Arthur Ernest 'Ernie' Duffett
Looking back over our Club's history, it is noticeable that every once in a while, a member comes along who is totally imbued with the ethos of the club, and that member’s family is carried along to accept that life as their own and become a constant source of support. Such a family were the Duffetts, and such a member was Arthur Ernest Duffett – known always as ‘Ernie’.
Ernie was born out Deptford way on 12th May 1905, the second child and first son of Walter Ernest Arthur Duffett, a blacksmith in the Engineering Department on the Railway, and his wife Daisy. In time the family moved to Croydon and, showing an aptitude for running as he matured, Ernie at some stage joined Croydon Harriers, formed in 1925 from Croydon Sports Club. The runners trained from a hut in Plough Lane, near Croydon Airport. What success he had with Croydon we do not know, but at the age of 21 Ernie decided to switch his allegiance to Belgrave Harriers and what a partnership that became thanks to his talents as both athlete and administrator. The ’30s saw Belgrave rise to become national champions on road and country, a trend continued after the war in the late ’40s – and who was at the helm of the ship on the tide of that success, for some twenty-five years in all? – Running Secretary Ernie Duffett.
In his first year, at the tail-end of 1927, Ernie pulled off two startling wins in inter-club cross country races between Thames Valley Harriers, Ashcombe AC and the ‘Bels’. On October 22nd he ran away from the field as he liked, to win by 20 seconds and then did likewise in the next match on 12th November, held from Ashcombe’s headquarters at Roehampton.
Conditions for the latter were atrocious yet a field of 62 managed to finish. The hosts had wisely changed their normal course, which had gone into Richmond Park at Robin Hood Gate, for with the opening of the Kingston By-pass by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin just a few weeks earlier, that crossing was now far too dangerous. So, a route was taken by turning left at Beverley Brook, subsequently traversing the ‘Dismal Swamp’ on the north side of the Brook, and then ascending via the ‘Toast Rack’ to Caesar’s Camp. Belgrave were soon well to the fore and it was Duffett leading the way with Footer, Pyer and Tame in tow; and so it remained with Ernie again coming home a convincing winner.
His prowess had been noted by those on high, and Mr. Holt, the well-known A.A.A. and S.L.H. official, invited Ernie to compete against Cambridge University at Cambridge on December 3rd. Over a heavy course, ‘Friend’ Duffett placed 8th, being 3rd for his team. He reported that both teams sat down to a dinner afterwards and he had “a very jolly time”.
The other side of Christmas an individual bronze medal was gained by Ernie’s raking stride in the Surrey County Championships at Tolworth. He was second in the Club’s 7 miles Cross Country Championship – a race in which he went one better at the end of the year when the event switched to December rather than January. He took silver medal in the Club’s 10 miles event, a feat repeated in 1929.
The athletics arena was also a happy hunting ground for Ernie. Early in his career he competed with distinction over three miles, taking second place in the inaugural Club Championship of 1928, and was also handy at the one mile distance.
But Ernie was far from being just ‘a runner’. In his first year with the Club he was elected Track Vice-Captain at the A.G.M. and the following year saw him add the Running Secretary’s post to his portfolio, a position that he held until he was also Club President in 1952-1953. During that quarter of a century the club notched up wins in the English Cross Country Championship in 1935-39-46-48 and they placed in 1933-34-36-37-38-47; wins came in the London to Brighton Road Relay in 1934-35-36-47-48-49-51-52 and they placed in 1932-33-37-38-39-53; and of course many, many other honours came in Southern and South of the Thames Championships.
Medallists at the Surrey County Cross Country Championships of 1928, held at Tolworth. From left to right: W.J. Harwood (Surrey A.C.), L.H. Weatherill (South London H.) and Ernie Duffett (Belgrave Harriers.
Ernie attended Committee with rarely a missed meeting through all those years and was full of ideas and active in the support of others. He was elected a Life-Member in 1933 after only six years of membership, became Assistant Hon. Secretary in 1934, Field Events Secretary (as well as Running Secretary) in 1936, became the Club’s Handicapper, and was instrumental in employing a professional coach for the Club – the renowned Franz Stampfl – in 1939. By day Ernie was a shipping clerk and during the war years, along with his duties as a Police War Reservist, he organised athletics around London to the extent that a track & field competition North of the Thames vs. South of the Thames took place in 1942 (with Ernie bearing the brunt of the organisation) and he even proposed a road relay around Wimbledon.
At the London Olympic Games of 1948 Ernie’s expertise was utilised as he acted as a Starter’s Marksman. For some years he was also the A.A.A. Handicapper with a knowledge of runners that was unparalleled. He served on South of the Thames Cross Country Association (President 1951-1952) and Southern Counties A.A.A. Committees.
When Ernie was elected President in 1952 it was noted that he conducted the proceedings in typical ‘Duffettarian’ fashion – in short as he had handled every other task thrown his way, with efficiency and humour.
In 1970 Ernie recovered well from a non-malignant tumour and moved with his wife Gladys to Pontypridd in South Wales where, true to form, he became Secretary of the Senior Citizens' Club. He passed away at the age of 85 in 1990.
Belgravian, The, 1927-1953.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office.
1939 Register (TNA).