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The Man

by Rob Hadgraft

BORN in December 1879, Alf Shrubb was the fifth child of working class couple William and Harriet residents of the pretty rural Sussex village of Slinfold.

Times were tough for men like William Shrubb, who worked hard on the land to provide for his young family. The nation was gripped by a major agricultural depression at the time, made worse by a succession of wet summers and failing produce prices.  The situation led to many farm workers quitting and turning to other methods of earning a living. This was true of William Shrubb, who moved his family the short journey into the nearby town of Horsham, where he became a builder’s jobber. The family set up home d in Trafalgar Road.

Horsham was a relatively prosperous town, despite the woes of the farming community. And there was good news for the local economy when the famous Christ’s Hospital School of London announced it was buying land just outside Horsham in order to build itself a brand new home. The school was well known for the fact that its boys wore Tudor-style costumes and were known as The Blue Coat Boys.

Building the new school was a huge project that would take many years and would provide plenty of work for local men like William Shrubb. As young Alf entered his teens, he too was able to find work at the school building site. He worked as a labourer and as an apprentice carpenter.

By now Alf had developed a love for the fresh air and open spaces of the countryside and one of his favourite activities was to set off on foot in pursuit of the local fox-hunt. His speed, agility and local knowledge would see him often well ahead of the pack of hounds and the following horsemen. Little did he realise that these long and difficult runs were providing the stamina and training base for a future career as a runner.

More often than not, Alf would choose to run to work, too, a habit that seemed perfectly natural to him, but would cause great amusement among his workmates. In the late 19th century road-runners were not the common sight they are today!

Having broken into the word of competitive athletics in 1899, Shrubb quickly made friends and admirers in the sporting world. He was a very popular figure and many would remark on his approachable nature and his natural modesty.

Sporting neat slicked back hair and an impressive black moustache, Shrubb cut a small, slim and dapper figure – and it was no surprise that as his fame grew, the sporting press coined the nickname ‘The Little Wonder’ for him.

Having experienced at close hand the intricacies and intrigues created by the great professional and amateur divide in athletics, Shrubb soon became an astute and shrewd operator. In common with many runners before and after him, he learned how he could use his wonderful talent to its best possible advantage and continue to entertain his adoring public, despite the fact that officially he couldn’t earn a living from his sport.

Race promoters from all over the United Kingdom – and further afield – showed themselves willing to make arrangements that would enable Shrubb to race regularly in front of big crowds. And he would not be out of pocket for doing so. Sometimes Shrubb benefited from loopholes in the old AAA rules, sometimes he surely contravened them.  When the AAA decided to clamp down and banned him for life in 1905 for offences against amateurism, Shrubb received an unprecedented level of goodwill and sympathy from the sporting press, colleagues and the general public. Most folk seemed to think that Shrubb was simply a victim of a bad system and felt he could still hold his head high.

For his part, Shrubb decided to turn fully professional and use the last few years of his running career to make a good living for his young family. He made his professional debut in London a few days before marrying Ada Brown, the daughter of a hotel keeper in Haywards Heath. On the night of their wedding Shrubb had a further running engagement at London Olympia, and his bride must have been more than a little bewildered as their wedding ceremony was followed by a dash to London where her new husband changed into his running kit, and the happy couple were given a special welcome by a huge cheering crowd.

Within a few years Alf and his wife would have three more mouths to feed, following the arrival of a son Roy, and daughters Norah and Nancy. Despite these new responsibilities, and although there were other options open to him, Alf was keen that running should be his principal source of income while he was still fit enough to run at a high standard. 

His natural taste for adventure and a love of travel stood him in good stead as he set off on a solo trip to the USA where he believed he could earn good money on the blossoming pro running circuit in the New York and Boston areas. If things worked out, he would send for his family to follow on and join him. To his horror there was nobody to meet him at harbourside, New York and his introduction to Uncle Sam was frankly a rather miserable and lonely experience.

Within a short while, however, his determination and patience paid off, and once he’d made contact with the right people his pro career took off. By the end of 1907 thousands of sports fans in the USA and Canada knew who Alf Shrubb was. He was soon able to command huge sums as he took on and beat the best runners America could offer. He raced entire relay teams on his own and event took on horses when no human runners could be found to give him decent race!

By the age of 40 he was naturally beginning to slow up and, in any case, the world of pro running was on the decline. Shrubb turned to new ways of making a living, and after a stint coaching students at Harvard and then Oxford University, he made his home permanently in Canada in 1928.

He worked at the Cream of Barley mill in Bowmanville, Ontario, some 40 miles east of Toronto, where one of the continent’s favourite breakfast cereals was produced. Before long Shrubb was put in charge of a tourist camp and zoo that was developed alongside the handsome old mill. Shrubb’s love of animals and nature in general made him a natural for the job. There were horses, goats, foxes, a moose, Persian lambs, racoons, a golden eagle, minks and deer, among other things.

Although he missed the days of competition on the running tracks and cross country fields of old England, Shrubb loved his new life and would often bump into people who remembered his heyday as a sportsmen. He was hit by a double blow in 1946, however, when wife Ada died after many years of suffering badly from rheumatoid arthritis. His business partner James Lake Morden also passed away, and before long Shrubb decided to sell his interests in the tourist camp and mill and take life easier.

By the end of the 1939-45 War, Shrubb was well into his sixties but used to run and walk all over the area and kept himself exceptionally fit well into old age. In his later years he was looked after by his daughters Nancy and Norah. The latter is still living in Bowmanville in 2005 and now into her nineties.

In 1964, not long after slipping and damaging his ribs in his bathtub at Norah’s house, Shrubb was taken ill and died in hospital in Bowmanville. Appropriately, perhaps, for a patriot who loved representing his country, Shrubb passed away on St George’s Day. He was 84.