Los Angeles, California, 3rd August 1932: A merciless sun beat down upon the competitors in the 50 kilometres walk at the Xth Olympiad. The race had started in Griffith Park at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the athletes were now heading down Huntingdon Drive towards the Coliseum. The heat was such that the very tar on the road was melting. At 25 kms three men were matching strides at the front of the race – Tommy Green of Great Britain, the Latvian Janis Dalins and Ugo Frigerio of Italy, and over an hour later they were still together, until, at last, the Italian began to weaken. Before long, however, it was Tommy in trouble and Dalins began to move away as the Briton suffered. Perhaps Tommy’s concentration was beginning to lapse. The heat was immense. There had been so much suffering in his life. How much more could a body take?
A significant gap had opened up to the leader … and then a shock; cold water was thrown over the Briton by a spectator and with the reviving liquid soaking his racing singlet, he managed to retain his equilibrium. He had broken a world record before now. He had given up weeks of pay from his job at Eastleigh Railway Works and undertaken a long journey by ship to get here, not to mention surviving the horrors of being a combatant in the Great War, and severe childhood illness. Indeed, it was fortunate for Tommy that his sport was on the Olympic programme at all. After controversy on the track at the Paris Olympics of 1924, race walking had been dropped by the Olympic movement, but with the increasing interest in road walking, representations had been made by the British (through the efforts of E.H. Neville of Surrey Walking Club in 1928) to reinstate the discipline in the form of this 50km race in 1932.
Composure regained, Tommy purposefully lengthened his stride … and was Dalins, now, beginning to encounter a bad patch? Indeed, the Latvian was suffering, from stomach cramps, and before long the two were together again and this time it was Tommy in the ascendancy. He was away, and his lead continued to grow as he was now moving at a faster pace than in any earlier section of the race. The Coliseum loomed ahead. Not far now and then onto the crushed peat of the track surface, a small and lone figure in a huge tiered stadium that could hold over 100,000 spectators. Not another competitor was in sight; he had won – and in style, by over seven minutes. The last quarter of the race was his fastest. Tommy was Olympic Champion and at 38 years and 126 days he was to remain the oldest-ever winner of the event to this day.
Soon he was able to let his family know by telegram how he had got on:
I WON THE GOLD MEDAL -(STOP)- VERY HOT -(STOP)- SEE YOU ALL SOON -(STOP)- LOVE TOM
... poorly as a child ... unable to walk during the first five years of his life ...
Thomas William Green, was born in Fareham, Hampshire, on 30 March 1894, the second child and first son of Thomas Chatwin Green, originally from Birmingham and now a Police Constable with the Hampshire Constabulary. His mother was Flora Harriet Caroline nee Nettles. Flora had been a housemaid and hailed from Islington. The family lived at the Police Station in Fareham.
Young Thomas was poorly as a child and was unable to walk at all during the first five years of his life, being afflicted by the disease of rickets. Nevertheless, with his schooling completed and after a spell as a butcher’s boy, Tommy was robust enough at the age of 15 to pretend that he was three years older and appear before the Magistrate at Romsey, applying to join the Army on 22 April 1909. It would seem that, somehow, he was already on the 3rd Hants Regt. Special Reserve List (from which springs the story that he joined the Army at the age of 12).
Standing 5 feet 4½ inches tall and pretending that he was eighteen, one can only surmise that the Adjutant accepting him turned a blind eye to his youth and was perhaps impressed by the rose, shamrock, thistle and bird tattooed on his right arm, while his left bore the outline of a ballerina. His unit of choice was the Royal Irish Regiment but by August he had been transferred to the 20th Hussars. After service of somewhat less than two years Tommy was discharged on 15 December 1910, his papers marked: “His services being no longer required.” It is rumoured that he had been injured when a horse fell on him.
Above: Police Constable Thomas Chatwin Green, Tommy Green's father.
Back in civilian life and perhaps turning his equine knowledge gained in the Hussars to advantage, Tommy was working as a groom in 1911; but the British Army had not quite done with Private Green, and with the onset of hostilities in the First World War he was recalled to service, fighting in Belgium and France with the 3rd (The King’s Own) Hussars. The Hussars were assigned to the Cavalry Division of the British Expeditionary Force and saw early action at the Battle of Mons. During a period of leave in 1915 he married Rose Smith but was soon back in France where, on the Western Front, he was thrice wounded and then gassed so badly that in 1917 he had to be repatriated to England.
After the war, a variety of jobs were undertaken by Tommy, until he found regular employment in the foundry of the Eastleigh Railway Works, the carriage, wagon and locomotive works for the London & South Western, later the Southern, Railway.
... exercise the best remedy ...
Medical opinion was that exercise would be the best remedy for his damaged lungs and initially he tried his hand at boxing and long distance running but an acquaintance, William Lowings, a blind race-walker who was training for a St Dunstan’s event, needed a training partner and Tommy fitted the bill. It was soon apparent that Tommy was well suited to the event himself and it was the longer races that enticed him. In 1926 he was a surprise winner of the first race that he had ever entered, the 12-mile event from Worthing to Brighton. In no time at all, dressing room chat was all about this newcomer to the sport and he was soon considering joining a club. In the understated manner of the time, The Belgravian reported:
“Members will no doubt be pleased to hear that Mr. T.W. Green has joined our walking section and is a first claim member. He will greatly strengthen our team.”
On February 3rd, 1927, Tommy officially became a Belgrave Harrier and it wasn’t long before he was spearheading the road-walking fields wearing claret and gold. The “Junior” R.W.A. Championship (“Junior” signifying that the race was for those who had not featured highly in previous championship events) was held at Sheffield on March 5th. From a field of over 200 Tommy and his club-mate Albert Fletcher knocked spots off each other for the full ten miles, coming around the final corner side by side with the new Belgravian prevailing by just two seconds at the finish. Other team mates were also not going to roll over for the new signing: in the Club 20 miles championship held on the roads of Wimbledon, Tommy forced the pace early on but it was E.G. Cooper, with a more restrained start, who took the lead at the Windmill with 2 miles to go and went away to win by three minutes.
Tommy’s first season with the club in 1927 was already exciting enough but it was in September that the signs of a spectacular future really began to show. Surrey Walking Club’s classic 52 miles London to Brighton Walk was held in miserable conditions but a large crowd had gathered at Westminster to see the start, many, no doubt, eager to catch a glimpse of Carlo Giani, the Italian long-distance walking champion. The pace was hot and at Streatham a crowd of rain-drenched cyclists waiting to follow the walkers were surprised to see the leaders so soon. It was Green’s first attempt at such a distance and, perhaps with memories of fading during the latter part of the Club ‘20’, his start had been a little more circumspect, hanging back in the middle of the field and not really exerting himself until Croydon had been passed. The wind and rain took its toll on many in the field but at Merstham he was up to 11th and at Redhill, with the recorders sheltering in the Post Office from the pelting rain, he was 6th. Reaching Horley he was up to 3rd with the Yorkshireman F. Holt in 2nd, seven minutes ahead, and Giani a further seven minutes up the road in the lead. Ten miles further along the A23 at Hand Cross, Green had overtaken Holt and was now moving at the same speed as Giani. With the sun at last shining, and the weather-beaten competitors now steaming, the Italian strode into Brighton eight minutes clear of the ‘novice’ who was himself almost twenty minutes ahead of the third man home.
1928 saw Tommy consolidating his position as one of the nation’s best walkers and he was expected to do well in his second ‘Brighton’ race, but had to come out at 20 miles with ankle trouble. By the following year he was compiling a most impressive list of wins in the longer events: the Birmingham Outer Circle 25 miles, the Manchester to Blackpool 53 miles, the Settle to Bradford ‘32’, and the Manchester Lewis 25 miles – the longer the race the more likely he was to head the field – and then in September he returned to the Brighton Road to score a resounding win in 8:15:41, the second fastest ever time and only 4 minutes outside the 1909 record set by Harold V.L. Ross. In November he gained international honours by placing 2nd in the longest race of them all – the Milan 100km – in spite of struggling with stomach cramps throughout the contest.
1909 record smashed ... A.A.A. presented a special gold medal ...
By 1930 he was being regarded as, perhaps, the finest race walker in the world. A Race Walking Association Championship win came over the 50km distance and Tommy thus became the Club’s first ever R.W.A. or A.A.A. National Champion. Not only that, his time of 4:35:36 was recognised as the World’s best time for the distance – he was Belgrave’s first World Record Holder. There were so many other extraordinary wins and records in the long distances. He’d won the inaugural Hastings to Brighton (37 miles) in 6:00:35. In August, he won the Nottingham to Birmingham (55 miles) in 8:41:02, easily eclipsing the previous record and inside the World Record for 55 miles set on the Stamford Bridge track in 1914. Then, in September, the 52 miles London to Brighton race at last saw that legendary 1909 record smashed as the Belgrave man was clocked at a staggering 8:02:55. He finished nearly 24 minutes in the lead and 11 minutes inside the previous best in spite of having to contend with rainstorms and flooded roads. This win in particular was given huge coverage in the press and the A.A.A. presented a special gold medal to him in recognition of his performance. A month later, he defended his title in the Manchester to Blackpool in a new course record of 7:39:30, 4 minutes under the previous best. Finally, he finished his racing year in November with a win in the International 100 km race, held once again in Milan in Italy. He defeated a large field including the title holder Olivone in a new record of 10:30:24.
A press report concluded:
“There is no doubt that T.W. Green accomplished a brilliant performance in winning the international road walk over 100 km (62 miles 180 yards) at Milan in November. It was a wonderful feat on the part of the English competitor to win the longest distance walking race in the world. Many past champions have tried and very few have succeeded. The long weekend journey, with a nasty Channel crossing, has beaten most athletes. On this occasion, Green was rather ill after crossing, so that his victory was all the more satisfactory. Green made no mistakes. He gradually outpaced and outstayed all his rivals. This year the course was extended to well over 100 kilometres, which makes Green’s time a new record. Thousands of people saw the finish, and Green had a tremendous reception. His victory was expected and proved very popular with the Italians who think Green is a marvel, and they should know, for they are a wonderful nation for this class of event. … Green is the greatest walker in the world today.”
Great things were expected for 1931, and as early as New Year’s Day plans were being laid by Belgrave Walking Secretary Harry Evans for an open walking race to take place in June at Battersea Park to give Tommy the chance of attacking records. The main target was to be the World Record for 50 miles on a track. Prizes and permits were obtained but in May it was reported that Tommy had suffered a severe accident at work which had resulted in him losing a thumb. Not only was the record attempt cancelled but Tommy was unable to turn out for the subsequent R.W.A. 20 miles and 50 km events. The irrepressible Tommy could not be kept down for long, though, and in the Manchester 25-miler he beat the winner of both R.W.A. events and then set the second fastest time ever (second only to his own record) when he won the London to Brighton for a third consecutive year.
So highly was Tommy thought of in the Race Walking world that he was awarded the Diploma D’honneur from the French Race Walking Association.
And so to Olympic year, 1932 ...
February saw him confined to bed for two weeks due to an attack of influenza, but even after that, at the age of 38, he was obviously in the form of his life, winning the Bradford 32¼ miles race and breaking the course record by 12 minutes. The R.W.A. 50 km Championship in Leicester was to be the guide for Olympic selection and it was arranged for Tommy to be driven by car from Eastleigh to the venue. However, his driver mistakenly thought that the Championship was being held in London where another walking race was taking place, and by the time the mistake had been realised, and the vehicle diverted towards Leicester, it was obvious that they were going to miss the start of the Championship. Tommy eventually appeared on the start line 49 minutes after the field had set out but nevertheless strode out to cover the course alone. He completed the route four minutes faster than the official race winner and the selectors, in their wisdom, nominated him as British representative for the Olympic Games.
The Railway Works at Eastleigh allowed him time off – but it was to be seven weeks without pay, some sacrifice in the 1930s for a family man. Luckily some assistance was provided by a local cinema owner from Eastleigh. He paid for Green to attend the event and travelled over with him to America on the Empress of Britain - one of the most luxurious ships of the time.
Returning to England as Olympic Champion Tommy was treated to a hero’s welcome in Eastleigh where the crowds in town enthusiastically turned out and were six deep on either side of the road. Within a very short space of time he was due to contest the 52 miles of the London to Brighton race once again, where he was expected to notch up his fourth consecutive win. But Tommy’s exploits over the past couple of years had shown the way forward for all competitive walkers. With our hero a little below par after his deeds in Los Angeles, followed by a trans-continental rail journey and then a sea voyage, J.H. Ludlow of Derby County turned the tables on him, and took away his record to boot, clocking 8:01:06 in beating Tommy into third place. The Pathé News, shown in cinemas across the country, regularly covered Race Walking and their caption introducing the report of the 1932 race read:
“ J. H. Ludlow (Derby WC) wins Surrey Walking Club Championship, over famous course in record time of 8 hrs 1 min 6 secs. (Hard luck Tommy Green, everybody hoped you would do it!)”
October soon brought solace however, when the Belgravian notched up his fourth victory in the Manchester to Blackpool event.
Above: Tommy, as depicted on a Carreras cigarette card, depicting "Popular Personalities", and below: as shown in the Gallahers Park Drive cigarette cards featuring "Champions".
Below: Smiling Tommy, proudly wearing the British flag on his Belgrave vest, takes to the Brighton Road again, this time as an Olympic Champion and looking for a third consecutive win. But the winner was to be J.H. Ludlow of Derby County (behind no. 18).
... the greatest distance walker in the world ...
All of Tommy’s favourite events seemed to make up a grand benefit tour in 1933, as he revisited them in turn as Olympic Champion and the greatest distance walker in the world. The Birmingham Outer Circle ‘25’, the Bradford 32¼ miles, the Manchester to Blackpool ‘53’, the Norwich to Ipswich ‘42’, the Poole to Wareham ‘18¾’, the Sunderland to Darlington ‘33½’ – these were titles all retained in style – while the Hastings to Brighton ‘38’, the Nottingham to Birmingham ‘55’, and then, most pleasing of all, the London to Brighton 52 miles event were all regained, the latter in his fastest ever time of 8:01:19 for a fourth win all told. A British Record came in June, over 50 km in Riga, Latvia. But even Tommy had an ‘off’ day when a long-planned attempt on the World Record for 50 miles on the track, at the White City, saw him pulling out shortly after 18 miles, ill, probably as the result of a fish meal partaken of beforehand.
A career change occurred in 1934 when Tommy left the Railway Works to become a publican. Perhaps his new responsibilities curtailed his activities a little as the only very long-distance events he tackled were the Manchester to Blackpool (where he chalked up a sixth consecutive win) and the Nottingham to Birmingham Race. It was rumoured that, at the age of 40, he was going into retirement, and such was the global interest in this man that the Toronto Evening Telegram reported of “Smiling Tommy”:
"GREAT WALKER LEAVES TRAIL
“Tommy Green, winner of the 30 mile event at Los Angeles Olympics Says Farewell to Road.
“London, April 12, -- Tommy Green, the greatest competitive distance walker of his day and the athletic idol of his home town, Belgrave, has said farewell to the road. The 41-year-old Olympic Champion is taking up a business appointment which will leave him no time for training.”
Many were the other inaccuracies in the report, but there is no doubt that the intensity of his racing schedule did fall away during the remainder of his athletic career.”
Thoughts did turn again to the Olympics when in 1935 he returned to strict training and got up to 2nd in the R.W.A. 50 kms Championship where he was beaten by the new rising star Harold Whitlock who caught Tommy in the last two miles of the race. The following year the same race was used for the Olympic Trial and again Whitlock triumphed, this time in a world best time of 4:30:38, while two other younger walkers crossed the finish line ahead of Tommy, in 4th. His dreams of competing in the Berlin Olympics were over, while Whitlock went on to claim and retain the gold medal for Great Britain.
Life as a publican suited Tommy. At his Meadow Bank Hotel on Twyford Road, Eastleigh, many of his trophies were put on display and the pub became a favoured haunt of American servicemen during the Second World War as they enjoyed the link, via Tommy, with Los Angeles and California. Also during the 1939-45 World War, Tommy was back in uniform again, as Captain of the local Home Guard.
To celebrate the end of hostilities Tommy organised a ‘Victory Walk’, held over 50 kms in Eastleigh. In a field of 146 walkers Tommy, now in his 50s, still managed to place 17th.
Always interested in promoting sport, Tommy converted a room at the pub into a gymnasium and it was from this base that middleweight boxer Vince Hawkins trained. Hawkins became British Champion in 1945 and went on to challenge for the British Empire title. Tommy also became president of Eastleigh Cricket Association and was connected with the local athletic clubs of Eastleigh and Southampton.
Known for his generous nature, Tommy awarded trophies for sporting events wherever he could. He wanted those who struggled to achieve great things, as he had, to be rewarded. As a result of his generosity, the most prestigious award available to members of Belgrave Harriers is the “Tommy Green Cup” presented each year since 1947 to the member who is judged to have achieved the most meritorious performance of the year.
Tommy Green passed away just one day short of his 81st birthday, on 29 March 1975. He is commemorated in Eastleigh by the cul-de-sac ‘Tommy Green Walk’, built on the site of old Pirelli factory. In Belgrave Harriers, although many of those who knew him are now no longer with us, his name is uttered annually when it is time to consider a possible recipient of the ‘Tommy Green Cup’. In 2018 Tommy was inducted into the England Athletics ‘Hall of Fame’.
Above: Tommy with trophies in 1932 and right: regaining his London to Brighton title in 1933 in his fastest ever time for the 52 mile course. Harold Whitlock (64) was now beginning his purple patch and he won the Olympic 50 kms Trial in 1936, going on to take the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics.
British Records – 20km Track 1 Jun 1933 1:38:45.3 3rd Riga. 50km Road 12 Jul 1930 4:35:36 1st RWA Croydon.
Tommy Green’s racing record
This is not intended to be a complete record. We have only included the major and long-distance races.
Olympic Games – 50km 1st 3 Aug 1932 4:50:10.
A.A.A. 7 miles Track Champs. – 1930 3rd 54:16.4.
R.W.A. Open 7 miles – 1927 10th 55:33, 1930 3rd 55:18.
R.W.A. Junior 10 miles Championship – 1927 1st 1:21:51.
R.W.A. 20 miles Championship – 1927 4th 2:58:44, 1928 16th 3:03:47, 1929 6th 3:01:59, 1930 3rd 2:48:39, 1932 2nd 2:48:34.8, 1933 2nd 2:49:56, 1935, 4th 2:50:06, 1936 28th 3:13:45, 1939 41st 3:10:09.
R.W.A. 50km Championship – 1930, Jul 12 1st 4:35:36.8, 1934 9th 4:54:00, 1935 2nd 4:39:47, 1936 4th 4:36:02, 1939 9th 4:56:43.
Belgrave Open 7 miles – 1927 1st 55:11, 1928 4th 52:34, 1929 2nd 55:31, 1930 3rd 56:01, 1931 2nd 54:25, 1932 2nd 55:10, 1933 3rd 55:01, 1935 dnf.
Birmingham Lewes’ 25 miles – 1932 1st, 1939 9th 4:56:43.
Birmingham Outer Circle 25 miles – 1929 1st 3:50:20, 1932 1st 3:44:55.8, 1933 1st 3:42:35.
Bishop of Birmingham 20 miles – 1929 2nd 2:49:55, 1930 6th 2:49:59, 1931 1st.
Bradford 32.25 miles – 1929 2nd, 1930 1st 5:04:14 (record), 1932 1st 4:49:01.4 (record), 1933 1st 4:59:20, 1935 2nd 4:39:47 (record).
Cambridge H Open 7 miles – 1929 5th 53:53, 1930 3rd 51:36, 1931 3rd 52:19, 1932 1st 52:11.
Enfield Open 7 miles – 1931 2nd 53:13, 1932 1st 52:38, 1935 4th 54:07.
Godstone 18¾ miles – 1928 7th, 1929 5th 2:47:58 (started 11:32 late, actual time 2:36:26 would have beaten the record), 1930 1st 2:41:41, 1931 1st 2:41:22, 1932 1st.
Guildford Walk 50km – 1929 1st.
Hastings to Brighton 38 miles – 1930 1st 6:00:35 (record), 1931 1st 6:06:54, 1933 1st 5:51:25.
Highgate H Open 7 miles – 1931 1st 53:08, 1932 3rd 52:06, 1935 4th 49:53.
Inter-counties 7 miles –1930 4th
Leicester Mercury 20 miles – 1932 2:55:52.6
London to Brighton Open – 1927 2nd 8:26:44, 1928 retired injured, 1929 1st 8:15:41, 1930 1st 8:02:55 (record), 1931 1st 8:05:43, 1932 3rd 8:14:59, 1933 1st 8:01:19.
Manchester to Blackpool 53 miles (course occasionally varied in length) – 1929 1st 7:56:55, 1930 1st 7:39:30.4 (record), 1931 1st 7:49:19, 1932 1st 7:50:57, 1933 1st 8:14:46, 1934 1st.
Manchester Lewis’ Walk 25 miles – 1929 1st, 1930 1st 3:37:05 (record), 1931 1st.
Milan International 100km – 1929 2nd, 1930 1st 10:30:24.
Norwich to Ipswich 42 miles – 1932 1st (record), 1933 1st.
Nottingham to Birmingham 55 miles – 1928 2nd 9:15:14, 1930 1st 8:41:02.6, 1931 1st 8:59:45, 1933 1st 8:39:10.8, 1934 1st 8:46:06.6.
Poole to Wareham 18¾ miles – 1932 1st, 1933 1st (Wareham to Poole).
Settle to Bradford 32 miles – 1929 1st, 1930 1st (record), 1931 1st.
Sunderland to Darlington 33½ miles – 1929 2nd, 1930 1st (record), 1931 1st, 1932 1st, 1933 1st.
Belgrave Club Championships
R.W.Ricketts/Belgrave Cup – Long Distance Walking Championship – 1927 1st 8:26:44, 1929 1st 8:15:41, 1930 1st 8:02:55, 1931 1st 8:05:43, 1933 1st 8:01:19.
R.W. Ricketts Shield – 20 miles Road Walk – 1928 4th 2:51:54, 1929 1st 2:52:33, 1930 2nd 2:59:46 (21 miles), 1931 1st 2:47:28 (1/2 mile short), 1932 dnf, 1933 1st 2:49:27, 1934 1st 2:48:59, 1936 1st 2:50:59.
Sydney Bayliss Cup – First man in R.W.A. Championship – 1927, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935.
R. Murphy Shield – 10 miles Championship – 1928 1st 1:19:44, 1929 1st 1:23:16, 1930 2nd 1:16:19.2, 1931 2nd 1:15:05, 1933 1st 1:21:59, 1934 1st 1:21:25.
R.W. Best Points Cup – most points in Open events – 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933.
Pathé Newsreel links
1929 London to Brighton. Link
1930 London to Brighton. Link
1931 Manchester-Blackpoo.l Link
1931 Nottingham to Birmingham race. Link
1932 Manchester-Blackpool race Link
1932 London to Brighton. Link
1933 Manchester-Blackpool race. Link
Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers Service Documents; Reference Number: WO 97. Pieces 1278-4287. The National Archives, Kew, London, England.
Various other articles have Thomas Green as joining the Army at the age of 12, masquerading as a 16 year-old. His Army Attestation papers, from which we have drawn our information, show him joining in 1909, when he was 15, pretending that he was 18. However, the papers do mention that he was already on the 3rd Hants Regt, Special Reserve List. The Attestation papers do not refer to his being injured by a horse.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1901. Kew, Surrey, England: Class: RG13; Piece: 1103; Folio: 122; Page: 40. The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: Class: RG14; Piece: 6056; Schedule Number: 51. The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
1939 Register; Reference Number: Kew, Surrey, England: Class:RG 101/2330A. The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
Belgrave Harriers Winter Fixtures cards.
The Belgravian. The Official Gazette of the Belgrave Harriers.
The website of Surrey Walking Club (http://www.surreywalkingclub.org.uk/ : accessed October 2018).
The Pathé News.
The Eastleigh News.