The life and death of Newport cross country star Albert Palmer
LAST month, the South Wales Argus asked readers for help in tracing descendants of Newport Harriers cross country star Albert Palmer, in order that former club secretary Richie Jenkins could hand over one of the many medals the runner won during his all-too-brief career in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. That search is ongoing – but information gained as a result of that story has helped reveal more about Mr Palmer’s life, cross country career, and the awful accident that killed him. Newport has bred, or been home to, many sporting stars.
It is clear from what has come to light that Albert Palmer – albeit belatedly – deserves a place among them. TWICE a Welsh cross country champion and in the medals on three other occasions, Albert Palmer – born near Stroud in Gloucestershire – achieved much in what appears to have been a relatively short period as a serious athlete. According to ‘Harrier’, the pseudonymous South Wales Argus athletics correspondent at the time, Palmer’s athletics career “only dates back about half a dozen years”.
These words were published on April 29 1904, barely 24 hours after the 31-year-old met his death, in an ‘appreciation’ of Palmer written by someone who was clearly a friend and an admirer of his talents and character. Palmer had fetched up in Newport in the 1890s with brother William, both of whom were seeking work, and before long Albert found it at St Julian’s Brickworks. “His reputation is that he was a hard worker, exceptionally courteous, and so strong that he was never tired,” wrote Harrier.
Details of the workplace incident that killed him, again relayed by Harrier, are as matter-of-fact as they are horrific: “Wedged between the side of an eight-ton railway truck loaded with bricks, and a brick-walled siding. “There was practically no hope for his recovery from the time of the accident. An ordinary man would probably have been killed outright.
“I saw him at the St Julian’s Brickworks after the doctor had attended him, and again last night at the Newport and County Hospital, and it was apparent to my untrained eye that never again would he lead and encourage “the boys” across hill and dale.” Albert Palmer in 1902
At the time of his death, Palmer lived in Maindee with his wife Lucy – also from Stroud – and three children. The year he died was the fourth in succession in which he had been captain of Newport Harriers, a role he had fulfilled with distinction and success. Individually, he had finished third in the Welsh Cross Country Championship in 1899, before winning the title in 1900 when it was staged in Caerleon.
He triumphed again in 1901, in Ely in Cardiff, before finishing third in 1902, again at Caerleon, and second in 1903. During this period too, Newport Harriers was the dominant cross country team in Wales, winning Welsh team titles for several years in succession from 1899.
The Newport Harriers team in 1899 Further evidence of the club’s strength lies in the fact that for the first official International Cross Country Championships, held outside Glasgow in 1903, it provided 10 participants, a record for a Welsh team representation. Palmer, of course, was among them and finished 27th in the individual placings, though Wales finished fourth and last in the team event, decided on a points system based on individual runners’ placings.
He was selected for Wales again the following year, when the event was staged in Lancashire, but dedication to family proved stronger even than his love of running. As Harrier relates, Palmer “was unable to compete, as his wife, to whom he was devoted, was indisposed. And although it was to him his holiday for the year, as he said to me, “I can’t go and leave the missus ill.””
READ MORE: That was late in March 1904, but Palmer was soon looking ahead, training until his death “with the intention of adding a few more (titles) to his list”. “To win a “ten guinea” prize was his ambition, and this season he had hoped to realise it,” wrote Harrier in his appreciation, also relating an episode two days before Palmer’s death that demonstrated his fair-minded nature.
“On Tuesday evening last it was arranged that at the Harriers forthcoming club sports an inter-team walking contest between Caerleon, Newport, Castleton, and Llanhilleth should take place. “And although he considered that with his assistance – for he was a first class walker, as his records show – Newport would win, like the good sportsman he was, he agreed to walk with the Caerleon team to make the event more attractive and thereby benefit his club. “Such incidents make clear the real worth of the man.”
Sadly, by the time that event took place, at the Newport Athletic Grounds on Saturday May 21 1904, Palmer was dead. His funeral on Tuesday May 3 was attended by many clubmates and friends from Newport and the Gwent Valleys, and representatives of Bristol Athletic Club and Cardiff Cross Country Club. Further evidence of the respect in which he was held came as planning for those club sports continued in the wake of his death.
Proceeds from the event were to Newport Harriers, as Harrier explained in a later story: “Practically the only means, other than private subscriptions, they will have of replenishing the treasurer’s purse. “(But) they have decided that the proceeds will be handed to the widow of their late leader.” It was a fitting and generous gesture in memory of a sporting champion of Newport and Wales, and a “loving husband and father”, as Harrier described Palmer.
“During the years I have known him, I have never heard him speak in anger to, or acrimoniously of, anyone, even under provocation.
“One of Nature’s gentlemen, truly.”