Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Sport - Athletics

see also Henry Holland Burne in The Early Years of Queen Victoria's Reign

see also Thomas Wright in Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes - click here

ATHLETIC SPORTS take place generally during the spring. The best meetings are held at the Lillie Bridge Grounds of the Amateur Athletic Club (close to West Brompton Station). Such are the Oxford and Cambridge Inter-University Sports, the Amateur Championship Meeting, &c. 
London Athletic Club.-Stamford Bridge (close to Chelsea Station).

Murray's Handbook to London As It Is, 1879

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Athletics. — Clubs for the practice of athletic sports of all kinds exist in London in great numbers, and it is only possible here to mention three of the principal and most representative associations: the Amateur Athletic Club, the London Athletic Club, and the German Gymnastic Society. The Amateur Athletic Club has for its objects the promotion and supervision of athletic sports and pastimes, and the ensuring “as far as practicable that they are legitimately and honourably conducted.” Members are divided into two classes, honorary and active; the former paying one sum of twelve guineas, and the latter an annual subscription of two guineas. The election is by committee, and one black ball excludes. The grounds of the club at Lillie-bridge (nearest stations, Lillie-bridge and Earl’s-court, on the District Railway; cab fare, from Charing -cross, 2s; from the Bank of England, 2s. 6d.) comprise a running track four laps to the mile; gymnasium; skating cause-way, which is flooded in winter for real ice skating ; with good pavilion, &c. The athletic sports of the two great Universities are held here, as well as the competitions for the amateur championships, and the military meeting. There is a ladies’ class for gymnastics, and lawn tennis is played in the open and under cover.
The London Athletic Club is by far the most important of all the clubs with similar objects in London, Founded on the remains of the old Mincing-lane Club, it now contains nearly 700 members, and takes the lead in almost all matters connected with amateur pedestrianism. Its object is declared to be the cultivation of athletic sports, and it consists of active and non-active members. The former pay £1 1s. annually, and £1 1s. entrance-fee. After paying three annual subscriptions a member can, by paying an additional sum of £5s 5s., become free of the club. Active members are admitted to all the advantages of the club; non-active members are not permitted to compete in the sports. The election, after the candidate has been duly proposed and seconded, is by committee, one black ball in five excluding. Meetings for prizes given by the club take place frequently, and one of the most important rules is that “no member may enter for any sports which are not confined to amateurs, nor compete with professional runners for either prize or money.” The definition of an amateur does not appear in the rules, and the question would seem to be left to be settled by the committee from time to time, as the entries (to the open competitions) of all strangers are subject to the ballot of the committee, the club always reserving the right of refusing the entry of anyone not a member of the club. The London Athletic Club possesses seven handsome challenge cups (100 yards, quarter of a mile, half a mile, 1 mile, 3 miles, 7 miles walking, and 10 miles), which are considered as being their absolute property. There are also three other cups which may, in the event of a certain number of victories, be won by some fortunate athlete. These are the half-mile wimming cup, the 220 yards cups, and the 600 yards cup, called the “China cup”, from the fact of its having been presented to the club by some old members now resident in China. The club has an excellent ground at Stamford-bridge, Fulham, opposite the Chelsea Station of the West London Extension Railway (cab fare from Charing-cross, 2s. ; from the Bank of England, 3s.), with a first-rate path of four laps to the mile, and a straight run of 250 yards. There are convenient dressing-rooms, and all the usual pavilion accommodation. Lawn tennis is provided for those whose ambition does not go to winning a handicap or beating “the best on record.” A boxing class is held during the winter months at Professor White’s, 22, Golden-square. That the London Athletic Club is in a very “live” state will be seen at once when it is stated that in 1878 there were 90 competitions for 182 prizes, fur which over 1,000 starters came to the post, and that 268 new members were elected during the year.
As the London Athletic Club takes the lead among the clubs formed for the practice of athletics in general, so the German Gymnastic Society, which was founded in 1861, stands at the head of all institutions of its class. Whether “the art of gymnastics will restore the lost equilibrium of human education,” as appears to be the opinion of the leaders of the society, may be an open question. It is, at all events, certain that the G.G.S. does not neglect any means by which this desirable end may be obtained, The thousand and seventy-three members who were on the roll in 1878 not only had the opportunity of thoroughly learning all that the German system of gymnastics has to teach, combined with fencing and boxing, but the privilege of joining a singing-class, a literary club, and an English dramatic club; a library of 2,500 volumes being also at their disposal. A ladies’ class is held twice a week. The entrance-fee is 5s., and the yearly subscription £1 10s. A ha If-yearly subscription of optional, should the subscriber only desire to avail himself of the advantages of the society for that period. The gymnasium is situated at 26, Pancras-road, King’s-cross, N.W. The nearest railway stations are the King’s-cross terminus of the Great Northern, the St. Pancras terminus of the Midland, and the King’s-cross junction of the Metropolitan. It us also convenient for all omnibuses passing King’s-cross.
During the winter there is plenty of cross-country sport promoted by the paper-chasing clubs, of which there are a dozen or more in various parts of London. The oldest of these is the “Thames Hare and Hounds,” with headquarters at the “King’s Head” Roehampton ; and next in importance come the “South London Harriers,” running from the “Greyhound,” Streatham; and the “Spartan Harriers,” hailing from the “Angel” at Edmonton.
In addition to the general sporting papers, the Athletic World, published at 11, Ave Maria-lane, will be of interest to athletes.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - The Scottish Gathering at Stamford Bridge (1895)

The Scottish Gathering at Stamford Bridge (1895) - photograph


Stamford Bridge, on the Fulham Road, is the best known athletic ground in the Metropolis, being the headquarters of the London Athletic Club and the scene of the amateur championship competitions whenever they take place in London. The annual Scottish Gathering is one of the most popular fixtures held here. Only those of Scottish birth are allowed to take part in the Highland games, many of which, such as tossing the caber, are utterly foreign to Southrons, while dancing and bagpipe playing are also included in the long day's proceedings. Such Scots as possess them wear the kilts of their clans, and the London Scottish Volunteers are generally well to the fore, as shown in our picture. There is always a large attendance of spectators, and the profits are given to Scottish charities.



A Start for the Challenge Cup (L.A.C.) at Stamford Bridge

As be fits the capital of an Empire which owes so much to the stout hearts and strong arms of her sons, it is no more than natural that the pursuit of athletics should play a prominent part in the life of London. But even those best acquainted with the subject are liable to be lost in astonishment when they come to consider carefully the number and variety of the forms of athletic exercises that are practised in and around the great city, as well as the diversity of class, age, and sex to which they appeal.
    Take, for instance, one of the meetings at the Queen's Club Grounds, West Kensington, when the chosen representatives of Oxford and Cambridge are met to struggle for athletic supremacy. By the time the first event is set for decision, the grounds are filled - and well filled in every part. Nor is the crowd composed solely of under-graduates, friends of the competitors, and persons still directly and actively interested in athletics. Men whose names are house-hold words in every branch of our country's life legal, naval, military, ecclesiastical, commercial are here to forget, for the while at all events, the years that have elapsed since they, for the first time, attended these gatherings either as spectators or as competitors. And be sure that the winner of a hardly-contested race or the hero of a record jump or hammer-throw receives from none more hearty congratulations than from those who have proved over and over again that the qualities needed for success on the cinder-path are equally useful in the longer and sterner race for the prizes of life.
    Of a somewhat different nature, but none the less interesting, are the contests that take place at Stamford Bridge at the various meetings of the London Athletic Club. Numbering, as it does, a large proportion of past and present Varsity athletes among its members, as well as many of the leading Londoners, the contests for its challenge cups are frequently invested with an interest almost as great as those for the athletic championships themselves. Especially is this the case when, as sometimes happens, the competitors include well-known provincial athletes as well as champions whose titles are derived from countries outside the United Kingdom. Sometimes, when a [-177-] London Athletic Club meeting takes place a week or two before the championships, one or other of the events then decided will give a fairly accurate forecast of what may be expected to happen at the more important meeting.
    As a rule, however, the starters for one of these events may generally be reckoned to include an Oxford or Cambridge athletic " Blue" and a representative or two of some of the leading "Harrier" clubs, many of which can without difficulty provide as powerful a team to represent them in path contests at various distances as at cross-country racing, though the latter pastime is nominally the object of their existence. Nor is this to be wondered at when it is borne in mind that cross-country running is essentially a winter pursuit, and that the leading cross-country clubs - which may well be numbered by the dozen - have hundreds of members apiece. Many of these, even while on the active list, are "harriers" in name only, the part they take in athletics being confined solely to path racing (running or walking) at various distances.
    But cross-country running, owing to the prevalence of bricks and mortar, can be pursued only at an ever-increasing distance from the Metropolis, and  consequently, although it is followed by hundreds, if not thousands, of Londoners, it hardly falls within the scope of the present article. It may be mentioned, however, that nearly all the training that takes place at the various athletic grounds during the winter is done in connection with this sport. Occasionally, also, one may meet parties of scantily-attired youths careering along some of the Cite streets after business hours and not infrequently dodging among the traffic with wonderful agility. But this particular form of training is viewed with disfavour by the governing bodies of the sport, as tending to bring athletes and athletics generally into disrepute. For this reason the members of the bigger organisations do their training either on cinder paths or, except in very special cases, on roads some distance from the Metropolis.
    While speaking of the Stamford Bridge Grounds, one must not omit to mention the Public Schools' championships held there annually under the auspices of the London Athletic Chub, and the championships of the Amateur Athletic Association, which usually take place there every third year, when the English championships (which are held alternately in the North, Midlands, and South) are decided. Strictly speaking, however these also can hardly be called a part of London athletics, except in so far as they take place in London, since so many of [-179-]  the competitors are not resident in or near the Metropolis. This latter objection may, perhaps, be urged also against the Public Schools championships, though hardly to the same extent. For in this case a fair proportion of the competitors came from London Public Schools, and the events are always decided at the first spring meeting of the London Athletic Chub.
    While it is to be regretted that all the greater Public Schools are not represented on these occasions, by reasons of the views held by certain head-masters, it must nevertheless be admitted that the "schoolboys" who do compete show that in many instances they are quite able to hold their own with the average adult athlete.
    Among the athletic spirits promoted by other clubs, the spring and the autumn meetings of the South London Harriers are unique, for they take place at Kennington Oval - the only occasions on which either of the great London cricket grounds is regularly allowed to be used for such a purpose.
    Other athletic meetings of a somewhat uncommon type are the Scottish and Highland gatherings, at which, in addition to the more customary kinds, there are to be found such events as tossing the caber, jumping, tug-of-war, and throwing the hammer, as well as pipe music and Scottish dancing competitions. The two last-named are perhaps the distinctive features of the meeting, inasmuch as they generally commence the proceedings, and continue during the decision of the greater part of the programme. It is somewhat remarkable that the "field" as distinguished from track events are far more popular with Scots and Irish than with Englishmen, and that consequently the majority of championships and records for such contests are rarely held by men of English birth.
    But, although the above are possibly typical examples of the chief firms of London athletics, it must not be supposed that only those satisfying the requirements of such ordeals are catered for. On the contrary, the would-be athlete of either sex and of every possible age and rank in the social scale will find his or her wants most carefully supplied. Thus, the youngsters of the Board and elementary schools are put through a system of physical drill adapted to their age and capacities, while for children of good families classes for musical drill are held at the Portman Rooms, the Baker Street Bazaar, and other places. The telegraph messengers, also, have a sort of semi-military drill.
    Of course, every London school of any importance has its annual athletic sports meeting but it is the Board school children, or a part of them, who can claim the distinction of holding what is perhaps the greatest annual athletic meeting in the world. This, which is confined to those attending the South London Schools, was, until 1901 (when it took place at the Crystal Palace), held at the Herne Hill Grounds, and , though of recent growth, has already assumed mammoth dimensions. Races and other forms of competitions are provided for both boys and girls, so that it is possibly not surprising to learn that the entries total up to thousands, and that the greater part of a day is occupied in in deciding the various events. On these occasions the spectators, who are for the most part friends and relatives of the competitors, watch the decision of the various events with an eagerness easily explained by their personal interest in the results.
    Then, too, most of the public, semi-public, and private concerns employing numbers of persons hold annual athletic sports of some form or other. But whereas the Civil Service the County Council, and the various banks, insurance offices, etc., conduct meetings on almost purely athletic lines - and in many instances number the foremost athletes of the day among the competitors - the gatherings held by the big business firms are of a rather different nature. In most of these "house sports" there is a somewhat greater blending of the "garden party" element with athletics proper.
    Naturally, athletes capable of holding their own in any company (occasionally, indeed, capable of winning amateur championships and breaking records) are frequently to be found at these establishments. But while these are rarely suffered to go without recognition, and are rewarded for their prowess with challenge cups and the like, it is a principle observed at nearly [-180-] all such gatherings that every class of a employe must be given a chance of taking an active part in the day's proceedings if he or she be so inclined. Consequently a portion of the  programme is usually devoted to events in which members of the fair sex may distinguish themselves either alone (as in ordinary races or "egg and spoon" contests) or in conjunction with masculine friends. Donkey-races, sack races, events open only to veterans, apprentices, porters, etc., often go to swell the programme, while dancing not infrequently concludes the proceedings.
ath2.jpg (59170 bytes)     During the last few years, also, the members of the music hall profession have held annual athletic sports, confined to members, at the  Herne Hill Grounds, the proceeds being devoted to charitable purposes. As might perhaps be expected, although there are some ordinary athletic events, the programme is to a large extent composed of more or less amusing competitions of various kinds, such as "comic costume scrambles," obstacle and wheelbarrow races, and the like. Of course, bona fide music-hall artistes of both sexes are eligible to compete in practically all the events.
    Of the more strictly athletic meetings, that promoted by the members of the Civil Service stands pre-eminent. Not only is it one of the oldest annual gatherings in the country (it dates back to 1864), but there is always a likelihood on these occasions of a record being broken, either by a member of the promoting club or in one of the strangers' races. These latter usually attract a number of the best athletes of the day, so that good performances are far from uncommon. Thus, to quote only a few, in 1874 Mr. W. Slade made the then record for the distance in the mile "strangers" race, while three years later, in the first heat of the "strangers'" 150 yards, Mr. J. Shearman accomplished a similar feat. A few years later even finer performances were recorded, Mr. W. G. George making a fresh mile record of 4 min. 19 2/5 sec. in the Open Handicap at that distance in 1882, while Mr. L. E. Myers, in 1885, won the open 440 yards in 48 4/5 sec. In 1888 and 1893 Messrs. Tindall and Bredin won the 600 yards race in 1 min. 12 3/5 sec. and 1 min. 11 2/5, sec. respectively.
    It should also be remembered that several amateur champions have been members of the Civil Service, and that the ranks of the cross-country clubs are largely recruited from that body. so that it will be readily admitted that the "closed" races possess an interest far greater than that which usually attaches to club events. Of late years, too, [-181-] many of the different Metropolitan Volunteer corps have held athletic meetings of varying importance.
    Besides the above, the big cross-country clubs hold a number of evening and Saturday afternoon meetings, at which the events set for decision are either confined to members or are open to amateurs generally. For though cross-country running is nominally their raison d'etre, the larger clubs pay almost as much attention to path racing. Some of these bodies, too, have sections for swimming, cycling, boxing and other forms of sport.
    Notable among these "all-round" organisations must be reckoned the South London Harriers and the Blackheath Harriers. The swimming division of each of these clubs has won its county water-polo championship while, in addition to competing in the regular cross-country championships and deciding cross-country matches against both Universities, the members of these two bodies take every opportunity of meeting in friendly rivalry. Thus a regular feature with them is the number of inter-club matches in various branches of sport, most of which take place annually. These include a special cross-country team race, and contests at cricket, rowing, water-polo, etc., etc. 
    Of course, a certain number of professional race meetings and matches for money are held in the Metropolis ; but, inasmuch as professional athletics have never found very much favour in the South of England, these are seldom of much importance. Rather more interest attaches to the attempt recently made to revive interest in professional running and walking at the Royal Aquarium.
Public Gymnasium (Finsbury Park)     Nor must it be supposed that London is at all deficient in the gymnastic side of athletics. Almost every big park has a public gymnasium, the apparatus being specially arranged to meet the differing requirements of children, youths, and adults. Thus no one under 12 is allowed in the "seniors" part, while no one over that age may make use of the juvenile division. In the latter swings and see-saws predominate, whereas the rings, giant-strides, climbing [-182-] ropes, and poles are always confined to the former section. It is noteworthy that the greater part of the exercise in the "seniors" part in the seniors divisions is done before breakfast and after tea, thus differing somewhat from what obtains at the athletic grounds, at which nearly all the training is done in the late afternoon and evening.
    A curious fact in connection with these park gymnasia is that, although the floor is generally composed of asphalt, accidents are extremely rare.
German Gymnasium     The gymnasia proper, many of which have special classes for ladies, are likewise numerous in all parts of London. Possibly, however, the northern half is slightly more favoured in this respect, since in that district are situated, among others, both the Orion Gymnasium and the German Gymnasium. The latter - which claims to be the pioneer of gymnastic societies in this country - is not  by any means so Teutonic in composition as its name would imply. In fact, since it was first started some forty years since, out of close on eighteen thousand members about thirteen thousand were English, the actual German element being well under five thousand. In addition there are a few members of other nationalities. Nor can it be said that the foreign element monopolises or even carries off the far greater part of the prizes awarded at the different competitions that the German Gymnasium promotes.  These generally include (besides gymnastics proper on the "horse," parallel and horizontal bars, etc.) fencing, boxing, jumping, Indian clubs, and wrestling. Besides this, there is in connection with the gymnasium a cycling club, which is well supported and meets with much success.
    It should likewise be borne in mind that the gymnasium forms a part of practically every institute from the Polytechnic downwards, so that its advantages are available to all. The boxing section of most of these organisations is generally largely attended.A Boxing Bout (Polytechnic, Regent Street)
Swedish Drill     Then, too, for those who prefer a more scientific and less violent method of acquiring bodily strength, there are numerous schools of physical culture, for the most part on the Sandow system, and open to both sexes. For women and girls in particular there are many places at which Swedish drill is taught, not to speak of the schools at which this branch of calisthenics forms part of the regular curriculum. So that, even if City life does have a had physical effect on those subjected to it, it must be admitted that the Londoner is given ample facilities for fighting against its influence with whatever means most appeal to his taste, pocket, or requirements.
    That he is not slow to avail himself of these advantages is frequently proved, not only in competitions open to the United Kingdom but also in foreign championships of various descriptions, which not infrequently fall to men prominently identified with one or other of the great London athletic organisations.


George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here