Charlie Gardiner – Lewisham’s Edwardian Marathon Champion

The marathon distance of the 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km for you metric folks) was adopted for the 1908 London Olympics.  Originally planned for 26 miles, the route was extended to allow a start at Windsor Castle for the route to White City.

Other than the distance itself, the race is best known for its finish with the Italian Dorando Pietri collapsing on the track several times before the finish, he was helped to his feet by officials to allow his to cross the finish line – something he was subsequently disqualified for (see top left photo below.)

There was enormous public sympathy for Pietri, and the Sporting Life newspaper attempted to cash in on this with a strange race on Saturday, 18 December 1909 with 524 laps around a matting course inside the Royal Albert Hall.  Pietri was pitted against a Lewisham runner, Charlie Gardner, who was billed as “The Professional Champion Marathon Runner of All England” having won the third race over the Olympic course in May 1909 beating Frenchman Hector Labry in 2:53:23, as a professional was excluded from the Olympics. Gardiner is in the hoops in the photos.

Gardiner was born in Deptford on 1 August 1881 he was one of at least 8 children to Charles (Senior) and Ruth who were from Greenwich and Suffolk respectively.  Census record show that they were a family that had moved a lot from Suffolk to Greenwich, Essex, Poplar and Deptford.

By 1891 they were living in the delightful sounding Esplanade Terrace in Lewisham.  Idyllic it certainly wasn’t – backed by the railway and part of the Ravesnbourne and at the front looked out onto one of Lewisham’s mills, see Godfrey edition map below.  Charles Booth’s povert maps colour it – dark blue ‘Very poor, casual, chronic want.’ It is where Bankside Avenue now is.  Charles Snr was a tailor, as were several of the older sons.

Charlie wasn’t the only runner in the family, the report of his victory over the Olympic route described Charlie as being a member of a ‘fine athletic family, several of his brothers being well known amateur runners’

In the report of the race at the Albert Hall, Gardiner was described as ‘tall and lithe’ with ‘a long swinging, graceful stride’, Pietri ‘a quaint little figure’.  Pietri had been persuaded, by sponsors perhaps, to wear pair of ‘new stiff shoes’. The two athletes stuck together for the first 10 miles, running ‘like automatons on an automatic toy’ with Charlie Gardiner just leading.  Pietri then pulled up, the ‘rookie mistake’ of wearing new shoes had led to blisters – his aides tried to deal with it by putting in cotton wool pads but Gardiner with a ‘machine like gait, forged further ahead’ as Pietri struggled with the pain eventually retiring at 23 miles.  Gardiner finished the course in a new indoor marathon record of 2:37:12.

Despite the billing he wasn’t the quickest British runner – his best had been bettered by three other British runners in 1909. But in 1911 Charles Gardiner recorded the quickest outside marathon, run by a British runner ever with a time of 2:39:08, in Edinburgh on 3 January 1911. The two better times in the world that year were in the same race. Charlie Gardiner’s record stood until 1920.

He had moved up in the world too – he was listed in the 1911 census as Professional Runner and was living a few hundred metres away, but a world away from Esplanade Terrace – Charles and his wife Louisa, their young children also Charles and Louisa were living at 33 Masala Road. A few years earlier Booth’s poverty maps coloured it red – ‘middle class, well to do.’

Charles never appeared again in the rankings after 1911, perhaps he picked up an injury and had to stop running. The family stayed in Lewisham though – in the 1939 Register (a mini census done for rationing), he and Louisa were living six doors down Marsala Road at 21. Charlie was working as a labourer at an aircraft factory, also in the house was Louisa’s mother, also Louisa, who was described as ‘incapacitated’, and a son Anthony who was seeking work. Charlie seems to have remained in Lewisham until his death in 1965.

It is a measure of the improvement in training that in 2014 over 250 British runners beat that Gardiner’s outside record, the best was Mo Farah with 2:08:21 and from local clubs Blackheath and Bromley’s Scott Overall ran 2:13:00 and Kent AC’s John Gilbert 2:16:46.  Hopefully, those running spring marathons this year though will learn from Pietri’s failure to use tried and tested kit.

Note – the census and related data come from Find My Past.



15 thoughts on “Charlie Gardiner – Lewisham’s Edwardian Marathon Champion

    1. Paul B Post author

      You are more than welcome Sarah. I hope I did him ‘justice.’ Do you or other family members know anything more of his career or what happened after he finished racing. It would be great to add to the post.

      1. Sue youdale

        Hi have just found your write up
        Charles was also my Great Grandfathers Brother. Mine was Robert and I also missed the anniversary due to the weather. Would love to see any more info or photos if you get them I’m doing the family tree. Sue

      2. Paul B Post author

        Hi Sue
        I wasn’t planning to return to the post unless I stumble across anything new, but at some stage I may well do a bit more on Esplanade Terrace as it was one of the poorer parts of Lewisham based on Booth’s maps and think there may be some interesting stories to unpick. Thanks for visiting.

  1. Sarah

    Unfortunately, we do not know a great deal. Most of our info comes from sources outside the family. I have seen some photos of him. Mum and I hoped to get to the 100th anniversary event at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009, but were unfortunately prevented by bad weather. I believe some family members did attend. Thank you again.

    1. Paul B Post author

      I have just had a look at the 1939 Register, a bit like the census but done for rationing etc – he and Louisa were still living in Masala Road and Charlie was working at an aircraft factory. Will e mail you an image of the records in case it is of interest & will do an update of the blog post at some stage.

    1. Paul B Post author

      Glad you found it interesting, if there is anything else you know about him that would be of wider interest, do let me know and I will add to the post.

  2. Tracy Anderson

    Charlie is my Great Grandad I have his daughters name as my middle name so proud to be a part of his history and loved the article to learn something new is so amazing!

  3. Patricia Green

    Great article, and very interesting. My father Norman and his brother Pete, are sons of Phyllis, Charlie Gardiner’s daughter. They attended the anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall and in fact started the ‘anniversary race’. I’m sure either of them can fill in gaps or questions you may have.

    1. Paul B Post author

      Thanks – I will be in touch (maybe not for a month or two, but will be in touch) as would love to find out more of Charlie’s story. I am also planning at some stage to do a post on Mill Road where I think some of the family ended up.


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