The origins of the Northern Winter League – next one on January 28 and RIP Mike Nicholson

The fifth race in this season’s series of Northern Winter League races is to be held on Sunday, January 28 at Drighlington, start 11.00 a.m. Credit is due to the Yorkshire Walking Club for keeping the Winter League tradition alive and it is to be hoped that our club will be represented.

Dalton start – Ta to Linda McDermot


Competing in the previous race at Dalton got me thinking about the history of the Northern Winter League. Reading between the lines it seems clear that at the end of 1960 concerns were being expressed about the relative lack of competition in the North across the winter months. Down South races abounded with the London Sevens bringing together fields of the highest quality, whilst the Midlands had a well-established Winter League series, which included for the first time in this particular year a pioneering Schoolboys race over 2 miles. Striding like a Colossus across the scene was the majestic figure of Ken Matthews, who in the month of November won the Enfield and Belgrave Sevens, the former in 50:40 [his course record being 49:29] and the Midlands Winter League 6 miles in 42:15.

Hence on November 26, the Northern Area organised what was described as ‘a friendly get-together’ over 6 miles at Stocksbridge, Sheffield. Sixty competitors and five teams started, the latter comprising Lancashire WC, Leyland Motors, Wakefield Harriers, Yorkshire WC and Sheffield UH. Sheffield’s Greasley brothers, Doug and Mick finished first and second respectively, separated only by a second in 48:53 and 48:54. Our club’s leading athletes were Ron Wallwork and Jack Sankey, clocking 50:55 and 51:15 with Fred Pearce Junior coming home in 54:34, almost 10 minutes ahead of his father. Following the race Ron was presented with the Robinson Trophy for the outstanding performance by a Northern walker during the season, having won both the AA Junior 1 mile and RWA Junior 5 miles championships. The event was declared a great success.

Our Ron, a few years on!

A year later a similar jolly inter-club race over 7 miles came to pass, starting from our club headquarters,  the splendid Midland Hotel. Meanwhile, to keep the parallel going, Ken Matthews was winning the Enfield 7 in 49:09 with Ron 4th in 53:29 and the Belgrave equivalent in 49:51 with Ron 7th in 54:22, four seconds ahead of a certain Paul Nihill. Inevitably Ken won a short first Midland Winter League 5 miles in 32:36. Back on the four-lap course in West Didsbury, Manchester, Ron had a battle royal with Sheffield’s Albert Johnson, before pulling away to victory in 55:42. From our ranks, Jack Sankey came 4th in 60:05, one second ahead of a young Guy Goodair in Wakefield’s colours and a further second ahead of the stylish Mal Tolley of Sheffield. Further down the field behind the likes of  Ivor Percival, Stan Watkins, Martin Trotman and Fred Pearce was to be found a future national coach, Julian Hopkins, 18th in 65:51, Was this Julian’s first year in race walking?  Once again everyone was pleased with affairs, so much so that the Northern Area correspondent, Jim Hackwood proposed that a Northern Winter League series be put in place.

Guy Goodair, Mal Tolley with Ron Wallwork

Thus the first ever Northern Winter League race over 7 miles was held in West Didsbury on November 17th, 1962. In Ron Wallwork’s absence, Sheffield dominated, placing four in the first six to finish. However Albert Johnson was pushed all the way by an improving Guy Goodair, 57:28 to 57:43, ahead of Mal Tolley and the Greasley brothers. Jack Sankey flew the flag for Lancashire coming home sixth in 59:28. Our club’s scorers in the team race were Jack, Fred 62:06, Julian 63:22 and Mike Hatton 64:13. Things looked rosy – 45 competitors and six teams, including Don Valley WC, finished. The latter team inspired by Flight Lieutenant, Dicky Bird from the Lindholme RAF base, was located in the Doncaster area.

Sadly the Nordic gods did not look kindly on the second race due to be held in Sheffield on January 5th, 1963. Arctic conditions blocked the Woodhead Pass and the event had to be cancelled. And, would you believe it, the cold-blooded deities weren’t satisfied.  The February Race Walking Record found Jack Sankey reporting that three teams were unable to cross the Pennines for the third in the series because of snow, namely, Sheffield, Wakefield and Yorkshire. As it was the roads in Lancashire were clear, allowing Ron Wallwork an easy passage in front of Belgravian, Eric Hall,  54:56 to 58:30. Jack came home third in 59:03. Fascinatingly, the previously mentioned new Yorkshire club, Don Valley, led by Ken Broome in fifth, finished a team. How come they made it? Given their connections with the Royal Air Force, did they fly? We’ll probably never know.

The following 1963 March meeting of the Northern Area agreed that its next Winter League series would be held in October, November and December to escape the bad weather.  Was the Committee right? Look out for further revelations in the coming months.


And, given we are talking about the Northern Area Race WalkingAssociation, it would be remiss not to pay our respects to Michael Nicholson, its Honorary Secretary, who died suddenly at the beginning of the month. Mike was a fascinating and cultured member of the race walking fraternity, witness his passion for Early Music and much-loved by the generations of pupils he taught.

The Hull Daily Mail reported that ‘the 70-year-old ex-teacher was a well-known race walker, and carried the Olympic Torch through Beverley’s Saturday Market in 2012′, quoting one student as saying, ‘he was the face of Wolfreton School. Mad as a box of frogs, but a great character’. Mike would have liked that. He will be sorely missed.

RIP Mike Nicholson – Thanks to Beverley Life


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2 Responses to The origins of the Northern Winter League – next one on January 28 and RIP Mike Nicholson

  1. Peter & Marion Fawkes says:

    Very good posting Tony. Sadly though it does emphasise the demise of Northern race walking through from the heady days of the 60’s to the present day – what has gone wrong?

    Marion and I are so sad to learn of the passing of Mike Nicholson, a true character and supporter of race walking. We always referred to Mike affectionately as “Mr Kentucky Fried Chicken Man” for obvious reasons but did so respectfully as we acknowledged his enthusiasm and support for our sport. Mike was always conscious of the role of officials and many a time he offered to walk a shorter distance than others so as not to hold others up. My response was always the same – as a timekeeper I was always willing to stand for as long as it took Mike to finish no matter what the distance or conditions. He deserved this respect as he always turned up to support the winter league whenever he could and I felt it was the least I could do for him. He will be sadly missed.

  2. Russ Jackson says:

    A great character, a very good friend, who loved helping Humberside children in all sports and greatly respected by all who knew him.
    Nothing was ever too much trouble for him, and always there to give a helping hand to those in need.

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