On November 24th, a true legend of Westbury Harriers passed away at the age of 83. If asked to list the most influential club members of all time George Blackburn would be close to the top of that list.
George was born in 1938 in the small rural community of Ballydamore in the parish of Monageer, in County Wexford, in the Republic of Ireland. Growing up with his brothers, Tom and Aiden, his first sporting loves were hurling and Gaelic football. He played for the local clubs St.Aidan’s Enniscorthy (hurling) and Enniscorthy St. Mary’s (football). In both sports he showed not only skill but great endurance, he was able to run up and down the pitch for the whole game with showing little or no signs of distress. One weekend a friend suggested he should take part in a cross-country race, George admitted that he had never heard of cross-country, but decided to have a go anyway, the race turned out to be the Wexford County Championships and George astounded everyone by beating about a hundred other runners to win the title and became a local hero overnight. Another race took place the following weekend against stronger opposition and George was still good enough to finish second. George decided that this was the sport for him and joined his local club Ferns A.C.
Away from running George served an apprenticeship as an electrician and in 1960 he made the decision to come to England to search for work, his original intention was to make it a short term stay, but he was being so well paid in Bristol he decided to make the move permanent . Once he had found his feet in the “big city” he joined Westbury Harriers. His first recorded outing for the club was in a low-key cross-country fixture against Bristol University at Combe Dingle in 1963, he won the race and led the team to a comfortable victory.
George continued to improve and in 1964 he finished tenth in the Irish National Cross-Country Championships and was selected as a non-travelling reserve for the Irish team at the International Cross-Country Championships (now called the World Championships). This spured him on to train even harder and in 1965 he was selected to represent his country at the International Cross-Country Championships at Ostend, Belgium, where he finished 79th of the 130 starters. George went on to make three successive appearances at the International Championships, at Rabat, Morocco (1966) and Barry, South Wales 1967 (when Pat Gallagher captained the Welsh team in the inaugural Women’s championship).
By 1969 George had become the captain of the Westbury Senior Men’s team and led the team to victory in both the South-of-the-Thames and the Midland Counties 7 Mile Cross-Country Championships. George continued to be a valuable team player and led the team to numerous victories in domestic cross-country and road races. In 1976 he was a member of the team that won the bronze medals at Midland Counties Cross-Country Championships, when Nigel Gates was the individual champion. The following year the team went one better finishing runners-up in the Midland Counties and George again captained the team to victory in the South-of-the- Thames Championship.
In 1978 George embarked on a serious career in Veterans athletics, but he was still good enough to be a key member of a strong Westbury senior men’s team. George never forgot his Irish roots and most years he would travel home to compete in the Wexford County Championships, which he usually won. In 1978 he travelled to Dublin on successive weekends, firstly to win the All Ireland Veterans Championships, followed by another victory in the British and Irish Veterans Cross-Country International. Back on British soil he won three successive Gwent League MV40 titles (1978-79, 1979-80 and 1980-81) and in 1986-87.
In 1980 George showed his versatility by winning the British Veterans MV40 3000m steeple chase title and, in the same event, won the silver medal at the European Veterans Championships. Now well into his forties, George was a member of the Westbury team which finished fourth in the A.A.A. National 12 Stage Road Relay. In 1984 George was elected as a Life Member of the club.
George had long been interested in recruiting promising youngster to join the club and in 1971 he got lucky when he spotted three likely lads taking part in the Bristol Schools Championships. Within a few weeks of each other Chris Buckley, Maurice Cowman and Robin Nash all joined the club. All three were to go on to win international honours as well as showing great loyalty to the club, in 2000 they were key members of the team which won the British Veterans MV40 Road Relay title. Another youngster who came under George’s wing was Simon Mugglestone, who became European Junior 5000m champion in 1987. George’s role as a coach and mentor to many of the clubs promising youngsters became of increasing importance. Training sessions would often start and end at his house in Southville, some people felt that George was guilty of creating a club within a club, but few could argue with the results his methods achieved. Most of the Senior Men’s team members who finished runners up in the English National Cross-Country Championship in 1993 and, after many near misses, finally won the Midland Counties title in 1995, had been coached by George at some stage in their careers.
George himself remained a fierce competitor well into his sixties, but , sadly, on one occasion he was too brave for his own good, when he entered a 5K business house road race when not having fully recovered from a bout of influenza. The consequences for his health were serious and led to his retirement from the sport. After this George turned his attention to the golf course, where he was as competitive as ever.
One of George’s last contributions to the club was to give out the awards at the Awards Evening in 2017, where he looked as lean and fit as ever. George was not only a fine runner, but also a fine human being with a great sense of humour, he will sadly missed by the whole running community in Bristol and far beyond.
Peter Keogan (Club Historian).