Arthur ‘Boofer’ Bruce, Longest Serving Belgravian, 1928-2019

Arthur ‘Boofer’ Bruce, Longest Serving Belgravian, 1928-2019

The Father of Belgrave, Arthur Bruce, sadly passed away on Sunday just over a couple of weeks before his 91st birthday. Arthur joined the club as a 17-year-old in 1945 but Belgrave was in his blood, his father Harry being a member in the 1920’s. In fact there is a photograph of Jack with the Belgrave London to Brighton road relay team of 1926 in Alan Mead’s archive.

Belgrave’s Harry Bruce, B1, setting off from Westminster in the first leg of the 1926 London to Brighton relay.

‘A real hard man’

After finishing school in South London, Arthur joined the army at the age of 18 just after the war was over and soon became known as a real hard man. This reputation was based on a couple of lucky incidents. Firstly, the assault course that young recruits had to do was a mile away from barracks so when they ran there he would get there over a minute ahead of the others. Although the others caught Arthur up over the course, he being rather gangly and uncoordinated, he would easily catch them up on the homeward run, run past them and get back to the barracks first. 

On another occasion, when he was assigned to guard duty, a prisoner was locked in a room inside a wooden hut. Arthur was sat down the corridor reading a book when he heard a shout that the prisoner had escaped. As he stood up he inadvertently knocked over his chair. The prisoner rushed out and tripped over the chair and when the rest of the troops arrived they saw Arthur standing over the unconscious man and assumed that he had knocked him out and caught him single handed.

Joining Belgrave

After National Service, Arthur started to compete for Belgrave on the track, where his best distances were the mile and two miles. He had won the Surrey half mile as a very promising junior but was advised by his uncompromising father to move up distance as his best quarter mile was ‘only’ 52 seconds. In 1951 Arthur was, like his father before him, a member of the Belgrave winning team in the London to Brighton relay. This was a forerunner of the 12-stage National road relay now held in Sutton Park. Arthur ran the second quickest time on stage four finishing just behind the leader on that stage. Eventually Belgrave won by nearly two minutes.

Arthur Bruce leading the club 3-mile champs in 1951, ahead of Mike Stearman.

The following year, in what turned out to be a huge influence on Arthur’s life, his father took the family over land and sea to the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Here they saw probably the finest achievement by a distance runner of all time with Emil Zatopek winning the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon.

New training methods

Another huge influence was the Austrian coach Franz Stampfl, who came to England in the 1950’s and whose interval training methods helped Roger Bannister break the four minute mile barrier. Arthur became interested in the training methods of other European athletes not only intervals and repetitions which were new in this country, but ‘Fartlek’ or ‘speed play’ which the top Swedish runners were doing.

Throughout his life, Arthur raced over track, road and country and loved training from Belgrave Hall near his home in Wimbledon. He ran several marathons and even took part in the infamous Comrades marathon in South Africa three times. Later in life he raced successfully as a veteran and joined his old friends Pat Newell and Charlie Walker in winning National medals in the over 60’s. He even took part as an M70 in the Veterans World Championships in Gateshead in 1999.

 Coach Arthur at the Lauriston Paarlauf of 1996, with Ron Mitchell, left, another Belgravian who served over 50 years.

Well-loved coach

However, it was as a coach that many will best remember him. He had advised many over the years but I met him in the early 1990’s when we both took part in one of the Sri Chinmoy two mile races in Battersea Park. He suggested I join another Belgrave member Vic Butcher to do some track sessions that spring. He artfully used Vic to pace me over the final 600m or 800m of the 1000m reps. The group soon got a reputation and swelled in numbers.

There were two experienced men of roughly the same age coaching at Battersea at that time: Arthur and the more famous Frank Horwill. Although their methods differed, they both agreed about the importance of speed: “Never get far away from it.”

Whilst Frank had quite a scientific approach to training and was a mine of information, his sessions were often complicated and contained many short intervals with short recoveries. Arthur’s sessions were simpler with fewer but flat out repetitions and longer recoveries. Perhaps his approach was more art than science. He had the ability to predict exactly how fast someone would race after watching them train. He was good at spotting racehorse winners too.

Arthur’s key training philosophy

Apart from the fact that he welcomed anyone into the group whatever their ability, (if they were prepared to train they would improve), Arthur’s coaching philosophy was basically just common sense. Three hard sessions a week: fartlek, track repetitions, or hills, the rest steady recovery runs at a variety of distances. When you have the opportunity, always run off road, the road will eventually cause leg injuries and deaden your speed. If you are aiming for a track season, do cross country in the winter for endurance but limit the number of races, don’t leave your best in the mud. If you are serious about performing your best on the track in the summer, don’t mix track and road races. If you have ability, aim big for Championship races, don’t waste your time on ‘Mickey Mouse’ races.

As with any training group, a few runners left searching for the silver bullet of greater success with another coach, Horwill included. However, Arthur was an expert at peaking his athletes for the big race. All the other races were seen as a means to an end with the main race set as a goal months before. Throughout my forties and fifties and even into my sixties Arthur and I would target either the National Veterans Championships or the European or World Championships and without fail I would perform my best time of the season at that event due to Arthur’s preparation.

Several times, Arthur would accompany me on those trips. He was passionate about athletics but also loved to travel. He worked as a freelance architect so that he could take time off every year to visit South Africa with his second wife Elsie who was born there. They particularly loved the Kruger National Park which they visited as often as they could. It was only last year that Arthur and Pat made their last journey to South Africa. Arthur loved reading too, he was an expert on Napoleon and many aspects of European history.

It was Pat who took wonderful care of Arthur in his final years. Throughout his life he was hardly ever ill, he could be seen standing at the side of the track or timing the ‘Bridges’ handicap in winter dressed in skimpy thin clothes oblivious of the cold conditions. He continued to oversee the group at Battersea into his early eighties but eventually his health began to fail with many hospital visits as he became more frail. Thankfully he was able to attend his 90th birthday celebrations at the hall last year with a very large number of his Belgrave friends.

I have lost my coach, mentor and friend, but Arthur would be pleased to know that the training group at Battersea is larger than ever and so his legacy lives on. 

Charlie Dickinson, Belgrave Harriers coach and women’s road and cross country Team Manager