Friday, 9 October 2015

Wimbledon Common, Blackheath and the origins of cross country

This weekend sees the start of the cross country season and I hope to take part in the first race of the Surrey Cross Country League Division One,  running with last year's champions Kent Athletic Club. The men's race is on Wimbledon Common, an iconic location regarded by many as the birthplace of modern cross country racing.

'Modern athletics' by Henry Fazakerley Wilkinson, published in 1868, gives the background. Public schools such as Shrewsbury and Eton were holding steeplechase races by the mid-1840s, and there were also cross country hare and hounds races. Steeplechase of course took its name from the form of cross country horse racing where riders used church steeples as markers as they were visible over long distances. In athletics as in horse racing the event entails jumping over obstacles along the way, with the early steeplechase runs in effect being cross country runs with gates, ditches etc. to be overcome. The first Cambridge and Oxford University inter-collegiate athletics competition took place in 1864 at Christ Church Cricket Ground in Oxford and featured a two mile steeplechase race. In this context, the event was moving from a cross country run to a flat course with specially arranged obstacles, as in the modern track event.  For a while 'steeplechase' seems to have been used to refer to either an event of this kind or a cross country run with obstacles.

Although often overlooked in the orthodox public school/university-centred history of athletics (of which Wilkinson's account is a classic example), there was also a popular culture of organised running outside of the colleges long before this, with foot-matches between professional runners some of them on what would nowadays be regarded as cross country courses. But it seems to be true that before the late 1860s there were no cross country races between members of different clubs, as of course this was the period when clubs were first emerging. One of the earliest, Mincing Lane Athletic Club, was founded in 1863, renaming itself London Athletic Club in 1866. It was actually amongst rowing clubs that the club competitions developed, as Wilkinson describes:

'The initiative in London, with the exception of the Honourable Artillery Company's sports, was undoubtedly taken by the West London Rowing Club in the winter of 1861-62. This club instituted athletic meetings as a subsidiary sport during the rowing recess, at a time when such gatherings were quite unknown in the metropolis. It was said such meetings would never answer: that men who trained hard throughout the rowing season required to rest in the winter, and that incessant training all the year round was injurious. The first spectators came to jeer, but remained to applaud, and went away very strongly possessed in favour of athletics. These winter meetings have been held ever since with great success; and now there is no metropolitan rowing club of note which has not followed in the footsteps of the West London'.

Wimbledon Common

Wimbledon Common and its windmill pictured in 1880s
(from 'Greater London: a narrative of its history, its people and its places'  by Edward Walford, 1888)
On 7 December 1867 Thames Rowing Club (from which the still extant Thames Hare and Hounds running club developed) held a steeplechase race on Wimbledon Common, and it is this event that is often said to be 'the first cross country race' not because if was the first time people raced across fields but because it 'the first "open" cross country race' in which members of different clubs took part (Amby Burfoot, Common Ground, Runners World, July 2006).

Actually it wasn't strictly an open race, as Wilkinson's report makes clear, but it certainly included members of several different rowing and athletic clubs:

'A private handicap steeplechase, confined to members of the Thames Rowing Club and their friends, came off on December 7, when a dozen competitors started over about two and a half miles of Wimbledon Common and some adjacent ploughed fields, beginning in the dusk and
finishing in the dark, competitors having to find their own way to a great extent. The winner turned up in W. Cross of the Thames Rowing Club (20 seconds), who kept a capital course, and finished about 100 yards before C. Bainsford of the Middlesex A.C. (35 seconds), the latter just beating J. G. Webster of the Twickenham Rowing Club (30 seconds), neither of the two last knowing the way. W. Rye, London A.C, the scratchman, finished fifth. The course was fearfully heavy and wet, and falls were frequent and severe.'

Wilkinson also reports that a similar race was held there a couple of months later:

'After a long lull, metropolitan athletics were recommenced on February 1, 1868, by the Thames Rowing Club handicap steeplechase (No. II.), which was run over a different and more open part of Wimbledon Common than the first, and produced exactly double as many starters - 24 out of 55 entries coming to the post. W. Slater, West London R. C. (85 seconds) led for three quarters of the way, but fell into a deep and awkward ravine, and was passed by J. G. Webster, Twickenham R. C. (20 seconds), W. James, London A.C. (45 seconds), C. Chenery, Marlborough Grammar School (50 seconds), E. Hawtrey, Eton College (35 seconds), S. F. Smith, Blackheath (25 seconds), A. King, Thames R.C. (25 seconds), and F. Chappel, Kingston R.C. (50 seconds), who were all together a quarter of a mile from home. Hawtrey was thrown out of the front rank by a water jump, into which he went ; Chenery gave up dead beaten 100 yards further; and as James and Slater tailed soon after, the race was left to King and Webster, the former winning through sheer gameness by a yard and a half, Chappell just stalling off Hawtrey, who came with a great rush at the finish, securing third prize by a foot'.

With ravines, water jumps and severe falls, these Wimbledon Common cross country steeplechase runs were clearly very challenging as well as amongst the first of their kind. But were they the first?

Interestingly, Wilkinson records that in the 1867-68 season 'The first meeting of any consequence was that held at Blackheath on October 5 1867' and that at this the meet 'The mile handicap steeplechase was won by A. Maddock of Richmond, receiving 15 seconds from W.M. Chinnery, (London A.C.) the scratchman, who never got near the leaders. R.C. Hannis of the Eton Excelsior R.C., who had 8 seconds of the winner, ran him hard and showed fair form, but had not calibre enough to compete successfully with Maddock, who is thought by some to be the coming mile runner. Blackheath has ever been celebrated as producing celebrated runners, and this, the first meeting passed off most successfully. The times were good throughout, considering the length of the grass on which the course was laid out and the high wind'.

Perhaps the distance (one mile rather than two) and the possibly grassier conditions still support the claim that Wimbledon saw the first inter-club cross country race proper, although Blackheath - today of course the starting point for the London Marathon - should also be accorded its place as one of the origin points of modern athletics.

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