His contribution to athletics – by Bob Phillips

(Reprinted extract from an article in the October 2013 edition of “Track Stats”, the quarterly magazine of the National Union of Track Statisticians)

Southend-on-Sea – famed for the longest leisure pier in the World – has seen better days as a tourist attraction, though it still apparently attracts more than six million visitors a year. One of the town’s least known historical connections is its contribution to British athletics in the years before World War II. Nine international athletes were members of Southend & County Harriers (later Southend-on-Sea AC) in the years 1908 to 1939, and that total puts the club among the top dozen in Britain of that era.

A feasible explanation for Southend’s success is offered by the obvious strength of personality of one of the club’s founders. George Hutton Hogsflesh had been born in 1875 and had taken up athletics at a very early age, winning his first race at the age of 10. He attended Grocers’, in Hackney (where Sir Arthur Gold, one of the most eminent athletics administrators of the future, was to be a pupil), but later moved to the Southend area to pursue his occupation, which was described as being that of an “agent” – not an informative title but assuredly indicative of entrepreneurial skills.

In 1905 Hogsflesh, who lived in neighbouring Westcliff, and another local resident, T.N. Dainty, from Leigh-on-Sea, who Hogsflesh had known since they ran together as boys at Grocers’, founded Southend & County Harriers, and there is a delightful description of Hogsflesh being “here, there and everywhere” both as a competitor in the sprints and as a chief official at the first meeting organised by the club a month or so later. He was to remain secretary of the club for more than 30 years. The “Sporting Life” in 1913 paid tribute to Hogsflesh and his colleagues, stating that “a club like the Harriers which carries the name of the town at every important meeting in the country, and was instrumental in bringing the Essex County meeting, still the Ascot of athletics, to Southend is surely an asset to the town”.

Clearly not satisfied with having established one sport in the town, Hogsflesh turned his attention to another in 1906. He and an enterprising local publican, Oliver Trigg, who was one of the vice-presidents of Southend & County Harriers, decided to set up Southend United Football Club. They enticed the highly-regarded player-manager of Plymouth Argyle, Bob Jack, to take on that post at Southend and quickly recruited a full team of professionals, gaining promotion to the First Division of the Southern League in 1908. In 1920 the club would be elected to the newly-established Third Division of the Football League.

In 1919 the Amateur Athletic Association had resumed full-time activities after the First World War and Hogsflesh was elected assistant honorary secretary. Among his primary achievements was to help encourage many counties to form associations, as Essex had already done almost 40 years before. Hogsflesh continued as AAA assistant secretary to Sir Harry Barclay until 1931 and then to Douglas Lowe, the 1924 and 1928 Olympic 800 metres champion. Having moved to Sussex and carried on his administrative duties there, Hogsflesh rallied to the call again in 1940, acting as caretaker manager of the AAA throughout World War II.

When Hogsflesh died in 1948, a glowing tribute was published in the monthly “Athletics” magazine under the initials “G.W.S”, which were those of George W. Smith, who had been joint honorary secretary of the Southend club and was then appointed assistant honorary secretary of the AAA in January 1948. “Many vivid personalities have played a part in the development of amateur athletics in this country, but none has been more colourful than George H. Hogsflesh”, wrote G.W.S. “Performing his duties with courtesy, tact, loyalty and patience, George Hogsflesh will serve as an example to all those who aspire to share in the administrative side of amateur athletics”.

Hogsflesh was also closely involved with cross-country, competing from the age of 18 until into his 60s and elected a Life Member of the English Cross Country Union. It seems to be a reasonable supposition that it was his prominence as an influential national official which attracted so many athletes of international class to the Southend club. The fact that the words “& County” formed part of the club’s original title clearly indicates that Hogsflesh had ambitions to extend its appeal beyond the town boundaries. In 1937 the club amalgamated with Leigh-on-Sea Harriers to form Southend-on-Sea AC. Certainly, none of the nine members who represented Great Britain at various times in their careers during the years 1908-to-1939 were born in Southend.

One of them, John James Gillis, was born on 24 July 1899 in Hackney, and his birthplace suggests that he might also have attended Grocers’ as had the founders of Southend & County Harriers. He became a prominent official, acting as one of the starters at the 1948 Olympic Games, and married a leading sprinter of the 1920s, Rose Thompson.