Oscar Horwood 1888-1952
It was Thursday, July 16th, 1908. The evening was most unpleasant as Oscar Horwood made his way home to Churston Place, Pimlico, where he lived with his widowed mother Caroline. He had just placed third in the Belgrave Harriers quarter-mile championship, held during the Club’s Annual Evening Meeting at Stamford Bridge. The weather for the meeting had been foul. The track had been under water and unsurprisingly there were few spectators. Bob Ricketts had won the race in 53 seconds, but third place in these conditions was not at all bad for a young man of nineteen, and Oscar should have been pleased with himself; but as we learn more of him, we wonder whether he might have been hoping for better.
Oscar was born on 21 October in Brewer Street, Pimlico, in the shadow of the Watney’s Stag Brewery. His father was a railway guard, a line of work which elder brother Arthur was to follow, but the subject of our memoir grew up wanting something different. As a young man he went into the drapery business, starting at the bottom, working hard, and rising over the years to eventually become a director of a company in the City.
But back in 1908, the win Oscar must have been looking for came soon. The club’s 3 miles handicap was held at four o’clock on the last day of October over three circuits of the triangle at Barnes Common, starting and finishing outside the Club’s HQ at “The Spencer Arms.” Off a start of 1 minute 30 seconds, Oscar romped through the front markers at 2 miles and held on to win by 8 seconds. Just ten days after his 20th birthday, he was making a name for himself.
He was a tenacious character; a great fighter. He gave a lot of himself and even when not racing, he was happy to keep the wheels of the Club turning by acting as a steward or in any other capacity. In early 1909 he was already thought well of enough to be invited to fill a vacancy on the Club’s Committee – which he did for a while, but stepped down after a few meetings as he was finding it difficult to attend.
And so back to Stamford Bridge again, in July 1909, where this time Oscar prevailed in the quarter-mile championship by 8 yards and took home the “G. Thomas Challenge” Cup. More success was to follow. In a one-mile handicap at Barnes the lead chopped and changed as front markers fell away and back-markers came through and “blew up;” Horwood finally finished strongly to win by 2 yards. Then in a Westminster Harriers 3¼ miles scratch race and handicap, although pulled back towards the backmarkers, thanks to his recent successes, he still won.
A shock resignation - Westminster Harriers and then Chelsea Harriers
Now a regular in the Belgrave team, it came as a shock in June 1910 when he resigned from the Club, along with Harry Goodfellow. Could it have been that the determination to succeed was very strong in Oscar's make-up while others at the Club might not have committed themselves as much as he would have liked; perhaps he simply saw opportunities elsewhere. Anyway, he moved to Westminster Harriers, a section of the Westminster Club & Gymnasium, and his new club benefitted almost immediately as he placed 6th for them in an 8 mile race at Raynes Park and was second in a 3½ miles inter-club race held from the Westminster club’s HQ in Bloomfield Terrace. The course, today, sounds hair-raising: along Ebury Street, through South Eaton Place, through the squares to Knightsbridge, entering Hyde Park by Albert Gate, past the barracks, across the Serpentine Bridge, down to Hyde Park Corner and Albert Gate, and returning to Bloomfield Terrace: all this on a Wednesday evening.
It was a busy year for Oscar. Thoroughly committed to his career, he nevertheless found time to train and place second in the Westminster Harriers 440 yards and 1-mile championships, and even won a 60 yards swimming handicap. He led his new club to 17th in the North-London Inter-Team race; and it was a remarkable team in one special respect, for four of the scorers were destined, in time, to become Presidents of Belgrave Harriers: O. Horwood, H. Parker, H. Brown and H. Goodfellow. At the Westminster AGM Oscar was made Vice-Captain of the Club and 1910 also saw Oscar marry Mary Wall; in 1911 their daughter Virna was born.
But all was not as well as it should have been at Westminster Harriers. The Harriers organised their own finances, but the figures were entered into the ledgers of the overarching Westminster Club & Gymnasium. The Secretary of that club took exception to the confused state of the Harriers’ affairs and could not find information that would enable him to enter the Harriers’ deficit of £10 12s into his ledger. The problem seemed to be that prizes had been bought which cost far more than the income received for entries – and this had been done for a considerable number of races. The Harriers Secretary resigned. Then at a general meeting of the Harriers and the Secretary of the Club & Gymnasium it was established that many of the Harriers hadn’t even paid any subs. The Club Secretary was asked to pay for certain prizes and he refused. In the heated confusion that followed, the Harriers decided that they would resign and form a new club.
Thus it was, that in May 1911 an enthusiastic gathering convened at “The City of Gloucester”, Burton Court, where Chelsea Harriers was formed. At that meeting Oscar Horwood was elected Captain. Within a few weeks the club’s first Championship – a quarter-mile – was held at Battersea Park with Oscar filling second place. For nine months the new club busily engaged in fixtures around London, with Oscar often at the forefront, but in an inter-club race at Worcester Park, signs of a further shift were evident when Chelsea man Dick Best scored for rival club Belgrave Harriers and Chelsea placed a lowly 7th from nine teams. On April 24th, among the new names elected as members of Belgrave Harriers, was that of Oscar Horwood; he had gone full circle, and almost immediately won Belgrave handicaps at 880 and 300 yards. It appears that Chelsea Harriers had begun to disintegrate, for in the following weeks and months more Chelsea men switched to Belgrave. It seemed quite amicable, however, and Oscar was back officiating at Chelsea in June where he was probably fulfilling a commitment to Harry Parker, but soon even Harry was competing as “late Chelsea Harriers” and he too signed for the Bels in September.
Back with the Bels.
Oscar now threw himself into Belgrave affairs. At the 1912 A.G.M. five months after re-joining, he became Assistant Hon. Secretary, and a year later, Hon. Secretary. Those two years saw him turn around the Club’s finances. The hiatus of the First World War caused an inevitable pause in the Club’s progression, but thereafter, the tenacity he had previously shown on the racing circuit was fully unleashed as an administrator, as he paid fees, postage and costs of prizes from his own pocket. Throughout the ‘twenties he continually fought to hold on to members who were attracted away to other clubs, “who had Championships, and entered teams in open competition.”
It was a struggle to maintain the Club's standing in those far-off days, but somehow, with Oscar’s determination, they did it. There was an occasion when a well-known firm of prize-suppliers, having failed to receive their money from the Club, decided to put the bailiffs in on Bob Ricketts – then Club President. Getting warning of this, Bob called on Oscar for assistance and together they spent an evening removing Bob's possessions of value (he held many trophies, etc.) into an adjacent empty flat – thus breaking the law – and when the bailiffs arrived they found little to interest them. Oscar, after his hard evening's task, arrived home in the small hours, and always doubted whether his explanations to his wife were believed until corroboration some time later with Mrs. Ricketts confirmed the story!
Oscar’s dream was always that one day, Belgrave Harriers would have a full range of Club Championships, would enter teams in all major competitions, and attain such honours as had never been won before. But fate had a few more twists in store for Oscar, and although by now living in Wimbledon not far from the Club’s winter HQ, he had to leave it to others to continue the Belgrave story.
The financial crisis of 1931 and the Great Depression that followed, when Britain was far from having recovered from the First World War, caused the firm for which he had worked since a boy, to be engulfed most unexpectedly, and Oscar, for whom prospects had looked bright, was struggling again. Courageously, with another member of the old firm, he started all over again. Gradually the new firm prospered until at the outbreak of the Second World War twenty travellers were employed by his company. Then, three times his premises in the City were bombed in air raids, with all the attendant worries, but still Oscar kept going.
Always, though, the Club remained in his heart. How pleased he was, that having laid the groundwork so thoroughly, others were able to build upon it and win National titles in the late ‘thirties and then again after the war. His dreams were being fulfilled. And having always championed the cause of Women’s Athletics he was delighted to see his daughter Virna have her own successful career, winning walking championships. Virna married Jim Tosh, a Belgrave Club Champion and Record Holder.
In later years Oscar’s health began to fail and although living not far away, in Twickenham, he was only able to come along to the Clubhouse on rare occasions. In his last illness his desire was to see the Belgravians of the earlier days with whom he had worked so well: Harry Goodfellow, C. H. Rogers, Dick Savage, Fred Stone, Jimmy Belchamber, Harry Evans and others were frequently with him.
Oscar passed away on Good Friday, 11 April, 1952. It is quite possible that, but for his efforts before and after the Great War, Belgrave Harriers would have gone the way of Westminster Harriers, Chelsea Harriers, and many other teams of those early days. His name was kept in our minds for many years after his passing, whenever the “Oscar Horwood Cup” (gifted by Oscar to the Club in 1926) was presented to the winner of our “Junior” Race Walking Championship.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891, 1901, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
1939 England & Wales Register. Kew, Surrey, England: (TNA)
Electoral Registers. London, England: London Metropolitan Archives.
General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office (GRO).
The writings of A.A. Harley and notes of C. Shippen.
The 'Sporting Life' 1908-1911. The British Newspaper Archive (BNA).