WA History

Fowler versus Pollitt

When Tom Fowler (a well-known athlete of the Kalgoorlie and Day Dawn goldfields) heard about Geraldton’s champion athlete, James Pollitt, he decided to issue a challenge. Rumours started in early December 1908 that a running match was being organised between the pair. It wasn’t until January 1909 that the challenge was formalised, with an advertisement placed in the Geraldton Guardian.

James Pollitt accepted the challenge. He too handed over £10 to the editor of the Geraldton Guardian and signed an agreement to run a series of three races, of varying distances, which included: 75 yards, 100 yards, and 120 yards. The competitor who won two out of the three races would receive the prize money.

In the lead up to the competition (referred to by the papers as pedestrianism), mini-biographies of the competitors were printed in the newspaper. 

Tom Fowler was 29 years old and was originally from Clare in South Australia. He resided for many years on the Kalgoorlie goldfields before moving to Day Dawn. In both places, he competed in various running competitions and was the winner numerous times. 

James Pollitt was 23 years old and was born in Geraldton. He was a consistent performer on running tracks throughout the years and was the winner of several competitions held during the Geraldton Week Celebrations in 1907. It was noted that he was “generally recognised as the local champion.” 

With permission granted from the Council, the race was organised to take place on Fitzgerald Street in Geraldton, which was a metalled road. It was fixed to start at 3:30 pm on Wednesday, 10 February 1909. Before the race, an additional £15 each was handed over to the editor of the Geraldton Guardian, taking the total winnings to £50. To make sure that everything associated with the race was fair, a starter, check starter, referee and judges would be provided. 

Fitzgerald Street courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (066256PD).

Four days out from the race, excitement was building. It was reported that both men were fit and well, and that fast times and a close contest were anticipated, as they were both training regularly. 

On race day, about 15 minutes before it started, Fowler and Pollitt met on Fitzgerald Street. In front of 500 spectators, they picked the officials. The stationmaster, Joseph Kendrick, was appointed the judge. Printer and newspaper editor, Edward Constantine, acted as referee. Clerk, George Houston, was the starter. Auctioneer, George Baston, the check starter. Butcher, Stephen Haddy, kept the time. The proprietor of the Shamrock Hotel, Robert Wallace, prepared the track, and flour miller, Francis Oliver, was responsible for the race conditions. 

After selecting the officials, a coin was tossed to determine which part of the track they would run. Pollitt won and picked the course nearest the centre of the road. As they prepared, it was noted that the runners would be racing with a moderate wind behind them.

James Pollitt (left) and Thomas Fowler (right).

The 75-yard race was up first. Most likely filled with nerves and excitement, Pollitt had four false starts. On one occasion, the pistol was fired, but the men were recalled. When the race finally got underway, both competitors had a good start. Pollitt led for a short distance but was soon overtaken by Fowler, who won comfortably. His time was eight seconds. 

It was agreed that the person who lost the first race had the option to choose the distance of the second. Pollitt selected the 100-yard race. He again had several false starts. When they finally got away, Pollitt had a good start, however, at the halfway mark, Fowler overtook him. Fowler ended up winning by one and a half yards and with a time of 10 seconds. With two races won by Fowler, the third race was unnecessary. 

It was reported that everything relating to the race was above board and carried out smoothly. In the end, Fowler was the more experienced runner, a stronger competitor, and the winner of the £50. Pollitt was by no means disgraced, and, finished each race solidly. The hundreds of spectators who lined Fitzgerald Street thoroughly enjoyed the races, but there was, of course, some disappointment. Even though everyone admitted that the best man had won, they still would have preferred a Geraldtonian winner.

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 15 August 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO



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