Lewisham’s flying MP and the forgotten miracle mile

The speeding politician of Lewisham North

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As an athletics fan, I have stumbled upon two nuggets of local track-related trivia in recent weeks – one contemporary and another from the archives.

Firstly, there was a Lewisham link in one of the brilliant relay teams in this summer’s World Athletics Championships. Daryll Neita, who went to school at Prendergast Hilly Fields, ran the anchor leg of the woman’s 4×100, bringing the team home for a silver medal (hat tip Transpontine, a cultural treasure trove of a blog).

As an aside, here is (yet another) sad reflection of our hollowed out local press: the News Shopper had been following Daryll’s progress since she was 13 years old, when she ran in the London Youth Games (and was pipped in the 100m by Dina Asher-Smith, a fellow south east Londoner and future relay colleague).

Seven years later, as Daryll is winning medals at major international championships, the local papers have nothing specific. The resources, the local knowledge and the long memory are no longer there.

Onto the second discovery, this time from the archives: Lewisham’s link to a man who played a major role in one of the great athletics milestones. Quite literally. Chris Chataway is now best remembered as the pacemaker for Roger Bannister’s record-breaking sub-four minute mile, but achieved many things independently. Nicknamed the “Red Fox”, he once held the 5,000m world record, and scooped the first BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1954 (an astonishing fact when you consider it happened in the same year as Bannister’s mile, which Chataway put down to his record being broadcast live to millions of viewers a few weeks before votes were cast).

On hanging up his spikes at the tender age of 26, he became a broadcaster, and a local councillor then MP for the (now defunct) constituency of Lewisham North in 1959. Somehow this very direct local link to athletics legend had escaped me until I stumbled across it in a recent post by another well informed local blogger.
Cue an absorbing lost hour or so delving through obituaries and Hansard archives, discovering his interventions arguing for parking in Loampit Vale, school improvements in Lee, and flood prevention on the Quaggy.

He was a Conservative MP in Lewisham until 1966 when he was ousted by Roland Moyle (Chataway would later represent Chichester). A progressive in a party not always known for the trait, Chataway spoke against apartheid in his maiden speech to the Commons (way before that became a mainstream attitude in his party), was strikingly pro-immigration and international aid, a supporter of the Humphry Berkeley bill to legalise homosexuality, as well as a strong opponent of the 11+ exam.

But even in the slew of policy and political rhetoric in Hansard, it was a running detail that leaped out most. “I hope it will not embarrass the hon. Gentleman if I say that ever since I was a spectator when he broke the four-minute mile I have been a great admirer of him,” said the Labour Party’s Archibald Fenner Brockway in response to Chataway’s maiden speech. That’s embarrassing, I thought. Everyone knows it was Roger Bannister who broke four minutes. Except, after a little more research, I realised the right honourable member for Eton and Slough was absolutely right.

In May 1955, a few days after the anniversary of the Iffey Road triumph, Chataway was in action at White City and did indeed dip under the four-minute barrier that had seemed impregnable for so long.

It’s a poignant detail. The man now most remembered as a support act in shattering a towering athletics milestone achieved the same thing himself a short while later – and hardly anyone knows. Of Chataway’s obituaries in the UK national newspapers – he died of cancer in 2014 – I could only find a single small reference to his own sub-four achievement (The Telegraph’s).

History skews facts in mysterious ways. The reference in the House of Commons suggests it was a much bigger deal back in the day – as does the breathless commentary in the YouTube clip of the race below, describing it as the “the greatest mile race of all time”.

A little bit of old-fashioned newsreel hyperbole, perhaps, but the race was without doubt another benchmark for the distance. Three people went under four minutes – an achievement labelled a miracle mile in the commentary – for the first time. Chataway finished second, behind the Hungarian Laszlo Tabori, and shared a time with his third-placed fellow countryman Brian Hewson: 3.59.8.

Chataway himself was proud enough of his performance to mention it later as part of the reason for his early retirement a year later following the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. “I wanted to do other things which I perceived as being more serious. Athletics in those days was not an occupation, it was a hobby,” he told an interviewer.

It would be many years before he ran again – he would have pounded the streets of Lewisham to canvas but not to train. A regular smoker, even in his running days – a Russian rival was apparently astonished to see him light a cigar shortly after he broke the 5000m record – he gave up the habit at the behest of his second wife and took up running later in life.

His pace was impressive even then. I remember watching coverage of the Great North Run in 2004, when Chataway, aged 73, ambled nonchalantly over the finishing line in 1hr 39mins, ahead of many runners half a century his junior.

He remarked: “I sometimes think that running, which was a sort of tormentor in my youth, has returned to be a friendly codger in my old age.”

Author: lewishamlately

I'm Jolyon and I started Lewisham Lately after fretting about the lack of news coverage for the borough. I have lived in south-east London for the majority of my adult life, including Camberwell, Peckham followed by the leafier realms of Hither Green from 2009. Now on the fringe of Lee Green and Lewisham Central. Feedback, story ideas, corrections, disagreements are all more than welcome. Please do keep it civil, though - the world's an angry enough place as it is.

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