Jumping Jack Howard – National Sporting Heritage Day

In 1851, Jack Howard, professional long jumper and sprinter, jumped 24 feet, a distance not beaten by any Englishman until 1923 and although he pre-dates the Lowerhouse Athletics Festivals and there is no connection whatsoever to cricket, he was born in Burnley and it is a story well worth telling, on National Sporting Heritage Day #NSHD2020.

Jumping Jack Howard (from Burnley Wood). The greatest long jumper of the 19th Century

In October of 1875, “Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle”, reported on the death “in melancholy circumstances” of John Howard, “one of the greatest athletes of his day”.  They say he was a Bradford man, but although he lived there, on and off, for most of his adult life, he was born in Burnley Wood on 24th June 1824, to Patrick and Margaret, baptised on 7th November at the Catholic Burnley Wood Chapel.  Which definitely makes him a Burnley boy. The family moved to Bradford when he was about 13 to work in the textile mills.

He was a first class sprinter, both a rival and friend of George Seward, “The American Wonder”, considered America’s first great runner, who had re-located to England and they seem to have joined forces, supporting each other on the professional circuit, travelling all over the country. The census on 31st March, 1851 records them both staying in an Inn in Boston, a few days after they were advertised in Bell’s Life to be matched against each other in Retford, to run 200 yards and leap over 8 hurdles for £20.  Howard was described as being unmarried on the Census, but in fact had a wife, Sarah, and two daughters at home in Bradford. 

Howard was an absolutely amazing long jumper. In 1853, Cambridge University invited him to demonstrate his skill to them, and he jumped 28 feet.

He attracted huge crowds for his jumps, such as this one reported in “The Era” 4th June 1853.


His most famous jump was in May 1854 when as part of a wager to jump more than 27 feet, he jumped 29 feet 7 inches, said to be the best in the world,  winning a lot of money for himself and those who had bet on him.

He used a technique for these prodigious leaps which involved a long run up, a take-off board which probably acted as a spring-board and he swung a weight in each hand, to add impetus.  This was a technique used by Ancient Greeks, albeit for jumps from a standing start, and  it is still disputed quite what he gained by doing this for a running jump. However, even without the spring board and the weights he still recorded a “fair” jump of 24 feet in 1851, a distance not beaten by any Englishman until Harold “Chariots of Fire” Abrahams in 1923. He does not however feature in the record books as he pre-dated official verifiable records and he was a professional.

He was also famous for jumping over billiard tables, and other obstacles, and appeared in

Hegler’s circus in Bradford, where he jumped over ten horses.

He even appeared on stage, but as all the audience saw was a man appearing from one side of the stage, flying through the air and disappearing off the other side the act had limited  appeal.

Howard competed until he was 44, and also trained other athletes.  All his performing was done for prize money and wagers, and he must have made plenty of money during his career both for himself and his backers, in the rather dubious world of professional athletics. Yet when he died that day, in October 1875, aged only 51,  having collapsed early one morning in a pub, he was alone, living in a common lodging house, and scraping a living marking for billiards.

The attendant at the local workhouse where his body was examined, told the inquest that although he was well-nourished, “the legs below the knee were diseased.” 

This very brief summary was prompted by an article on the Northern Athletics Website entitled “The-greatest-long-jumper-of-the-19th-century-but-who-was-to-know?” Other information from British Newspaper archive.

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