Glorious nights in 60 years of sports awards

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: In this latest feature on the past 60 years of sports journalism, DAVID HUNN takes up the story of the early years of the Association

Women? Not to be encouraged, old boy. Can’t stop them, joining, of course, but steady does it. It’ll be open house if we’re not careful – subs, snappers, they’ll all want to be members.

How the winds of change have blown through what started 60 years ago as the Sports Writers’ Association. In 1948, elitism was regarded as rather more of a virtue than it is today.

It took 25 years before a photographer was admitted to the SWA committee meetings, and then without voting powers. The claim of any membership applicant to be a sporting journalist of any kind was closely scrutinised, and often dismissed.

As for women, poor Millie Hudson, the London Evening Standard swimming writer, had no chance of raising her profile. She joined the SWA in 1949 but year after year was refused entry to the annual dinner. No surprise that it was another six years before another woman joined the Association, and 10 before one was elected to the committee.

Women sports stars fared little better. Though Britain’s seven male world champions were honoured at a dinner in 1949, and the following year a ballot was held among members to decide which six men “had contributed most to Britain’s international sporting prestige”, women were excluded.

The three British women silver medallists in the 1948 Olympics passed without SWA recognition, but by 1951 Britain had five female world champions. The committee stirred uncomfortably: a separate dinner for 16 leading performers was the answer. Just a one-off, mind.

Women Olympic medallists were invited to the SWA’s Sportsman of the Year dinner of 1956 (two won gold at Melbourne), but at the subsequent annual meeting the proposal to open the dinner to women was defeated by one vote, with the opposition being led by two former chairmen.

It was largely the determination of one committee member, Eric Burley, of Agence France-Presse, that persuaded the Association in 1959 to hold voting for the Sportswoman of the Year to match that for men, and to hold a function to honour them. Not at the men’s dinner, of course – they were herded off on their own until 1963.

That was the year the awards dinner became, to remain for 33 years, a dinner-dance at which men and women were equally welcome and equally honoured. It saw Dorothy Hyman (pictured above left), undefeated at international sprinting, stand proudly beside motor racing world champion Jim Clark. It also meant, incidentally but pertinently, that Lady Douglas-Home was able to sit at the top table beside her husband, the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. There, she was able to eat six courses, hear six speeches and witness 12 presentations.

That may have extended propriety unreasonably, but the Association had at least shaken itself into proper shape, its composition and its constitution firm, and its awards more respected throughout sport than any others. It had taken them 15 years to get there.

IT WAS TWO DAYS BEFORE Christmas 1947 that five men met in a pub (of course) to form the exploratory committee of the Association they were proposing to found. There are still a few of us for whom the names resonate: HH England (cycling) in the chair, Vernon Morgan (Reuters), HR McDonald (Evening Standard), Jim Chambers (Associated Press) and Peter Wilson (Sunday Pictorial).

It was desirable, they decided, “that an association of sporting journalists be formed and that a committee be set up to explore the whole matter and make recommendations to a general meeting of London sports writers to be convened”.

There were no immediate financial worries: 10 guineas had been donated by World’s Press News, enough to cope with the expenses resulting from three exploratory meetings, including duplicating and postage, and still leave £1 2s 11d to be handed over to the SWA on the day of its official birth.

It was the imminence of the London Olympic Games that spurred the troops into action. Chairman England was keen to see the host nation properly and prominently represented when London staged the Congress of the international sports writers’ association, AIPS, when it reformed and met for the first time after a nine-year suspension.

Britain’s multiplicity of specialist sports writing associations was then in its infancy: the SWA had been preceded by the formation of the Football Writers’ Association, the Cricket Circle and the Association of Golf Writers, all of whom had been invited to send representatives to the SWA exploratory meetings. Football declined, the Cricket Circle ignored the invitation and the Golf Writers promised co-operation without affiliation.

Such dogged independence was regarded as bizarre by the rest of Europe, in particular, where the expectation was that all sports writers would join their national equivalent of the SWA, with sub-sections formed in relevant sports where there were sufficient specialists.

The early rebuffs were an awkward blow to the aspirations of the Association’s pioneers. They pressed on nevertheless in the fond belief that unity and harmony would one day envelop all sports writers. Only in the past two years, with the development of the SJA’s website and with it online homes for the athletics and equestrian writers (and the offer of more to join), has that early ambition started to become realised in any concrete manner.

Sixty years ago, their explorations concluded, the founders circulated their proposals to the sports desks of all the national papers, the leading agencies, sporting periodicals and “certain London suburban papers”. A meeting was called for April 15, 1948, at the Newspaper Workers’ Club in Gunpowder Alley, off Shoe Lane.

In all, 27 sports writers attended and after some debate and amendment, the Purposes of the Association were accepted as follows:

To promote and maintain a high professional standard among journalists who specialise in sport in all its branches and to serve their interests.
To establish and maintain confidence among sports promoters, the public and the Press.
To encourage improved services in all forms of communication (telephone, telegraph, rail, etc.) so that the reporting of sporting events shall be reliable, speedy and accurate.
To co-operate with sports promoters so as to ensure the best facilities for the Press in covering events.
To welcome visiting sports writers from abroad and assist them to carry out their duties.
To promote social intercourse among members.
To establish, in due course, a social centre or headquarters for sports writers in London.

To these were added, as a rider, several clauses stressing that the Association would be non-political, would not be concerned with conditions of employment, nor interfere with the requirements of editors, and that membership of the SWA or of any international association to which it might affiliate in the future, should not be a requirement in the coverage of any event.

Annual subscriptions were fixed at 10s 0d a year, with an entrance fee of 11s 0d, the latter waived for members under 24. Of the 27 who attended that initial meeting, 19 signed up on the night, with the notional addition of two of the exploratory committee who could not get to that founding meeting.

FIRST NAME ON THE LIST was that of the youthful Peter Bryan, of The Bicycle, an everlasting enthusiast who has never given up his membership badge and continued to attend AGMs even in his retirement to Dorset. He joined the committee in the 1950s, when he edited the Bulletin (then a modest single page), and quite astonishingly agreed to serve again nearly 40 years later.

Nine were elected to the 1948 committee: England, McDonald, Morgan and Wilson from the founders, plus Dave Caldwell (South London Press) as secretary, Bert Callis (Boxing News) as treasurer, George Harrison (News of the World), Bernard McElwaine (News Chronicle) and Roy McElvie (Evening Star). Only four of the nine attended the first committee meeting a fortnight later, illustrating not their lack of commitment, but the perpetual difficulty of prising newspapermen out of their offices or press boxes.

By the end of the year, the Association’s membership had risen to 69 and included some names that were, or were to be, exceedingly well known in the Street: Bill McGowran, sports editor of the Evening News, who became the longest serving chairman in our history; BBC radio commentator Raymond Glendenning; ringside wizards Harry Carpenter (pictured right) and George Whiting (and Reg Gutteridge was not far behind them); Welsh rugby legend Vivian Jenkins; and John Rodda, who after reporting the 1948 Olympics for the South London Press, later with the Guardian became Fleet Street’s most authoritative writer on Olympic affairs.

Also joining in 1948 were two other young men who were to become celebrated for their extraordinary service on national newspapers: Sydney Hulls (Daily Express, 1953-86) and the Mail‘s Terry O’Connor (1960-90). Both became Association chairmen, O’Connor in 1961 and Hulls in 1964 and both, like Peter Bryan, are members still today.

In terms of contribution to the Association, that of Sydney Hulls takes some beating: he was a committee member from 1950 to 1969. He held the position of treasurer for 12 years (something only equalled in 2007 by Bill Colwill OBE), uniquely including within them one year as secretary and one as chairman.

The first chairman, Harry England, having achieved affiliation to AIPS, quickly got on with his international responsibilities. It was 20 years before the Association urged to take a major hand in Olympic accreditations, by which time the committee included such international enthusiasts as Doug Gardner, (Mrs) Pat Besford and Frank Taylor, who went on to spend many years as President of AIPS and of its European subsidiary, UEPS.

In 1948, the committee made tentative moves towards improving press arrangements at the Olympics, including hosting a lunch for visiting journalists at the Piccadilly Hotel in August.

This was the Association’s first social venture and was an encouraging success. The committee allocated £20 from funds for the purpose and charged each attending member one guinea – that, for the benefit of the merely middle-aged, equalled £1 1s; for the benefit of the really young, or those under 40, that was 105p, or about one-third of the price of today’s pint.

Total expenditure on the event £40 17s 3d; total income, £38 6s 0d, which included donations of £10 from Wembley Stadium, five guineas each from World Sports magazine and the Birmingham Post, and two guineas from the Manchester Guardian.

That was Chairman England’s final effort in office: on doctor’s orders, he had to step down in September. Bill McGowran, not then a committee member, was invited to take the chair temporarily. He did not vacate it until 1954. He was the driving force behind the move to an annual dinner (from 1949) and the Sportsman of the Year ballot (from 1950), while his first proposal was a more modest winner: committee meetings to be held in his office at the Evening News, to save the cost of hiring a room.

The first dinner was held at the old Press Club in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street, at a cost of 12s 6d a head to the Association, which charged members and their guests £1 each. Ninety-seven tickets were sold and the potential profit enabled the committee to invite 19 official guests (five of Britain’s seven male world champions attended). There was even entertainment – a pianist was hired for two guineas – and the treasurer banked £12 14s 11d. Many treasurers over the next 50 years were to envy those figures.

The Press Club soon fell out of favour for the annual bash, the food declared “not worth £1”, and the 1951 singer “not suitable for the occasion”. Somewhere a touch more upmarket was needed for an event which was attracting distinguished guests of honour as well as sports stars.

The dinner drifted in and out of the banqueting houses of the City and central London, several times including the Cafe Royal. It was there in 1966 that chief guest Denis Howell, the Minister for Sport, made the presentation to the Sportsman of the Year that caused the committee historic problems.

OTHER THAN THE trophy that had been instituted in memory of Bill McGowran, there were no awards but those given to the sportsman and sportswoman of the year – the women having entered the ballot, but not the dinner, in 1959. In those days, members were asked to vote for six men and women of their choice, the order in which members placed them determining how many points were awarded in the final reckoning.

When the 1966 points were counted, the results were disturbing: 1st Lynn Davies, the Commonwealth and European long jump champion; 2nd Bobby Moore, the captain of England’s World Cup-winning football team; 3rd the England football team.

Detailed analysis showed that the England team had been given 43 first place votes, Moore 42 and Davies six. Yet Davies headed the points scoring because of his large number of second-place votes.

Interference was deemed necessary: the committee amalgamated the football votes, giving Moore (pictured above, greeting manager Alf Ramsey with the Jules Rimet trophy, as squad member Jimmy Armfield, now a distinguished BBC sumariser, looks on) and the team 389 points and Davies 253. The introduction of a team award was immediately called for, though it was 1970 before one was presented to “the best unit of two or more persons of both or either sex”.

A record attendance of 515 at that 1966 dinner saw the old Cafe Royal bursting at the seams and a move to the cavernous Bloomsbury Centre Hotel was made in 1969, as soon as Pat Besford took charge of the dinner arrangements. There were 588 diners in 1969, 630 in 1970 and in 1971, when Princess Anne was Sportswoman of the Year, the all-time record of 699.

By the time of the Silver Jubilee dinner, regular deficits had turned into substantial profits and the finances of the Association had been transformed, albeit temporarily. Dinner speeches were reduced and awards added, and before the end of the decade, Thames TV was transmitting the event live.

This strengthening of the Association through the efforts of Doug Gardner as secretary and Pat Besford as treasurer enabled successive chairmen to sleep easily. They, above all, were determined to maintain those original purposes of the Association.

Besford, our first and to date only female chairman, managed to add massive Olympic responsibilities and other international offices to her portfolio of voluntary work, while holding on to her job as swimming correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

Women, eh?

Modesty clearly prevented David Hunn, the author of 50 Years of the Sports Writers’ Association, from mentioning his long and sterling service to the SWA and then the SJA: in his 38-year career writing for The Observer (1968-1990) and the Sunday Times (1990-1996), he was the BOA’s press attache from 1990 to 1996 and, uniquely, was chairman of the Association three times (1977, 1984-1985 and 1989-1990)

This is the latest in an on-going series of articles about covering sport over the past six decades.
To read Natasha Woods on women in sports journalism, click here
To read John Rodda on what it was like to cover the 1948 London Olympics, click here
To read Hugh McIlvanney writing about the Best footballer he has ever seen, click here

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