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John (Jack) Donaldson (1886–1933)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published:

John (Jack) Donaldson (1886-1933), athlete, was born on 16 March 1886 at Raywood, Victoria, eldest child of John Donaldson and his wife Martha née Smith, both Victorian-born. Donaldson senior, a well-known sportsman in northern Victoria, was successively hairdresser, storekeeper, farmer and publican, becoming licensee of the Royal Hotel, Kerang, about 1900.

Educated at local state schools, young Jack Donaldson worked at a Kerang store and flour-mill, and trained and rode his father's trotters before devoting himself to professional running. After some success as a schoolboy athlete Donaldson first became widely known in 1906 when he ran second in the Stawell Gift, travelled overnight to Bendigo, and won both the 130 (119 m) and 220 yards (201 m) there. Over the next two years he had numerous victories at meetings in eastern Australia in spite of his rapidly increased handicap.

With his manager, E. R. ('Mick') Terry, Donaldson sailed for South Africa in 1909. A 'cocky youngster in those days', he was ready to challenge the world's best. Competing against Charles Holway of America and Arthur Postle of Australia at meetings organized by Rufe Naylor, Donaldson broke several world records, but failed to demonstrate that he was the world's fastest sprinter when he went on to England in 1910. He broke his return voyage to beat R. E. Walker, the 1908 Olympic winner, in a challenge for £100 over 100 yards (91 m) at Johannesburg. Back in Australia in 1911 he again ran in a series of well-promoted match races against Holway and Postle. In September a crowd of 6000 at the Sydney Sports Ground 'howled with delight' when Donaldson ended weeks of dispute by beating Holway over 130 yards (119 m). Returning to England in 1912 Donaldson confirmed his pre-eminence in professional running. At meetings usually held in the north of England, Wales and Scotland, he ran for appearance money, prizes and bets.

'With matches as scarce as hens' teeth and handicaps almost hopeless', Donaldson turned to track management. Although he argued that as an Australian he could not be conscripted, in 1916 he was charged with being an absentee from service and ordered to join the British Army. After seeing 'something of the real war game' with the 7th Manchesters at Arras Donaldson became a physical education instructor. He made a brief return to professional running in Britain before going to the United States of America in 1919. Declining chances to coach, Donaldson worked for Wanamakers, a New York retailer. He died by gassing himself in his apartment in the Bronx on 1 September 1933. In a note he said that a 'nervous disorder' had driven him to suicide. Survived by his wife Ethel, née Auer, and two daughters, he was buried in Galilee cemetery, Pennsylvania.

Only 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall and 10 st. 4 lbs. (65 kg) in weight, but broad shouldered, Donaldson ran with a long, gliding stride and high arm action. His title, 'Blue Streak', derived from his well-known blue singlet marked with a large white 'A'. Among many world records, Donaldson's most enduring feats were 9.375 seconds for 100 yards (91 m) run in Johannesburg, 1910; and 12 seconds for 130 yards (119 m) run in Sydney, 1911. His 100 yard (91 m) time was not beaten by an amateur or a professional until 1948 and the 130 yard (119 m) record stood until 1951. The fact that his records survived into an era of better coaching, tracks and equipment (including starting blocks) is evidence of his exceptional talent. A drinking fountain in his memory was unveiled at Stawell in April 1939.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Pollard, The Ampol Book of Australian Sporting Records (Syd, 1968)
  • K. Dunstan, Sports (Melb, 1973)
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 32 (1961), no 125, p 32
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1910, 13 Apr, 9 May, 25 Sept 1911, 14 Sept 1916
  • Bulletin, 28 Sept 1911
  • Sporting Globe, 13 Jan–17 Feb 1932
  • New York Times, 3 Sept 1933
  • Inglewood Advertiser, 8 Sept 1933
  • Canberra Times, 14 Mar 1970.

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Donaldson, John (Jack) (1886–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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