Tooting’s Golden Glow

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It seems like a lifetime ago, when London puffed its chest and presented itself to the world in a glorious inclusive month of colour, harmony and the very best of Britishness. From Danny Boyle’s NHS-celebrating opening ceremony to that golden Saturday night when Mo Farah danced around the track, the Games of 2012 were truly an unforgettable time, when we knew for sure that we lived in the best city in the world. A small army of volunteers in pink and purple seemed to sum it all up, radiating warmth and a welcoming joie-de-vivre that embodied the spirit of the Games. There had been a few doubts beforehand but that month left us all feeling so proud of ourselves and the afterglow lasted for years. The smile of a cheery Somali-born runner summed up the greatest Games any of us could remember and cemented our love of a wonderful multicultural city that its been a privilege to raise my children in.

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A few days before it began, the Olympic Flame come down Garratt Lane, past the site of our very own athletic stadium in Summerstown. The story of the Victorian pedestrians who provided such a sporting spectacle at Robert Sadler’s Copenhagen Grounds at Althorp Lodge was told and presented to us in an outstanding book by Kevin Kelly. That summer to coincide with the London Games, Kevin gave a talk about another little-known local athletic story. This was also someone with a special local connection, whose athletic feat was surely the greatest that any athlete from these parts has ever achieved. His name was Albert Hill and he won two gold medals at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. Not just any ones, but would you believe, the highly prized ‘blue riband’ middle-distance double of 800 and 1500 metres. This was the domain of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Kelly Holmes but when they were burning up the track, little was ever said about a railway worker from Trevelyan Road who trail-blazed the golden path so many years before.

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Albert George Hill was born on 24th March 1889 in Bath Street, Southwark. Its a road on a site now submerged beneath the site of South Bank University near the Elephant and Castle. His father William worked as a stationary packer and was originally from Wiltshire. His mother Elizabeth came from Cornwall. Albert was one of eight children, reared on Commercial Road, now Upper Ground the road that runs along the Thames behind the Royal Festival Hall. Next to the timber yards and wharves, this was a poor area later devastated by the Luftwaffe and property developers. When he was fifteen Albert had joined the Gainsford Athletic Club, believed to have been located somewhere just across the river near Drury Lane. Here he participated in swimming, cycling and athletics and from 1907 to 1909 was a London junior champion.

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What a relief it must have been for the Hill family and their talented athletic son to move from the riverside to the suburbs around 1908 and a home in one of Tooting’s most characterful roads. Next to Longley Road ‘Tooting’s Beverley Hills’, Trevelyan Road was allegedly built for the servants of the theatrical royalty who resided in its slightly grander neighbour, where lived the likes of Harry Lauder, Harry Tate and Charles Whittle. With its quirky range of house styles, it was much-loved by local doctors. There was even a golf course nearby where Prime Minister Arthur Balfour did the rounds. Residents very possibly had their bins collected by a muscular young dustman called ‘Tiny Ted’ Foster From Tooting Grove. A few years later he distinguished himself with a Victoria Cross in the First World War.

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Trevelyan Road would later become known for its extensive Irish community and a boarding house where the Beatles slept or at least ‘hung out’ in. Stories abound of sightings of the Fab Four in the summer of 1963 when they came to play at The Granada on the Roy Orbison tour. As with many other Tooting locations, rumours have also swirled about a Daniel Defoe connection at the curiously ornate Norfolk House.

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In 1906 Mount Vesuvius erupted, snuffing out Rome’s hopes of hosting the 1908 Olympics. In stepped Lord Grenfell to bring the Games to London for the first time. As a blossoming junior champion, Albert would certainly have taken a keen note of events in White City, Shepherds Bush. It was a few years before his statue popped up in Tooting, but Albert might have noted the controversy at the opening ceremony when the Americans refused to dip their flag to the watching King Edward VII. Albert was working at a printers that year when his family began their connection with the house in Trevelyan Road, one that would last for four decades. In that optimistic Edwardian decade Tooting came alive. As it’s population exploded, arriving on the scene were its famous trams, the groundbreaking Totterdown Fields estate and grand public buildings like the Central Methodist Hall.

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A pie and mash shop opened in Selkirk Road that year and Albert very likely sampled Bertie and Clara Harrington’s famous liquor. Assuming it had a sports department in those days,  he may even have bought some of his kit in the recently-opened Smith Brothers store. Both still do a roaring trade today. Young Albert might have enjoyed a visit to the King’s Hall  Picture Palace at the end of his road. The first purpose-built cinema in Britain opened for business in 1909. A few years later the magnificent Broadway Electric Palace emerged round the corner, just a few weeks after the sinking of The Titanic.

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In 1910, Albert won the UK Championship four mile race at Stamford Bridge, home of the recently formed Chelsea Football Club. He now worked for the London Brighton & South Coast railway in their ‘Dispatch Dept of Accounts’ office and subsequently became a ticket collector at London Bridge. Meeting someone called  Lily Wood may have been a bit of a distraction to Albert’s athletic ambitions as he didn’t take part in the British championships in 1911 and 1912 and missed out on the Olympics. A big moment that year was joining the Polytechnic Harriers Sports Club, where Sam Mussabini of ‘Chariots of Fire’ fame became his coach and rejuvenated his career. The legendary Mussabini who coached gold medallists at five Olympic Games has his own plaque at his former home in Burbage Road, backing onto the Herne Hill Stadium.

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The 1912 Olympics were in Stockholm. This was a big year for Albert, in July he married Lily Wood in St Nicholas Church and moved to East Dulwich. His parents lived on in Trevelyan Road until their deaths and his sister Olive continued to reside there with her husband Arthur Edwards until after the outbreak of the Second World War.

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It was at this address that Albert’s parents waited anxiously for news about him in the First World War, when he served in France as a wireless operator in the Royal Flying Corps for three years. The 1916 Olympic Games were scheduled for Berlin but the world had other things on its mind. Albert had joined up in 1915, a year when local recruitment spearheaded by an undertaker called William Mellhuish went into overdrive. Patriotic fever was whipped-up, expressing itself sadly in a number of attacks on German-owned businesses like Peter Jung’s bakery on Tooting High Street. Albert survived the war apparently without any injury, though smoking between 60 and 80 cigarettes a day at this time can’t have done him any good. He started training again when he came home in 1919 but Albert was about to turn thirty and having been through the War and back to a wife and small child, not to mention a ferocious nicotine habit, he could surely have been excused from pursuing further athletic challenges. What happened next is all the more admirable and extraordinary. In August 1919 he equalled the British record for the mile with a time of four minutes, sixteen seconds. His sights were now set on the Olympic Games in Antwerp.

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What happened in Belgium in the summer of 1920  is well-documented online – you can even watch a film of the race. At thirty one, Albert Hill was considered too old for selection and had to battle the blazers of the Amateur Athletic Association to gain a place. There might also have been a touch of snobbery about the inclusion of a railway worker from a humble background in south London. There are stories about how poor the conditions were, how Albert got sick after a rough Channel crossing and how he travelled to the stadium in the back of a lorry. Apparently he trained for the race on a diet of Stella Artois and cashew nuts. Whatever the case Albert came home with two gold medals and a silver in the 3,000 metres team event. This involved running seven races in eight days. His feat would not be repeated until 1964 and not again after that until Dame Kelly Holmes in Athens in 2004.

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In 1921 Albert’s second daughter was born and he set another new British mile record. The time of four minutes, thirteen seconds lasted or ten years. He was involved for some time in coaching but after his eldest daughter emigrated to Canada he joined her in 1947. He died there in London Ontario, shortly before his eightieth birthday. Half a century after his death, a century after his triumphant summer in Belgium, seems like a very appropriate time to make sure more people in our area know about Albert Hill and take pride in his achievement. What better thing to do than put a plaque on the house that was once his home in Trevelyan Road. Alongside that we will as always be promoting this event at schools, community events, Wandsworth Heritage Festival and through our informative and entertaining walks and tours.

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As ever, we invite you to contribute to this promotion of our local heritage by attending some of our Summerstown182 History Walks in the Tooting and Wandsworth area over the next months and perhaps making a donation towards the plaque. Albert will be following in some famous footsteps; Sidney Lewis, Sadie Crawford, Tiny Ted Foster VC, Robert Sadler and Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’. All these unveilings have been unforgetable community occasions and this will be no exception. Already a date has been fixed, Saturday 25th July, to coincide with the start of the Tokyo Olympics. Trevelyan Road will be the place to be that afternoon, so look out for our Summerstown182 twitter feed and blog for precise details about what is happening and how to get involved. Let’s salute the triumph of Albert Hill one hundred years ago and once again, bathe together in the glorious spirit of London 2012!

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