It’s Eastern Promise in the League!

Bill McGuirk

This article is reproduced from ChronicleLive.co.uk, with the kind permission of Colin George, Multimedia Editor, and was originally published online here on January 1st, 2009

THE North Eastern Harrier League has come a long way since it was formed under the banner of the Northumberland and Durham Paperchase League 100 years ago.

Early records show than in 1908, 14 clubs paid subscriptions of two shillings and six pence for the benefit of members, senior men only of course, to compete in eight fixtures “of not less than five miles and not more than eight miles”, with winners receiving a large certificate and runners-up being awarded a smaller one.

Today the league is unique in that it operates a handicap system which came into being, albeit in a slightly different form, in 1911, as the fixtures were cut from eight to six, as it is today. Certificates were replaced by medals, though the collective cost of those medals was not to exceed 35 shillings.

The Honourable Handicapper, as he was known, had heated discussions with his committee on numerous occasions when “unsatisfactory commencement” of several of the races “owing to the evident desire on the part of some runners to gain an unfair advantage over the stragglers”.

After a break for the First World War, cross-country running was on the upturn, so the league agreed for the first time to have a three-pack system which has stood the test of time and is still in use today.

In 1925 it was noticeable that more and more teenage runners were competing, even though they were lining up against seasoned seniors, so the league came up with the idea of hosting three junior races of not more than four miles for 16-18-year-olds and they were hosted by Newcastle Harriers, Saltwell Harriers and North Shields Harriers.

Problems with athletes not playing fair during the late 20s and early 30s clearly continued because in 1935 it was agreed that runners who violated rule nine, which states that you have to start with the correct pack, would be suspended for the rest of the season!

This transgression of the rules still manages to manifest as we go into 2009, but thankfully the guardians of the league aren’t so heavy-handed and a deletion from the results is the only penalty.

The league was forced into another adjournment due to the Second World War and when it restarted in 1947 it was found it had a debt of four shillings 10 pence so, reluctantly, it was voted to increase the subs to seven shillings and six pence per club.

Without the luxury of a sponsor and to keep finances ticking over, the league decided to ask for volunteers to carry round a collecting tin at the fixtures.

Two ladies stepped forward and did a superb job for many, many years which was appreciated by everyone, athletes and officials alike.

The following year serious discussions took place with the then president, a Mr J Kennedy, stating that clubs should be “cross-country-minded when laying out a course” because athletes had been given “quite a shock when going to the Northern and National Cross-County Championships”.

Also in 1948, Paper Chase was dropped from the league’s title and it became the Northumberland and Durham Harrier League, while a few months later discussions took place to add another race to the league’s programme after a cup was donated by Sherman’s Pools.

It was decided that it would take place on Newcastle Town Moor over a circuit of not more than three miles with youths, juniors and seniors running one, two or three laps respectively.

This cup is still competed for today under the auspices of the league, though now it has a boys’ event (under-13) added to the programme.

By 1953 the younger age group was incorporated fully into the league structure after initial overtures from Gosforth and Benwell Harriers.

The first time ladies were invited to take part was in 1958, though it wasn’t fully under the league’s structure. However, ladies eventually formed their own organisation in the 60s before merging with what had become the present North Eastern Harrier League in 1996.

The 60s also saw a huge surge in numbers competing in the league, with one B Foster winning the junior section in 1965-66. Attitudes to children taking part in serious sport relaxed and it was decided to introduce a colts section (12-14) to race no further than a mile and a half, which proved extremely popular.

In the early 70s names familiar to the modern set-up began to appear in races, with Morpeth’s Mike Bateman a “prominent senior” in 1972 while in the following season the leading colt, who then went on to dominate the boys’ and youths’ section, was an S Cram.

Decimalisation came and shillings went as subs were raised to £2 in 1974.

In 1976 the league’s current name was adopted, which coincided with numbers increasing dramatically.

This was reflected when, in 1984, the league secretary “noted with pleasure the performances of our Olympic representatives Steve Cram, Mike McLeod and Charlie Spedding, also the contribution made by athletic clubs in the area fostering the sport”.

The league was moving at a fast pace, so by the 1991-92 season computer printed results were in vogue thanks to the then secretary George Ogle, who can still be relied upon to step in and help when need be.

The number of senior men taking part was bigger than ever so, on a proposal by South Shields Harriers in 1993, the league was divided into three divisions, with promotion and relegation put into place, making clubs more aware of getting their members on the line.

Now the NEHL is one of the leading cross-country leagues in the country and the envy of many other organisations.

That can be put down to the excellent work done by secretaries over the 100 years, including the present custodians, Hugh and Steph Bingham, who will reluctantly stand down at the end of this season.

They will leave the league in a very healthy position, so much so that the league’s exceptional sponsors, Start Fitness, has arranged to give every senior man who finishes the final race of the season at South Shields on March 28 a commemorative award in recognition of 100 years!

ChronicleLive