Tag Archives: Blackheath & Bromley

Early Amateur Running In & Around Blackheath

This weekend, Blackheath will see the start of the 36th London Marathon, but running on the Heath is nothing new – Blackheath has a long athletic history with recorded events going back at least two hundred years.  Running Past has covered the late Georgian long distance walkers – George Wilson, the Blackheath Pedestrian and Josiah Eaton, the Woodford Pedestrian.  Later in the century large crowds were drawn to the heath by the likes of William Gazley, the Star of Kent and Tom Cook, the Greenwich Cowboy for their running and related exploits.  These were all professionals, with wealthy backers, and large amounts of money changed hands through gambling.  The athletes themselves though probably saw very little of the money that was made through their efforts though – Cook and Gazley both seem to have ended up living in poverty.

Walter Chinnery

Walter Chinnery

The mid-Victorian period saw the growth of the gentleman sportsman, the amateur athlete, the development of athletic clubs, track and cross country racing.  One of the very first competitive cross country races of this era on Blackheath was on 5 October 1867 – a mile handicap steeplechase, which the Go Feet Blog posted about last autumn.  The race was won by A Maddock from Richmond, who had been given a 15 second head-start on Walter Chinnery.  Chinnery was a founding member of the world’s oldest track and field club, London Athletic Club (AC), which had been set up in 1863 and was initially called Mincing Lane AC.  The following summer he was to become the first amateur athlete in the world to break 4:30 for the mile in March 1868.  Chinnery was to become a wealthy stockbroker and was perhaps not atypical of the ‘gentlemen amateurs’ of the era – very different indeed to their forerunners of a couple of decades before like Gazley, who lived in comparative poverty on the Greenwich/Lewisham borders.

Three of the biggest athletics clubs in south London had their roots from the late 1860s and all had links with Blackheath and its environs.

Lewisham’s main club – Kent AC – has its roots in two clubs formed in the 1880s, Lewisham Hare and Hounds and West Kent Harriers.  The ‘Hare and Hounds’ element of the name was common in the early clubs and related to cross country races that mimicking hunting – a paper/flour trail being set by the ‘hare’ who goes off first for the ‘hounds’, the runners, to chase.  As the blog has noted before, this type of racing has its links back to  the fee paying Shrewsbury School and was adopted by rowers in Putney wanting to keep fit during the winter in late 1867 – became Thames Hare & Hounds – their history describes them as ‘a gentleman’s club’ in this era.

Lewisham Hare and Hounds and West Kent Harriers amalgamated in 1898 and their early training runs took them the still rural Blackheath environs of Kidbrooke.

unknown artist; Old Brick Field, Kidbrooke; Greenwich Heritage Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-brick-field-kidbrooke-193789

Painting of Kidbrooke from 1889 – See notes copyright at bottom

Another local club Cambridge Harriers is now partially based in the Kidbrooke/Eltham border in Sutcliffe Park.  However, it had its roots in the Cambridge Settlement where students would live and work among the poor, devoting their time to philanthropic, educational and religious activities within the local community. The first of these was set up in Walworth by St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1884, followed a year later by the Clare College Mission in Rotherhithe.   Initially they set up a cricket club, but like the Putney rowers they looked to running to provide winter fitness.  Their first run was from close to the Dowager’s Bottom (a former name for this part of Blackheath) – from Tranquil Restaurant at 56 Tranquil Vale on 6 October 1890 with 15 runners turning out.

While Blackheath currently has no athletics clubs, there is one that retains the name despite the geographical association having long since gone – Blackheath and Bromley Harriers.  Their origins are much earlier than Kent AC and Cambridge Harriers and are a few miles to the west in Peckham, starting as Peckham Hare and Hounds, but changing their name to Peckham AC soon afterwards – like Thames Hare and Hounds their initial raison d’etre seemed to be to help keep amateur sportsmen (and it was men) fit for a range of other sports ranging from cricket to rowing and gymnastics.  Their club history claims that they were the earliest club to athletic club to offer both cross country and track athletics.

Source - ebay March 2016

Source – ebay March 2016

Their links to Blackheath started in 1878 when they moved to the Green Man on Blackheath Hill and changed their name to Blackheath Harriers.  Like many clubs of the era they were founded for male athletes only – women’s athletics developed much more slowly and separately – the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) was set up in 1880, with the Women’s equivalent only coming in the 1920s – something covered in a post a while ago on the first women’s AAA championships which were held in Downham.  Blackheath, though were slower than most in integrating – they didn’t allow women members until 1992.

The handicap steeplechase from 1867 was quite common fayre of the early days on the Heath – there were press reports of a repetition in the second winter at Blackheath with 42 runners in an inter-club race in early 1880 (1).  The fixture was repeated the following year (2).

The Blackheath Society have a series of sketches of Blackheath Harriers from that era – including runs through Kidbrooke and in front of Morden College which they have allowed to be used here (see picture notes at end).


Their track and field competitions were held elsewhere – the 1881 Championships were held at Stamford Bridge – although press reports described them as a ‘disastrous failure’, due to the wet and cold.  They had a high number of entries though – including 83 for the handicapped 100 yards (3).


From the following winter there was evidence of that staple of cross country running with a mob match against Ranlegh Harriers, from Richmond (4).  Later that season the ground was ‘fearfully heavy going’ and conditions’ in ‘weather as unfavourable as could be imagined’ around Blackheath for the annual steeplechase (5).


Their major athletics meeting of the year moved to Catford in 1883 – to the Private Banks Sports Ground, by the stations.  The highlight of the fixture, on a grass track, was a then record of 4:24.25 for the mile by W G George of Moseley Harriers (6).  At another meeting at the Oval organised by the club in September the same year, W G George took a second off the record – 5,000 were there to watch events (7).

Race walking events were organised too – including one from Chislehurst to the Green Man via Eltham Church in 1903 (8).

They also had a rather odd annual bachelors v married men, the two reports found for 1905 (9) and 1906 (10), both saw victories for those out of wedlock.

Interest seems to have declined in Edwardian England – attendances well down at the 1906 Crystal Palace meeting (11).  Cross country numbers too reduced – a five mile race in late 1908 only attracted six entries, of these, only four made the starting line (12).


Blackheath Harriers were to move on from the Heath – by 1922 they were based at the Private Banks Sports Ground in Catford for track and field and they purchased a base in Hayes in 1926 for their road and cross country running.  Membership increased considerably after WW1 with the 500 level being reached in 1923.

From 10:00 on Sunday morning around 38,000 runners start the marathon on various parts of the Heath, of those around 100 will be from Kent AC, Cambridge Harriers and Blackheath and Bromley Harriers (Blackheath Harriers merged with Bromley AC in 2003).  The elite men will finish around 12:05 but amongst the slower competitors at around 4:30 pm will be the millionth London marathon finisher.



  1. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 15, 1880; Issue 1943
  2. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, February 05, 1881; pg. 90
  3. Daily News (London, England), Monday, October 10, 1881; Issue 11071
  4. Daily News (London, England), Saturday, October 28, 1882; Issue 11400
  5. The York Herald (York, England), Monday, February 12, 1883; pg. 8; Issue 9905
  6. The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, July 30, 1883; pg. 2; Issue 34663
  7. The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, September 24, 1883; pg. 2; Issue 34711.
  8. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, October 17, 1903; pg. 246; Issue 2212
  9. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, January 28, 1905; pg. 54; Issue 2279
  10. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, March 10, 1906; pg. 150
  11. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, May 19, 1906
  12. I.P.: Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, December 26, 1908

Notes on Pictures

The painting is by an unknown artist and is owned by Greenwich Heritage Centre  and is displayed via the Art UK website, and reproduction for non commercial research such as this is allowed under the terms.

Thank to the Blackheath Society for allowing the use of the sketches of Blackheath Harriers, it is just one of several hundred pictures from their fantastic photographic archives which they have recently allowed public access to – they are well worth a visit!

Cross Country in Monochrome

The first snow of the winter in London greeted the morning, it hadn’t settled on the grass and nothing more than a light dusting remained on windscreens in Lee, but at the start of the annual mob-match with Blackheath and Bromley Harriers in West Wickham there was more than a dusting on the fields and in the churchyard of St John the Baptist next to the start.


It is probably my favourite race of the year, a point to point run, a genuine challenge in attractive countryside – much better than the multiple laps of the traditional cross country course – like last weekend’s race at Brands Hatch.


There were more of us at the start than normal – Beckenham had had a three line whip on attendance, doctors certificates were required from non-attendees, and to encourage our participation the club had decided to pay entry fees – but Blackheath had also invited Striders of Croydon, Petts Wood and Bromley Vets to join the fun.

The course was the same as previous years apart from, pushing the start back a few metres and then going to the right (instead of left) of a group of bushes thirty metres later. The net result was the same length. I’ve described the course in my posts on the race in 2014 and 2015, so I won’t duplicate it here. The snow made for a slightly more circumspect descent of the hill just after Layham’s Farm though; and there was perhaps slightly more mud than last year – particularly in the closing stages across the common.


There were the traditional obstacles on the course – stiles, the waits early on we’re a little longer as there were more of us; horses – there were a lot loose in a field early on and some of the quicker runners had to wait for the harasse of horses (other collective nouns are available) to canter to safety; and on the part of the course that edges New Addington, the lack of horse power of a small burned-out motorcycle.


One of things I love about cross country is the camaraderie, in the second half of the race I ran with a woman from Striders of Croydon, she had run in the Surrey League yesterday – we chatted, we swapped places a few times but she was stronger in the end. She was probably spurred on by the encouragement shouted out by Simon, 50 metres from the line, suggesting that I should be able to pass her. Quite rightly, she was having none of that, and all I could muster was a burst fast enough to protect my place from the runner behind me, whose footfall I could clearly hear.

We hugged at the end, thanking each other for encouraging each other round, comparing notes on broken bones and recovery, obviously my broken neck from almost a year ago top-trumped her broken ankle of seven months ago.

My time was about a minute slower than last year, but around half of that was the waits at stiles as there were a lot more runners. I beat a number of Beckenham runners I expected to finish behind which was pleasing.  All in all, it felt like progress – a 10k before Christmas had seen me over 2 minutes down on 12 months before.


At the time of writing the result of the mob match is still unclear, Blackheath and Bromley seem to have had a few technical problems with the results, so Beckenham will probably have to wait until tomorrow to find out whether we have gained our first victory in the match.


Mob Rule

Mob matches are a standard feature of the cross country season. Today’s match with Blackheath and Bromley is a relatively recent one – around the 7th ‘edition’ although for a few years before that Beckenham runners ‘guested’ for a Bank of England team. Beckenham Running Club, like a lot of the sports clubs & ground in the area between Catford and Beckenham had its roots in the banking sector – until around 2000 it was known as Forbanks.

The links of Blackheath and Bromley to Blackheath is historical – they were based for around 50 years at the Green Man, just off Blackheath Hill, but moved to their current base in Hayes in 1926. The original Blackheath Harriers became Blackheath & Bromley after a merger of clubs in 2003.

The course is unusual for a cross country course in that it isn’t multiple lap, it isn’t even a lap – starting in a field below the fine church of St John the Baptist and finishing on the slightly higher ground of West Wickham Common about a kilometre away.

(From Blackheath and Bromley website)

The 10 and a bit kilometres between the two start around a paddock to spread the field out a little followed a flattish kilometre across the fields to woods that run alongside the New Addington estate.

There are numerous stiles to traverse en route, I (49) helpfully managed to close my eyes just after the first ….

(From Blackheath & Bromley website)

Then it is a long slog up gaining around 70 metres by the halfway point, around Layham’s Farm, and I was certainly feeling Wednesday’s long run in my legs by this point…

Photo by Tom Simpson
There are often loose horses in a field just before the farm who don’t take too kindly to over 90 runners using the public footpath through their field – which often leads to some perturbed looks from both parties (me from 3 years ago ….)

Photo by Tom Simpson
Helpfully those planning the route allow most of the height gained to be lost almost immediately. Then the height lost is predictably regained over a couple of kilometres along a bridleway which is dominated in dry years by mud, and in wet years a quagmire of thick glutinous mud where you hope that you have done your off-road shoes up tightly enough; today was the latter.

To add insult to injury at the end of this section there are steps of a number and length to make running up them more trouble that its worth unless you are an experienced fell runner or mountain goat. Any time gained attempting to run up is almost always lost on the flat three kilometres (it always feels longer) to the finish which is partially along a road.

As usual Blackheath and Bromley ‘won’ although it was closer than it had ever been before. My time was a few seconds slower than last year, however, 2014 didn’t involve a nearly 25 second wait for some very slow horse riders to pass the other way on a single track bit late on.

Finally, a few Beckenham ‘penguins’ huddling together for warmth before a rather cold start.