NORMAN GREGOR

Photo courtesy Daily Record & Sunday Mail
Photo courtesy Daily Record & Sunday Mail

Michael Gordon Hildrey, b. Bute, 15 October 1941. Club: Victoria Park AAC. Top Scottish sprinter of the early 1960s who achieved much in a short career.

 

 

Norman Gregor set British pole-vault records indoors and out and ranked in the country’s top four for the event every year from 1950 to 1957. Yet he never competed in an international match – and this at a time when domestic standards in the event were nothing to shout about, except for the progress being made by the versatile Geoff Elliott. Gregor was the link between Elliott, who took the national record up a major scale and won a bronze medal at the 1954 European Championships, and the one pre-war British vaulter of real merit, Dick Webster.

 

Gregor set a British outdoor record of 13ft 6in (4.11m) in 1951 which bettered Webster’s mark of 4.00m from the 1936 Olympic Games and preceded Elliott’s 16 improvements from 1952 to 1959 which eventually reached 4.30m. The reason for Gregor’s absence from the GB team throughout his career was that he had competed in Highland Games professional meetings when he was young, and he was also honest enough to admit on an official AAA entry form that he had received a money prize while serving in the army during World War II. The modest postal-orders with which he had been rewarded were enough, in the eyes of British officialdom, to disqualify him from international honours, though he was allowed to take part in events in the home countries and in so doing met a number of overseas opponents, including the finest vaulter of the era, the Reverend Bob Richards, Olympic champion of 1952 and 1956, and other leading Americans.

 

Early exposure to professional athletics for Gregor is hardly surprising as he was born on 15 March 1923 at Crathie, in Aberdeenshire, christened Norman George Allan. Crathie now forms a single parish with Braemar, where the renowned annual Highland Games have been held since 1832. He did not take up pole vaulting until 1945, and he was aged 25 before he joined the Herne Hill Harriers club in October of 1948. His first appearances of note were the following season, by which time he was serving as a police officer with Kent Constabulary. He immediately made an impression for HHH at the Sward Trophy field-events meeting at Chiswick on 14 May by beating Tim Anderson, of the Achilles Club and London University, who had ranked 2nd in Britain the previous year to Webster. The height for both in that primitive age of bamboo and metal was a modest 11ft 6in (3.50m).

 

Further wins for Gregor followed in rapid succession at the Brockman Trophy meeting, for the AAA against the UAU, at the Kent Championships, and then at the British Games, the Scottish Championships and the Inter-Counties’ Championships at the White City (beating Anderson again). “Athletics” magazine (the monthly predecessor to “AW”) described Gregor’s progress as “meteoric” – which, of course, by British standards it was. At a police sports at Tonbridge, in Kent, on 11 June, he went over 12-8½ (3.87), and among Britons only Webster had ever done better. At the AAA Championships Gregor suffered his only defeat in 11 competitions, placing 4th as the title was won by an American, Peter Harwood, who had vaulted 13-6 (4.11) indoors the previous January, with Tamás Homonnay, of Hungary, 2nd at the same height of 12-6 (3.81) and Tim Anderson 3rd. Gregor’s training before the Championships had been disrupted by a poisoned hand.

 

There was a detailed analysis of all the field events at those Championships in “Athletics” magazine, written by Jim Alford, the Welsh national coach and reigning Empire mile champion from 1938, who had coached Geoff Elliott while he was still at school before passing him on to Geoff Dyson. Alford was not very complimentary about the British showing in the pole vault. He said of Anderson that “his push-up was for the most part still in a horizontal rather than a vertical direction”, and of Gregor that he “failed to get any foot elevation in his vaults”. In 5th place was a Jamaican, James Redpath, serving as a Flying Officer in the RAF, but his “flight” technique when it came to vaulting would not have pleased his commanding officer. In the words of Alford, Redpath “was unorthodox, to say the least, with a crab-like approach and crossing the bar mostly with his back turned towards it”.

 

Having said that, British pole-vaulting in 1949 would have been in a much sorrier state without the presence of overseas residents and servicemen, as the affiliations of the top 10 that year show: 1 Anderson, 2 Gregor, 3 Redpath, 4 J.T. Vorster (Polytechnic Harriers/Hungary), 5 Ray Petitjean (Loughborough Colleges/Army), 6 T.A. Longford (RAF), 7 Hans Sigg (Polytechnic Harriers/Norway), 8 Douglas Redsull (Herne Hill Harriers/Army), 9 Norman Dear (London AC/RAF), 10 F. Moseley (Sheffield United Harriers/Sheffield University). Redsull had placed 2nd in the AAA Championships of 1939 and as a clubmate of Gregor’s may well have provided him with some advice and guidance. Of the 11 others in Britain who managed to clear 10-9 (3.28) or better that year, including a promising 18-year-old from Wanstead Grammar School, in Essex, named Geoffrey Elliott, five were in the services and one was Danish.

 

Anderson won the Empire Games event in Auckland the following February with a personal best 13-0⅛ (3.96), and 12-9 (3.88) was sufficient to earn a bronze medal. Gregor, no doubt peeved at his missed opportunity, continued to improve from the very start of the summer season, clearing 12-11½ (3.95) for a Scottish native record at the Glasgow Highland Gathering on 19 May. The duplicity of the ban placed on him regarding international competition was shown up by the fact that the winner at 13-6 (4.11) was the Norwegian, Erling Kaas, who had placed 4th at the 1948 Olympics. Back in Scotland for the Glasgow Police Sports at Hampden Park on 9 June, watched by a crowd of 50,000, Gregor got the 13ft clearance he had been looking for, losing 2nd place to Kaas only on failures, and was then able to admire at leisure the dexterity of the future double Olympic champion, Bob Richards, who eventually cleared 14-8 (4.47) that afternoon for a British all-comers’ record and did his best to please the spectators even further by taking six unavailing attempts at 15ft ! A pity, though, that the officials had not thought earlier in the competition to set the bar at 13-1 or so, rather than 13ft, to give Gregor the chance of a British record.

 

The British record beaten after 14 years, but would it be ratified ?

 

Best performances were set by Gregor at the Kent Championships and Southern Championships, and then on 30 June at a Kent police meeting at Maidstone he cleared 13-6 (4.11) to easily beat Webster’s 14-year-old record. There was only a brief mention of this achievement in “AW”, and it was stated rather huffily that ratification as a record depended on “the amount of slope of the run-up and the question of whether it was an exhibition or invitation event”. The British Amateur Athletic Board, convening a fortnight later, rejected the record application, but presumably this was only for academic reasons because the up-to-date British rankings published by “AW” on 11 August, and compiled by those statistical devotees, Harold Abrahams, Norris McWhirter and Teddy O’Neill, had Gregor’s 13-6 at the top of the pole-vault list without any questioning of it.

 

This performance placed Gregor 20th in the European rankings for the year. The leader was Pyotr Denisenko, of the USSR, at 4.37, and there were five other Soviet vaulters in the top 20, together with four Finns, two Swiss and one each from Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy and Sweden. The AAA Championships event was won by a Dane, Rudy Stjernild, with Gregor and Tim Anderson joint 2nd, all three at 12-6 (3.81).

 

Gregor himself also had no misgivings about his “record”, as evidenced by the “AW” questionnaire which he completed and which was published in the issue for 15 December 1951. He readily cited his 13-6 as the performance that had given him the most personal satisfaction, though he was clearly intent on doing better. Asked about his objectives and ambitions, he replied, “To see at least six British pole vaulters, myself included, consistently clearing 14ft or over”.  Unfortunately, it was not to be: Gregor would eventually improve marginally to 13-6¼ (4.12) in 1954, but by the end of that decade there were still only two Britons, Geoff Elliott and Rex Porter, who had ever cleared 14ft.

 

Despite his impaired amateur status, Gregor was able to join his club on tour to Holland at the end of the 1950 season, which seemed to make further nonsense of the AAA ruling against him, and there he won all his high-jump and pole-vault competitions. His best high jump of the year was 6-2 (1.88) for 2nd place at the National Police Championships to a fellow-member of HHH, Eric Button, and that was good enough to rank equal 5th in Britain for the year with Button and four others behind Alan Paterson (the European champion), Peter Wells, Ron Pavitt and an Irish member of Liverpool Harriers, Don Atherton. Gregor, who would eventually improve his high jump to 6-3 (1.91), also had a useful long jump of 21-6¼ (6.56) to his credit.

 

In 1951 Gregor’s pole-vault best was no higher than 13-0 (3.96), though still ranking 2nd in the country to the South African undergraduate at Oxford, Andries Burger, and a long rivalry was begun with Geoff Elliott, who was now studying at London University. Elliott would generally have the edge over the years, but Gregor was to beat him from time to time and was the leading Briton at the AAA Championships, 3rd to Torfi Bryngeirsson, of Iceland, and Giulio Chiesa, of Italy. Gregor and Anderson would again tie for 2nd place when Geoff Elliott won the first of his three AAA titles in 1952. Gregor’s best that year was 13-3 (4.04), again at his favoured Maidstone pit, while Elliott equalled Gregor’s unratified British record on three occasions and then beat it with 4.15 for 1st place against France at Colombes in August. Neither Elliott nor Tim Anderson qualified for the Olympic final in Helsinki, though Elliott was a commendable 9th in the decathlon.     

 

Gregor’s 1953 best was a slight improvement to 13-3¾ (4.06) for another Scottish record at the Glasgow Rangers’ Sports on 9 August. He finished ahead of Elliott in this competition only five days after the latter had made a further improvement on the British record to 4.20 at the International Student Games (FISU) in Dortmund. The winner in Glasgow at 13-6 (4.11) was Fred Barnes, the US national collegiate champion who ranked 2nd only to Bob Richards in the World in 1953 with a best of 14-8 (4.47) in California in May. One can only surmise as to what Elliott and Gregor might have achieved with the benefit of such vastly superior facilities as those available in the USA. Gregor had a British record of his own late in the year when he cleared 12-10 (3.91) at the Festival of Sport in London’s Haringay Arena to beat Dick Webster’s indoor best of 17 years before.  

 

No place for Gregor in the list of Empire Games “possibles”

 

Yet it was an unconscious irony – or was it maybe a deliberately sly dig at officialdom by the astute “AW” editor, Jimmy Green? – that the brief mention in the magazine of Gregor’s indoor record should appear on a page opposite the publication of a list of Scotland’s “possibles” for the 1954 Empire Games. The one athlete named for the pole vault was also a policeman, Bill Piper, who had won the AAA junior title in 1949 but was never to do better than 12-2 (3.71) during his career. At the 1952 Police National Championships pole vault Gregor had beaten Piper 13-0 to 11-6 ! It should be said that Piper was primarily a high jumper, but as it happens he was not eventually selected for either event at the Games.   

 

Gregor’s career best 13-6¼ (4.12) was set at the Glasgow Rangers Sports the following summer of 1954 in placing 2nd to a seasoned American, Jerry Welbourn, who had been vaulting since he was 14 and who cleared 14-0 (4.27) on this occasion. The very same day, 7 August, the final session of athletics competition at the Empire Games in Vancouver was taking place, and Geoff Elliott was also achieving exactly 14ft to win the title, with the Oxford graduate, Andries Burger, competing for South Africa, taking the bronze at 13-6¾ (4.13). Gregor cleared 13ft or better in nine of his 12 competitions during 1954, including 13-6 (4.11) to beat Elliott on fewer failures at the Home Countries’ international match at the White City three weeks before the Empire Games event, and he had another fine win at 13ft over Elliott and Welbourn at the Edinburgh Highland Games on 21 August.

 

Gregor, who was 5-11½ (1.82) in height and weighed 12st (76kg), trained four times a week, sometimes at the Tooting Bec track. He gave full credit to coaching guidance for his achievements, and though in his “AW” questionnaire he did not name anyone he did, in fact, have some help from George Pallett, an AAA honorary senior coach at the Herne Hill club, who had himself been a fine pre-war all-rounder in the field events and an international long jumper. Pallett also coached Gregor’s youthful clubmate, George Broad, who won the AAA junior pole vault in 1951 and 1952. Gregor himself encouraged novices at his event to “study as many pole vaulters as you can and talk to them – their experience may be a short cut for you, and they never refuse advice”. 

 

The Herne Hill Harriers historian, Kevin Kelly, spoke to George Broad recently to clarify for “Track Stats” the matter regarding Gregor’s coaching and reported as follows: “George says that if Norman turned up at Tooting Bec then George Pallett would help him, but other than that he did not think there was much contact. Norman might have received regular advice from somebody in the police, but George was unaware of who that may have been. Norman was not a ‘regular’ at Tooting, and it might be more accurate to say that George Pallett advised him rather than coached him”.   

 

Gregor became a member of the Kenya police force in 1955 and his imminent departure was marked by a heartfelt tribute from the highly knowledgeable and entertaining “AW” columnist who wrote under the pen name of “Roamer”: “We shall be losing a popular athlete soon in the person of Norman Gregor, who is joining the police in Kenya next month. Norman has always carried a chip on his shoulder – many would say quite rightly – over the ban which has been his lot since his early days when he accepted some money prizes as a youngster. Though reinstated, when he knew what it was all about, he has never been able to represent Britain in an international or compete in Olympic, European or Empire Games. For an athlete who has been such a credit to amateur athletics, both on and off the track, and knowing how much shamateurism exists today, this was indeed a bitter pill to swallow. It says much for Norman that though he felt this deeply, he has never allowed it to influence the fine example he has always set others in the amateur game. He will take with him the best wishes of all those who have known him in Britain”.

 

As soon as Gregor arrived in Kenya he improved the national record, previously held by the RAF all-rounder, Hywel Williams, to 12ft and then to 12-5½ (3.80).and 12-11¾ (3.96), and he continued to compete to a comparable level for two more years.  

PERSONAL BESTS
Event  Performance Venue Date 
Pole vault 13' 6¼"" (4.12) Glasgow 7 August 1954
High jump 6' 3" (1.90) Maidstone 16 June 1951
CAREER PROGRESSION
Year Perf Year Perf Year Perf Year Perf Year Perf
POLE VAULT
1949 12'8½ 1950 12' 8" 1951 13' 6" 1952 13' 3" 1953 -
1954 13' 6¼" 1955 12' 11¾" 1956 13' 1¼" 1957 12' 9"    
HIGH JUMP
1949 6' 2" 1950 6' 2" 1951 6' 3" 1953 6 ' 2" 1954 6' 2"
INTERNATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
None - banned 
SCOTLAND INTERNATIONAL APPEARANCES
Year Opponents Event Place Performance
1950 England & Wales / Ireland Pole vault 1st 12' 6"
1952 England & Wales / Ireland High jump 4th 5' 10"
    Pole vault 1st 12' 6"
1954 England & Wales Pole vault 1st 13' 6"
HONOURS
Championship Event  Perf Venue Date 
GOLD MEDAL
Scottish Championship Pole vault 11' 3" New Meadowbank 25 June 1949
SILVER MEDAL
Scottish Championship High jump 6' 0" New Meadowbank 25 June 1949
AAA Championships Pole vault 12' 6" White City, London 15 July 1950
BRONZE MEDAL
AAA Championships Pole vault 12' 6" White City, London 14 July 1951
RECORDS
Event  Performance Place Date  Until
SCOTTISH NATIVE RECORDS
100 yards 9.8 New Meadowbank, Edinburgh 25 June 1960 10 June 1967
  9.8 Ibrox Park, Glasgow 10 June 1961 10 June 1967
  9.8 Murrayfield, Edinburgh 19 August 1961 10 June 1967
220 yards 21.5 New Meadowbank, Edinburgh 25 June 1960 26 May 1962
  21.2 Westerlands, Glasgow 26 May 1962 10 July 1976
SCOTTISH NATIONAL RECORDS
220 yards 21.2 Westerlands, Glasgow 26 May 1962 4 July 1964

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