1874: A most interesting exhibition of athletic skill and power, (and an efficient band.)

The Burnley Advertiser of 6th June 1874 urged its readers not to miss the Lowerhouse CC 2nd Annual Athletics Festival that afternoon, where they would find “a most interesting exhibition of athletic skill and power” with “upward of 200 competitors entered from all parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, including J. Mellor of Gorton the champion three mile pedestrian, (of whom more later) “The committee have made the most suitable arrangements for the comfort of visitors.  At the conclusion there will be a gala, for which an efficient band has been engaged.”

On 20th June the Advertiser also printed a report of the event.  The weather had been beautiful, with a “numerous crowd”. There were 13 events and more than 100  competitors, so not as many as expected.  (Burnley Advertiser  6 & 20/6/1874 British News Archive).

The programme was more or less the same as in 1873. The cricketers’ race and throwing the cricket ball had been dropped in favour of events with more popular appeal  such as   High Pole Leaping, and especially a 1 mile handicap for professionals. (Throwing the cricket ball was a recognised athletic discipline, the nicely named W.H. Game of Oxford University was the record holder at the time, throwing 127 yards 1 foot 3 inches in 1873.)

The report just names the winners and runners-up, and where they come from.  Most of the winners were in fact local men, but there were also a few “strangers” who were probably experienced competitors on the profitable amateur athletics circuit.  High Pole Leaping was won by J.T. Whitham, with Ingham Walton second, with no location given for either of them.  High pole leaping was such a specialised event, that they may have been “strangers”.

Some names are familiar from the 1873 meeting, such as Edward Rawson, of Wood Top,  aged 20, a cotton twister, who was making a reputation for himself as an athlete, particularly in jumping.  He came second in the 220 yards hurdles, behind W. Redman of Todmorden, and also won the running and standing long jumps with A. Higgin, of Burnley, second.

The main event however was undoubtedly the one mile handicap for professionals featuring  “champion pedestrian” John Mellor of Gorton . Runners and competitive walkers were known as Pedestrians, and Pedestrianism was what they did. Probably about 22 years old, in March 1874 he had won the Royal Oak Three Mile All England Challenge Belt, and literally had a good track record, sometimes running for very high stakes.

Mellor therefore would have been expected to win this fairly low grade match. 

The winner, however, was William Bridge of Gannow who had competed the previous year as an amateur, but now, as a professional, he won by 30 yards from the runner-up, R. Sharp, also of Burnley, with  Mellor, only managing third. Mellor of course ran off scratch, and we don’t know how many yards start he was giving them. The Advertiser reported  that the race “caused much  excitement”.

The 13th and last event was a race for competitors who had not won anything. We don’t know how many stayed around for that, but the winner was Jos. Foulds of Burnley.

The Festival started at 3 pm and finished at 7 pm with the distribution of prizes, “gold centre medals, silver medals, cruet stands, copper kettles, silver pencil cases etc.”  with cash prizes for the  professionals.  The “efficient ”  Brierfield Brass Band  then played for dancing until about 10 o’clock.  The 1874 balance sheet showed Receipts £57 Expenses £30, making it a financial success as well as a good day out.

The Royal Oak Public House and Athletics Park, Newton Heath, was a famous venue for all sorts of sporting events.  Between about 1860 and 1870 Manchester was a hot bed of professional  racing, particularly the mile .  Although by 1874 the professional sport’s unsavoury reputation amid suspicions of race fixing and skulduggery, meant it was in decline, the mile races remained popular with punters for some years to come. The  Athletics Grounds attached to the Royal Oak  re-opened in April 1864 after redevelopment:

“The ground itself boasted a 651 yard circular track, quarter of a mile straight course, circular 750 yard rabbit course, wrestling arena, bowling green, quoits ground, trotting course and grandstand, all within the fenced enclosure capable of holding 20,000 people with ease. Further amenities included a shower-bath with soap, towels and brushes which could be used for the sum of one penny, and a portable dressing room, with carpets and stoves, where athletes could ‘strip by the fireside opposite the starting post”.  

(extract from “Manchester’s Sporting Past 19th Century Athletic Grounds” S.J.  Oldfield & D. Day Manchester Metropolitan University. S. Oldfield   https://www.playingpasts.co.uk/articles/athletics/the-manchester-milers-1850-1870)

Winners and Second places, LHCC Athletics 6 June 1874

  1. 120 yards handicap for club members,  A. Ashworth.  W.E. Connor.
  2. 120 yards for amateurs William Briggs and William Balmforth both of Burnley
  3. High Pole Leaping   J.T. Whitham,  Ingham Walton
  4. 150 yards for under 17s Jas. Watson of Burnley. A.C. Kenyon of Habergham Eaves  . 
  5. Putting shot  L. Heap, James Bailey, both of Lowerhouse.
  6. 1 mile handicap professionals,  William Bridge of Gannow , R. Sharp, Burnley  third  J. Mellor, Gorton, scratch, Bridge won by 30 yards.
  7. 220 yards hurdle W. Redman of Todmorden, Edward Rawson, of  Wood Top,
  8. Long jump , running, and standing Edward Rawson, A. Higgin, of Burnley,.
  9. 440 yards Jacques, Burnley , Kenyon Habergham Eaves
  10. Stone gathering Richard Green, Lowerhouse, Smith Durham, Littleboro’
  11. 440 yards hurdles Redman, Todmorden, R. Bagshawe, Manchester
  12. Half mile handicap flat race  James Astin, Habergham,  John Bridge of  Burnley
  13.  Consolation race  Joseph Foulds of Burnley