Thames Hare and Hounds was formed in 1868 making it the oldest adult cross-country club in the world. It was founded by members of the Thames Rowing Club at Putney whose members were looking for an activity to keep themselves fit during the winter months and so emerged from the water and made the short journey up Putney Hill to Roehampton and Wimbledon Common. Their first such event was on 7th December 1867 when they organised a steeplechase from the Red Lion, Putney. They were to do this on two other occasions, on 1st February and 21st March 1868. Later that year, on 3rd October, the following notice appeared in the The Sportsman:

“THAMES HARE AND HOUNDS

A handicap ‘ paper hunt will take place on Saturday 17th October, starting from the King’s Head, Roehampton Bottom (one mile from Barnes Station) at 4.30 p.m. (3.45 p.m. train from Waterloo). Hounds, who must be introduced by some member of the Thames Rowing Club or belong to an athletic club, rowing club, school, etc., will be roughly handicapped. A pewter will be given to the hound first to reach each hare.”

This was the first recognised run of Thames Hare and Hounds.

The mid-Victorian sporting world in which the club was founded was very different from today and dominated by one issue more than any other: the distinction between the amateur and the professional, in essence those who could play for fun and those who could not. For Thames, the principle of gentlemen amateurism was enshrined in the club’s ethos right from the start. Walter Rye – the club’s first President – was an untiring scourge of the professional and ensured that his view of how sport should be practised was a pillar of the club’s early rules:

“VI.

No one who is not over eighteen years of age, or who is not a gentleman by position and education, shall be eligible for election.

[…]

IX.

No Member shall compete at any Tradesmen’s Meeting under pain of expulsion at the next or any subsequent Club Meeting. Members are particularly requested not to run at any sports as to the management of which there is the least doubt; and it is suggested that, in case of doubt, they should communicate with the Secretary of this Club.”

Although Thames’ stance was far from unusual, the club was one of the more zealous in its application of both the term “gentlemen” and the term “amateur”. As a newspaper of the early-1870s commented:

“The Peckham Amateurs v. Hare and Hounds.

The Thames Hare and Hounds Club, whose headquarters are at Wandsworth, recently considered a resolution, by which it was resolved that intercourse should not be held with any club, and more particularly with certain clubs whose members do not come up to that standard of gentility which, in the opinion of the Thames Hare and Hounds, accords with the haut ton claimed to belong to all members of their own body. But unfortunately for this extreme section of “genteel gentility,” the name of the Peckham Amateur Athletic Club is included in this athletic index expurgatorium, the North London Harriers and the Railway Clearing House Harriers being also specified by name, and of course equally interdicted.”

This attitude meant that for many years the Club had what can only be described as a fairly healthy aversion to championships and anything that could be deemed to be getting a bit too serious. Despite this, Thames was heavily involved in start of the National Championships, when they arranged to meet Spartan Harriers and South London Harriers over a course from the Bald-Faced Stag at Buckhurst Hill in Essex on 18th November 1876. However, it was in reality a fairly low-key event and referred to in some publications as, “The London Cross-Country Championship.” What is certain is that the outcome, was unexpected:

“The story of Buckhurst Hill is soon told. South London started fourteen men, Thames thirteen and Spartans five. The rain poured down, the paper ran out, the runners wandered about frozen and lost, no race was declared and it was agreed to re-run at Roehampton.”

After the fiasco, “The first race for the championship of the metropolitan paperchase clubs” came off on 24th February 1877 over an 11¾-mile course from the King’s Head at Roehampton. It was a double victory for the home club, taking both the team contest and the individual honours through Percy Stenning – the first of his four consecutive wins.

However, after a second victory in 1879, Thames involvement in the National quickly waned. For the first few years, the championship had been “a little family party affair between Thames Hare & Hounds, Spartan and South London Harriers” and this suited Thames’ view of the world. As it became established, more clubs wanted to enter and others wanted their turn to host it. All in all, it was getting a bit too serious for Thames and Walter and the desire for a more spectator-oriented affair on an enclosed and lapped course (such as Wembley Park or Sandown Park) was something that did not accord with his view, as he put across witheringly in his essay on cross-country for Athletics and Football:

“In 1879 the Thames were lucky again, but in 1880 had to go down before a very well trained, if rough, team of the Birchfield Harriers. In 1881 (when no fewer than 105 ran) the Moseley Harriers came up for the first time, and beat the holders easily, and the next year exactly repeated the performance.

Since then the affair has degenerated into a gate-money meeting held on enclosed grounds, and forms the medium of heavy betting and little sport, the change having been effected chiefly at the instance of the countrymen and their allies, ostensibly because they wanted a ‘rougher, more open country,’ but really because they wanted to take the management of the meeting from its original promoters, who would have nothing to do with gate and betting.

Some day, when the loathsomeness of the roping and betting has disgusted the better class of runners, a championship, in which gentlemen can take part without loss of self-respect, will probably be again instituted on the old lines. But betting must be literally stamped out, and the prizes made quite nominal before we can see who runs for the sport, and who for the profit.”

Thames’ involvement petered out entirely after 1883 and they also abstained from involvement in other athletic bodies that were starting to spring up, including the Southern Counties Athletic Association (1884) and South of the Thames Cross-Country Association (1888). Rye, again, had a fairly scathing opinion of these institutions:

“Meanwhile nearly all the clubs (except the oldest) belong either to the Northern, the Midland, or the Southern Counties C.C. Association, which are supposed to govern their members by the A.A.A. rules, but which are all either unwilling or unable to stop the abuses of betting and team concoction, which have much injured the pastime in the eyes of real sportsmen.”

With its stance clearly set, Thames’ immediate future was one of self-imposed isolation, even if this put the future of the club at risk. At the 1895 A.G.M., the Honorary Secretary gloomily reported that:

“it was with the utmost regret that he had to inform members that attendances of the active members had fallen to such an extent that nearly all the club runs had not taken place, and only one of the three members’ handicaps had been contested – and then by four members – He said that he thought the only way to revive the club was to change the headquarters to a more suitable district close to a railway station.”

No fixture card was published for the forthcoming season due to the uncertainty of any matches actually taking place and in the event it was only some vigorous recruitment by members that saved the club and led to a more upbeat report from the Honorary Secretary at the following year’s meeting.

However, neither this narrow brush with oblivion nor the departure of Rye to Norwich in 1900 heralded a change in the Club’s stance. His son, Frank already had a strong control over the day-to-day affairs of the club as Honorary Secretary (a post he had held since 1894 and would hold until 1905) and was just as much of a traditionalist.

Therefore, by the early 20th century, Thames was very settled into a comfortable pattern of fixtures, which included club Handicaps and Challenges, matches against local rivals such as South London, Blackheath and Ranelagh Harriers, the University Race, public school fixtures, occasional contests against Services teams and – when there was an empty Saturday – so-called “ordinary” runs or paperchases. For the next 20 years or so very little changed. Thames quite happily bobbed along outside the mainstream of the athletic world, with attention only being drawn to them by the annual University Race – at that time a significant event in the athletic calendar.

Change, however, had to come and if there was an impetus for it, it was brought about by the Great War, which took a heavy toll on the club and for a while put its very survival at stake once again. Combined with this was the modernising influence of Harry Hall, who took on the Secretary’s role in 1923. Perhaps the final nudge the club needed came in 1921, when one of its members (D.M.Butt) finished in ninth in the Southern and 18th in the National, but had to join local rivals Ranelagh Harriers to do so. Under Hall’s influence – he also served as President of the South of the Thames Cross Country Association (1930-31) and Secretary (1931-44) and President (1933-34) of the Southern Counties’ Athletic Association – an application was made in 1923 to join the latter body. At almost the same time (October 1922), another fairly radical shift took place in the institution of the position of “Captain of Running”.

With these events the ball had started rolling and the club’s fixture card began its gradual evolution into one that we would recognise today. Within five years of the institution of the captaincy position, the club had established its most enduring fixture against Ranelagh (later to evolve into the Mob Match in 1973). In 1937, the club entered the National for the first time – according to the club’s minute book – “for many years.” At this stage, the commitment to it was fairly lukewarm:

“the club entered a team for the National, primarily to support McIntyre in an attempt on international honours.”

A year later, however, came a more momentous achievement. With a team consisting of Jim McIntyre (2nd), George Atkinson (9th), Geoffrey Honniball (12th), Hugh Bryant (22nd), David Percival (24th) and Tony Race (39th), Thames secured its first cross-country championship for 62 years with victory in the South of the Thames at Cobham on 12th February (108 points to Mitcham A.C’s 135). As the club’s minute book reported:

“This is the first victory of the club in championships since Thames won the first two National Championships 60 years ago and it was so fittingly celebrated that according to Low’s Topical budget in the Evening Standard, Church Cobham is now popularly known as Cobham and Gomorrah.”

However, these few changes did not herald an abandonment of the club’s devotion to the role of the gentlemen amateur. A comparison of the fixture card at the dawning of World War Two and even into the 1960s and early 1970s shows one that was broadly comparable, beyond participation in the Championships races, with that of the early 1900s. Indeed, in 1953, the club established the Old Boys’ Race , which strengthened the links with the public schools further.

Nevertheless, the progress of the 1920s and 1930s had had a beneficial impact and the arrival of another war in 1939 did not put quite the same strain on the club. It was able to remain more active and issued a general invitation to runners who were in London to make use of the changing rooms at the King’s Head. There is a record of it being used on 378 occasions during the war period. Sadly, it also saw the loss of the instigator of change – Harry Hall – who fell from a railway carriage during at blackout, while returning from the club’s opening run in September 1944.

After the war, the club got back going very quickly, particularly once Peter Miller had acceded to the Captaincy in 1954. Peter harvested the now well-established links with Oxford, Cambridge and the public schools and was able to boast some fine runners in his team, although never in sufficient number to mount a serious challenge for either the South of the Thames or the Southern.

It is perhaps significant that real momentum for the evolution of the club to its respected and competitive position today started to build in the early-1970s, just as the physical backdrop of the club began to move steadily away from its Victorian and somewhat rural past. First, in 1973, the club registered as competing in road running. Prior to this, some members – including Frank Carpenter and Anthony Eady – had competed on the roads in the colours of Orion Harriers, but generally, it was seen as an unmentionable activity.

Six years later, in 1975, came Thames’ most significant performance yet. With a team that included Harold Chadwick (19th), Henk Altmann (23rd), John Hazelden (45th), our current President, John Bryant (54th), John Valentine (55th) and Peter Braithwaite (69th), Thames finished second in the Southern at Parliament Hill. Such was the incredulity that quaint old Thames Hare & Hounds could have taken the runners-up spot in one of the prime cross-country fixtures that the announcer, having proclaimed the result then “corrected” himself, “That must mean Thames Valley Harriers.”

Another four years were to pass before perhaps the biggest step of all. In 1979, a decision was taken to join the Surrey League. The competition had only been established in 1962, but in that short amount of time, it had become a staple for all of the strongest of the local clubs. There is no doubt that for the likes of Walter Rye – had they been around – the thought of joining a league would have been beyond the pale and tantamount to professionalism. Indeed, even in 1979 the support of the President for the new venture was only on the basis that it did not interfere with “more important” fixtures. Phil Gilbert – captain from 1983 to 1985 – takes up the story:

“From 1976-79, I was a student at Durham University. While I was there, I learnt a little about engineering and a bit more about sport. Apart from being a reasonable runner and captain of the university athletics team, I also discovered mountaineering, fell running, orienteering and Nordic skiing. The coach of the cross-country club was Alan Storey who later became director of the London Marathon. He introduced me to the idea of training in some kind of structured way. In the University we had a number of good athletes including Tim Woods and Ian Beauchamp (both of Ranelagh Harriers), Mike Coram and Hugh Symonds (who ran the first continuous trip over all the 3,000 footers in the British Isles). We also had lively inter-collegiate league and one of my favourite competitors was Rob Swann who ran wearing boxing sweats, boots and a weighted belt. In 1992, he became the first man to walk to the north and south poles, so his training methods eventually paid off. Being in the north-east meant that we frequently met the Newcastle University runners and these included Kevin Foster (later a Great Britain marathon international), Bill Foster (England marathon runner) and Richard Coles. Bill and Richard were members of Blackheath Harriers. On top of this, Alan coached runners at Gateshead including Mike McLeod and Charlie Spedding and we were sometimes roped in to provide cannon fodder for their Sunday runs.

When I graduated, I got a job in London and decided to move to Wimbledon and rented some rooms in a house on 281, Church Road, next to the tennis ground. My landlady was an Australian who was a member of the Hash House Harriers and a friend of Quentin Clough. I was training on my own and “Q” persuaded me to go to “the Thames” where I was led through the “introduced, proposed, produced, elected” maze and became a member in 1979. I cannot recall who my sponsors were but my closer associates at that time were Al Gibbons, Ned Paul, David Fuller, Paul Newby, David and Miriam Rosen and Martin Turner. Apart from running at Thames, I started to train with Mike Coram, Bill Foster and Clive Thomas (a Welsh international track athlete), whose favourite session included eight hard 400m repetitions up Victoria Drive outside my lodgings.

Running with Thames was good fun, and the traditions and social side were great, but the fixture card was limited to a mixture of challenge matches, championship races and the University Race. We could still call in a number of senior runners from John Bryant’s cohort such as John Hazelden and Henk Altmann, but the gap between the standard of these runners and the average Thames member was huge and we did not seem to have any new blood coming in. In 1980, my second season at Thames, Al Gibbons was elected as Vice-captain and I was elected as a Handicapper (to join Paul Newby). I also bought a flat at 388, Merton Road and started to meet Al for a pint of Young’s in the Pig & Whistle, just down the road.

Inspired by a few pints of bitter, we discussed if Thames’s heritage could be maintained in the future without a stronger competitive basis. We discussed recruitment and decided that we would set out personally to persuade any good runners that appeared unattached to join Thames. Al told me that he had seen a guy running in Richmond Park – later discovered to be Bill Snelgrove – and started to stalk him. I also persuaded Mike Coram, who was a member of Westbury Harriers, to turn out as a guest. I continued with Al’s stalking plan and over the next few years netted Andy Thomas (by a Durham connection) and Dave Hill (by another north-east connection). However, we had begun to realise that without a stronger local identity and more regular races Thames might struggle to attract and retain good athletes. So we decided to focus our efforts on the Surrey League, which we had entered in division two in 1979.

We actually did better than expected as the Officers worked hard at getting out runners and Thames was almost always the most numerous club. We were promoted to Division One in 1986 and established ourselves as one of the better Surrey clubs just below the top echelon occupied by Hercules Wimbledon, Belgrave Harriers and Herne Hill Harriers. Over the next decade Thames continued to grow in strength and stature until we won the league and enjoyed the most successful period in the club’s competitive history.

Flushed with success in the winter of 1983, we decided to steer the club towards the London Road Running League and at our first attempt won the Division Two title in 1984. This league was sponsored by Nike and I asked them if we could have our prize in the form of sets of running strip. When it was eventually delivered we had white singlets with black satires, blue piping and embroidered Nike logo, and black shorts with white trim. This caused consternation as the club rules specified white shorts but the committee was persuaded that we could wear our new coloured shorts. I still have a picture on my wall of me crossing the line at 2 hours, 29 minutes in the 1985 London Marathon wearing my Nike strip.”

As Phil mentions, the entry to the Surrey League provided the impetus to take the club forward and through the efforts of several hard-working captains, we were able to achieve promotion to the top flight in 1986 and its first Division 1 victory in 1995. Since then, the club has added six more titles to its tally (the last being in 2010) and has finished in the top two every season for over a decade. Perhaps the crowning year was 2000-01, when the club took the honours not only in Surrey League Division 1, but also in the South of the Thames Senior (held over home turf) and Southern Counties’ Championships.

Alongside the success in the Surrey League, four years after the entry to the Surrey League, the club entered the Southern 12-Stage Road Relays for the first time and achieved qualification for the National event in 1991. Things had very much changed.

Up to this point, this history has focused on the men’s side of the club, reflecting the fact that for the first 113 years of the club’s existence, it was an exclusively male institution. The admission of women as members in 1981 – two years after the men’s entry to the Surrey League – was probably the final piece in the jigsaw. The politics and process for women joining the club was complex, emotive and lengthy; but suffice it to say that over the past 30 years, the ladies’ side of the club has developed and strengthened to a point where – at the time of writing – it has just secured its third Surrey League Division I title in succession.

Having said all this, many facets of Thames life remain pretty much as they always have been – the handicaps, the challenges, the courses, the Mob Matches, the dinners, the social engagements and so forth. It is this that sums up the club today – a very healthy mix of the traditional and the modern. Many aspects of the club would still be recognised by Walter Rye, Percy Stenning et al it they were to walk into the club’s headquarters today. However, the club has managed to thrive by also allowing a gradual evolution to take on the best parts of modern athletics. Had this not happened, had the club stubbornly stuck to the past, it is likely that it would have gone the way of some other great names from athletic days gone by – Lea Harriers, Spartan Harriers, Polytechnic Harriers, Surrey A.C. and Moseley Harriers – or at least ended up as an athletic backwater. That it did not means at the start of the 21st century it is one of the most diverse, interesting and, in historical terms, rich clubs in existence.