A letter written by a pioneering Aberdeen athlete reveals how he helped legendary Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell achieve a unique international athletics success.
Liddell’s place in the history books was secured at the 1924 Paris Olympics, where he won gold in the 400m and bronze in the 200m after refusing to run in his favoured event, the 100m, because it was to be held on a Sunday.
The devout Christian’s epic story was immortalised in the 1981 award-winning movie Chariots Of Fire.
But 12 months before the Paris Games, north-east athlete Jimmy Adams played a key role when Liddell became the first British athlete to win three races at an international match in a single afternoon.
Adams, a member of Aberdeen’s YMCA Harriers, was one of Liddell’s Scotland team-mates for the annual fixture against England and Ireland at Stoke FC’s Victoria Ground in the summer of 1923.
The Aberdeen man finished third equal in the high jump, while Liddell completed a unique hat-trick of wins in the 100, 220 and 440 yards to propel Scotland to a rare team victory over the hosts.
But what hasn’t previously been widely known was that Liddell, who became a good friend of Adams, ran all three races in a pair of spikes borrowed from the Aberdeen YMCA athlete.
The spikes were too big, but Liddell made them fit by stuffing the toes with cotton wool.
The story came to light in one of a series of letters former Aberdeen AAC secretary Hunter Watson received from Adams years ago.
In one letter Adams, reflecting on his athletics career, wrote: “My greatest joy was at Stoke when the late Eric Liddell won the 100, 220 and 440 yards. He ran these races in my spikes as he had left his own at the hotel he was staying in when he was competing at the AAA championships.”
Liddell had, it seems, travelled directly to Stoke from London where he won the 100 and 220 yards a few days earlier.
His hat-trick of wins at Stoke wasn’t without incident as, immediately after the start of the 440 yards, he was barged off the track by one of his English rivals, JJ Gillis.
Liddell came to a complete halt and by the time he regained his composure the rest of the field was 15-20 yards ahead.
However, the Scot was not to be denied, and gradually worked his way back into contention before unleashing a fierce burst of pace to take a celebrated victory.
Liddell collapsed at the finish, while Gillis was disqualified.
The letters Watson received, which offer a fascinating insight into north east athletics before the Second World War, have been deposited in Aberdeen University’s Special Collections along with the high jump medals Adams was awarded at the Scottish championships in which he finished second (1922 and 1923) and third (1921).
Adams, who became one of the first presidents of Aberdeen AAC when the club was founded in 1952, worked in Aberdeen Council’s Chamberlain’s Department for 35 years before retiring in 1961 and moving to Devon.
Spartan conditions faced by city’s early athletics clubs
Hunter Watson received a large amount of illuminating personal recollections and historical material from Jimmy Adams about athletics in Aberdeen in the first half of the 20th Century.
He said: “Jimmy Adams was heavily involved in athletics in the city between 1919 and 1960. He had been vice-president of both the Aberdeen YMCA Harriers and the North Eastern Harriers Association.
“Adams joined Aberdeen YMCA Harriers when he was discharged from the navy at the end of the First World War.
“He told me how, for a time, the club used a hut in Viewfield Road opposite Rubislaw Quarry as a base for training. To get there, members took the tram to what was then its terminus at Bayview and then walked the rest of the way.”
In one of his letters, Adams described the changing facilities at Viewfield and elsewhere, which were somewhat primitive.
He wrote: “At Viewfield an oil lamp was our only means of lighting. There was also a large zinc bath which we filled with water from a tap in the adjoining property.
“This, I may say, was for anything from 10 to 30 members to sponge themselves down or wash on their return from a training run.
“Eventually we had to move from there and we rented a wooden hut on the banks of the River Dee. The heating of the water was by the same method and the same bath was used. First to arrive got the water from the Dee, lit the stove and away the members went for the usual road training session.”
“After two or three years we transferred to a hut we had erected on a vacant piece of ground which the YM had rented. There we all did our share of making a lovely (by late 1920s standards) cinder track.”
This hut and track was on the south side of Linksfield Road, opposite where Linksfield stadium was built in the late 1930s – now the site of Aberdeen Sports Village.
After the Second World War neither the YMCA Harriers or the city’s other major club, the Shire Harriers, was able to successfully start up again.
Adams was to the fore in trying to revive the sport and was a key player in establishing Aberdeen AAC.