Kent AC is Lewisham’s athletics club being based since its formation over 130 years ago in that part of south London. The club’s name is something of a handicap, although retained for reasons of consistency and nostalgia, though hardly of accuracy. The club has its origins in two older organisations, Lewisham Hare and Hounds, founded in c. 1885 and West Kent Harriers, founded c. 1887 who amalgamated in 1898.
At this time Kent AC was on the periphery of London and enjoyed access to true countryside runs at Bellingham, Beckenham and Kidbrooke. Competition was informal then and consisted of 8 – 10 winter events. The summer saw competitions over shorter distances and the emergence of Ladywell as the summer head quarters, even before the track was built.
The club also had an active social life, including cycling, billiards, garden parties and concerts. Meeting venues were scattered throughout south-east London and north Kent until the building of Ladywell track in 1936 which has been the club’s headquarters ever since.
A generation ago no one would have registered Kent AC as an active club, let alone a successful one. In 1983 the club was in Division 7 of the Southern League, and whilst it always contested the National Cross Country Championships, it usually finished in the 80s in the team event. It first contested the Southern 12 stage relay in 1990 finishing a lowly 43rd. The club had declining membership and even more rapidly diminishing finances. Now however its Senior Men’s teams are in the top dozen or so clubs in the UK in all disciplines (track, road and cross-country), membership is buoyant and finances stable.
Through the 80s and 90s the club ground its way up through the Southern League and in 2001 gained promotion to the British League. The progress up the ranks of national competition continued relentlessly and in 2011 it was champion of Division 1 gaining promoted to the Premiership where in 2012 it competed against the other top seven clubs in GB thus completing a rise of 10 divisions in no less than 19 seasons – a feat that will probably never be bettered.
The B track team has also steadily progressed all the way from Division 7 to 1 in the Southern League where it remains.
The club has a small, but growing, enthusiastic women’s section that competes in local road, cross-country and veteran track and field leagues.
It has a traditional winter season of 9 cross country races including the National XC achieving its best ever showing of 6th team in 2013. In 2007-8 the club joined the fiercely competitive Surrey Cross Country league gaining promotion in successive seasons from Div 4 to Div 1 where it won the title in its first season in Div 1 in 2012-13.
Similar progress has been made with the regional and national road relays. The club first qualified the for the National 6 stage in 1995 and the National 12 stage in 2001 and has been at both ever since, regularly finishing in the top 20. In 2012 the club won team silver medals in the UKA marathon championship and in 2013 they went one better by winning Gold medals. Not to be outdone by the track team our road running section has moved up a level by winning the Southern 6 Stage Road Relay and coming 3rd the Southern 12 Stage road Relay in 2012.
The last decade has also seen members emerge onto the international scene with no less than 9 current Internationals. The first international medal went to Conrad Williams who won silver in the GB 4x400m relay squad at the 2009 World Championships. However Conrad and 400m hurdler Jack Green were in Team GB at London 2012. Both reached their semi finals and both were also in the first choice line up for the 4×400 relay where they ran in a thrilling final, finishing fourth.
This marvellous progress has been made at a time when numbers and standards in athletics have been declining. It has been far from accidental: though relatively small (there are around 340 members) Kent AC is a friendly and inspiring outfit that very quickly generates loyalty and team spirit. It is still essentially local in its focus with a skill at retaining members, deliberately focusing on developing talented youngsters in the 16-21 age bracket and getting them to continue as active seniors. The second priority is to support senior athletes to a level of excellence that they and Kent AC can be proud of and a large portion of the club’s resources (especially by subsidising travel costs to national level competition) are targeted to this.
The club is far from complacent. Whilst it offers coaching and competition for boys over 13 its ambitions are to be consistently in the top dozen clubs in the country in all disciplines; to build on its position as the most successful club south of the River Thames with a genuinely local identity that uses and retains home-grown talent, and to do this without diluting the local focus and friendly character that has characterised it for over a century.
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