Clive Williams gives his personal memories of an irreplaceable athletics trendsetter
Athletics in Wales and indeed in the UK has lost one of its finest innovators with the death on Jan 3 of Bernard Baldwin at the age of 91. He was a man ahead of his time.
Although best known as the founder of the world renowned Nos Galan road races in 1958, his overall role in the development of the sport was immense.
My earliest memories of him go back to the early 1960’s and in particular to the Welsh novice cross-country championships in Gilwern. Here was this slightly balding gentleman still in his 30’s resplendent in a fawn mackintosh wearing brown suede shoes - despite the morass of mud and incessant rain, directing proceedings with a megaphone. He took that megaphone with him wherever he went. My abiding memory of Bernard is with that megaphone in his hand! Indeed, when he bought a new one, he gave me his old one……
Born in Barry in 1925, and one of seven children - elder brother Bramwell was Welsh junior mile champion in 1937. Six years later Bernard was to win the same title. Bernard trained as a teacher at the then Caerleon Training College, and after a brief spell teaching in Tintern, he took up a post as PE and music teacher at Mill Street School Pontypridd. Little did his headmaster know that in due course the whole of Welsh athletics was being run from the school!
Following the success of Nos Galan, somehow he convinced the local dignitaries in Pontypridd to allow him to hold a sprint race in Taff Street - reputed at the time to be the busiest street in Wales. And so the Taff Street Dash was born in 1959 over a distance of 250 yards from the Fountain to the New Inn Hotel. And who did Bernard get to run in this race - as you would expect, only the best!
Well, he convinced Britain’s number one sprinter and the following year’s Olympic 100m bronze medallist Peter Radford, who was a student in Cardiff, to run. Radford duly won the race with another British international Dave Segal second. The race eventually became a 100 yards race in 1961, and continued until 1975 although the event was briefly revived in 1991.
A young Maesteg schoolboy by the name of J.J. Williams won the event in 1966 and also in 1971. The future rugby superstar recalls: “I have fond memories of all of Bernard Baldwin’s events and particularly The Taff St Dash - the event was amongst my earliest recollections of top athletics in Wales.” JJ continues: “If you were drawn in lanes one or four, you had no chance of winning because you were either in the gutter or on the pavement amongst the crowd - all the winners came from lanes two or three!” The after-race function at the New Inn Hotel, which also served as the annual dinner of the Road Runners Club of Wales, of which Bernard was the founder, was his real show piece. His unique show business-style talent entertained the guests until the early hours with his anecdotes and comments on virtually every person in the room - up to 300 of them!
Amongst the other events organised by Bernard in the guise of the Nos Galan Committee or other organisations he formed such as Road Runners Club (Glamorgan) - or its successor Road Runners Club (Wales), were a series of events which brought athletics to the people - long before the advent of the major marathons or the street athletics we see on our TV’s from Birmingham, Manchester or Gateshead. On the surface organised by these groups, they were first and foremost the idea of the redoubtable Bernard, who must take the credit for their introduction and organisation. These included the Easter Road race series at Pencoed, the Wattstown Road Races and the immensely popular series of evening road races in such places as Cilfynydd, Glyncoch, Pwllgwaun, Hopkinstown, Merthyr, Troedyrhiw and many other venues in south Wales.
These events attracted the stars of the day, and to a certain extent some of the locals did not appreciate the quality of the athletes being paraded before them. Imagine a small terraced street in Wattstown in the Rhondda Valley, with the Olympic 100m bronze medallist, and two other world record holders about to run in a 100 yards event in the middle of the road.
I can well remember a local miner, popping his head around the front door of his terraced house and asking Bernard - with megaphone in hand: “What the hell is going on here today then.” To be told that world record holders Peter Radford, Ron and Berwyn Jones, plus several other of Britain’s top athletes were running in a 100 yards race just outside his front door, completely bemused him. To him it was equivalent to a modern day prank set-up for a TV programme so he promptly closed the door and went in!
Another of Bernard’s innovative events was the Cardiff to Mountain Ash 2 man relay. Almost unbelievably for today’s athletes, two runners shared a car, hopping in and out of the vehicle. The first event in 1964 was won by Gilwern Harriers. Unfortunately, this unique event is no longer with us, as it fell foul of the many traffic restrictions which were then coming into force.
Bernard also organised a Cardiff to Swansea 2 man relay. This survived for just three years between 1963 and 1965 and was the forerunner of the shorter Cardiff-Mountain Ash event. Welsh athletics stalwart and former Welsh CCA secretary John Collins was in the winning team each year. John recalls that one team used a hatchback for convenience whilst another used a van with back doors removed!
Yet another event Bernard organised, was the 40 miles track race at Cardiff’s Maindy Stadium, where world best performances were set in two of the races by the late John Tarrant in 1966 and Lynn Hughes the following year. Alan Phillips who was to set world best performance times for both 40 and 50 miles in Walton in 1966 took the 50 miles race in 1968.
Such was the esteem in which Bernard was held, The Nos Galan organisation ventured over the border to Bristol in 1973 when they promoted a 20 miles track race on the new track at Whitchurch which saw the future 1974 Rome European marathon 4th placer Bernie Plain set a new UK all-comers’ best. On hearing the news of Bernard’s death, Bernie, now a non-executive director Welsh Athletics, said: “I have the greatest admiration for Bernard. His organising ability was second to none. I am proud to call him a friend”
But it was the Nos Galan races in Mountain Ash that took pride of place in his vast list of achievements. He conceived it, he ran it in his own inimitable style for many years and it was his.
Whilst the modern series of Nos Galan events start during the day and finish well before midnight, uniquely the original 4 mile race started in one year and finished in the next. This idea came from 1956 National (UK) Cross Country Champion Ken Norris, who had won the iconic Sao Paulo midnight race in Brazil in 1956.
Bernard and Ken first met at Merthyr AC’s annual dinner, where Ken had been the guest speaker, and it was this first meeting that sowed the seeds of Nos Galan. Modelled on the Sao Paulo event, Ken gave his winning trophy to Bernard for presentation to the winning team in the midnight race.
That first Nos Galan consisted of just two events - a 100 yards sprint in Oxford Street at 8pm and the midnight 4 miles race. The events were confined to senior men, unlike today, and four of the best sprinters in Great Britain trotted out of Castree’s Men’s Shop for the first 100 yards race. The winner was the afore-mentioned Peter Radford with Dave Segal second and local man Ron Jones the future Welsh sprint-star third. Ron would go on to be one of the mainstays of the sprint event and take the title on six occasions. Says Ron: “I am desperately sorry to hear of Bernard’s death. He was a personal friend and it was down to him that I started out as a sprinter.” Ron went on the captain Britain’s Olympic team in 1968. The inaugural winner of the midnight race was one of Britain’s leading middle distance stars at the time, Stan Eldon.
To maintain interest during the intervening hours after the 100 yards and up to start of the big race, Bernard, hit on the idea of having a mystery runner to run with a lighted torch from the graveside of Guto Nythbrân at Llanwonno Churchyard down into Mountain Ash, light a beacon outside the Town Hall and so signal the start of the midnight race. Bernard had learned of the feats of Guto from one of his pupils at Mill Street School in the early 1950’s so he decided that a mystery runner would represent the spirit of Guto’s achievements 200 years earlier.
The list of mystery runners is a who’s who of the greatest athletes ever produced by Britain including Olympic champions Lynn Davies, Linford Christie, David Hemery, Ann Packer, Mary Rand and world record holders Derek Ibbotson, Dave Bedford, Colin Jackson, Tony Simmons and Steve Jones. Only someone with the guile and skill of Bernard Baldwin could persuade the 1964 Tokyo long jump champion and world record holder Mary Rand to run 4 miles at midnight in pouring rain!
“Nos Galan is one of the few events in Britain which has imagination and has a special brand of magic” – said former world 10,000m record holder Dave Bedford after his victory in 1969.
In 1969 the Mystery Runner was Lillian Board, the 400m silver medallist from the previous year’s Mexico Olympics. Like Mary Rand she had never run 4 miles before in her life but she took it in her stride and made a dazzling figure, all in white, as she ran down the mountainside from Llanwonno. Her appearance in the event was again a tribute to the Bernard’s persuasive powers. The whole country mourned Lillian’s death from cancer less than a year later.
The presentation ceremonies for the early Nos Galan races were in true Olympic fashion, and the idea of Olympic runners running through the streets of a mining town in south Wales, especially at midnight on New Year’s Eve caught the imagination of the press. The event was carried in every major newspaper and on every television channel - such was the persuasive qualities of Bernard.
Bernard’s enthusiasm for the event was almost to end in disaster in 1967, as rockets on the back seat of his car, due to be used to announce the arrival of the mystery runner at the Town Hall in Mountain Ash, exploded as he led the mystery runner down from Llanwonno, and the car was burned out. Bernard and Nos Galan treasurer Tom Lewis received serious body burns and were rushed to the special burns unit at Chepstow Hospital. Fortunately, both recovered, but the ordeal had a lasting effect on both of them.
Bernard contributed far more to Welsh and UK athletics than his involvement in Nos Galan and the many other road race promotions he organised.
Between 1966 and 1975, he was secretary of the Welsh AAA and was awarded the MBE in 1971 for services to British athletics. He became the Welsh delegate to the BAAB, effectively the UK governing body and one of six national team managers, taking teams to all parts of the world. The Welsh AAA awarded him their Award of Honour in 1975.
He has written or compiled numerous booklets and diaries on Welsh athletics, was Welsh correspondent to Athletics Weekly for 22 years, and for many years a prolific contributor on Welsh athletics to the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, South Wales Argus and Sunday Express, and a regular broadcaster on BBC Wales. He was also the author of several books on the history of Mountain Ash. To underline his boundless energy, he also found time to undertake public address duties at numerous athletics meetings in Wales - and type and run off on his ancient duplicating machine, the first Welsh Athletes Best Performer lists produced by myself and Ken Bennett in 1963.
Underlining his all-round talent he played the cornet and trumpet, was an amateur magician, and a linguist speaking French and Russian.
Rhondda Cynon Taf Council granted him the Freedom of the County Borough in 2014, in recognition of his remarkable contribution to the world of athletics and Nos Galan.
Apart from his Welsh junior mile title, he was a very good middle distance runner. He once told me that one of his greatest regrets was not finishing in the 1947 International Cross Country - the forerunner of the present day world championships - race in Paris. He had gained selection for the Welsh team by finishing an excellent second in the Welsh championships - over a minute ahead of the future Olympic silver medallist Tom Richards who was the first Nos Galan mystery runner in 1958.
Bernard was a remarkable man with ceaseless energy. We will not see his like again. He was Mr Welsh Athletics.
Bernard is survived by wife Pat, daughter Alison and son-in-law David. Funeral arrangements can be found here.