In compiling this page I have drawn heavily on an article published in the club newsletter in 1996. I must express my thanks to Rita Diffley, Jo Mole (formerly Abell), Terry Tucker, Mike Wilby, Moray Carey, Phil Liberman, Stewart McIntyre, Paul Byrne and Paul Sapsard who shared their recollections of the early days of the club. The biggest thanks of all are due to our president John Hopkins for founding the club in the first place.

If you think I have got something wrong or you have your own recollections of the club that you would be willing to share please let me know.

Andrew Bamford July 2023


The Beginning

The club has its foundations in 1974 when our president John Hopkins started to provide athletics coaching for a group of children attending what was then Reigate Priory Middle School, mostly in sprints and jumps. John’s son Nick was part of this group and was clearly a very talented athlete as shown by his profile on the Surrey Athletics website. Coaching sessions for the children were held on Sunday mornings and cost 2p per session. A lady called Pauline Wheeler acted as Secretary and Treasurer, collecting the fees and noting down who had attended in her “little red book”.

It is worth emphasising that the club name stems from Priory Park rather than from the school.

The club became affiliated to the Surrey and Southern Counties Athletic Association in around 1976. This would seem to be borne out by a 1999 club subscription renewal document unearthed by Moray which lists both John and Nick as joining the club in 1976. Affiliation would have been necessary to allow athletes to compete in various championships.

Training sessions were initially held in Priory Park and later strength and conditioning sessions were held at the Sovereign Centre in Slipshatch Road (before it was part of the YMCA). Indeed for a period from 1976 the club was known as Reigate Priory Sovereign Athletic Club, something that is still evident on some of our older club trophies.

Mike Wilby told me that “John Hopkins was a sprinter at University and started running with his son Nick and a friend Matthew Lee, for training and exercise.  My son Robert ran the school cross country, in which Nick also took part, Rob usually finished 2nd, after Nick.  He was asked if he would like to join sessions.  The group began to increase in numbers with Kevin Wheeler and others joining it and became the foundation for the club.  Girls, Tessa, Nadine and Caroline were the first to go along.

At that time I was not interested in running, but along with the parents of the other runners, went along to events in which the group were competing.  For this reason there is little more that I can add about them.  We all looked forward to these events away, as all parents clubbed together to produce sumptuous picnic spreads.  At one event the start of the race was delayed so that an early Concorde take off could be watched.”

Phil Liberman wrote to tell me that:
"I joined in 1979 when Kevin Wheeler asked me to come along at school! Original members I recall from my early days were Nick Hopkins, his sister Louise and a younger brother (?), Steven and Neil Thompson, Robert Wilby, Kevin Wheeler (son of Pauline!), Matthew Lee, Michael, Mark and Ruth Diffley and Tim Brocklebank. The girls you mention Caroline and Nadine were sisters surname Rankin, not sure about Tessa. The Bakers were a few years after me probably around 1982, so 1976 is definitely not right. Also Stuart and Jo Abell and their son Neil were early members.

While we met at the track in the priory in the summer, in the early days Tuesday run around the street started at John Hopkins house on Eversfield road and I fondly remember as a young teen the famous picture of the lady playing tennis scratching her bottom on the wall in their kitchen! "

The Beginning of the Senior Section

I don't know whether John intended to add a senior section to the club, but possibly not. The 1996 newsletter article states “The junior section of the Club grew rapidly, the parents of these children began to run themselves and created the Senior Section, thus making it a small family club, with training now the norm, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.” Rita Diffley (who was the junior section high jump coach) concurs and told me that "we didn't think of ourselves as a club at first, we were just a group of friends who ran together".

Rita and her late husband Jim were amongst the earliest members and she told me that many of those early members lived in the area of Deerings Road, Eversfield Road, Doods Road and training sessions often started from John's house in Eversfield Road.

Mike Wilby reminisced:  “My time started in about 1980 when John persuaded me to join the group running in the Hyde Park Fun Run.  Having spent time trying to get fit for the day, I decided to continue training with the others.

Becoming more involved I opened up my garage for the evening runners to meet and assemble in, as it was larger than John’s and was off the road and had good lighting.

In the summers several of us parents took over groups of youngsters on training sessions, doing simple exercises and shepherding groups around Priory Park.  This led to the club arranging Training Courses for Rita Diffley and myself.  We then began to take training sessions, Rita concentrating on Jumps and I usually did sprints and hurdles.  We took sessions first in the Priory, then at Wallfield where John Mc Gowan built our first kit store, then later in the Rugby Club Grounds. “

In the Summer training sessions took place at the grass track behind Wallfield on West Street in Reigate (Wallfield was at that time part of the Reigate School of Art and Design which later became part of East Surrey College). In the Winter months they ran a variety of routes including a loop of East Walk, South Walk, Chart Way, Orchard Rd, Rushworth Road.

It was one of those Winter sessions that Paul Byrne became acquainted with the club. Paul says that his tennis match was cancelled so he decided to take himself out for a run. He bumped into a number of runners clad in white (before the days of the club colours?) running round this loop. Rita invited him to join them which he duly did, setting off at a very sprightly pace. He got to the end of the lap only to be told by John that they had another 12 to do. Clearly Paul wasn't deterred as he is still a club member all these years later.

Other early club members included:

  • Ted Baker who became Club Chairman and his wife Margaret (both listed in Moray’s document as joining in 1976, although Phil Liberman thinks this is wrong). Ted is of course commemorated in the eponymous award for the person who contributes most to the club.
  • Jimmy James who is commemorated in our annual handicap races.
  • Frank Golding, who set the club Men's V50 Marathon record in 1985 (in a time that was only surpassed in by Rick Coles in 2022)
  • Mike Wilby of whom Moray says: “I believe he also coached the Juniors (I may be wrong). He seemed very knowledgeable about athletics and I recall he was Referee for the Holly Run on one or more occasions. Unusually, his profession was an armourer! “ 
  • Roger Gregory who also went on to become Club Chairman for many years (and who sadly passed away at the end of 2022) 
  • John McGowan who was one of the coaches, and who was at one time the landlord of the Nutley Hall pub. Rita recalls that he lived in St Mary's Road and that they sometimes met at his house.

I think the earliest group photo we have is of a group of runners who were taking part in the London Marathon in 1987. This includes Rita and Jim Diffley, Ted Baker, Phil Liberman and Jimmy James.
Phil states: "I worked part time at the Happy Eater at the time it was Dad and I who instigated the sponsorship deal!"  

Rita recalls that they had a great deal of fun in amongst the serious athletics. Some of the things that we still do today were clearly part of the club from its early days. I am referring to things like providing a team of volunteers at the London Marathon and The Holly Run. Phil added : "While my Dad was chairman (and Jo Abell was secretary) they made an inquiry in 1985 to ask the London Marathon if they required volunteers, after hearing nothing, 4 days before the event they contacted us asking for 25 volunteers to help at the start and the rest as they say is history......" (Ed: many of us know Phil Liberman as the man who organises the team of volunteers for the London Marathon)

Mike Wilby confirms this with his recollection of early club events:

“Dates of events and happenings I cannot give you, but in no chronological order as far as I can remember.  I took over as chairman for two or three years in the 90’s, Ted Baker took over from me.

1)  HOLLY RUN – John set out the course and was starter, I was the Referee and continued in this post until the professionals took over.  We had a lighted Christmas tree at the start and refreshments for the runners.  Nick was the first winner and held the record time for a long time before being beaten.  After clearing up and making sure that the grounds were back to normal, the helpers all had mulled wine and mince pies.  This tradition continued for a number of years.

2)  SOUTH DOWNS Relay Run.  The course was along the Downs.  Runners were split into groups of 2 or 3 and each group was given 1 or more section to run, depending on their ability.  After they set off, the others would bundle into their cars to meet the runners at the next change over point and so on.  At the end of the day, the group joined together in a pub before going home. (Ed: we have some photos from some of these runs in the Photo Archive)

3)  HYDE PARK FUN RUN.  Rivalry with each other but again a picnic for all after the finish.

4)  SOUTH DOWNS 10.  A killer in the hills above Hove.  I actually ran in the same race as Steve Ovett, but he had gone home when I arrived at the finish.

I may have given the impression that the early days were more about picnics than serious running. That is far from reality. Hard training sessions on Tuesdays and Saturdays were well attended and strenuous, after race feedings did not start until the competitions were over and we could relax.

The club provided stewards to book in the competitors for the early London Marathon events.  We were stationed at both the Blackheath and Cutty Sark gates from early in the morning until just after the race had started.

Nick (Hopkins) was a Surrey champion and he was considered for a place in the English national team.  He ran his first sub-4 minute mile in an organised event on a stretch of the M25, just before it was opened. (Ed: which coincidentally Mike Pocock mentioned in the newsletter dated 15th June 2020)”

The 1990s

Terry Tucker shares her memories of joining the club in the Summer of 1992:

“I joined the club about 30 years ago when Ted (Baker) was the chairman. I joined at the same time as Moray (Carey). Ted’s wife, Margaret, Janet and Ian Moore, Jean, Dot and Ann and we all used to run together at various locations.

We did a great run called ‘The Stitch’ where we had some adventures, losing runners who kept warm by huddling in telephone boxes! This was a run across the London Bridges; the one when we lost runners was before mobile phones and we had unwittingly passed the runners in the minibus that I had borrowed from the college.
We also did a great run across the South Downs, organised by Ted; we did this over a day and all ran parts of it. The last one Ted organised was when he was very poorly but was such a trooper. (Ed: I imagine this was the South Downs Relay mentioned by Mike Wilby above)

We have lost some lovely people over the time, Jimmy James, Shirley and the gorgeous Ted and Margaret, so sad.

We used to have such great fun and tried never to miss a session. Everyone was so supportive and really urged each other on. I did a number of marathons thanks to the encouragement of everyone. Such lovely memories.

It was John Hopkins who set it all up coaching his son and he was so supportive to all of us. I was never a good runner but he never failed to encourage me. John McGowan took me on my first run with the club and I thought that I would expire but he ensured that I joined and got going with it all. They were such lovely times with fabulous people.

Janet (Moore) and I still do our run on a Saturday and we don’t do the Parkrun as it used to be too short for us!! Now we have coffee for longer than we run.
What a great club and Ian was really at the heart of it all with Ted.”

Our Races

The 1996 newsletter article states that “Apart from an annual Club Fun Run, (where dogs and children in prams were welcome), and an occasional New Years Day Handicap, we didn't host any open meetings but in 1983 with the Club increasing its membership and wanting to raise funds for better facilities and equipment for the track and field, the Club started to hold annually the "Holly Run" Cross Country Meeting in Priory Park Reigate.
Traditionally it has always been held on the Sunday preceding Christmas and with the money raised we were able to pay for the weekly upkeep of the track (now at Wallfields) and to purchase Hurdles, High Jump equipment, Javelins etc., etc.”

Rita mentioned that at the start of the Holly Run they always had a Christmas Tree decorated with lights and Christmas Carols playing and Mike also mentioned the tree - and mince pies.

Sadly the Committee took the decision that the 2022 Holly Run would be the last one. The combined effects of more open events and the Covid-19 pandemic meant that numbers had been falling for a number of years particularly in the junior races. For example in 2016 the U11 Boys’ race had 97 entrants, in 2022 it was down to 8. It is a shame that we didn’t quite make the 40th anniversary, but it was no longer worthwhile staging either from a logistical or an economic point of view. Looking back through the lists of past winners we find a young Sir Mo Farah (1999 U17 Boy’s winner in 21:04) and Jake Wightman (2015 Senior men’s winner in 32:18).

The Summer 10K was added in 1991 and has been immensely popular since its inception, regularly selling out.

The Jimmy James Handicap was started in 1996 (at least that is the first date engraved on the trophy, and won that year by H.Dew, who Phil has told me was Helen Dew who was the daughter of club members Gerry and Yoko and their son Tom - all RPAC members for many years ) as a series of races held during the winter months. Originally the route included Carlton Road, but because of safety concerns this route was abandoned and for the past few years we have run it in conjunction with Dorking and Mole Valley AC’s winter handicap series at Denbies.

The Priory Relays were originally organised by Redhill and Reigate AC (latterly known as Redhill and Surrey Beagles) but RPAC took over hosting the event when the former club folded. As at the time of writing (2022) the event has been running for 65 years.

Our Club Colours

I don’t know when our club colours came into being. The red is a throwback to Redhill and Reigate AC (more of them anon) and the blue sashes were colours associated with the Sovereign Centre. The current logo was designed by Paul Simmons.

The original logo was a shield with a nod to both the Reigate coat of arms and Reigate Priory school. This can be seen below

The Club Newsletter 

Moray Carey told me that: 
"The Club Newsletter has been published on and off in various formats over the years, clearly from early in RPAC’s history since you told me Rita has an edition dated 1983! (Ed: Rita Diffley mentioned that she has the second edition of the newsletter which was published in 1983)
In 1996, the Co-Editors of the 'RPAC Magazine' were Gregg Holland and Peter King. On average they published this periodical quarterly in hard copy form, resourcefully at nil cost since the printing was kindly 'donated by KallKwik Redhill'.
Among the entertaining and informative articles in that year’s 'Late Summer & Winter Issue' was a feature entitled 'A brief history of Reigate Priory AC', which the Co-Eds had updated from the original account included in the 1992 Holly Run Programme.
This 1996 piece states that the club was 'started by John Hopkins over 20 years ago' (consistent with independent information showing John and son Nick’s formal membership originates from 1976) and solves the mystery of why the name 'Sovereign' was at one time incorporated into the club’s name! "

Our Chairs

Phil told me that our chairs were as follows: 

"Mike Wilby was the first chairman in the early 80's,  my Dad Michael took over for 5 years (approx 1984-89) then Ted Baker, then Roger Gregory" 

I'm not sure who came after Roger Gregory and before Malcolm Woodman.  It would be good to get a complete list. 

Other Running Clubs in the Redhill and Reigate Area

At the time when RPAC was founded there were two other athletics clubs in the area:

  • Redhill and Reigate AC who were based at Battlebridge
  • Surrey Beagles who were based in Coulsdon

At one stage discussions were held between Redhill and Reigate AC and RPAC about merging the clubs. In the end Redhill and Reigate and Surrey Beagles merged in 1987 and RPAC remained separate. The merged club ceased to exist sometime after a fire at their clubhouse at Battlebridge in 2006.

Paul Sapsard writes “I joined Redhill and Reigate AC in 1983 and we were based at Battlebridge. Of course, sadly neither club exists now and the old clubhouse was burnt down. We used to host track meetings at Battlebridge in the early to mid-1980s and the likes of Mike Grattan (winner of the 1983 London Marathon I believe) used to compete there.”

There is a much older tradition of running clubs in the area as shown by the photograph above (location unknown) of Reigate Borough Ladies Athletic Club from the “Weekly Magazine” from 1933, or by this drawing of The Redhill Harriers  in Victorian times on the website. The South of the Thames Cross Country Association website has a picture from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 4th February 1905 of the The South of the Thames Cross-Country Championship held at Wiggie, Redhill. 

RPAC is a proud custodian of this tradition. Long may it continue!


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