Athletics Festivals: The run-up

Read up on Part 1 here.

The second in our occasional series on Cricket Club Athletics Festivals, this sets the scene for what became a real social event for the working classes of Northern Industrial towns in the Victorian Era. (Warning contains references to Burnley CC.)

Athletics Festivals : The run-up: (warning contains quite a bit about Burnley CC)

“Amateur athletics rapidly developed in the second half of the 19th Century in the North of England as factory-workers and the emerging middle classes sought respite on their Saturday afternoons off from their jobs in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. ” (

They organised themselves into sports clubs and gymnasiums, often associated with Churches and Chapels (“muscular Christianity”), Temperance Movements, and local Volunteer battalions, and soon there was a growing demand to find outdoor spaces to stage healthy competitive sport.

Previously, public displays of sport had links to the Circus, Fairground, Music Hall, or Pubs with betting being the driving force. Long distance walking events were staged for wagers, frequently in public halls, round and round short tracks. Theatres and Music Halls included acts which performed feats of leaping and gymnastics so there was an element of entertainment rather than sport attached to gymnastics.

When Burnley CC established a gymnasium for its members in 1866/7 and advertised for an instructor, the ad. was placed in “The Era” journal, amongst adverts for Sundry Theatricals.

Cricket was already popular in Northern industrial towns, with well established clubs, who could offer decent playing fields and, crucially, cricket was considered respectable, which was absolutely fundamental to society at that time, particularly for women.

Huddersfield Cricket Club was one of the very first to stage an athletics festival in 1865 and clubs soon realised that this was a good way to subsidise cricket. (source :

Burnley CC held their first Athletic Festival as early as 1866, for members and Burnley schoolchildren only. The following year it was still mainly a club event, but by 1868 it was attracting athletes from all over the county.

Athletic Festivals were initially more like a church fête, with lots of short events to keep the public entertained and fun events such as the sack race. The standard was appropriate to the competitors, who initially were mostly local men. The events also of course offered excellent opportunities for betting.

As time went by the festivals became more sophisticated, with good athletes from further afield attracted by prizes which were the equivalent of several weeks’ wages for a working man. The audience remained predominantly male, but women certainly did attend.

So throw in a brass band who played for dancing afterwards,and they soon became very popular events in working class life in the Northern industrial towns.

Burnley CC player Edwin Moore excelled at the annual Athletics festivals; in 1867 he won the shot put, running long jump, vault, high jump, 100 yards sprint and 440 yards hurdles and was the Overall Champion again
the next year. He was the son of a cotton manufacturer and married the daughter of the Keirby brewery family.

The events in Burnley’s 1867 festival were many and varied: throwing the cricket ball, putting the shot, trapeze and parallel bars, horizontal bar, running long jump, quoits, Siamese race (pairs), high pole leaping, throwing at wickets, skittles, vaulting over bar, high jump, single-stick, various flat races and hurdles, and a one mile walking race which “the winner won by a foot” (M/c Courier 2/9/1867)

Next : Athletics come to Lowerhouse. 1872

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