Thursday, 18 July 2013

Running History (1): Gentleman Amateurs vs. Tradesmen at Crystal Palace 1872

The following is a report of a fascinating London court case from 1873 where a Mr Wheeler took legal action against Crystal Palace Athletics Club. He had  won a race at Crystal Palace but was denied the prize because he was deemed not to be a 'Gentleman Amateur'.

The amateur ethos in Athletics might have sometimes protected it from naked commercialism, but from the start  amateurism was also a means of keeping out people who needed to earn money as opposed to being independently wealthy. One thing I hadn't realized was that the 19th century notion of the 'Gentleman Amateur' was not only used to preserve privilege against people who ran for money but against working class people who worked for a wage ('mechanics and tradesmen' like Wheeler) - even if they were actually amateur athletes.

On Tuesday, 23rd January, at the Lord Mayor's Court, Guildhall, the case of Wheeler v. Hillier was heard. The plaintiff was an amateur athlete, and the defendant the secretary to the Crystal Palace Athletic Club. The action was brought to recover the value of a certain prize of the value of £10, which plaintiff said he had won at the society's sports held at the Crystal Palace on the 24th of July [1872]. 
The plaintiff was called, and said he was a member of the Victoria Club and several others, and he was in the employment of Messrs. Chaplin and Home as a collector. He saw the advertisement of the race in question in several papers, and he entered his name and paid the entrance fee of 5s. He never ran in races for money, but only for prizes, Mr. Birt was a competitor whom witness distanced and passed in the first 50 yards. After he had won he was objected to, but no ground was given for the objection. He ran in morning costume. Since his employment as a collector be had entered the Barnes Football Club and the Richmond Cricket Club. The prize he won at the Crystal Palace consisted of some fish knives and forks, which were in value about £10. 

He had had considerable experience as an athlete, and had ran several races. Cross-examined: He might have run at Beaufort House five years ago, but not for money, to his knowledge. He never ran for sweepstakes. He had run at Tufnel Park for prizes, and he had won a medal and cups. He never ran against professionals, to his knowledge. He had been objected to in other races, on the ground, he supposed, that he was not a gentleman amateur. Robert Henry Hodgkinson, an athlete, said he was present when the plaintiff won the race. A 'gentleman amateur' was one who did not run for money. 

Mr. Kemp addressed the Jury, and said the question for them to consider was, whether the plaintiff was a gentleman amateur athlete under the rules of the club. This rule was to the effect that any person who had run in a race as a means of livelihood, or who was a mechanic or a tradesman, should not be qualified, &c. The plaintiff being a collector to Messrs. Chaplin & Home, the carriers, he contended, came under this rule. Alfred Walter Hillier, the Secretary of the Crystal Palace Sports, said he was not aware what the plaintiff was when he entered to run for the race. Objection was taken to the plaintiff running. He was not a 'gentleman amateur.' Witness offered the plaintiff his 5s. entrance fee. The Judge of the race decided that he was disqualified and refused him the prize, and Mr. Birt, who ran second, was awarded the prize. In cross-examination the witness said Mr. Rye decided that the plaintiff had not started properly for the race. Before the race Mr. Birt objected to the plaintiff running. 
The advertisement stated that the race was open to 'amateurs.' The word 'gentleman' was omitted by mistake. The Deputy Recorder summed up, and told the Jury be was inclined to rule that the Committee had an absolute and incontrovertible power to decide whether the plaintiff was qualified or not. The Jury found a verdict for the defendant, and Mr.Salter tendered a bill of exceptions to the Deputy Recorder's ruling'.

(report from South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail, 10 May 1873 - the Crystal Palace Athletics Club had been formed in 1868)


  1. Only just discovered your blog because you followed me on twitter @runningryder. Absolutely loving in and particularly the posts on the history of running. There's also a great article I read a few years ago on the Victorian invention of the concept of "role models". The concept was first applied to sport and was often used to keep working class people down. I'll try and find it again because I think it might be just up your street.

  2. Cheers Marcus, only just getting going at this blog but have some more interesting history stuff coming up. 'The Sound of Running' is one of the inspirations for it, in terms of you looking at the bigger picture rather than just documenting your runs (nothing wrong with the latter, I will do a bit of that here, but there's a lot more stuff that rarely gets reflected in mainstream running press)