Henry C. "Harry" Evans, 1881-1967
In the late 1950s a very young Belgravian collected his newly awarded silver Belgrave medal at the A.G.M., whereupon a kindly old gent asked if he could take a look at it. After a moment’s inspection and a perusal of the inscription his eyes twinkled as he handed it back.
“You look after it,” he said. “You know, some men have to run or walk all the way to Brighton to get one of these.”
Ever showing an interest in the progress of those around him, Harry Evans had helped cement yet another young sportsman into a life with the ‘Harriers’.
Born on 5th May 1881 in Islington, Harry was the son of Henry, a wire drawer, and Mary. In his youth he worked as an errand boy and then a corn chandler before turning his hand to the baking trade. It wasn’t until the age of 26 that Harry first tried athletics. He was persuaded to support the Baker's Charity Athletic Meeting at the old Kensal Rise Track by competing in a walking race. Nobody was more surprised than Harry when he finished a close second to the trade champion. Another baker named Savage, who had been the World's professional champion and whose records were made under the name of "Billy Franks" immediately became interested in this new raw talent and, having a son in Belgrave, introduced Harry to the club. He became a member on 5th February 1908.
The Walking Captain of the club at that time was F.W. Coomber, a fine walker who quickly realised Harry's potential. He taught Harry so thoroughly that in the next club race to be decided the pupil walked away from the teacher. So Harry was urged to enter for the two miles handicap at the Stamford Bridge Open "Good Friday" Meeting. Being Easter time, of course, there was a national demand was for hot cross buns. Harry had to put in a stretch of 36 hours work to produce these seasonal delicacies and the race commenced only a few hours after he left the bakery. No matter, for this new star in the race walking firmament won the event by 75 yards.
" ... generations learned to regard him with great affection ... "
Circa 1908-1911 and Harry is pictured in centre, back row. Club colours at the time were "claret and gold hoops".
There had been noisy support for Harry during that Stamford Bridge race – incessant cheers from fellow Belgravians urging him towards the finish. It appeared that his club comrades, knowing a thing or two about his ability before it came to the general public’s notice, had backed him very heavily to win.
A strong betting element was present in the world of Amateur Athletics. Although the police and authorities were striving to suppress it, at Stamford Bridge there was a spot near the rails in the back straight where a brisk business was done for many years.
Pressure was now brought on young Harry to ease up for a few races to lengthen the odds given by the ‘bookies’ on his future performances, but he would have none of it, competing for the love of it and for the glory of winning or fighting to do so. When athletes cunningly hid their form it was difficult to produce winning club teams but Harry’s open and strenuous opposition to such shrewd activities encouraged a new ethos. It is surely more than coincidence that the club's numerous team victories began to be achieved after he showed his fellow clubmen that true sportsmanship demanded that one should give of one’s very best in every race.
Further two mile races came thick and fast. Competing at Herne Hill he placed third and then at Redhill he won again before taking second prize at the Tottenham Hospital Sports. Most of the races were handicaps and there was a major challenge waiting for him at Sutton where he came up against the New Zealand Champion A.E. Rowlands who had come to England to prepare for the 1908 Olympic Games alongside the notable E.J. Webb, and had joined Herne Hill Harriers. Rowland was the strong favourite for the race. Starting just a short distance behind Harry, he caught him, but Harry fought on to gain the victory by a yard. Another second place came at Epsom and by the end of his first season Harry had also won every Club handicap from the scratch mark.
The winter season saw Harry win the club’s 10 miles championship, held from "The Spencer Arms", Barnes, and the following summer he moved up to higher spheres again, competing with distinction in the A.A.A. 7 Miles Championship – where he recorded the fast time of 54 mins. 30 secs. – and in
the 2 miles Championship – 14 mins. 10 secs. On the old three laps to the mile White City track he won over 2 miles, took second place in the L.A.C. Open Walk at Stamford Bridge and then won again at Clapton. This latter race was undoubtedly one of Harry's finest performances. E.J. Webb, a winner of five A.A.A. Championships gave Harry a short start and caught him with a lap to go. Harry held him and one of the judges ran the whole of the lap to keep a close eye on them in case either broke contact with the ground. It was neck and neck all the way with Harry just winning.
By 1909 Harry had been elected the club’s Walking Captain. Leading by example he won the first Junior Individual and Team Race promoted by the Road Walking Association over a distance of ten miles in a time of 81 mins. 37 secs. – and this over a road surface regarded as very poor.
Harry was most disappointed with Belgrave’s second team place in the R.W.A. event, losing the competition by just one point, especially as earlier in the day there had been a two mile handicap at Stamford Bridge and several of the team had raced there before participating in the longer race for their club.
In the years 1909 to 1911, Harry gained six first class standard medals in the A.A.A. Championships – three at seven miles and three at two miles, and did well against the Champions of the day who included G.E. Larner, E.J. Webb and H.V.L. Ross; but now came a long break in Harry's athletic career. He married, and a growing family, his wife's ill-health and night work kept him out of the sport for some time. This period of inactivity was then followed by the 1914-18 World War. Harry was an early volunteer for the forces. He was captured and spent a long while in a German prison camp.
On returning to England in 1919 Harry was talked into training again by Jimmy Belchamber. Although he did not get back the pace that had formerly made him so formidable he soon settled into becoming a very sound and reliable team man. In the following seasons Belgrave were the winners of most of the seven and ten miles scratch team races and although now at a disadvantage in respect of age, Harry was nevertheless in the scoring quartet many times.
In due course Harry became a walking judge – and he had no superior. He was on the R.W.A. list from early 1921 and officiated at many A.A.A. Championships and the 1948 Olympic Games. Thousands of races on track and road benefitted from his presence as a judge. His worth to the Club as an adviser on style and fair walking was inestimable. To be disqualified by Harry Evans was to put the issue beyond all doubt; his decisions were accepted without the merest shadow of a protest for everyone recognised that his judgements could not be improved upon. As a committee man from 1908 he served the club for a life-time, being made a Life-Member and holding the Presidency of the Club worthily for two years in 1942 and 1943. He even appeared on the popular Eamonn Andrews TV show 'This Is Your Life' Monday 3rd March 1958 when it was devoted to Belgrave member F.M. Stone.
He was a great believer in breathing and physical exercises for the development of the stomach muscles, and in his earlier days profited by weight lifting. Harry was acutely aware as a young baker of the high mortality rate in his trade, largely due to chills developed by working at high temperatures during the night and then going out into the early morning cold; he sought to protect himself by being physically fit and indirectly this brought him into sport and the Belgrave Harriers, where generations learned to regard him with great affection.
Harry passed away on 27th January 1967 having given six decades of service to the club.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK. Also 1881, 1891 and 1901.
National Library of New Zealand, The Feilding Star, Kiwitea & Oroua Counties Gazette, Vol II, Issue 443, 11 December 1907.
The writings of A.A. Harley and J.E. Belchamber.
Belgrave Harriers fixture cards.
A club race circa 1923-1924. Harry Evans, still racing aged about 42, is third from right, wearing number 10.