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Local People – Tom Hulatt

Local People – Tom Hulatt

Tom finished third in the greatest race

‘THE four-minute mile’

Time has not dimmed the lustre of what is arguably the most significant landmark in the history of athletics.

The magic and romance from that match between Oxford University Athletic Club (OUAC) and the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) remains. A blustery afternoon at Oxford’s Iffley Road cinder track on Thursday 6 May 1954. The secret planning, involving elite runners Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. Doubts over the weather and the feasibility of attempting the record.

And then the wind dropped. Brasher set the pace, Chataway took over and Bannister burst clear, 275 yards from the finish, that fabulous stride taking him along the back straight before he threw himself at the tape to return 3 minutes 59.4 seconds and break what many thought was an impassable barrier.

Six men lined up, four representing the AAA and two Oxford University, but while Chataway was runner-up it was not Brasher who took the prestigious third place but Tom Hulatt, who wore the AAA vest alongside Bannister, Chataway and Brasher.

Hulatt came from a comparatively underprivileged background in the Derbyshire mining village of Tibshelf and his life was in sharp contrast to his fellow-competitors. He was the only one of the six not to have received a University education, with its attendant high quality facilities for sport, and in later years he became something of a forgotten man of the track.

William Thomas Hulatt was born at Tibshelf on 7 September 1930 and after leaving school worked, first in a wood-yard and then as a platelayer on the railway at Pilsley. In March 1948 –and not waiting for his National Service call-up – he enlisted in the regular Army only to buy himselfout a year or so later. Returning to live with his parents, he found work as a surface worker, loading coal at Williamthorpe and Holmewood collieries.

By now, his career as an athlete was beginning to develop.

Training along the railway track and shovelling 20 tons of coal a day was a world away from Bannister and Co but it certainly built up strength and stamina. He joined Alfreton Athletic Club, where he was managed by the secretary Percy Norman, a railway worker of Prospect Street, Alfreton. Eric Glover, who was a friend of Tom’s and still lives in Tibshelf, recalled those days.

“He used to run along the old railway track towards Pilsley and open land around Tibshelf but I mainly remember him training on the grass circuit around the football and cricket field. He used to spend hours down there, lap after lap after lap and sometimes I’d follow him around on my bike. There was a big, horse-drawn roller we sat by and Tom would suck the juice out of an orange but didn’t eat it. Oranges were still a bit scarce in those days and I used to tell him it was a waste and he should eat it.”

A major event was the annual Tibshelf Floral and Horticultural Show and Hulatt won several 880 yards and mile races here.

“They were big events and they attracted some good runners” said Eric. “Tom won the Derbyshire AAA mile title and he was Northern Counties mile champion. He also took part in the AAA Championships at the White City in London.”

At the White City in 1952, Hulatt led the field early on but the race was won by the Australian John Landy. A year later, he was fifth behind Bannister in the AAA and it was around this time that a challenge to the world record of 4:01.4 became imminent.

This had been held by Gundar Hagg (Sweden) since 1945 but Bannister, Landy and the American Wes Santee were getting close and they had not only this target in mind but the magic four-minute barrier. Landy was scheduled to compete in Finland, where conditions were ideal, and Bannister and his coach Franz Stampfl knew they had to make the attempt sooner rather than later.

Bannister and Chataway, who had been at Oxford and Brasher (formerly of Cambridge), were familiar with the Iffley Road track. A theory exists that Hulatt’s selection allayed suspicions of pace making, which was then frowned upon and illegal but as the Northern Counties champion he had earned the right to be there.

The Oxford team included another Derbyshire man, Alan Gordon, who was the son of Dr J.D. Gordon of Bolsover. While on his National Service, Gordon, who was a member of Chesterfield Harriers and Athletic Club, had set a new Egyptian Army mile record and he had arrived at Oxford in 1953 to read history. He broke the record for the Freshman’s mile and finished third in the 1954 Oxford v Cambridge match at the White City.

The second member of the Oxford team was George Dole, an American who was studying Hebrew in preparation for his ordination as a Baptist minister. Dole won the Oxford-Cambridge race, when he had beaten Gordon. The name of a third Dark Blue, Nigel Miller, a medical student, also appeared in the programme – but nobody told him he was in the team and so he had to content himself with watching the race.

Hulatt had won a mile race at Fallowfield, Manchester in 4:24.9 in April, representing Derbyshire AAA when he had beaten Gordon and he made the journey by train to Oxford accompanied by his brother Harry.

Wolves won the league title – Liverpool were bottom of the First Division – and Derby County and Nottingham Forest languished in the second tier. Chesterfield finished sixth in Third Division (North). Doris Day topped the charts with Secret Love.

Rain washed out the first day’s play of Oxford University’s match against Yorkshire not far from Iffley Road in The Parks and on the second day – the day of the race – the visitors declared at tea. Then Fred Trueman “with a gusty wind in his favour” wrecked the students’ batting.

This was the wind which concerned Bannister but as the time of the race, 6pm, approached, it died down a little. “There was a St George’s flag flying on the church steeple and I’d used this during the afternoon as a wind gauge,” Bannister said. “It wasn’t until half-an-hour before the race that I really made my mind up.”

George Dole recalled that he was part-competitor, part-spectator. “I was living in digs and I rode a bicycle down to Iffley Road, leaned my bike against a tree and went in to change. When the race started I realised that after about a quarter of a mile that I would not be able to keep up.”

Hulatt told his own story in an interview with the Derbyshire Times.

“Fifteen minutes before the event I heard that the attempt on the four-minute mile was off because of the wind, but about ten minutes later the wind dropped a little. Roger came up to me and said ‘Don’t hang on to me and Chris (Chataway) – we are going all out. You run your own race.’ After the first lap, which Roger completed in 57 seconds, I was lying fourth. I knew he was too fast for me. The pace was terrific and I realised that if I was to finish the race I would have to ease off. Roger was running very easy. How he kept it up I don’t know. After two and three-quarter laps, Brasher, who had been pacing Roger, dropped back and I passed him. I was lying third with Chataway leading and Roger close on his heels. Gordon drew up and passed me and then I had only one thing on my mind – to beat him. About 300 yards from home I put on an extra bit of speed to regain my former position and came in to finish a comfortable third.”

Result: 1- RG Bannister 3:59.4; 2- CJ Chataway 4:7.4; 3- WT Hulatt 4:16.0; 4- AD Gordon; 5- GF Dole; 6- CW Brasher.

There was time for Bannister, Chataway and Brasher to autograph Hulatt’s programme and, after a meal, they began to journey home to Derbyshire. Bannister’s record lasted only 46 days before Landy beat it and then came the ‘miracle mile’ at the Empire Games in Vancouver in August 1954 when Bannister defeated Landy, each running sub-four minutes. Hulatt, representing London Polytechnic, broke the Dutch-All-Comers record when winning the 1500 metres in The Hague that month.

Eric Glover had been away on National Service at the time of the record but he quickly picked up his friendship again with Hulatt when he returned.

“The village was obviously proud of him but there wasn’t a great deal of fuss. He was just Tommy Hulatt, one of us, although we all knew what a good athlete he was. He once said to me, ‘Eric, if I had known they were going to go for the record I’d have started my training a bit earlier.’ Of course, he knew he would never have caught Bannister or Chataway but I think he felt he could have made an even better showing. Later on he began running longer distances, such as the 3000 metres steeplechase and after he finished he did some coaching at Chesterfield and was employed by Derbyshire County Council as a pest control officer. He had a rare talent for rat catching and he also trained greyhounds.”

Hulatt’s career was the subject of deep research by Peter and Paul Stanley in their excellent book The First Four-Minute Mile and Tom Hulatt of Tibshelf (Descartes 2003). Hulatt’s fastest recorded time for the mile was 4:12.4 in 1958 which leaves him in good company amongst his contemporaries.

Sir Roger Bannister became a neurologist of international renown and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford. Sir Christopher Chataway broke the world record for 5000 metres and was a Conservative MP and Cabinet Minister. Chris Brasher won the 3000 metres steeplechase gold medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and was co-founder of the London Marathon.

Tom Hulatt, who never married, lived with his sister Ann at Tibshelf. He died suddenly on 21 May 1990, aged 59.

On the 50th anniversary of the four-minute mile, a one-mile stretch of the Five Pits Trail, part of the old LNER line, was designed as the Tom Hulatt Mile, identified by two marker stones with inscribed plaques in coal measures sandstone donated by the National Trust.

It is a fitting tribute for a man who ran competitively against John Landy and Roger Bannister, the two greatest milers of his day.

To do the ‘Hulatt Mile’ park in the  car park on Station Road Pilsley and follow the Five Pits Trail  down to the plaque and then start running like mad and see how long it takes you.!! Ed


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