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18th Apr, 2021, Alastair Aitken

When I was 8 years old, I was taken, with my brother Ian, to my first ever big athletics meeting, which was the AAA Championships at the White City Stadium. My father, Colonel David Aitken, was a personal wartime friend of the Manager of the stadium so, consequently, we had some of the best seats near the finish. Running was already my favourite sport at school and so, with the spell binding White City roar behind him, I saw a smooth and stylish runner, George William Nankeville coming home victorious in the mile. That immediately captured my imagination and he became my athletics hero, as he won the first of four AAAs mile Championships. The only runner that seemed to me to have the same smooth style, who came just after Bill, was Mitcham’s Brian Hewson, who won the 1958 European 1500m and, like Bill, was a smart dressed man off the track too. They were, in later years, great friends. I remember even at 80 Bill had his brown trilby and immaculate suit on when we met and, no doubt his devoted son Bobby Davro, the well-known actor and comedian took after him in that regard.

Bill Nankeville was born at Woking on 24 March 1925. As a junior he ran the half mile and by 1950 got his time down to 1:53.0; being from a working-class background, never stopped him going places.

He started work on making petrol tanks and parachute containers but was glad to not be doing that when the long hut he worked in got a bomb dropped on it. In 1944 he joined the Army. He became a member of a continental club, Union St Gilloise, and he became the British Army on the Rhine 1500m Champion. It was in 1947 that he obtained his first GB vest, coming 3rd in the GB v France match at St Colombes Stadium, Paris on 7th of September. His modest time was 4.00.2. He raced at 63kg and he was 1.79 in height.

His AAA’s win in 1948 was in 4:14.2 but in second place was the 1952 Olympic Champion Josef Barthel of Luxembourg in 4:15.4. I would like to point out that in those days people trained but not very hard with no money rewards and they fitted it all in around their working life. Gordon Pirie was the first to change all that, after knowing what Emile Zatopek did, but was virtually penniless in the process at times. One must remember that after those early years Bill worked for a sports equipment manufacturer and a wholesaler and then was an owner of three discount stores. He was married to Janet who died in 2010 (after 63 years together). It was 1948 that the Olympics were in London and Bill Nankeville, who competed in two Olympics, came sixth in the Final of the 1500m in 3:52.6. Henry Eriksson of Sweden won in 3:49.8.

In 1949 Bill won the AAA’s mile in 4:08.8. “I felt good but had the cinders been less wet I think I would have run faster.” In 1950 Bill won the AAA’s Mile in 4:12.2. Bill was coached in the later years at his Walton AC club by Bill Thomas. Bill Nankeville ran in the Final of the European Championships 1500m on the 27th of August 1950 and after leading at the bell still looked a possible winner going into the last bend but was firstly overtaken by the Frenchman Patrick El Mabrouk (3:47.8) and then by the winner, Willy Slijkhuis of the Netherlands (3:47.2). However, Bill finished in third in 3:48.0 which was a new UK record. 

In 1951 the emerging Oxford University ‘Star’ Roger Bannister won the AAA’s mile in 4:07.8 with Bill Nankeville second in 4:08.6 and the 1950 European and Commonwealth 800m/880yds Champion John Parlett third in 4:09.2. Bill was also in a 4x880yds UK team that broke the world record with 7:30.6 that year. 

In 1952 Bill Nankeville was back winning a AAA’s mile title in 4:09.8, with a future mile world record holder John Landy of Australia second. In the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 Bill Nankeville qualified for the Semi-final, coming third in his heat in 3:56.4, but was only 9th in the semi-final in 3:52.0. But he had made two Olympics which was extremely good.

In 1953 he was in two world record relay teams, a 4x1500m (15:27.2) and a 4 x one mile (16:41.0-Chris Chataway, Bill Nankeville, Don Seamon and Roger Bannister). Considering ‘all in all’, Nankeville was a great miler on comparatively light training.