Club History

Here’s some information on the history of our club…

~ Dartford Harriers Club History ~

Dartford Harriers is among the leading athletics clubs in Kent, with a history stretching back to the 1920′s, making it one of the oldest clubs in the country.

Dartford Harriers was originally founded as a Rugby Union Club in 1922 but, the rugby players in an effort to keep fit, started to take part in cross country runs. As the running became more popular with the players the rugby was slowly dropped and Dartford Harriers AC was born.

The lasting legacy from the clubs rugby playing days is the Dartford Harriers running colours. The rugby players simply removed the sleeves from their old rugby shirts to create running vests, in doing so created the famous blue and blue “hoops” that can now be seen worn by the current crop of Dartford’s finest athletes.

The pre-war years saw the club, then based at Hesketh Park, enjoying a sustained period of success with some to the Harriers being considered for places in the Great Britain team that went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

The second World War ended the ambitions of a great many of the Harriers best athletes and left the club depleted of talent. With the clubs survival on the brink some hard working individuals stepped up and slowly built the club back to strength. The most notable of these were the “May” family, in particular Harry and Eva May, and the club’s longest serving member Arthur Head. They did everything from managing the teams, running the club, washing the club house floor (which at this time was just a large garden shed), and filling the tin baths with cold water for the athletes to wash themselves down when they came back from cross country runs. It was mainly due to their hard work that Dartford Harriers AC survives as an athletics club today. To commemorate the hard work of Harry and Eva May, the clock on the front of the Dartford Harriers clubhouse looking out onto the track bears their names.

During the 1950s, the club slowly grew from the 12 athletes in the mid 40′s, into a strong cross-country squad that maintained the ‘harrier’ tradition. By the 1960′s Dartford Harriers had their first of many International athletes. In 1967, Maureen Conlan became the first Dartford Harrier to gain an International Vest when she represented Ireland in the very first Women’s International Championship which was held in Wales.

This was a time of new beginnings for Dartford Harriers, on 8th June 1968 the club moved to the new cinder track in Central Park with their new clubhouse, another large garden shed. Ever since that move Dartford Harriers has been based in Central Park, Dartford. With training now taking place on the track, the club was able to introduce a detailed and extensive coaching programme for younger athletes which helped the club develop a solid structure and saw a boost in the clubs membership and performances.

The 1970s saw continued expansion of club activities, particularly amongst the younger age groups, both in track and field and cross-country. This was the time when running in general began to boom across the world and a number of influential road races were born. Dartford Harriers in response to this road running boom developed our own road race, the Dartford Half Marathon. This was first run in 1977, with the winner being Steve Ovett who went on to become 1980 Olympic 800m champion and set multiple World track records in distances ranging from 1000m to 2 miles.The Dartford Half Marathon remains to this day and is one of the most successful and friendly annual road races in Kent.

During the 1980s, the Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett rivalry bought a large number of young talented athletes into the club. This influx of talent saw the rewriting of nearly all of the club records. One of the most talented of these young athletes who continued his progress into the Senior ranks of the club was Geoff Wightman (pictured below a few years ago).

Geoff held nearly every Senior middle and long distance record at some point. He went on to represent Great Britain over the Marathon distance; at the 1990 European Championships in Split, Yugoslavia, finished 6th in a time of 2:18.1s. He also came 8th in the Commonwealth Games marathon in Auckland, New Zealand in that same year. These two performances still rank as probably the best return over the marathon distance by a British male athlete at two international major championships in one year.

In 1984 worldwide media attention was drawn to Central Park when a young athlete made her British debut. That athlete was Zola Budd. A young girl, born in South Africa but who had become a British citizen. At this time South Africa was still banned from worldwide sport due to apartheid. A crowd estimated at around 5,000 people turned up to watch Zola run her first race on British soil on the Dartford track which was still at that time made of cinder. The race was shown live on BBC One’s Grandstand programme, was the main news item on all the TV news programmes and front page news in all the newspapers. Zola Budd set a women’s track record of 9:02.6 for 3000m in that race, a time which is unlikely to be beaten for many years to come.

The 1985 London Marathon saw club members Sarah Rowell & Sally-Ann Hales finish 2nd & 3rd respectively. With Elaine Payne coming home close to the front of the field, Dartford Harriers won the Womens team prize. Dartford Harriers remains the only UK club to have had two runners finish in the top three in the same race at the London Marathon. Sarah Rowell had also come third in the 1984 race which led to her representing Great Britain at the marathon distance in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where she finished 14th in a time of 2:34.8s.

With all the media attention that had been drawn to the club following Zola Budd’s race at Dartford it was obvious that the old cinder track had come to the end of its lifespan and following extensive fund raising by the club members, committee and local council, work began to replace it with an all-weather track. This work was finally completed in Easter 1987 and the track was officially opened on 18th April 1987 by Ron Pickering.

In the first season of the new all-weather track Fatima Whitbread, set a record with a Javelin throw of 72.40m, in her last competition before the 1987 Rome World Championships where she went on to take the gold medal.

Success continued into the 1990s with a number of athletes gaining international honours most notably, as previously mentioned, Geoff Wightman. After years of the club being based in garden sheds, bowls pavilions and portacabins, the club finally, on 16th September 1997, opened its own club house. This had taken years of fund raising and hard work from all the supporters club and lots of help from past president Nancy Wightman.

Now in the 2000′s the club has a number of highly talented young International athletes that place the club in a strong position to push it into the higher echelons of UK athletics and towards a bright new future.

~ The “Diehards” ~

In the summer of 1998 having survived a reunion of my old work mates, plus a reunion of ‘Old Boys’ at Dartford Technical School (now Wilmington Grammar School), I decided that for my wife’s 60th birthday I would try to find members of Dartford Harriers from the 1940′s and 1950′s.

With the help of Ed Stewpot on Radio 2 and his “where are you now” program, I was put in touch with Molly Titshall (nee Baker), Joyce Marchant (nee Wiseman). Both of these ladies attended our family barbecue in the August much to the surprise of my wife Rachel (nee Grindell).

The next day was our wedding anniversary and I convinced my wife to go out for a lunch in a very old pub near Harrietsham. We just happened to bump into another old team member Len Morris and his wife Joan, and would you believe that Len was carrying some very old photographs with him. I wonder why?

The obvious result of meeting old friends was the stirring of the nostalgia bug and the setting up of a small committee to find as many of the “Old Firm” from the 1940′s and 1950′s still in the Dartford area or even still surviving.

The end product of a lot of time and effort was our first reunion on the 24th September 1999 in the new headquarters at Central Park where we amassed SIXTY dearly missed friends from our youth with the tribute to Harry and Eva May looking down upon us. Wonderful…..

The photographs and trophies that appeared like magic were displayed on notice boards with newspaper cuttings and the trophies laid out with track suits and running spikes that had seen much better years. That night will remain forever with those that attended.

Our next reunion took place on Friday 23rd September 2000 with our numbers down to 38 due apparently to holidays, ill health and other commitments but not lack of interest. The evening again proved to be entertaining and very memorable for all concerned.

We may have rushed into our third reunion too quickly but we felt the need for continuity with perhaps consideration towards a lighter evening. So we brought our next reunion forward to Friday 22nd June 2001 and still managed to entertain 32 friends/Diehards, to an enjoyable evening and with better weather.

We had to miss out 2002 due to unforeseen circumstances but we hope to be back again at the end of August or at the beginning of September this year and if only two dozen Diehards can make it then it will be worthwhile.

We keep wondering if there is any merit in following on from our 1950′s file and attempt tracing all those past members living maybe just around the corner. Not just for memory lane but possibly easing the search for club officials or maybe for coaching or even just for adding to the numbers in the supporters club with a £1 each month.

Most people stay in touch with at least one other from such clubs as Dartford Harriers so our plea to past members must include asking for any details known even if it means doubling up the records some times.

For most of the current “Diehards” our support can only be via the £1 each month, but is there someone out there willing to take up the cudgel on behalf of Dartford Harriers and find out? Answers on a postcard please to Derek Wightman or myself.

By Alan Riddington, for the Diehards committee

~ The “King” of Blackdale Farm ~

Those of you who read the diary report by Geoff Wightman about the World Cross in Jordan (Athletics Weekly 2nd April 2009), may recall his references to Blackdale Farm, if not, and to make any sense of this report I will repeat it here.

Tues March 24: ’Unfortunately, it is still raining hard, the wind has nearly flattened some of the tents and the running trail is so heavily soaked that the clay sticks to the shoes in big gloopy clods. It puts me in mind exactly of Blackdale Farm, Dartford Harriers home cross country course in the 1970s. What a ludicrous comparison. How would anyone understand that analogy? That course has not been used for 30 years, and we are 3000 miles from Kent.’

‘Later this afternoon, I visit the media centre and bump into David Powell, former correspondent for The Times. He is in town early to host an athletics writers seminar for the IAAF. He was also a Dartford team mate for many years. “What’s the course like after all this rain?” asks Dave. “Like Blackdale” I reply. He nods sagely. “We had better hope for plenty of sun to dry it out this week”‘.

As Geoff said it was the cross-country course for Dartford Harriers during the 1970′s; and I was the reputed “King of Blackdale”. Happily I can report that it was a title not self given, which would be a bit sad, but given to me by club members because of a run of 9 consecutive Club Cross Country titles over 7.5 miles, over the invariably muddy course. I am of that age when everything is seen through rose tinted bifocals, and I think of it as my golden age. To me, an age of traditional cross-country venues and courses.

The course started in the farmyard, with barns providing the only cover. It was about a mile from the Harriers clubhouse in Central Park Dartford, so the run from the changing rooms was traditionally the warm up, and after the race if you had the fortitude to turn down a lift, it was a thorough warm down. A starting/finishing straight of about 600m led the runners out, and under the A2, before heading out onto the main lap. This main lap of 2 miles was run for anything between 50-75% on the edge of ploughed fields. This made it so hard on the ankles, and made shoes double in weight very quickly. It was heavy clay mud, which once it got a hold would just not let go of your shoes.

Blackdale was used on a very regular basis. For our club 5, 7.5, and 10 mile races, plus inter clubs, Christmas Yacht handicap, and also the venue for the Kent Championships twice, North Kent, and a Kent League once. These are my diary entries over the years, which I think typify so much about cross-country, but also chart the progress of a certain Geoff Wightman from boy to man, as well as showcasing some of David Powell’s early race reports.

You may already be pleased to know that my recollections in the form of training diaries only start in 1974. I have records from my first school races in the mid 1960′s when I used to see the likes of Keith Penny regularly disappear into the distance, because I kept race numbers with details of the races on the back. Yes I am that sad sort of person. I joined the Harriers in 1968 prior to going to Aberytswyth University in 1969, and just got out of the habit of keeping my numbers; and at that stage kept no diary.

In 1969 I do recall we had a club race on a course in South Darenth, about 2 miles away from Blackdale, but Blackdale was the course I found the club using on my return from University from 1970 onwards. I won the Club 7.5 in 1971, 1972 and 1973, the start of my sequence, but sadly have no details of these, other than the engraving on the huge solid silver trophy.

1974 - My 4th title, a minute ahead of Brian Law came in Dec. Brian was one of Geoff’s early coaches at the Harriers. I recall Geoff and others in the training group sporting T-shirts emblazoned with Not Another 400 Brian. Earlier in the year I had finished 25th in the Kent at Blackdale, and noted in my diary “A good gutsy run over a heavy course at Dartford”.

1975 - I won the club 10 early in the year in a very close race with Barry Nash, 56:07 to 56:25. Barry was a sub 2:30 marathon runner, but even he used to find Blackdale a hard course. I then won the club 7.5 for the 5th time. This was notable, as I had only got married the previous Saturday, but my lovely wife allowed me to do the club race while she went to a friend’s wedding on her own. What a treasure, and still together after 33 years. The winner of the Boys race was Geoff Wightman in 14:41.

1976 - The life of a school teaching runner was typified in the club 10, when I lost out to Barry Nash by 3 minutes, having organised school races in the morning, including setting out the courses. It is always lovely to have an excuse ready, but in truth I know Barry would have trounced me that day.

I will use the words of David Powell in conjunction with the North Kent Championships at Blackdale in November that year. ”Paul Hills, a 26 year old school teacher who runs for Dartford Harriers scored his first ever notable cross-country success last Saturday, when he strode powerfully over 5 gruelling miles to claim the N. Kent title”.

It did come as a surprise as I was only 5th at the end of the first lap of the ploughed fields, and I had not run for 5 days with a swollen knee. I honestly only ran to support the team on our home course. I was floating on a cloud for weeks after, but in truth it turned out to be my only notable success.

1977 - The eagle eyed, or those few still awake, will have noticed there was no club 7.5 in 1976. The reason was that it was to be held in conjunction with the County race at Blackdale in Jan ’77. Geoff and my running careers were clearly running in parallel at that stage, as I was 32nd in the seniors and he was 32nd in the Youths. The ground for my 6th title was incredibly heavy with many runners losing their shoes on the plough. Sadly there was no e-bay in that era for me to boost my income.

I did win an inter-club 5 in October, which was due to another hazard that Blackdale threw up occasionally. The newspaper report refers to the ‘vandals’ who moved the course markings sending the 3 leaders off course. The writing was on the wall by December, when in the next inter club race the paper referred to my being ’displaced from his throne as King of Blackdale Farm’. The writing was in the form of Gary Huckwell in 4th place, and Geoff in 8th place, with me sandwiched in 5th. Gary went on to run in the World Cross in Paris in 1980, and yes I do still have the Sweatshirt.

1978 - I managed to extend my sequence to 9 titles mainly by default. The ‘princes’ vying for my crown were either away at Univ, or simply too sensible to tackle the 7.5. Title number 7 duly came in January, and a week later I won the 10 in ‘appalling conditions’. In the 10 Geoff had led me easily for the first 2 laps of 4, but understandably headed back to the finish to claim the junior 5 title.

The 8th title came in December, but again Geoff had been well clear of me before turning off after 2 laps leaving me to keep my crown for a little longer.

1979 - In November, I was 3rd in an inter-club 5, but was very pleased with my efforts, as I had also hared a 2 and a 2.5 mile race at school in the morning. I was training hard as I needed to be at my best to stand any chance against Huckwell and Wightman. In December, my 9th and final title came because Geoff was not back from Bristol Univ, and Gary Huckwell chose to only train round the course when he noticed me crying on his arrival at Blackdale.

1980 - Sadly November turned out to be the last race at Blackdale, and I was a miserable 32nd due to a hamstring problem. However there had been a glorious race earlier in the year as reported by David Powell. ’Dartford title bid comes too late’ was the headline followed by; ’Led by a prime example of unselfish running from English International Kevin Steere, Dartford supplied the first two individuals home’. Kevin ran for us 2nd claim, and had coaxed Gary round to a fine joint first. Sadly Geoff was away at Univ, and we missed retaining the League crown by a single point.

Widening of the A2 and the dividing up of Blackdale meant we had to move to a new course from 1981 onwards. So, sadly that was the end of Blackdale, and my running career never recovered. Remember what I said about always having an excuse ready. I am still competing, I think, with my main motivation being to get to 100 Kent League races. I am currently on 91.

I hope Geoff and David approve of this History of Blackdale Farm.

By Paul Hills, 2009

~ The First Dartford Half Marathon ~

Saturday 20th August 1977

The first ever Dartford half-marathon attracted 190 entries, 143 starters and 122 finishers. Halfway position in the field was 1:21.39s, 51 beat 1:20m, there were just 5 women finishers and only 7 of the 122 failed to break 1:40m.

Worth noting in 2005, that the halfway position time was 1:51:11 and 333 of the 573 runners were outside 1:40 and only 13 broke 1:20.

Almost 30 years ago road running was predominantly a male club runners sport. There were no fun runners as such, and most of those who did the sport trained hard and few women did races. Half-marathons were also quite rare (as were 10k’s).

Of the race, nine runners entered on the day and therefore not in the race programme, were ineligible for awards and the £300 worth of prizes donated by race sponsors Win Lighters.

The surprise late entry was Steve Ovett, who had never raced more than 5 miles on the road before. Steve was unable to get his flight to compete in the Edinburgh Highland Games and take on 0lympic 1500m champion John Walker over 1000m and instead joined his Brighton and Hove AC training partners and team-mates who had already entered the half-marathon.

The race which began at Wilmington, saw a group of four pass 5 miles in a speedy 24:39, with Olympic marathoner Barry Watson accompanied by Ovett, Mike Hurd and John King. Watson, who had won the previous year’s Olympic trials and AAA marathon in 2:15:08 was the favourite and he and Ovett were clear from the rest at 8 miles. But by 10 miles Ovett (49:25) surpisingly had a 16 second lead over Watson (49:41) with Hurd (50:00) a clear third.

Ovett cruised home and while not eligible for an official award, the sponsors awarded him a £20 gift voucher! Ovett, who was just 21 at the time, caused quite a stir with his appearance. He was predominantly an 800/1500 runner and it was the week after he won the European Cup 1500m and a fortnight before his biggest race of the year the World Cup 1500m.

Any fears though that Dartford blunted his speed, were laid to rest in Dusseldorf. He set a British 1500m record of 3:34.5, with an incredible burst of speed on the final bend – that 100m was timed at 11.8s. The following year Ovett won the European 1500m. In 1980 he won the Olympic 800m title and in 1986, he won the Commonwealth 5000m. He now lives in Australia and commentates at major championships for the IAAF – the international governing body, and he was a popular summariser for the BBC at this year’s Commonwealth Games.

Ovett still remembers the half-marathon well, “I enjoyed it. Wish I could run that far now”. he said. Asked why he ran it he said, “No reason. Sheer madness!” He claimed he was just going to do a few miles but felt so comfortable and was enjoying it so much, he decided to go the whole distance and he was very proud of his result.

Barry Watson won the official first prize of a portable TV and all the first 50 won a special commemorative T-shirt. The author of this piece, Steve Smythe came in equal 49th to ensure he got one and he has competed in many of the last 30 races.

Lynn Billington was the first woman in 89:54, just over 2 minutes up on Betty Norrish. Other runners of note included 0lympic walk medalist Paul Nihill, who ran 1:24:21.

It’s not just the standard of runners that have changed – Many of the clubs have changed in the 30 years – Blackheath are now Blackheath and Bromley, Medway are Medway and Maidstone, Invicta are now Invicta East Kent and Victoria Park Harriers are now Victoria Park and Tower Hamlets.

Only a handful of those who ran 29 years ago still compete on a regular basis and apart from Smythe, they include current M55 John Wilkins and M60 Barry Watson.

By Steve Smythe, 2006

1 S Ovett (B&H) 65:38
2 B Watson (Camb H) 65:59
3 M Hurd (RAF) 66:22

1 L Billington (Felt) 89:54
2 B Norrish (B&H) 92:25
3 J Everett (Norf O) 96:40

Barry Watson’s recollection of the race
Barry Watson recalls his tussle with Ovett…

“I remember being absolutely gobsmacked at seeing my Montreal team mate turning up for the half marathon. At that time I had only been beaten once in the past 12 months by a British runner in England – by Keith Penny in the Mitcham 25k and was looking for an easy race prior to the Kosice Marathon. We said a brief “hello” before the race and I was left with the impression that he just wanted an easy training run before his next important meeting and that he would probably just do a few miles with the leaders. He had come with his training partner Matt Patterson who was the only one of the two who intended to take the race seriously. Therefore I wasn’t that bothered by his presence and was more concerned about Mike Hurd who had run me close in the past”.

“In the race itself I was at first pleased that he was in the race as he helped in getting away from Hurd and the other chasers and I told Steve this and looked forward to being out on my own once he had had enough. I asked him how he felt and was perturbed when he said he felt very easy. I tried everything to drop him including every time we turned a corner putting in a burst to make any gap appear bigger. I believe I said something like, “”You still here? Is this a good idea with next week coming up?”" I was cursing Matt Patterson for bringing him to the race.It was going to be tougher than I thought. “”I feel fine at the moment”", came back the unwelcome reply”.

“By 10 miles he had a gap on me and all I could do was hang on to my position and hope I had a big enough gap on Hurd. At the end of the race we shook hands and he told me that it had been a good training run and I replied that at least he wasn’t getting first prize, having entered on the day. I found it so annoying when he said how easy it had been. I did manage to touch his heels a few times though and run him wide round the corners”.

“The Dartford Half is a great race. I have run it a few times since but never did win!”

By Barry Watson, 2010

~ A History of Dartford Harriers ~

Peter Field’s ambition that a book should be written to record, celebrate and preserve the history of our club is now complete.

A group of five people have spent a considerable amount of time researching and compiling the contents, with photographs, and the book was launched on 25th May 2011. The authors had terrific support from both the club and individuals throughout for which they are very grateful. A number of acknowledgements are listed in the book but as always the list is by no means exhaustive.

It is sad that Peter was not there with us on the night but he would be immensely proud of the combined achievement.

What can you expect in this book? Well there are thirteen chapters, two appendices and twenty four photographs.

There is a chapter on the club’s ‘Athletes of the Twentieth Century’ Geoff Wightman and Sarah Rowell, the club’s only Olympian to date and a chapter on a few other outstanding athletes.

The book explores the emergence of the club in 1922, and its initial activity as a cross country athletics club subsequently moving into ‘road running’ and ‘track and field’ and later the much revered Dartford Half Marathon.

Steve Ovett, the winner of the first Dartford Harriers Half Marathon, has written the ‘Foreword’ to the book and recounts some amusing anecdotes on that race!

Another chapter describes the facts, with photographs, surrounding the inclusion of three ‘Dartford Athletes’ in the 1948 London Olympic Torch Relay.

Founding Member Bill Western was chosen and performed his role as an official at those London Olympic Games, a much more muted affair held in times of austerity not long after the end of World War II. Economically not really much different to now except a considerable amount is being spent on London Olympic Games 2012!

One of the appendices that will be of interest to both current and past members is the full club records of all age groups.

The book is priced at £9.99 and can be purchased from Arthur Kimber (01634 389554), Richard Drew (01322 523261) or from the Clubhouse.

Authors: R. Drew; P. Field; M Holland; A. Kimber and M. Titshall. Published by Pen Press Publication. ISBN 978-1-78003-164-4

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