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The Harrier who won Olympic bronze: reflections on E.J. Toms

The GB team for the 4x400 metres in the 1924 Paris Olympics: (left to right) E.J. Toms; George Renwick; Guy Butler; Eric Liddell.

Many thanks to Peter Toms, the son of former Queen's Park Harrier Edward James Toms, for sending over his recollections of conversations with his father on life as an amateur athlete in the 1920s, below:

My father was an amateur athlete during the years 1921–1925 (nearly 100 years ago!). Born in Southall, Middlesex in 1899, he was in his mid twenties when at his athletic peak.

Athletics was purely an amateur sport in those days, with him having to find the time and to fund his training, travel and all other costs himself. This was on top of working a full five and a half day working week. He was a member of Queen's Park Harriers, and ran at Herne Hill track in south east London in the evenings when he had time.

He told me that he usually had to work on Saturday mornings, travel by way of his motorbike and sidecar (imagine how reliable this would have been in 1922) to wherever the athletics meeting was held in the afternoon and then drive back. This was the case throughout his running career.

He had great success as a 400 metres (440yards) runner and was AAA national champion for this distance in 1923 and 1924 (recorded 50.0secs time in 1924), and at this point he was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, along with his team athletes Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell et al.

The team event was made particularly famous by the film ‘Chariots of Fire’. There also exists a film documentary by Nigel Havers on ‘The Real Chariots of Fire’ on YouTube which shows some original film footage of the athletics, although film was still pretty rare in those days! The class system was fully operational with the reportage!

He competed in numerous other national and international events during the period, winning a large collection of medals and silverware. When he married again in 1938 (his first wife died in 1929 shortly after his first marriage in 1927) he paid cash for a new house by selling a few silver cups and gold medals! He had two tea-chests in the shed there, full of books, magazines and newspapers with articles in them about his running, all of which have sadly since disappeared, mainly due to damp and being eaten by mice! I have not been able to trace any copies of these.

The Olympic experience beggars belief. He was returning faster times than Abrahams and Liddell, but they were ‘University Boys’ and had the full coaching and training facilities. EJT had to pay his own fares and food, and his father went with him to Paris (his mother could not afford the trip as well) and it took 13 hours by bus, train and ferry the day before he was due to compete! His father was very sea-sick. All EJT was given was a blazer and badge and vest GB emblem. His first cousin, James Aldridge Toms, also qualified for the Olympic team, but was rejected as Abrahams, Liddell and others had ‘private means’ and the committee thought therefore ‘that they could easily pay for themselves’. James couldn’t!

As he was not very tall, EJT had to work harder than others to attain the required times. However, he was tipped as a possible world champion and would possibly have attained a gold in the 400m sprint in Paris (he was returning around 47.0/48.0 seconds for this distance), but sadly did not qualify for the final, due to a heavy fall in the heat when his foot caught in a lane tape. The team went on to win a bronze in the 4 X 400m relay, with EJT putting in the fastest leg.

The race in Paris produced a world record and gold for the USA (3m16s), and GBR a bronze with 3m17.4s, just 1.4s behind. This gave an average leg time of 49.35 seconds. The current world record is just over 2m54s for the relay, and 43.03s for the 400 meters (about five seconds less in 90-odd years!).

Eric Liddell would not race for religious reasons as the final race that was to be run on a Sunday, his place being taken by Richard Ripley. This substitution may have lost a team gold medal, but the time of 3m17.4s set a new UK record, and Liddell had gained a world record (47.6 seconds) and gold for his 400m sprint event.

The bronze medal for EJT arrived in the post three weeks after the end of the games. No great presentation ceremonies in those days!

He also won the Kinnaird Trophy, Burghley Cup and Grahame-White Trophy, among others, at various county and national events during his successful athletic career during this time. He had five England official blazers (1923 -25) for international competitions.

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