Sports Day in the Victorian era

Nowadays, School Sports are held in April and can be, just occasionally, on the rainy or even the chilly side. The first School Sports I have been able to find any information about took place over two days, well over a hundred years ago…and not in April.

Instead, they were on Wednesday and Thursday, September 28th and 29th 1870, at Trent Bridge. (not for the first time, apparently). Events included the popular “High Leap with a Pole”, won by Woodhouse with a jump of 7ft 6ins, “a good jump for a man”. A total of 36 boys entered the stone gathering race, and the sack race was won by Darby, who had the bright idea of inserting a toe tightly into each corner of the sack, and then “shuffled along capitally”.
On the second day there was a “Stranger’s Race” with people not directly connected with the school allowed to compete. There was general reluctance to enter this race, because of the presence of Mr Sam Weller Widdowson, the famous captain of the Nottingham Forest Foot-ball Club:

weller

Named after the character in Dickens,  Widdowson was the inventor of the shin-pad:

shinguards

A number of gentlemen finally took part in this race, running in top hats and overcoats. As expected, Mr Widdowson was in first place, with Mr Frederick Rothera second. There was a “blind donkey race” with large boys blindfolded, and small boys riding piggyback, giving them directions. It was won by “Purchase and Brown”.

The next School Sports I can trace were on Monday, April 8th 1878, at Trent Bridge, in front of a “numerous gathering”, entertained by the playing of the Sax Tuba Band. Events included throwing the cricket ball, a 220 yard football dribbling race, a 100 yard three-legged race, a 100 yard sack race, a one mile bicycle race, and an Old Boys’ race.

One of the highlights was the 220 yards running race when the course had been marked out wrongly. One of the eleven runners, Sulley, took the wrong turning, and “effectually disposed of his chance”. The other runners also went wrong, but because they were trailing so far behind Sulley, they were able to run back, and get onto the correct route. Unfortunately, Small was knocked over in the confusion, and eliminated from the race, which was eventually won by G.F.Chalcraft. His prize was a handsome desk, donated by the teaching staff.
In the final of the sack race, F.Bailey finished second behind “the younger Walker”, having decided not to jump inside his sack, but instead, to lie down and roll along the ground.
Most interesting, though, was the “Bumping Match”, the exact rules of which, unfortunately, have not survived. It was surely one of two scenarios. Either a huge circle was marked out by a rope, and the last boy left in it was the winner, or it was some kind of sumo type pushing contest, where boy after boy fought in round after round, until only one remained as the victor:

“The contest caused great merriment among the spectators, who greeted the overturned combatants with roars of laughter. Finally two, varying greatly in size were left in, and after a prolonged struggle, W.A.Walker, who showed great quickness and dexterity in avoiding the attacks of his tall opponent, R.E.Fletcher, succeeded in knocking the latter over the line, amidst loud applause.”

The following year, on Tuesday, April 29th 1879, again at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, “a numerous and fashionable assemblage” was entertained by the Sax Tuba Band, under the conductorship of Mr J.Hindley. There were 22 events, including throwing the cricket ball and a 100 yards race with a Gladstone bag as first prize, presented by Sir James Oldknow. This is Trent Bridge  at the time, during a Test Match:

trent-bridge-cricket-ground

There was a half mile handicap race where the prize was a silver watch, presented by Captain W.E.Dennison  M.P., and the M.P., Saul Isaac.  J.E.Woolley led for nearly six hundred yards, but Barlow overcame his ten yard handicap about 120 yards from the finish, and went on to win. Woolley eventually finished third, and C.Cullen was second. The prize in the long jump was a luncheon basket, presented by the Borough Members. There was a three-legged race and a 400 yards race with only two competitors, G.B.Chalcraft beating E.H.Wells by ten yards. In actual fact, there should have been three runners for the race to start at all, but it was “run through an error on the part of the starter.” The one mile handicap bicycle race was won by A.V.Paton, and F.Bailey won the sack race. This event “…as usual, afforded great amusement.” C.Cullen won the 220 yards football race. His first prize was a cabinet Shakespeare, presented by the Dame Agnes Mellers Club. E.Thornley was doing very well until he kicked the ball out of his lane, and Cullen then went on to win.

H.R.Bramwell won the 100 yards hurdles, which was over six flights of hurdles. His prize was a writing desk, presented by Messrs J & J. Vice. In the 220 yards, C.Daft won a pair of binoculars presented by the Assistant Masters. “The most exciting race”, was the Old Boys’ race over 220 yards  won by F.F.Cleaver in 24 seconds.  At the end of the day came the “…usual bumping match and two consolation races”, won by Thornley and Butler.
Mr Charles Daft was the starter throughout, and Herr Altdorfer and Mr W.H.Bailey were the judges. The prizes were presented by Miss Lindley, and the President seconded a vote of thanks to her for her kindness. She was given a small bouquet of flowers, and three cheers by the school. Her father offered thanks for this kind gesture, and then called for three cheers for the President. With this, the day came to a happy close.
One interesting detail about the competitors in these sports is that there was a small fee payable to enter any of the events. At least one Old Boy in later life was to state that this cash payment did much to limit the number of competitors.

School Sports then seem to have died a death until, during his first term in office, in March 1885, the new Headmaster, Dr James Gow, started an Athletics Contest for senior boys. This soon evolved into a full School Sports Day. Over the years, the school magazines have given us a series of snapshots of the event has changed.

On Friday, June 29th 1888, for example, the School Sports, “…for many years in abeyance”, were revived, and were held in “very unfavourable weather” on the Castle Grounds. I am not really very sure, but I would presume that the Castle Grounds are the area of flat ground at the side of the Castle:

castle grouundszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

There was a good attendance of spectators, and among the more usual events was a three-legged race, won by W.A.Möller and C.P.S.Sanders, a sack race won by J.Blake, and a bicycle race over one mile, won by W.A.Möller in 3 minutes 45.4 seconds. F.Bramley won the “Throwing the Cricket Ball (for boys under 14), with a distance of 57 yards.
The Masters’ Race was won by the Reverend T.W.Peck, with Mr W.T.Ryles in second place, two yards behind. There was also an Old Boys’ Race which was a handicap, run over 220 yards, and a Tug of War, won by Team No 1, who defeated Team No 2 in the final. Again many prizes were in evidence, all presented by Mrs.Gow.

This staff group shows Mr W.T.Ryles in the back row, fifth from the right. His nickname was “Nipper”. His brother, Mr W.E.Ryles, “Jumbo” is on the front row, second from the left. The Headmaster, fourth from the right on the front row, is Dr Gow:

staff 1901

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 3rd 1890, Sports Day was again held at the Castle Ground in dull and windy weather. Nevertheless, a large crowd attended, and enjoyed a day of “very fair sport”, and a selection of music played by the Nottingham Borough Police Band, under the leadership of Bandmaster Redgate. The prizes were presented by Miss Goldschmidt. Most of the events were similar to previous years including the 220 yards football dribbling race, throwing the cricket ball, an Old Boys’ bicycle race, a sack race and a whole series of running races, all of them with varying handicaps for the competitors .

The most interesting event, though, was the hundred yards Medley Handicap. In this, boys competed in a number of heats over one hundred yards, and the handicap consisted in the means by which they had to cover the distance. The methods included skipping, sack race, three legged, pick-a-back, on all fours, and, most spectacular of all, perhaps, on stilts. The final seems to have been a normal foot race, as the winner’s time was fifteen seconds.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 29th 1901, the School Sports took place at the brand new sports ground at Mapperley Park. We already know how to get there. Look for the orange arrow. The High School is in the bottom left corner of the map, where Mount Hooton Road and Forest Road East meet. It is the incomplete beige rectangle which is outlined in black:

Untitled 2

A large number of boys, friends, parents and Old Boys were in attendance, but the day was spoiled by the bitterly cold weather,

“…the turf was naturally affected by the overnight fall of snow, which made the going heavy.”

Two years later, on the afternoon of Saturday, July 25th 1903, the weather was beautiful, although not too warm, and there was another large crowd,

“including many ladies, whose bright, summer dresses amidst the pretty surroundings of trees and shrubs, made the scene most picturesque”

The spectators were entertained by “the lively strains of a band, and a hospitable tea tent.”
The numerous prizes were presented by Lady Blain and events included the one mile walking race, won by B.G.Saywell and an U-11 obstacle race won by C.F.Brasher. L.W.Malton won the potato race and a tug of war was held between “The Past” (Old Boys), and “The Present” (Masters and Boys). The Old Boys were G.C.Allsebrook, W.Allsebrook, G.F.Brewill, E.Brewill, S.Hoyte and H.A.Wootton. Their opposition contained three boys, namely R.Marrs, W.Oldershaw and H.A.Watson, and three masters, Messrs Hughes, Jones and Yates. The Old Boys soon pulled the School over the line, but were found to have included a seventh member of the team, J.Johnstone (Cheats!). The result was overturned, and the School soon won a fair contest by 3-0. I could find no photographs of this event, but here is the tug of war at the 1904 Olympics in Los Angeles. I’m sure it will give you the rough flavour:

The-Olympic-1904 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

On Saturday, June 24th 1905, it was very fine weather at Mapperley Park. Spectators were entertained by the band of the Robin Hood Rifles, under the directorship of Mr A.Pounder. The sports should have taken place the previous Saturday, but the rain was so torrential that this was completely impossible. Events included the usual ones, such as the 220 yards football dribbling race (R.B.Wray in 35 seconds) and the U-11 race over 75 yards (F.C.Tonkin, 10.8 seconds). There was a one mile bicycle race won by H.E.Mills (3 minutes 9.6 seconds) after the other two competitors, S.S.Parkinson and P.H.Hart collided with each other and both fell off. H.E.Mills  also won the potato race this year. J.H.Simpson won the U-11 obstacle race where competitors had to crawl through barrels and under pegged down clothes. The event created “much amusement”. The Old Boys won the tug of war against the Masters & Boys.

As war clouds slowly gathered, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 15th 1912, the Athletic Sports were held in splendid sunshine, again at Mapperley. The attendance was very large, and great interest was generated. Harold Ballamy ran 100 yards in 10.6 seconds, a marvellous performance on grass and wearing, presumably, ordinary pumps. There was again a football dribbling race, won by R.L.W.Herrick. This latter event was by now the only survivor of the many unusual and interesting events which had previously characterised the Victorian and Edwardian sports days. Now, virtually every event was a serious sporting trial.

The following year, 1913, was, of course, the very last Sports Day before the thunderstorm that was the Great War carried away the best of this talented generation of young men from the whole of the continent of Europe. Ironically, it was this bittersweet occasion that has bequeathed to us the only photographs that we have of a Sports Day of yesteryear. It is such a pity that they are of comparatively poor quality. This year, of course, marked the 400th anniversary of the school and both this day of athletics and the photographs themselves came as part of this occasion. Here is the huge crowd:

the crowd 1913

Here is the start of a race:

start of race

…and the exciting finish:

end of race 1913 handicap size runners

These are two exhausted athletes:

sports day 1913

The Headmaster, Dr Turpin, is the gentleman in the very middle of the picture, as the prizes are distributed:

give out prizes

And here he is again, this time making a speech. Look at the policeman and how impressed the little boy is:

prizes 1913

It should still be possible to establish the exact location of the majority of these events. I am sure that the all large Victorian houses in the background will still be there.

 

 

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7 Comments

Filed under History, Nottingham, The High School

7 responses to “Sports Day in the Victorian era

  1. Ruben

    Thank you for today’s post: I have been sharing it with the games staff at my school, who will find it fascinating.

    • Thanks very much for your input. It is much appreciated. Tomorrow, I am posting an article about our Sports Day programme in 1930. It has one extremely bizarre feature to it which I am sure will intrigue you and your staff.

  2. Some rather interesting examples there!

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