William Robert "Bill" Laws, CEng. FIMech E., 1938-2019

Cross Country Days.

Above: Bill is pictured during what was probably a Surrey League race in Brockwell Park.

Right: An Emanuel School team in the 1950s with Bill in the forefront.

Below: It's March 1969 the day of the Club 5¾ miles Road Race for The 'Wimbledon Cup',  traditionally used as the trial for the following National Road Relay. In mid-field and wearing number 38, Bill races races alongside a promising youth Vic Butcher.  

Bill Laws was generous, tough-minded, kind, controversial; a leader. Above all, he was a business man; that fact is incontrovertible. He had a vision of where he wanted his club to be and he would do everything within his means, particularly using his business acumen, to achieve his aims. Not everyone agreed with him – they never do with any leader –  but there is no doubt that the heady days of British League success – covering a quarter of a century from the mid-1980s onwards – could not have been achieved without him.

William R. Laws was born on 30 June 1938, and he lived with his mother Marita Stella and her family in Cambridge Mansions, Battersea, near Clapham Common. Tragically, Bill's father, Robert Henry Laws, had died just a very short time earlier in May. Marita had been widowed after less than a year of marriage and before prematurely bringing Bill and his twin sister into the world. Robert had been a commercial artist born in Chelsea.

 

By 1946 the family group had moved to Worfield Street, a tree-lined avenue between the approaches to Battersea and Albert Bridges, just a very modest stone throw from Battersea Park. Bill was educated at Emanuel School and as a fourteen-year-old was drawn to athletics, joining Belgrave Harriers on 16 March 1953, declaring an interest in “cross-country.” Bill’s name didn’t show up in the published results of the day – when we had youth teams competing in road relays and cross country – and not even among the results of the medal competitions that were held at Battersea Park for boys of his age.  It seems that his membership lapsed, probably coinciding with his apprenticeship and studies.

Starting off his working life in the late '50s as an apprentice at Napier Aero Engines Ltd. in Acton, Bill went on to study Mechanical Engineering at Brunel University. After graduating with a First-Class Honours degree he took up a position with the British Iron & Steel Research Association (BISRA) in Battersea and quickly rose to become head of department, marked for higher management within the Corporation. But in 1977, with his colleague Geoff Reed, they left to form their own company - Encomech. Their main product idea (Encopanels) became accepted as the industry standard for heat retention panels used in the hot rolling of steel strip and was sold throughout the world. Encomech received Queen’s awards for both Technology and Export, and Bill and Geoff collected these from Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace. They were also winners of the Dowding medal and awarded a prize for their contribution to hot rolling science. In 2001, after around 25 years of working together, they sold out to Voest-Alpine Industrieanlagenbau Gmbh & Co., an engineering, equipment and construction company based in Linz, Austria, which is now part of the Siemens group of companies.

On 16 August 1965 while working at BISRA in Battersea, Bill re-joined the club, and lunch times were spent running in Battersea Park with an eclectic group including Joe Dooley, Gerry North, Ted Pallant and Alan Mead before they headed back to Bill’s work’s canteen for a hearty meal.

With Gerry North as Captain, the mid to late ‘60s were good years for the Harriers. Bill took great delight in the club’s successes. As for himself, and now into his thirties, he competed on the road at all distances up to 20 miles. This urge to take part didn’t leave him when he became a veteran and continued with him until his fifties. In 1978 he was 2nd in the Club's 20 miles Championship, 5th in the Surrey Veterans' Cross Country Championship and with Laurie O'Hara and Brian Gorman won the Southern Counties Veterans' 10 miles team Championship. He ran 54 mins. 36 secs. for ten miles and that year made Belgrave's Southern 12-Stage Relay team.

Through the results of one or two outstanding athletes Belgrave Harriers had been selected, in 1968, to compete in the inaugural version of the British Athletics League; such status lasted only for a very brief spell and the club soon found its more appropriate level in Division One of the Southern League where, for a decade or so, occasionally brilliant team performances were interspersed with poorer ones. On one occasion, at a home match at Battersea Park, Bill had been pressed into taking on some role or other. With just the relays to go, a couple of good performances could see us win the match. A new star was in action for the Bels – Ernest Obeng – and with Ernie on the last leg and throwing his arms into the air as the finish line was crossed and the match won, Bill turned to the Club’s team manager and gasped: “It’s just like an International.” Bill was hooked on Track & Field.

Soon Bill had become team manager for the Southern League, a post shared at first with Alan Mead and then with Leo Coy. A loose connection with the Guards based at Chelsea Barracks became more formal and the team a lot stronger as a result. The push for a return to British League status had begun and by 1982 the Club was into the British League qualification match. For a couple of seasons there had been talks with Geoff Davis of Surrey AC about the possibility of some sort of merger. The talks were initiated by Geoff, as his club’s men’s section was struggling badly with a lack of officials and organisers, and was on the verge of collapsing. With Bill at the helm, the days of talking were left behind, and the possibility became fact. As a ‘merger’ (even though the ‘new’ club bore the name Belgrave Harriers) the ex-Surrey AC athletes became immediately eligible for the combined team – just days before the qualifying match. Was that sudden boosting of the team necessary? Probably not. The match was won; and with Bill and Leo driving things on, in consecutive years Belgrave topped British League Divisions Four, Three, Two and One. Belgrave Harriers had become the top British Track & Field Club.

In 1985 serious consideration had been given, at Committee, as to whether the Club would benefit from having a Patron – as had been the case in the early days of the club nearly a century before. Hon. Treasurer Ron Severn had someone in mind but did not reveal their name. He wrote to that person but did not receive a reply. Ron wrote once more, and this time, in the recipient Eddie Kulukundis’s words:

“Having not answered the first letter I thought it would be rude to turn him down and we arranged for him to call at my home at 7pm.  I didn’t get there until 7:30pm – and there wasn’t just Ron – there was a whole group of them.  I agreed.”

The “whole group” was: Ron Severn, Bill Lucas, Clive Shippen, Bill Laws and Sue Parrott. Bill was in a leading role for the Club yet again. He outlined to Eddie that day, that the Club were British League Division Three Champions and had every intention of topping Division One (then the premier division). Many were the times, in subsequent years, that Bill visited Eddie’s home to apprise him of the Club’s progress and plans.

In the last decade of the 20th century, and into the 21st, Bill’s British League team was virtually unbeatable in the United Kingdom, and when Leo stepped aside then John Jeffery, with myriads of contacts in the athletics world, joined Bill. Only in Europe, where the teams were mostly completely professional, or state sponsored, were Belgrave unable to win. All things must pass, however, and as other British teams became as tough as the Bels had been under Bill, the cycle slowly ended.

But team success was far from the only arena in which Bill took a stance:

Three times Belgrave Hall was redeveloped with Bill at the forefront on each occasion. First there was the mezzanine floor to give a presentation area and bar, then that mezzanine was extended to give a complete upper storey. Finally, Bill led a trio including David Lucas and Alan Mead, which produced a complete revamp of the Hall to incorporate function rooms and a proper gymnasium.

In 1991 Bill was instrumental in forming the Belgrave Coaching Foundation, subsequently known as the London Coaching Foundation. In later years he was a key man in setting up the South London Athletics Network - an organisation encouraging all the local clubs to work together more closely.

 

From 1999 to 2000 Battersea Park Athletic Stadium was re-developed, and plenty was the input from Belgrave Harriers, led by Bill, as funds were sought, and the new track laid. The Battersea Millenium Stadium was officially opened by Olympic Champion Tessa Sanderson on 1st June 2000, and the opening track and field meeting, organised by the Club, was held three days later.

Some of the visions came to nothing: Over the years there were several rounds of talks with whoever was the current owner of the Battersea Power Station site – with unbelievable aims – perhaps even incorporating an indoor athletics arena in any new development! Exploratory talks took place with other clubs with a view to mergers: one, outrageously, completely out of our own ‘territory’.

Above: The Walton 10 miles Road Race, 18 October 1969. Colin Pearson (133) and Bill Laws (10) help each other through to 41st and 35th places respectively.

As the structure of athletics in the United Kingdom went through various changes Bill always held strong views that often ran counter to those in the seats of power. When the idea of athlete registration came along, Bill was a driving force behind the newly formed Association of British Athletic Clubs (ABAC). This group strongly challenged the idea of registration fees being used to pay for schemes that did not benefit the ordinary athlete. ABAC published many ‘fact files’ pointing out the perceived failings of the governing body in increasing the number of athletics coaches, officials and participants. Many of these ‘fact files’, or the ideas behind them, emanated from Bill’s pen.

Many, also, were the times that the Club’s Committee were swept along on some new scheme – perhaps a little bamboozled by the statistics and facts that were arrayed against them when they demurred.

Away from all the politics and the driving energy, Bill was always a true supporter of Belgrave Harriers. Whether the competition venue was on a track, a road or on the ‘country’; and whether Bill was managing that team or simply spectating, he would be urging on the ‘claret and gold’ and enquiring as to how the team situation was looking. He contributed greatly from his own finances towards many of the endeavours of the Club, and many athletes benefitted from his generosity.

And beyond the sport entirely, Bill loved looking after his home and extensive property just over the North Downs in Surrey. Here he relaxed with his family but also worked hard physically, mastering the Churchillian hobby of brick-laying, not to mention bridge and hot-house building, and looking after the numerous animals that shared the Laws' domain and paddocks. 

Bill was made President of Belgrave Harriers for 1989-1990 and again for 2016-2017, one of only five people who have been elected President on two separate occasions. Over the years he also held positions as Editor of the Club’s magazine and the organiser of the Annual Dinner. He did a stint as Club Secretary, and another as the Club’s Committee Chairman.

To those qualities outlined earlier, perhaps we should add another: Bill was a ‘dreamer’.  Throughout his life he managed to turn many of his visions into reality; and he dreamed big dreams.

Bill died on Tuesday 8 January 2019.

References:

Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA) 

Electoral Registers. London, England: London Metropolitan Archives.

General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office.

Conversations with Sir Eddie Kulukundis.

Information from Geoff Reed.

Personal recollections of ARM.

The 'Belgravian'.

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