The pioneering years of international athletics

ARRS - Association of Road Racing Statisticians

The pioneering years of international athletics

During much of the Georgian era - 1760 to around 1820s - we find slight evidence of contact between English and overseas runners, just occasional references like those to the great Levi Whitehead winning the five Queen Anne's guineas from a field of ten including 'the famous Indian' and 'Long Joe' failing in an attempt on 10 miles in 58 minutes in 1794 after beating 'the famous Spaniard'.

Around the time of the first gymnastic craze we do begin to glimpse a growing international dimension to competitive athletics. It is this development, particularly through English pedestrianism's links with continental Europe and North America, which we here attempt to illustrate in the following survey covering the period 1826 to 1878.

1826. John Berry of Lancashire beat the German velocipedist, Maurice Rummel, over 10 miles on the Uxbridge road from the first milestone near Kensington Gardens to the sixth beyond Acton and back. Many foreigners attended and for the first three miles the roadside was packed with spectators, the Germans backing their man freely though in small amounts. Rummel took an early lead but Berry caught him at Acton and on the return stretch nearing Notting Hill bounded, away to win by 30 yards. 'All the spectators whether English or foreign, admitted a better contested match had never been witnessed'. Rummell, a very fine active youth - small, but symmetrical person', had previously won a wager for the Prince de Leon by covering 2½ French leagues (almost 7 miles) in 36 minutes (on his velocipede?).

1827. At Sunbury Rummel lost to Berry over 5 miles and to James Wantling over 250 yards. The last defeat is scarcely surprising since Wantling, at least by reputation, was the top sprinter of the pre-Victorian era. Later in, the year, principally because of the extreme heat, Rummel failed in his attempt to run 10 miles in one hour on the Lewes road.

1827. Robert Skipper, long-distance walker, beat 'the celebrated Frenchman' in Paris. For Skipper, see John Goulstone's monograph John Townsend, the Sussex Pedestrian (1999), note 1.

1828. George Hall from the Potteries won a hard-fought 350-yard, race by half a yard against Dufont for 2,000 a-side at St Germains near Paris, before 'a numerous attendance of the English residents'. Doubtless many of the latter were connected with the Paris Cricket Club (in 1829 called the Albion club and an English cricket club) whose membership in 1828 included '60 persons of the first families in the French capital' who attended in force its matches on the plains of Monceaux.

1828. The French velocipedist, John Joseph Grandserre, offered to run (ride a velocipe?) 19 times round the Inner Circle In Regents Park, an estimated 19 miles, in 2 hours. A few months later John Shepherd beat him with remarkable ease over a 10-mile course around a circle, a 'third of a mile round, staked out at Lord's'. At the end of the 20th lap Shepherd was half a mile in front and occasionally drew up to take some wine and water. Seeing this, Grandserre put in a terrific burst to go 50 yards ahead. Then Shepherd passed him with the rapidity of lightning, and at the end of his 10 miles went to the adjoining house for a nap. Those who had betted on 'the Frenchman' thereupon claimed he had run one lap short. When told about this, 'out of bed he jumped, ran out of the house, and proceeded round the circle for the thirty-first time, and before his opponent had completed his twenty-ninth round' (for further details see John Goulstone's 'John Shepherd, The Yorkshire Phenomenon', Sports History 9 (1986), pp. 7-9).

1831. Augustus do Berenger (said to be Prussian-born) founded the Stadium at Chelsea. It was intended to cover foot racing and leaping. Also, 'leaping, jumping, &c' (a distinction left unexplained) were on the programme of its projected 'Olympic Festival' in 1832. But so far as one can tell, track and field never featured at his 'school of athletes' (see John Goulstone's pamphlet, The Chelsea Stadium or British National Arena, 1831-1843, 1999). 1837. Pedestrian Challenge from France issued by 'Bipedis' to Burn or Fuller to walk 10 miles at Boulogne for 2,000f - Burn evens, but Fuller 'I expect to give my man (at present in Paris) two minutes'.

1839. The German Henry Wolfe or Wolff challenged any man in Birmingham at one mile. He was accepted by, and lost to, William Sheppard, one of the great milers of the 1840s.

1842. A match staged between a Kentish runner and one from Calais at Tilmanstone, eight miles from Dover.

1843. Foot racing for the last nine months has been very fashionable in Paris, and a groom known as Flying Ben 'has often thrown down the gauntlet to all Paris'. Numerous tradesmen, mostly from Nottingham and Sheffield, 'towns standing high in reputation for pedestrianism', undertook to find a man from the gas-works to run the groom at 100 yards for 100f in the Bois de Boulogne. The 'Gasman', trained by a celebrated pedestrian then living in Paris won before a considerable number of French and English amateurs. 'The French were highly delighted with the sport, and have promised their support upon future occasions'. On Christmas Day, Flying Ben lost by 20 yards in the Bois de Boulogne, over one mile for 200f, to a lad under the superintendence of 'the Old London Pedestrian'.

1844. The 'sporting landlord', Bob Cowans, arranged a match in which the Rochechorcott Gas Man, beat 'Bob Logic' for 200f by 6 yards in 150 in the Bois de Boulogne on 7 January (Sunday, a favourite day for amusements in France).

1844. The 'perseverance and exertions with the nobility and, gentry in [sic] behalf of athletic sports' of 'an old London professor', now in Paris, succeeded in raising a prize of 200f to be run for (distance, one mile) by persons of all countries, who have resided at least six months within ten miles of Paris. Prizes were given by a sporting English lord and his friends, with a 10f sweepstakes, for a mile race in the Bois de Boulogne watched by several members of the Jockey Club 'and other patrons of athletic amusements' - won by an English lad in 5 minutes 50 seconds, with a Frenchman, considered the first runner in France, second and a groom third.

1844. A 2-mile race in the Bois de Boulogne announced for pedestrians resident at least 6 months in Paris for 100f plus a 20f sweepstakes payable to Mr Cootes, the second runner to have his money refunded.

1846. English foot races, in the Champs d'Elysees and Bois de Boulogne, 'created a great deal of interest among the French and English residents'.

1847. Paris is rapidly becoming 'a perfect new market in sporting affairs among the working Englishman, in foot racing, horse racing, cricketing, &c.'.

1856. George Frost the 'Suffolk Stag' beat Antonio Genaro 'the celebrated Spanish pedestrian', at the New Surrey Pedestrian Ground, Wandsworth - a 4-hour race which partook somewhat of a national character, the nimble-footed son of Hispania having been warmly taken by the hand, and spiritedly patronised, by some of his fellow-countrymen residing in the metropolis. Genaro arrived in a cloak and a blue cap, embroidered Genaro Andarin Espanol (Genaro the Spanish Runner) and surmounted by the crown of Spain. 'The peculiarity of his gait, unusual to an English eye, struck everyone; he did not lift his feet more than 2 or 3 inches and let them descend quite flatly upon the ground' in short rapid steps. He gave up after the 14th mile in 1 hour 38 minutes 2 seconds, with Frost 11 laps ahead. For full details see Sports Quarterly Magazine 19 (1981), pp. 19-21.

1861. Capt. William Henry Patten Saunders matched against M. Gambiere of France for 2,500f a-side in 'the Great Running Match for the Championship of France' near Paris. Gambiere forfeited when he heard of Saunders' trial time. The Captain was styled the undefeated European Champion, having contended victoriously for 'the sash' in Russia, Spain, Austria, Prussia and England. His Russian race was against 'the Tartar Chief', believed invincible in the eastern Russian Empire. When brought to Moscow, however, Saunders 'astonished the Muscovites' by winning over 2 miles with ease in 9 minutes 18 seconds. For his career as an athlete, steeplechase jockey, swimmer, swordsman, big-game hunter, yachtsman, bull-fighter, political theorist and statistician, poet, novelist and claimed 'master of Coptic lore' see Sports History 2 (1982), pp. 18-22.

1862. International athletics meeting on Bonn cricket ground held under the auspices of the English residents. The competitors, mostly students at Bonn University, came from France, Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Greece and North and South America as well as from Britain (cf. Sports Quarterly Magazine 18 (1981), pp. 5-6).

1862. Moorex 'the Italian giant' began a 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours walk at Warren House, Lindley Moor (information: P. Lovesey).

1862. The Illustrated Sporting News published a portrait of William Birks as 'Champion Pedestrian of France'. He followed an early running career in Nottinghamshire (with a win over Seward at Trent Bridge in 1847), then lived in Calais (by 1851), Radford, Nottingham and Oxford before becoming landlord of the Nottingham Castle, Calais, by 1862.

1877. George Hazael beat the Italian Achille Bargozzi, a native of Forlì and self-styled champion runner of France and Italy, who claimed to have run 50 miles in 6 hours. 'The International Running Match' over 30 miles for £50 was held at Lillie Bridge with Bargozzi retiring within 50 yards of his 15th mile, five laps behind Hazael who completed 20 miles - in the then record 1 hour, 57 minutes, 27 seconds - before being declared the winner. It was actually Hazael who at Islington's Agricultural Hall in 1879, first broke 6 hours for 50 miles. He afterwards ran in America where in Madison Square Garden in 1882 he also became the first to complete 600 miles in 6 days. In 1885 he installed a running track behind his hotel in Brooklyn.

This article was written by John Goulstone.

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