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Sydney Wooderson and his Memorial Service

Until his death on 21st Dec 2006, Sydney Wooderson was the greatest living ‘Heathen. ‘Heathen being short for a member of one of the oldest Athletics Clubs, Blackheath Harriers. Sydney was President twice, the second time in 1969, their Centenary year. The 150th was celebrated at the Houses of Parliament in November 2019. The mantle of ‘greatest living ‘Heathen’ passed rightly to Alan Brent until his own death. Probably now the wonderful Dina Asher-Smith is worthy of the title. Past President Tony Week-Pearson preserved Sydney’s memory until his own death a few years ago and as a Past President myself I have tried to do the same, helping Rob Hadgraft write a wonderfully comprehensive biography of Sydney which contains a photo of me and Rob holding a portrait of Sydney.

Sydney married after his career in Athletics ended. As an Amateur he worked for his living and missed the Empire Games in Australia because of his Law exams. You had to sail there and back in those days. His children never knew him as the greatest ever British Athlete. Instead that was a “different person in the photo on the wall”. So said his daughter at his funeral after his death in 2006. Some years later Commentator, David Coleman died on the 21st December the same date as one of his all time Heros, Sydney Wooderson. My wife spoke to David when I was trying to get David to talk at a Blackheath Club Dinner and he told her the wonderful story about David winning the Manchester Mile In 1949. Sydney won the first event in 1943 and David said he took the trophy to bed with him (it is a wonderful bowl and quite big). And in his words “felt he had gone to bed with Sydney”. David was no mean athlete himself winning a team medal in the National Cross Country Championships and not being too far away from qualifying for the 1952 Olympics. Injury and his career in broadcasting ended his career which coincidently started on the night Bannister broke 4 minutes for the mile. But for the War, Sydney might have done that himself, but 4.04.2 was his best. In 1948 he was expected to run in the Olympics, especially as he was reigning European Champion, having won the 5000m in 1946. But Sydney’s ambition in 1948 was to win the National Cross Country Championship (see photo). This he did leading his Club to 3rd place team medals. This required different training so he didn’t put himself forward for Olympic selection. In most people’s eyes he was favourite to light the Olympic flame. Even the Queen Mother said ‘they should have let little Sydney do it”! But the honour went to John Mark, a tall good looking blond. Ironically, this would have been much approved by Hitler as an example of his ‘Aryan’ ideal. I always wonder whether Sydney effectively snubbing the Olympics influenced the decision not to give him that honour.

Sydney had a memorable 80th birthday party at the Hayes HQ of his Club which many members attended. He belatedly received an MBE when he was 86 after a campaign involving Blackheath Past President Tony Weeks Pearson. Wonderful party after with his family and both Chris Brasher and Roger Bannister. Tony, as a top class Athlete, had been coached by Sydney and had stayed close to him and his family. His daughter attended Tony’s funeral at which I spoke.

It was an honour for me to organise a Memorial Service for Sydney in 2007. Very difficult to fix a date but we found one in September. Sent invitations to many household names in Athletics: Lynn Davies, Steve Ovett, Brendan Foster, Dave Bedford, Mary Peters, Seb Coe and many others. UKA supported the event financially meaning that the event cost the Club just £142. Great support from Cherry Alexander a fine servant of the Sport. UKA were represented by the now notorious Zara Hyde Peters. Readings at the Service from John Baldwin, married to Olympian Margaret Coomber, and International Mike Skinner. I did Apologies for Absence with great messages, one from Steve Ovett in Australia and others from UKA President Lynn Davies, Brendan Foster, Dave Bedford and Mary Peters. Seb Coe didn’t make it but got great publicity when Jeff Powell wrote about Coe “making a pilgrimage to West Wickham to honour the memory of Sydney Wooderson”. No publicity to the fact that he didn’t make it! I talked to Seb at the amazing Guards Chapel Memorial Service for legendary Sports Journalist, Ian Wooldridge about the Service for Sydney and he said “it’s in the diary”! Never heard from him. 22 International Athletes attended including 13 Olympians, at least 3 from 1948. I took a fair selection of my Dad’s photos from 1948 and was talking with 800m runner, John Parlett about them. Only one black face in the Men’s Athletics team, sprinter McDonald Bailey. John said he might have some newsreel footage from the ‘48 Games that might have my Dad in it. A few days later I received a DVD which showed the start of my Dad’s 50k Walk. Very emotional in 2007 to see my Dad on screen and alive. He had died in 1994. Amongst the bits I inherited, was an Olympian’s Dinner menu, signed by Sydney. Dad knew him and had run against him in a handicap race. Sydney remembered my Dad when I spoke to him at his 80th. Dad had also briefly worked with Sydney’s coach, Albert Hill, himself a former double Olympic Champion. The Mayor of Bromley attended and spent a lot of time talking to Sydney’s family. She was a very attractive lady with a very attractive personality. Her name was Pauline Tunnicliffe. Two 1948 Olympians, Bill Nankeville and Doug Murray were very taken with her. I had calls from both in the following week. Bill is Dad to Bobby Davro, Comedian and Eastenders star. Very proud of his’Bob’.

Sydney was a wonderful man. Modest and unassuming. A great Athlete whose Athletics career is very well told in Rob Hadgraft’s great book. A very good read for an Athletics fans and for Sports fans. Very well researched and contains Sydney’s photo of Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games. We are all left wondering how many Golds Sydney would have won had the Olympics taken place in 1940 and 1944. ‘40 had been originally scheduled for Tokyo then changed to Helsinki. ‘44 had been scheduled for London. So many quality Athletes missed out. A word then about Tebbs Lloyd Johnson, 3rd in my Dad’s race at age 48. The oldest ever British medallist at the Olympics. Tebbs had also walked in Berlin at age 36. What would he and my Dad and Sydney have done in ‘44 and ‘48.

A privilege to have known him and to have had some family connection and a privilege to have organised his Memorial Service.

Mike Martineau

Past Presidents all... Charing Cross Hotel, Friday 18th April 1969

Back row: Victor Beardon, Harold Thompson, Will Vercoe, Cecil Pollard, Dick Cockburn, Alan Brent, Laurie Hammill, Jack Sims, W J (Bill) Traer
Front row: Charlie Wiard, William (Bill) Knobby Clarke, Dudley Child, Sydney Wooderson, J. Morrison. Cyril Starnes, Freddie Barker

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