The Pembroke Mile

Martlet: Issue 13 Spring 2009


While researching an article for the recent book Pembroke in our Time, I trawled the post-war Pembroke Gazettes for evidence of patterns in Pembroke sport.  We turn out to be stubborn in pursuit of victory yet good-humoured should it escape.  We can be over-enthusiastic (the 1990 tennis team played ninety minutes of football between two rounds of Cuppers), drily unshakeable (‘the sight of blood on the wicket,’ reports the cricket captain in 1992, ‘is never pleasing to an incoming batsman’), and sometimes shockingly obsequious (the 1948 Debating Society conveyed congratulations to Prince Elizabeth on her engagement).

These are all curiosities that for reasons of space I was unable to include in the book.  Another was the demise of the Pembroke Mile.

In the history of College sport, any innovation lasting for more than three years is instantly considered timeless.  Various Pembroke teams, notably the Pathfinders, the Pint-pots, the Prawns and the Perfectionists, were once considered imperishable features of Pembroke life.  This mid-century affection for nouns beginning with P was perhaps always destined to fade.

Not so the Pembroke Mile, a College running race that owes its existence to a pleasing geographical coincidence.  The distance from the Pembroke sports pavilion to the College front gate is exactly one mile.  Geography is no longer offered by the College, so no-one is immediately available with a trundle wheel to check the distance.  Instead, we have Google Earth – a mile, says the computer, exactly a mile, otherwise known to athletes as the classic middle-distance challenge.

Encouraged by a sense of sporting providence, as were earlier Pembroke generations, I set about discovering as much as I could about the original race.  The event is first recorded in a post-war Gazette in 1947, and then makes various appearances until 1952.  In that year it was contested by teams in fancy dress, and won somewhat inevitably by the Rugby Club.

The Pembroke Mile is often mentioned as if it hardly needs a mention – suggesting a much richer history than the Gazette is able to reveal.  A few years ago, for clarification, I could have popped in for a mug of gin with James Campbell.  In his much-missed absence, I contacted some former Captains of Athletics.

The response was astonishing, and I can state without reservation that running as an undergraduate contributes to mental sprightliness sixty years on.  It quickly became clear that the Mile was mainly a rugby club affair, or as darkly suggested by J.E.Joliffe (1947) an invention of ‘the Little Rose Crowd.’  Traffic then as now was a danger, or in the words of Graham Clarke (1945-1948 and 1951-1953) a ‘significant problem.’

Mr Clarke is the only recorded winner and therefore remains the official record-holder with a time of five minutes flat.  ‘It was intended to be more of a gala event than a serious race’, he writes, ‘and participants were encouraged to adopt fancy dress.  However it became clear that members of the Pembroke Athletics club in normal running gear were entering, and they were evident at the line-up.’

No ordinarily competitive Pembroke athlete could let the opportunity slip.  The serious runners risked getting embroiled in the more frivolous skirts and gowns of the fancy-dress contingent, especially when overtaking on narrow pavements.  Then they had to deal with the hazards of unmarshalled road-crossings.  In the year of his victory, Graham Clarke was paced to the finish by his friend John Moore on a bicycle, before collapsing triumphant on the forecourt lawn.  He still regrets not calling for beer or champagne (for the runners-up), but ‘was too exhausted to think of it at the time.’

The existence of an official Pembroke Mile trophy is never quite a certainty, but my correspondents hint insistently at the memory of the possibility of a glimpse of an engraved winner’s cup.

Peter Francon Smith (1949-1952) reminds me that this was, after all, nearly sixty years ago.  He was the organiser of the Pembroke Mile of 1950, but thinks the race was being run before the war.  1950 was the year, on an early autumn afternoon, that they erected a table on the grass by Fen Causeway –  the half-way point – and every runner had to drink half a pint of beer before continuing to the finish.

Through the many generous replies I received, the dry sporting humour I recognise from the Gazette is often evident: ‘Only Pembroke men were entitled to enter (ladies had not been invented at that time),’ as is a mood of game defiance: ‘I think it has taken me longer to write this letter than the running time of the Pembroke Mile.’

All my former Athletics captains were enthusiastic about the prospect of reviving the event (‘a fun race enjoyed by all’) and I can’t help but agree with them.  It would of course need today’s undergraduates to provide the energy and enthusiasm – qualities I’m told they have to spare.  If the taste for revivals takes hold, then next on the list is the Coxswain’s VIII, as crewed in 1950 – the year the Master decided to act as cox.  Now that would be something to see.