mile at the end of the month, this was really rather a good performance from Powell At the Middlesex championships, taking place at the Henry Barrass Sports Ground, in Edmonton, on 16 June, Cooper won the 880 again in 1:57.4 by 1½ yards from Powell, but then a fortnight later at the Southern championships, at the Woodbridge Road Sports Ground, in Guildford, Powell was 1st with “little difficulty” in 1:55.6, seven yards ahead of Cooper.
On 7 July, at Motspur Park, a team from the Milocarian club for army officers, including Godfrey Rampling and Crew Stoneley, set a championship record 3:18.4 in the AAA 4 x 440 yards relay but finished only two yards ahead of London AC, for whom Powell ran the third stage and Alan Hunter (who was to win the Empire Games 440 hurdles for Scotland) the anchor. The AAA 880 final the following Saturday was something of a letdown as Cooper beat Powell by a full second in 1:56.4. “The Times” said that the race was “chiefly notable for the clever way in which Cooper seized the lead in the middle of the back straight and the total failure of J.V. Powell to regain the lost ground”. Mike Gutteridge was 3rd but sadly was to die of typhoid fever the following year at the age of 26 while serving with his regiment in India.
Against France in Paris on 29 July, Cooper, Powell and Arthur Collyer, of Watford Harriers, were the three British runners at 800 metres, and though Powell was the only one with previous international experience they comfortably dominated their opponents. Cooper and Powell finished almost together in 1:52.2 – a time which only Hampson and Lowe, among Britons, had ever beaten – with Collyer 3rd in 1:53.4. Cooper’s time was an improvement of almost four seconds on his previous best! Gutteridge ran the 800 metres for the winning medley relay team.
For the British Empire Games at the White City only the first two in each of the three 880 yards heats on 4 August qualified for the final two days later; Cooper, Powell and the Scotsman, Hamish Stothard, who was a Cambridge undergraduate, got through, but among those eliminated were Gutteridge and Whitehead. Disappointingly, the English qualifiers were well beaten for the title won four years previously by Tommy Hampson, as Powell was 4th and Cooper 6th and last, with Canada’s Olympic bronze-medallist, Phil Edwards, winning very comfortably in 1:54.2 from Willie Botha, of South Africa, and Stothard. At the inaugural European Championships in Turin in September, the 800 metres went to the Hungarian, Miklós Szabó, in 1:52.0, and the Britons had the capability to match that … had they been there.
The British Board had decided before the season even began not to send a team, and the reason, apparently, was that they felt that the Empire Games was quite enough competition for one year. This seems, with the benefit of hindsight, a most odd decision to have made; particularly as there seems to have been no qualms about the women athletes from the Empire going straight on to compete against the strongest European opposition at the “World Games” at the White City the following week. Could it be that British officialdom was skeptical of the idea of a European Championships and thought, perhaps, that it was no more than a passing fad?
The World rankings for 1934 were led by Ben Eastman, of the USA, with a new 880 yards record of 1:49.8, which was intrinsically much superior to Hampson’s metric 1:49.7. Cooper and Powell, with their metric clockings of 1:52.2, were equal 7th. Neither of them was yet thought of as being in the class of their Olympian predecessors – Hill, Lowe, Hampson – but there was every reason for some growing optimism for the future.
1935: The Scotsman, Stothard, emerges as Britain’s leading half-miler
Powell was a member of a small British team which went off to Australia and New Zealand early in 1935 for an enterprising winter tour and produced some useful results – most notably an estimated 1:55.5 for 880 yards in a handicap race in Napier on 21 February, 1:56.4 for an 880 in Christchurch on 2 March, and 2:15.5 for 1000 yards in Wellington on 4 March. The most successful member of the party was Godfrey Rampling, who ran a 49.4 for 440 yards in Auckland on 16 February, and the other two members were the Glasgow University sprinter, Robin Murdoch, and the South London Harriers miler, Horace Craske. The latter produced the fastest two miles of the year by a Briton, with 9:27.6 at the Christchurch meeting. The Royal Navy three miles champion, Monty Atton, was also in New Zealand, presumably for service reasons, and ran 14:42.8 for that distance.
Cooper won the Middlesex 880 for the third successive year, setting a new record of 1:56.8, but this was to remain his best for the season and he faded out of the international picture; his winning 1:52.2 against Paris in 1934 having been his one and only appearance for Great Britain. Back in England Powell won the 880 at the Whitsun British Games in 1:56.0. In the absence of both Powell and Cooper the Southern title was won by Arthur Collyer (4th in the previous year’s AAA race), in 1:58.2. A GB-v-Finland match was held in Glasgow on 29 June, and Stothard (1:57.4) and Powell took full points at 880 yards and then both figured in the winning 4 x 880 team.
The AAA 4 x 440 at the White City on 6 July provided a customary speed test a week before the AAA Championships and a powerful London AC team of Wolff, MacCabe, Hunter and Powell won an intensely exciting race in 3:20.1, with Achilles and Milocarian (anchored by Rampling) less than a yard behind. The AAA 880 final brought together Powell, Collyer, Scrimshaw, Townend, Stothard and a remarkable 18-year-old from Ashby-de-la-Zouch Grammar School, Ralph Scott. “The Times” expressed concern about the teenager, pronouncing that “opinions will differ as to the wisdom of 18 years competing against the more experienced runners, but no one would care to dispute the fine physique, style and all-round promise of Scott”.
Scott had run the fastest winning time of 1:55.0 in the four heats, which was by far a personal best, while Powell had beaten (and thus eliminated) Poland’s Kazimierz Kucharski to win his heat in 1:57.1. Townend led at the bell in the final, but the precocious Scott went ahead down the back straight. Powell caught the leader on the bend before Stothard came by to win by 1½ yards in 1:53.3, with Powell 2nd in 1:53.8 (though a photo of the finish suggests he was rather faster than that) and Scott one-tenth behind in 3rd place. This was the first occasion on which three Britons had beaten 1:54.0 for the half-mile in the same race. Scott had “done much to make the half such a fine race to watch”, enthused “The Times”, but the youngster never improved after that. He had won the Public Schools’ 440 yards at the White City the previous year in a startling 50.8 – the best ever by a British under-19 – and again in 1935 in 51.5, plus the 880 in a record 1:59.2. In 1936, while preparing to challenge for an Olympic place, he was to suffer a severe thigh-muscle injury and he later gave up athletics to concentrate on his studies.
Stothard and Powell were the selected pair for the match against France at the White City, and the Scotsman won in 1:57.4 from Powell, which was precisely the same result as they had achieved against the Finns the previous month. Stothard was also to win the 800 metres against Germany in Munich in August, and it was hardly surprising that he was now being thought of as a possible Olympic successor to Hill, Lowe and Hampson, helped by the fact that the 1935 season had not been a vintage one for half-miling. Nothing had been seen of the World record-holder, Ben Eastman, who had apparently retired because of business commitments.
The fastest 880 of the year was merely 1:52.0 by Charles Beetham, of the USA, and the fastest 800 metres was an almost identical 1:51.4 by another American, Elroy Robinson. Kucharski, of Poland, and Johannesen, of Norway, were ranked in the top six in the World – and neither of them had particularly impressed when they had made appearances at the AAA Championships. Britain could thus entertain some worthy hopes for the 800 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics: Stothard ranked equal 11th in the World, Powell 15th and Scott 16th, and no more than three of the seven Americans ahead of them would be in Berlin. Whether or not there would be a fifth successive British winner in the event was, of course, another matter entirely.
1936: Powell begins the year with a national title indoors
Powell started his build-up to the 1936 Olympics very early in the year and he could not have done any better to establish his medal-winning potential. He took part in the pioneering AAA indoor championships at Wembley and won the 600 yards in 1:19.5. Running in the Oxford University-v-AAA match at Iffley Road on 26 May in a customary cold wind, he “showed splendid form” to win the 880 by 25 yards in 1:54.5. Then at the Kinnaird Trophy inter-club match at the White City on 13 June he set a meeting record of 1:55.4, finishing 2½ yards ahead of his clubmate, MacCabe, with Stothard 3rd. At the Southern championships, at Chelmsford, came the most impressive win of all – beating Jack Lovelock by 15 yards in a brilliant time of 1:53.4 which was only 0.2sec outside Hampson’s English native record from 1930. The AAA 4 x 440 on 4 July was as enthralling as it had been the previous year, with the Achilles club (anchored by Godfrey Brown) winning at 3:19.8 and London AC (with Powell and Wolff on the last two stages) and Milocarian (anchored again by Rampling) no more than a yard behind. Powell was credited with a time of 48.4.
At the AAA Championships on July 10-11, the 880 heats were won in succession by Powell (1:59.2); Kucharski (1:55.7); Alec White, of Thames Valley Harriers (1:56.9); and MacCabe (1:55.7). Stothard, the defending champion, was only a shadow of his previous year’s form – having turned his attentions to the mile without success and suffered untimely injuries – and was eliminated 10 yards behind MacCabe. Powell duly won the final in 1:54.7, by two-tenths from Frank Handley, of Salford AC, after a slow opening lap of 58sec and Kucharski and Handley having led into the home straight, but the reaction of the press was mixed. Bevil Rudd, the 1920 Olympic 400 metres champion, was the “Daily Telegraph” correspondent and observed positively of Powell that “he ran to win, and he won, and in view of Berlin I am delighted to see he had full confidence in himself”. By contrast Evelyn Montague, who had taken part in the steeplechase at the 1924 Olympics, wrote scathingly in the “Manchester Guardian” that “Powell committed almost every known technical fault and finished by getting himself boxed in on the back straight at the very moment when Handley, gambling with a boldness which deserved better fortune, broke away on a long run for home”. The account of the race in “The Times” referred to a “desperate, rather than well-judged, victory”. Guy Butler later reflected of Powell’s performance: “To those of us who knew him well he never looked right in that race, which at his best he would have won much more decisively than by a bare yard”.
An amusing sequel to his AAA win was later recounted by Powell. He had to hurry away from the stadium afterwards to fulfil a journalistic assignment and saw his bus disappearing down the road. Running after it, he jumped on the platform to the astonishment of the conductor, who gasped in admiration, “Blimey, mate, you should have been an athlete!”
So far as the prospects were concerned for the Olympic 800 metres in which Britain had proved invincible ever since 1920, J.P. Jordan wrote guardedly in the “Daily Mail”: “Powell has his chance of keeping up the sequence. His time for the half-mile on Saturday was not impressive, but he did not run with the best of judgment. Expert coaching should remedy this”. No doubt Guy Butler was well aware of Powell’s shortcomings and did his best in the short time available to put him in the right frame of mind for Berlin. Powell, Handley and MacCabe had been chosen for Britain, and the opposition was not, perhaps, as formidable as it might have been. Such leading Americans as Eastman, Beetham and Robinson had fallen by the wayside and the US trio would be Johnny Woodruff, Charley Hornbostel and Harry Williamson. Woodruff, aged 21, was the new American star and had run 1:49.9 for 800 metres. Szabó, the European champion, and Edwards, the Empire champion, would also be there.
The British pressmen in Berlin came to different conclusions after the first-round heats of the 800 metres. Evelyn Montague assured his “Manchester Guardian” readers that Powell, who had won his heat in 1:56.0, eliminating the Empire Games silver-medallist, Botha, among others, was “physically in his finest form” and that “Woodruff was superficially the more impressive with his smooth enormous stride, but Powell looked the less likely to break under pressure”. For the “Daily Telegraph”, Bevil Rudd described Powell’s performance as “smooth and effortless”. Yet the man from “The Times” was far less satisfied, saying of Powell: “He made things difficult for himself by failing to join Lanzi, the Italian runner, in shaking off the wilder runners in a field of eight or nine. Powell’s superior finish carried him alongside Lanzi in the last few yards, but he was in serious danger of being boxed in on the far side of the track”. MacCabe, winning his heat in 1:54.5, and Handley had also qualified for the semi-finals.
Handley finished in last place in the first of the three semi-finals, won by Woodruff from Kucharski. Powell seemed to be going well at the bell (56sec) in his semi-final, but then came disaster, as the various scribes explained:
“Manchester Guardian”: “There seemed no reason why Powell should be in any difficulty, but after finding himself boxed in 300 yards from home he seemed to lose either strength or heart and finished a bad 4th”.
“Daily Telegraph”: “Powell’s collapse was utterly unexpected … it was only down the far stretch of the second lap that Powell appeared to be in difficulty. His running had a subdued air and he had no effective counter to the rapid sprint that Williamson, of USA, and Backhouse, of Australia, began just before the last bend. He struggled despairingly in their wake but never looked like catching them and 50 metres from home he gave up trying”.
“The Times”: “Powell followed Edwards … but he lost his place at the last turn but one and though he moved up once again he had shot his bolt … Powell was an outstayed horse”.
Guy Butler thought that Powell’s failure was “probably owing to having exhausted his nervous energy by sheer worry”, while in further explanation of Powell’s demise an interesting theory was put forward by the correspondent for “The Times”. It involved a fellow-athlete who was not even present in Berlin, Hamish Stothard, who he described as “a man who had looked all over an Olympic champion until he lost his form”. Powell’s failure was thus attributed to the burden of knowledge of Great Britain’s “long ascendancy” and to the absence of Stothard, who would otherwise have carried national expectations. This “must have added to the anxiety of a temperamental runner like Powell”. Unexpectedly, Britain’s other entrant, MacCabe (who was never to place higher than 3rd in an AAA 880 final), qualified from the third semi-final. The final was something of an anti-climax. Edwards led through the first lap in a ridiculously slow 57.4 and held on for 3rd place as Woodruff won in 1:52.9 from Lanzi, with MacCabe a distant last.
Another World relay record beaten, but no recognition for the achievement
Powell told fellow club-members in the January 1937 issue of “LAC News”: “Excuses for my own failure to reach the final in my event need not be written. It is sufficient to say that I was very tired in my race in the semi-final, and the ‘kick’ which one usually has at the end was not forthcoming”. Powell and MacCabe had also been named in the group for the 4 x 400 metres relay, but it was their clubmate, Freddy Wolff (despite suffering from the after-effects of dental surgery), who ran the leadoff stage and together with Godfrey Rampling, Bill Roberts and Godfrey Brown famously beat the Americans to win the gold.
Whatever his problems in Berlin, Powell soon proved his true worth. At the post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA match at the White City on 15 August the Empire team of MacCabe, Pat Boot (New Zealand), Gerald Backhouse (Australia) and Powell gave the Americans (Hornbostel, Bob Young, Williamson, Woodruff) a great race and lost narrowly, 7:35.8 to 7:36.6. It was a new World record – and the second occasion (the previous being in the 1932 match) on which Powell had broken the record and received no credit for it.
Five days later in Stockholm the American, Glenn Cunningham, who had finished 2nd to Jack Lovelock in the Olympic 1500 metres and held the World mile record at 4:06.7, attacked the 800 metres record. This was still in British hands, officially held by Tommy Hampson from the 1932 Olympics at 1:49.8 (though he was actually timed in 1:49.70), as no intermediate clocking had been taken when Ben Eastman ran 1:49.8 for 880 yards (worth 1:49.1 for 800 metres) in 1934. Cunningham succeeded in his attempt with 1:49.7 and Powell far improved on all his previous times with 1:50.8 in 2nd place. It was the 2nd-fastest ever time by a Briton and the 14th fastest on the World All-Time List.
The Olympic silver-medallist, Lanzi, had led the first lap of the record-breaking race in 53.4 but was then “unable to stave off the unexpected attack” by Powell before Cunningham’s powerful finish won him the race. Lanzi was 3rd in 1:51.4, while in last place in 1:55.3 was a future World record-holder, Rudolf Harbig. Woodruff, the Olympic champion, was otherwise engaged in Oslo that day, beating Britain’s relay gold-medallist, Bill Roberts, at 400 metres, 46.8 to 47.1 (as described in a previous issue of “Track Stats”). The evening beforehand Powell had run 2:28.2 for 1000 metres, which was within four-tenths of the British record held for nine years by Cyril Ellis, and on the third day of the meeting he produced a winning 47.5 anchor leg in the relay for which “he had to make up a deficit of at least half-a-dozen yards on Cunningham … and got home with two yards to spare”. Cunningham formed a lifelong friendship with Powell and became godfather to Powell’s son, named Glenn in his honour.
1937: A disappointing year for Powell despite a British 4 x 800 metres record
Powell began 1937 by winning a second AAA indoor title – at 880 yards in a modest 2:03.3 – but his outdoor season was soon disrupted. In a match for London AC against Glamorgan & Monmouth in May, where he finished 2nd to Freddy Wolff at 440 yards and lost a 4:36.0 mile by three yards to that year’s Welsh champion, Philip Dee, he seriously injured his Achilles tendon and that kept him out of the Middlesex and Southern championships. In his absence MacCabe won the county title and Arthur Collyer the Southern at the Preston Park cricket ground in Brighton in an English native record time of 1:53.1. On 3 July, in Wuppertal, the Scotsman, Hamish Stothard, made some return to form by winning an 800 metres in 1:53.4 from the Belgian, Joseph Mostert, with Powell 3rd. Back in action in the AAA 4 x 440 at the White City on 10 July, Powell ran the third stage in “inside 51sec” and handed over a lead of “a full couple of strides” as LAC won in 3:24.8 from Achilles.
At the AAA Championships the following weekend Powell won his 880 yards heat from Jean Verhaert, of Belgium, in 1:57.1 and was joined for the final by Stothard (1:57.3), Collyer (1:56.5) and MacCabe (1:57.1), plus Handley and the Welshman, Jim Alford, as the fastest losers, with a former champion, Clifford Whitehead, among those who did not qualify. In the final Powell was said to have “faded right out” to last place in 1:55.3 as Collyer won in 1:53.3 from Handley (1:53.5), Alford (1:54.3), MacCabe (1:55.1) and Stothard (1:55.2). Collyer’s was the equal 3rd fastest winning time in the 57-year history of the event behind Otto Peltzer’s sensational 1:51.6 World record of 1926 and Hampson’s 1:53.2 of 1930. At the end of July Powell won a modest 880/mile double for LAC against Belgrave Harriers at Battersea Park in 2:03.0 and 4:36.4, and then at Motspur Park, on 28 August, he selflessly helped Sydney Wooderson in his mile record attempt, leading at the bell in 3:07.2 after being given 100 yards’ start and finishing only 1½ yards behind as Wooderson achieved his objective in 4:06.4.
Despite his modest form Powell was still selected for the Great Britain team’s Scandinavian tour. Against Finland in Helsinki on 4-5 September he was an undistinguished last at 400 metres (50.8) but joined Handley, Collyer and Stothard in the winning 4 x 800 metres team, setting a British record of 7:39.9 which was to stand for 14 years. On 8 September he ran 1:54.2 for 800 metres in a meeting in Stockholm, ranking 7th in Britain for the year and about 60th in the World, but against Norway in Oslo on 12 September he suffered injury again and failed to finish the 400 metres.
Powell might still have been thought of as one of England’s half-milers for the Empire Games in Sydney early in 1938, and it may be that, like so many others, he was unable to afford the time off from work for the required four-month absence. The title went to the New Zealander, Pat Boot, in a brilliant 1:51.2, far ahead of Frank Handley, with Brian MacCabe 6th.
1938: No placing in the AAA Championships
Powell started off his 1938 season on 4 June by winning the 880 at the RUC Annual Sports in Belfast by five yards in 2:03.8. The track conditions slowed the German, Jakob Scheuring, to 22.4 in the 220, while his compatriot, Erwin Blask, set a Northern Ireland all-comers’ record of 171ft 8in (52.32m) in the hammer. The following week Powell ran the 440 in the Middlesex championships at Winchmore Hill but was well beaten into 3rd place as Harry Pack, of the City of London Police, won in 50.6. MacCabe retained his 880 title in 1:57.0. The Kinnaird Trophy was held the next Saturday at the newly-opened Polytechnic Harriers’ Stadium at Grove Park, Chiswick, and Powell was beaten by three yards by Alec White (1:59.0) in the half-mile. “The Times” commented that “it was disappointing to find Powell, when running so smoothly, outpaced at the finish” and that White was “a strong but not yet very polished runner”. Arthur Sweeney, W. R. Loader, Godfrey Brown, Peter Ward and Don Finlay were among the track winners that day and an English native record of 197ft 2½in (60.10m) was set in the javelin by James MacKillop.
Wooderson won the Southern 880 yards at Gillingham on 25 June in 1:56.4, finishing a long way in front of Collyer and MacCabe, and there was no mention of Powell in the reports. While Wooderson took his fourth AAA mile title on 16 July, Collyer easily won for the second successive year at 880 yards in 1:53.7, and for the first time since 1931 Powell was not in the final. He is not mentioned in the coverage of the previous evening’s heats and so, in all probability, he did not compete, though he ran in the Sefton Brancker Trophy meeting at Uxbridge only four days later and won the 880 in 1:56.4. The last reference to Powell that summer is in connection with the Stanley Waddilove Challenge Trophy meeting at Perry Barr, Birmingham, the following Saturday where he finished 2nd at 880 yards to Sydney Wooderson, who was content to win by three yards in a mere 2:00.6. A month later Wooderson set World records of 1:48.4 for 800 metres and 1:49.2 for 880 yards at Motspur Park. According to ranking-lists produced by the leading journalist and broadcaster, Harold Abrahams, Powell ran a 1:56.2 half-mile at some time during 1938 and ranked 10th equal in Britain.
In 1939 Powell made only one appearance of note, and maybe that was simply out of a sense of duty to his club. He ran for LAC in an invitation 4 x 1 mile relay held in conjunction with the AAA junior championships “but fell right away” towards the end of his stage, according to “The Times”, as Achilles won the event. There is also an unconfirmed time of 1:56.0 for 880 yards listed for him during the year.
Wartime service in the RAF and a lifelong sporting involvement
Powell served in the Middle East with the RAF as a Squadron-Leader during World War II, being mentioned in despatches three times. He also organised sports competitions for the troops and managed some more running in 1941-42, winning Palestine titles at 800 and 1500 metres. After the war he took up poultry farming in Sussex and retained his interest in athletics as president of London AC, as a member of the Sports Council, and in helping to develop the Arun Leisure Centre hear his home in Bognor Regis. He went to Iraq on behalf of the British Council and was instrumental in Iraq sending four athletes to compete in the 1948 Wembley Olympics. He also remained physically very active, swimming every day throughout the summer in the sea, and it was on one of those sun-filled occasions, on 17 July 1982, that he died of a heart attack on the beach at the age of 71.
His old rival and clubmate, Brian MacCabe, wrote a delightful tribute for “Athletics Weekly”. He and another of LAC’s Berlin Olympians, Freddy Wolff, had travelled together to Powell’s funeral in Chichester, and MacCabe noted: “We first decided that if we had been allowed only one word to describe Jack we would have chosen ‘effervescent’ .All his life, from beginning to end, he fairly ‘bubbled’. He bubbled with untiring energy, with infectious enthusiasm, with transparent goodwill, and with unlimited friendship”.
MacCabe vividly described Powell’s problems of temperament: “He also suffered from the most acute ‘nerves’ of any athlete that Freddy or I could recall. He was literally sick before virtually every race – not just at international meetings but even at minor meetings which the LAC organised against many schools early in the season. This so worried Harold Abrahams that it became a habit for Jack to stay with him the night before an important meeting so that Harold could attempt to calm him down. Jack was a brilliant, natural and determined runner with a long elegant stride, and if it had not been for his excessive nerves – and if he had received the coaching assistance available nowadays – he would almost certainly have been a World beater at any distance from 400 to 1500 metres”.
In 1957, more than 20 years after he had run his fastest time for 800 metres, Powell still ranked 15th on the British all-time list. Among those few remaining ahead of him were Tommy Hampson (an Olympic champion and World record-holder), Sydney Wooderson (a World record-holder), Derek Johnson (an Olympic silver-medallist), John Parlett (an Empire and European champion), Mike Rawson (a European champion), Brian Hewson (an Empire & Commonwealth silver-medallist), Roger Bannister (a European bronze-medallist), Albert Webster and Mike Farrell (both of them Olympic finalists). The other five were all products of the 1950s with far more intensive competitive opportunities than Powell ever enjoyed – Jim Paterson, Jock Beesley, Ted Buswell, Ronnie Henderson and Jack Boyd.
Freddy Wolff and Brian MaCabe both followed highly successful business careers before their deaths in 1988 and 1992 respectively. Wolff was a commodity broker and chairman of the London Metal Exchange, being awarded the CBE in 1975 for his services to invisible exports. MacCabe, who had won the Military Cross twice as a World War II tank commander in North Africa, became chairman of the advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, and president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Together with John Powell, they typified an era of amateur athletics which now seems very remote indeed.
Michael Pope, the LAC archivist and 1948 Olympic 400 metres hurdler, knew John Powell well and has happy memories of him: “He was a good friend and a valued colleague. He had an infectious optimism and did a very great deal for the club as president and committee-member. His was an outstanding era for LAC in the quarter-mile and half-mile, and he was a great athlete. I remember him describing how, after he came 2nd in the AAA half-mile for the third time, Harold Abrahams, in his kindness, tried to help John and took him up to the roof of his home one evening to look upwards towards the stars, to give him a broader vision, so to speak, before the 1937 Championships. John duly won! He was a strong supporter of the amateur principle and spoke out eloquently in favour of it at a general meeting of the AAA in 1981”.
Interestingly, there is some strong evidence that on his day of days in Stockholm Powell might actually have run significantly faster than the time for which he is given credit. In the “LAC News” for January 1937, Powell wrote in relation to the previous August’s Stockholm meeting: “I have a habit of being involved in World-record races and on the second evening ran the fastest race of my life when I was beaten in the 800 metres in which a World record of 1min 49.7sec was established. I was 2nd in 1min 50.4sec”. In the March 1938 issue Powell’s coach, Guy Butler, also referred to Powell’s time as being 1:50.4, and not the 1:50.8 with which he has been credited.
The 880 yards results at the AAA Championships in the 1930s
Note: times for all finalists were taken only in 1937.
1930: 1 Tommy Hampson (Achilles) 1:53.2, 2 Séra Martin (France) 1:54.8, 3 Cyril Ellis (Birchfield H) 1:55.0e, 4 Mike Gutteridge (Achilles), 5 Friedrich Kaufmann (Germany), 6 Stuart Townend (Achilles).
1931: 1 Hampson 1:54.8, 2 Townend 1:56.4, 3 Otto Peltzer (Germany) 1:56.7, 4 Tom Scrimshaw (Belgrave H), 5 Hjalmar Johannesen (Norway), 6 John Powell (London AC).
1932: 1 Hampson 1:56.4, 2 Powell 1:57.3, 3 Scrimshaw 1:58.2, 4 Arthur Nye (Sevenoaks (AC). Also finalists but places not known – C.H. Grint (Enfield AC), E.A.L. Riley (London AC), J. Serjent (London AC).
1933: 1 Clifford Whitehead (Salford H) 1:54.2, 2 Scrimshaw 1:54.5, 3 Leslie Pearce (Portsmouth AC) 1:54.9, 4 and 5 Jack Cooper (C.A. Vandervell AC) and Powell (precise positions not known), 6 C.R. Banks (Woodford Green AC).
1934: 1 Cooper 1:56.4, 2 Powell 1:57.4, 3 Gutteridge (Army) 1:57.7, 4 Arthur Collyer (Watford H), 5 Banks. Maurice Lister (Achilles) qualified but did not start.
1935: 1 Hamish Stothard (Cambridge U) 1:53.3, 2 Powell 1:53.8, 3 Ralph Scott (Ashby-de-la-Zouch GS) 1:53.9, 4 Scrimshaw, 5 Collyer 1:54.4?. Townend did not finish.
1936: 1 Powell 1:54.7, 2 Frank Handley (Salford AC) 1:54.9e, 3 Kazimierz Kucharski (Poland) 1:54.9e, 4 Brian MacCabe (London AC), 5 Alec White (Thames Valley H), 6 Alec Haire (Ireland).
1937: 1 Collyer 1:53.3, 2 Handley 1:53.5, 3 Jim Alford (Roath H) 1:54.3, 4 MacCabe 1:55.1, 5 Stothard 1:55.2, 6 Powell 1:55.3.
1938: 1 Collyer 1:53.7, 2 Alfred Baldwin (Army) 1:54.9, 3 MacCabe 1:55.2, 4 Eddie Sears (Essex Beagles) 1:55.5e, 5 Jean Verhaert (Belgium), 6 Handley.
1939: 1 Godfrey Brown (Achilles) 1:55.1, 2 John Moreton (Achilles) 1:55.1, 3 Austin Littler (Pilkington H) 1:55.4, 4 MacCabe, 5 W.R. Moody (Metropolitan Police AC), 6 W.H. Hammond (Highgate H).
Footnote: Ian Buchanan’s reference works, “The AAA Championships 1880-1939” and “Who’s Who of UK & GB International Athletes 1896-1939”, were invaluable sources of material for this article, as was “1930-1939 U.K. Men’s Rankings”, by Ian Buchanan, David Thurlow and Keith Morbey. While performances are mostly listed in decimals it should be noted that times were usually taken to the nearest one-fifth of a second in half-mile races in Britain during the 1930s. Thus a time of 1:54 4/5, for example, is shown as 1:54.8 for simplicity’s sake. My thanks, also, to Michael Pope, John W. Keddie and John Powell’s son, Glenn, for their help.