The right place at the right time for Portsmouth photographer

Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford. He was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.   (Photo by Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images)
Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford. He was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. (Photo by Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images)
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On May 5, 1954, a 25-year-old athlete went to bed unknown. The next night he was world-famous having become the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes.

Medical student Roger Bannister broke the tape at the Iffley Road, Oxford, track in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.

The crowd of just 3,000 went crazy when they heard the record time announced and that Bannister had just become the fastest man on earth over the distance.

Today the event would be covered by myriad cameras, but 60 years ago there was just one press photographer in the right place at the right time. It was the same man who had at one time placed Frank Sinatra in a headlock on the floor of a London cinema after he’d attacked a fellow photographer.

The man behind the camera? Step forward Norman Potter, who now lives in retirement at Eastney, Portsmouth.

Norman was born in Malta in 1932 to a naval family. He came to Britain with his mother and sister to live in the Isle of Wight. His grandparents, Joshua and Nancy, had both worked at Osborne House for Queen Victoria as chef and lady’s maid.

His father went on to serve at Haslar and the family moved to Gosport living for a time in Avenue Road where he went to Grove Avenue school.

Norman was a great swimmer and one day in 1946 while at Tooting Bec lido he got chatting to a photographer, thought he might like that as a career and made his way to Fleet Street.

He asked for a job at Central Press Photos as a photographer’s assistant and was offered a position only if he signed an agreement to work six days a week from 8am until 5pm with an hour for lunch, all for 15 shillings (75p) a week.

His parents thought he would give it all up but his love affair with Fleet Street lasted until the 1980s when the Street of Shame ceased to be the centre of the newspaper industry.

At this time most newspapers did not employ photographers but used photographs from the many photo agencies along the Street. All photographs were on heavy glass plates.

One photographer Norman was allotted to was Jimmy Sime.

Along with him Norman saw much of the 1948 Olympics, Wimbledon, the Derby and test Match cricket from the Oval.

What impressed Norman was the respect the press photographers of the time received, even from King George VI.

Norman remembers a time when Jimmy was waiting for the King to arrive and when he got out of his car turned to Jimmy and greeted him with ‘Good morning Mr Sime’.

Dennis remembers once collecting plates and as he ran back to the office, tripping. There was a tinkle of glass and to his horror he realised he had smashed the irreplaceable plate of the moment Len Hutton scored a record-breaking 364 runs at the Oval in 1938.

In November 1951 Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner married and honeymooned in London. One evening they were at the Odeon, Leicester Square. CPP photographer Fred Carroll was there with Norman helping him. When he snatched a picture of the stars Sinatra grabbed Carroll and rammed his head into a pillar shouting ‘I’m gonna sue you for every hair on your body’. On seeing the bullying Sinatra, the very fit Norman grabbed him in a headlock and took him to the carpet holding a clenched fist inches from Sinatra’s nose. The two press men were thrown out.

Norman was offered an apprenticeship as a photographer in 1951 and in October 1952 walked into the office and as there were no spare photographers about he was sent to Harrow where there had been a train crash.

The Perth to London train had ploughed into the rear of a local service at the station. Several minutes later the Euston to Liverpool service smashed into the wreckage. In all there were 112 fatalities and 340 people were injured. He climbed on top of the wreckage and started shooting. The photographs are still overwhelmingly powerful.

In contrast, on May 6, 1954, Norman was sent to Oxford to photograph that world record-bid by Bannister. Most of the press thought there was no chance as there was a wind blowing so they all went home, except Norman and two others.

It appears all three men took photographs as Bannister neared the tape, but Norman’s photograph was the one chosen to make history.

Remember he still had a glass plate camera so one shot was all he was going to get, and did he get it?

As Bannister raced the last hundred yards Norman steadied himself and as the great moment occurred, with Bannister collapsing through the tape, snap, it was in the bag. The only man with a camera to record history in the making.

The photograph was wired around the world and appeared in newspapers and magazines in every city and town. Unfortunately it was several years before Norman could claim the fame.

In those days, bylines were rarely used and when Getty Images bought the Central in 1988 it was credited ‘photographer unknown’.

In later years Norman took a photograph of Roger Bannister running a race with other dads at his son’s school sports day.

He took it in secret with a long lens and had to get the headmaster’s permission to publish it.