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