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Alfred Shrubb: Remembering a Legend

Alfred Shrubb (Image courtesy of HDC/Horsham Museum)

Alfred was born at Slinfold in 1879, the fifth child of labourer William and Harriet who lived in Slinfold at the time. He worked on the building site at Christ's Hospital School as a teenager, before showing his athletics prowess when he ran to a fire in Southwater in 1899.

Cliff: "'Alfred lived in Trafalgar Road in Horsham. Fred Spencer, who happened to be the captain of Horsham Blue Star Harriers, was running after a fire engine which was on its way to a huge blaze in Southwater. Alf, running in his work boots, ran with him, and Fred was so impressed with his running that he invited Alf to join his club. That is how it all started.'

In the summer of 1899, Alf competed in his first ever competitive race and won comprehensively. The following year, he won the three mile road race in 15.55 minutes, beating club champion Fred Spencer, and then triumphed at the Sussex county four mile race at Bexhill, after which he signed to the South London Harriers.

Cliff: 'He started winning county races and moved up to national events and won those too. Standing just over five feet tall, Alf lacked height and weight, but was very fit with excellent stamina."

In 1901, Shrubb became all England champion at the 25th National cross-country championship, covering the 10 miles in 63.45.8, winning by 350 yards. Two years later, he smashed the three mile record in a time of 14:17:6 - a record that would last for 29 years. By the end of the 1904 season, Shrubb held the world records at 1 ½, 2, 3 and 4 mile distances and on November 5 1905 he broke seven world records in Glasgow.

Cliff: "Alfred used to run against relay teams featuring some of the world's best runners, because nobody could beat him. Still he would win. He would do unusual things, like running against a horse! He lost that one but there was a huge crowd. After a big win, he would return to Horsham and be carried shoulder high from the station down to The Bell public house in Park Street or The Anchor Hotel in Market Square. He was known the world over, and even went to Australia at the turn of the century, which was a massive undertaking at that time."

In August 1905, Shrubb's status as an amateur was called into question as he received prize money. To set an example to others, he was banned from amateur events and was forced to turn professional.

Cliff: "He had to travel around the country to compete, and he couldn't afford to do that without earning, so he took prize money and was banned. It was a class problem. At that time, our athletes were all Oxford and
Cambridge educated, and there were no working-class runners as they could not afford to come compete at amateur events. I've always thought it was a real injustice, as Shrubb was the real deal but he was essentially sent packing by British athletics."

Shrubb opened a tobacconists shop in Horsham town, selling a large and extensive range of tobacco, cigars and
cigarettes, but he set sail for America in 1907 to make his fortune on an unsuspecting nation. He won his first two races on 31 May in front of a stunned 20,000 crowd. For eight months he toured USA and Canada, earning good money on a well-organised professional circuit, before coaching at Harvard University. In 1909 Shrubb and his family settled in Canada.

Cliff: "Alf was all but forgotten here, because he was shunned by the hierarchy of British athletics. But in the Canadian town where he lived, they have a race in his honour and there is a road named after him too. They have a big Alf Shrubb following over there, even though he was in the twilight of his running career when he left. I first came across his story in a book called 'Little Wonder by Rod Hadgraft. I bought the book and ever since then it's been a bit of a crusade of mine to push his name forward in Horsham. There is such a fuss made of people like Shelley, but Alf Shrubb's achievements were quite amazing."

Shrubb returned to England in 1919 to coach the Oxford University Athletics Club, a post he would hold for seven years. He wrote a running manual that would inspire leading runners, including Sir Roger Bannister. He emigrated in Canada and became Curator/Keeper of a zoo in 1930. He received national fame there, but was largely forgotten in his home town until Cliff launched the Alf Shrubb Five Mile Memorial Race.

Cliff: "I had to hold the event in Slinfold, so needed the support of the village. I went to the cricket club and they welcomed me with open arms. The local farmers to have been fantastic too, allowing us to set up a cross-country course around the village, which is 40 metres short of being five miles. This year's event is the fourth year we have held the race. In the first race, in 2010, we actually had a fire engine lead the runners off, and Nathan Shrubb, a distant relative of Alf, won in a very good time.

This year's event, on Sunday 26 October, was won by Jon Pepper of Brighton Phoenix Club, in a time of 25.42. Max Dumbrill (Horsham Joggers) was second, whilst John Willcox was the first Slinfold runner home. Phylis Flynn was the first female. Two shorter junior races were also held.

Cliff: "I put a good prize up for the race, offering £100 for anyone who could break the course record. This attracted one of the top marathon runners in the country, which I was really pleased with. I was standing next to the timekeeper and the winner actually equalled the record, so strictly speaking he didn't break the record. But I had to divert the course this year, as the farmer didn't want us to go through a kissing gate, and this added about 10 seconds to the course time. So he deserved his £100!"

Alfred Shrubb died on St George's Day 1964, aged 84. Horsham Museum has a display showing some of Alf's books, medals and records, whilst Slinfold's village sign now has Alf's name alongside that of David Sheppard, the former England cricketer.

Cliff: "I hope to erect a blue plaque on the wall of The Anchor Hotel, which Alf used to frequent, but my
ultimate goal is to get the proposed new athletics track named after him. If I ever see The Alfred Shrubb Athletics Stadium then I would be happy. If someone said 'you can't do any more Shrubb-related events, then I wouldn't mind too much as I'd be satisfied that he had finally been properly recognised in Horsham."

For a full list of results visit https://www.sussexraces.co.uk/

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