This blog celebrates places, often forgotten, associated with individuals who made a mark on the history of sport. In a slight diversion from this theme, this post plots places with some historical significance that I passed on my morning run this Easter Sunday, 2017.
Landmarks along my run included:
Beech Bottom Dyke, an iron age territorial boundary on the northern edge of St Albans dating back to 50 BC
George Street which was the main road from London to the North West after Watling Street was diverted away from the derelict Roman city of Verulamium up Hollywell Hill and into St Albans in the 10th century. The Tudor Tavern at the top of George Street, (which was named after another travellers’ inn) dates from 14th century.
The White Hart Inn (1500-1700) where Elizabeth Wilson lost her head in 1820 when riding on the top of a stage coach as it turned into the inn’s yard. The incident is said to have been the inspiration for the gory death of Mr Jingle in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers
The family vault of the Earls of Grimston at St Michaels Church. More in line with this blog’s usual subject matter, the sometimes eccentric Hon Robert Grimston was a cricketer for MCC, a founder of I Zingari and involved in the formation of Surrey County Cricket Club. He was also a member of the Amateur Athletic Club.
Just off this route but featuring on some of my other regular runs, and indicated by green markers on the map, are:
Batchwood Hall, home of Lord Grimthorpe who, as well as his attempts to restore St Albans Abbey and St Peter’s Church as mentioned above, also designed the clock mechanism that drives Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster.
Great Britain won tennis’ Davis Cup in 2015 – the country’s first victory in 79 years.
The compeition was conceived by four members of the Harvard University tennis team as a competition between the United States and the British Isles. The tournament’s format was developed by Dwight Davis of Harvard who also bought and donated the eponymous trophy.
During the summer of 2016, the Lawn Tennis Association organised the Davis Cup Trophy Tour to capitalise on the victory and inspire a new generation of players.
On the third day of Great Britain’s semi-final against Argentina on 18 September 2016, the Trophy Tour arrived in front of the old town hall in St Albans.
Davis Cup Trophy Tour, 2016
Rather disappointingly, the trophy sat on its plinth beneath a plain black gazeebo with no attempt to share the history and heritage of the compeition.
The organisers also missed a link with another transatlantic sporting event.
The Ryder Cup was first contested between teams of profesional golfers from Great Britain and the United States in 1927.
The trophy was donated by Sam Ryder, a St Albans businessman who had enjoyed considerable success as a mail-order seed retailer and had done much to raise the status of professional golfers. Ryder also served as a city councillor between 1903 and 1916, as mayor in 1905, and also sat in the courtroom that occupied part of the town hall as a magistrate.
A few years ago, I started gathering video footage and other material with the intention of producing a short film on Sam Ryder’s association with St Albans and the origins of the Ryder Cup.
Unfortunately, the day-job and life kept getting in the way.
However, on the occasion of the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, I’ve finally managed to pull something together and here it is:
Part of my day-job involves organising conference sessions for IBC, the leading international broadcast technology exhibition. At IBC, I have the privilege of seeing some of the best TV and video material produced worldwide. My first effort pales into insignificance by comparison but having been through the production process, my respect for the professionals has risen considerably.
Thanks to a number of individuals and organisations who have helped in producing the film, notably:
The Samuel Ryder Foundation’s fund-raising for a statue of Sam in St Peter’s Street, St Albans, is gathering pace. Check out their website and if you’ve enjoyed the drama of the latest Ryder Cup, please consider making a donation!
A recurring theme in the development of sport is the role played by hoteliers and licensees in promoting new events in the hope of drumming up business. Thomas Coleman of the Turf Hotel in St Albans was instrumental in bringing steeplechasing to Great Britain from Ireland.
It was another hotelier, William Lynn, who established the race that was to become the Grand National. Born in 1792 at East Grinstead in Sussex, Lynn entered the catering trade in London, before moving to Liverpool where he leased the Waterloo Hotel in Ranelagh Street in the 1820s. He first became a benefactor of horse racing in 1828 when he provided the Waterloo Gold Cup for a flat race at Maghull.
The following year Lynn took out a lease on the neighbouring Aintree course and became secretary of the Aintree Racing Company – a post he held until 1843. A grandstand was erected and flat-race meeting staged before hurdle races were introduced in October 1835. Two of these races were won by Captain Martin Becher who was a previous winner of the Great St Albans Steeplechase. It was Becher who planted the idea of a great northern steeplechase at Aintree in Lynn’s mind.
The first Grand Liverpool steeplechase was held on leap year day, 29 February, 1836, and was won by Becher on The Duke. Contested over two circuits of Aintree’s two mile course, the event proved popular as spectators could follow most of the race from the grandstand unlike other steeplechases which were typically staged over point-to-point cross country courses.
The 1839 race is considered by racing historians to have been the first ‘Grand National’ although the race remained the Grand Liverpool until 1843 when it assumed the name of the Liverpool and National. The current name was adopted from 1847.
It was in the 1839 race that Becher attained immortality by being thrown by his mount Conrad into the brook that now bears his name where it crosses the course.
Lynn died on 11 October 1870 at home in Norwood Lodge, Norwood Grove, West Derby, Liverpool in an area redeveloped in the late twentieth century. He is buried in St James Cemetery next to Liverpool Cathedral.
In addition to the Grand National, Lynn also inaugurated the Waterloo Cup: hare coursing’s premier event was staged at Great Altcar, around 15 miles north of Lynn’s hotel, between 1836 and 2005.
It was at a tournament sponsored by one of his businesses that Ryder took an aspiring English professional under his wing.
Ryder retained Abe Mitchell as his private professional to allow him to concentrate on tournament golf and fend off the increasingly powerful American challenge for the Open.
19 Cunningham Ave, the St Albans home of Abe Mitchell, the golfer on the Ryder cup
Mitchell moved to St Albans and set up home at 19 Cunningham Avenue – just a few hundred yards from the Verulum Golf Club. Through illness, Mitchell missed the inaugural Ryder Cup in 1927 but did represent Great Britain in three matches between 1929 and 1933. Sadly, the Open Championship eluded him.
The London Marathon is now established as one of the world’s premiere elite marathons. It is also probably the biggest mass-participation sporting events on the planet as well as one of the most successful charitable fund-raising events.
Today’s London Marathon course starts in Blackheath, heads east through Charlton and Woolwich before turning west and passing the Cutty Sark in Greenwich at around 6½ miles. Crossing the River Thames at Tower Bridge, the course heads east as it passes half-way and loops around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf before heading west again along The Highway and the Embankment to Parliament Square, Birdcage Walk to the finish in front of Buckingham Palace. The event has transformed many of London’s iconic landmarks into sporting landmarks.
The finish has changed most over London’s near three-decades of city marathon history. The first London Marathon, held on 29 March 1981, finished on Constitution Hill between Green Park and Buckingham Palace. From 1982 until 1993 the race finished on Westminster Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background. But in 1994 repair work to the bridge meant the finish line was moved to The Mall where it has been ever since.
Elsewhere, alterations have been surprisingly few. In 2005 a cobbled area near the Tower of London – around 22 miles – was eliminated to the relief of elite and fun runners alike. The direction taken by runners around the Isle of Dogs between 14 and 21 miles switched from clockwise to anti-clockwise the same year.
In 2012, London’s third Olympic and first Paralympic Marathons will draw on the elite marathon expertise of the London Marathon organisers. They will be hoping that they will be able to stage races as dramatic as the first two London Olympic Marathons: in both, the gold medal slipped from the grasp of the leading athlete between entering the stadium and reaching the finishing line.
London’s first Olympic Marathon in 1908 was also historically significant in defining the 26 mile 385 yards / 41.195 km distance that is now the standard.
The race started on the East Terrace of Windsor Castle from where the 55 competitors ran through Windsor town centre and across the Thames to Eton and then on to Slough. The course then continued on to Uxbridge, Ickneham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Wembley, Harlesden, Willesden and Old Oak Common before crossing Wormwood Scrubs to reach the Anglo-French Exhibition Grounds and the White City Stadium. Traveling along the route today, it is clear that today’s sprawling London suburbs were still very distinct villages in 1908, and much of the course would have had a distinctly rural feel.
The White City Stadium was the first stadium ever to be built specifically as the principal venue of an Olympic Games. It had a capacity of 150,000 or which 68,000 were seated but only 17,000 were protected from the elements. Incorporating a 1/3 mile running track, 660 yard banked cycle track and swimming pool, the Stadium was built by the organisers of the Anglo-French Exhibition in just 10 months. In later life, White City was also a soccer World Cup venue, hosting the Uruguay v France match in the 1966 tournament. The Stadium was demolished in 1985 and the site is now occupied by the BBC.
From Windsor to the stadium, the proposed 1908 course measured approximately 26 miles. On entering the stadium through entrance “QQ RR SS” in the south west corner, it was decided that the runners should turn left to run 385 yards around the track to the finish line immediately below the Royal Box.
Race day was 24 July. The Games’ official report describes how the “close, warm, and muggy atmosphere of that summer afternoon, when the sun was deceptively strong and there was very little air,” was to have a profound impact on a race which started started at a brisk pace: the first mile was completed in just 5 minutes and 1 second.
With a dozen British entries, it was home athletes who made the early running. Jack Price led the South African Charles Hefferon by 200 yards at half way – in Ruislip. Frederick Lord, another Briton, in third place was “laboured in his action” just ahead of the Italian Dorando Pietri.
Hefferon took the lead at 15 miles and attempted to make a decisive break. Pietri closed on Hefferon in Old Oak Common Lane and passed the South African as they approached Wormwood Scrubs. However, Pietri’s push was too much and he was almost unconscious when he reached the track, turning right instead of left in his confusion before collapsing.
In describing what rapidly became elevated to the status of legend, the official report says,
“As it was impossible to leave him there, for it looked as if he might die in the very presence of the Queen and that enormous crowd, the doctors and attendants rushed to his assistance. When he was slightly resuscitated the excitement of his compatriots was so intense that the officials did not put him on an ambulance and send him out, as they would no doubt have done under less agitating circumstances. The first fall and the first assistance rendered had, if it had been only realised, disqualified the Italian for the prize.”
Eventually, Pietri struggled to his feet and staggered to the tape in a time of 2 hours 54 minutes 46.4 seconds. Shortly afterwards, the American Johnny Hayes reached the finish without assistance in 2 hours 55 minutes 18.4 seconds. An official objection from the US team was eventually upheld and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
Hefferon had hung on for silver and Joseph Forshaw, another American, took bronze. Queen Alexandra, who had witnessed the drama from the Royal Box, presented Pietri with a gold cup.
The events of London 1908 captured the public imagination, established the marathon as the ultimate sporting challenge and paved the way for a flurry of races between the leading protagonists over the now official distance which could be considered the forebears of modern city marathons.
Excluding the disqualified Pietri, only 27 of the 55 athletes finished the 1908 marathon. Given the sultry conditions, perhaps the instructions to competitors contributed to the high attrition: “Every competitor must wear complete clothing from the shoulder to the knees (i.e. jersey sleeved to the elbows and loose drawers with slips). Any competitor will be excluded from taking part in the race unless properly attired.”
Other aspects of the race would not be unfamiliar to modern marathon runners. As “official caterer” the Oxo Company provided refreshments. Rather than mineral water or energy drinks, 1908 athletes were offered an “Oxo Athlete’s Flask containing Oxo for immediate use” while hot or cold Oxo or Oxo and Soda were distributed at feeding stations along the route. Rice pudding, raisins, bananas, soda and milk. and stimulants were also available “in cases of collapse” while “eau de Cologne and sponges can be had for use of competitors from the Oxo representatives…”
When the Olympics were resurrected after World War 2, the 1948 Games were centred on the Empire Stadium, Wembley. For the marathon, the organisers devised an out-and-back route that took runners north from Wembley in order to avoid the many roads that were still bomb-damaged in inner London. The course also climbed more than 300 feet as it progressed from Middlesex into Hertfordshire.
The Marathon Race on the final afternoon of the track and field events – a warm, humid and windy day – was curiously reminiscent of the Pietri race forty years earlier.
Around six miles, Etienne Gailly, a 25-year old Belgian who had escaped from occupation during the war, eventually reached Britain and joined Belgrave Harriers, moved to the front of the field of forty-one. At 15 km. he had a lead of 14 seconds and extended this to half a minute by 20 km. At 30 km. Gailly was 53 seconds ahead of the Argentinian Delfo Cabrera but five kilometres later Choi Yoon-chil of Korea had moved into a 28-second lead over Cabrera, with Gailly another three seconds behind. Choi dropped out with injury around 38 km. With 5,000 metres to go, Cabrera was leading, just five seconds ahead of Gailly.
It was Gailly who entered the Stadium first “exhausted and hardly able to drag one foot after the other” yet needing to complete a little over a lap of the track to secure the Olympic title. Within a few seconds, Cabrera entered the stadium and had no difficulty in overhauling the “practically insensible” Belgian to snatch the gold in a time of 2 hours 34 minutes 51.6 seconds. Welshman Tom Richards was the third to enter the Stadium and he too had little difficulty passing Gaily taking the silver in 2 hours 35 minutes 7.6 seconds. The gallant Gaily held on to finish third in 2 hours 35 minutes 33.6 seconds, just over half a minute ahead of the South African Johannes Coleman, who had finished sixth in the 1936 Berlin Games. In one of the closest Olympic Marathon finishes of all time, the first four athletes were running their final laps of the stadium at the same time.
Updated 23 July 2014 Thomas Coleman (c 1796-1877) a noted racehorse trainer moved to St Albans around 1820 and became licensee of the Turf Hotel at 8 Chequer Street. Under his stewardship, the Turf became renowned for its “good chef, choice cellar and, especially welcome after a long day in the saddle, the rare luxury of a hot bath.”
Like many landlords of the period, Coleman was an entrepreneurial spirit who organised a variety of sporting events to attract custom. In 1829, he started organising flat races on Nomansland Common on the road to Wheathampstead, to the north of St Albans.
The following year, Coleman staged the first Great St Albans Steeplechase – considered by many to be the first steeplechase in England. (The sport and its name date back to a race between Buttevant and Doneraile church steeples in County Cork, Ireland, in 1752.)
According to Robert Grimston, son of local landowner James Walter Grimston, 1st Earl of Verulam (whose family was later to negotiate a lease with Sam Ryder for the extension of the Verulam Golf Club), the race was instigated by officers of the 1st Regiment of Life Guards while dining at the Turf. One theory suggests that the officers may have encountered steeplechasing while on leave in Ireland. An alternative theory credits the Hertfordshire Militia, which had served in Ireland from 1811 to 1813, as having suggested the race.
Although organised from St Albans, the first race was actually in Bedfordshire, between Harlington Church, 18 miles north of the Turf Hotel, to the obelisk in Wrest Park. Later races were centred on Nomansland Common, which lies between St Albans and Wheathampstead. Some of races may have been an “out-and-back” course between the Turf and the Common.
By 1834, Coleman’s organisational skills had made the Great St Albans one of the sporting highlights of the year, attracting horses and riders from all over the country. The 1834 race itself was won by the controversial cricketer and hunter, the Rev. Lord Frederick Beauclerk. He was famous for never allowing his clerical duties as vicar of the St Albans parish of St Michael “to interfere materially with the claims of cricket”. He had entered the race as ‘Mr Band’ to avoid displeasing his bishop!
William Lynn, proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool, was so impressed by Coleman’s success that he decided to venture into steeplechasing himself. A consortium led by Lynn had already laid out a race course and built a grandstand on land leased from Lord Sefton in the Liverpool suburb of Aintree. Flat race meetings had successfully been staged there since July 1829. Assisted by Captain Martin Becher, Lynn staged the first steeplechase at Aintree in 1835.
Initially, Lynn and his Grand Liverpool Steeplechase struggled to compete with Coleman until rising costs and growing resistance to the disruption the race imposed on St Albans brought an abrupt end to the Great St Albans Steeplechase after the 1838 race. Aintree staged what is officially considered to be the first Grand National on Tuesday, 26 February 1839.
However, Coleman’s influence was profound – even if it is now largely forgotten: within a decade of the first Great St Albans, more than sixty steeplechases were being held across England.
Given its steeplechasing heritage, it was perhaps fitting that for several years up to 2014, the Turf Hotel was the St Albans branch of the Cheltenham & Gloucester!
My thanks to the Revd Stephen J Williams of Harlington Church whose extensive research into the Great St Albans has cut through the confusion over the venues for the races that was reflected in earlier versions of this post. The history of the National as described in Visit Harlington’s guide to the village is based on Stephen’s work.
As well as horse racing, Nomansland Common was a popular venue for a variety of other sporting contests and wagers including hare coursing, shooting matches and prize fighting.
The last prize fight on the Common was organised by Coleman in 1833. By all accounts, this was a brutal encounter between Simon Byrne, the Irish champion and ‘Deaf’ Burke. Byrne was eventually knocked out after a marathon battle – which lasted three hours and 16 minutes according to one account. When he died three days later, Burke and his seconds were charged with manslaughter. The defendants were acquitted on medical evidence: a surgeon testified that the death had not been caused by the boxing injuries.
This contemporary broadside report placed the fight 150 miles from London up the Great North Road. At the time, prize fights were often stopped by local magistrates – or the interfering ‘beaks’ referred to in the second paragraph. The whereabouts of a fight would kept secret until the last possible moment and would only be made known by word-of-mouth at London’s sporting clubs or at pre-arranged meeting points on the road. By reporting an inaccurate fight location, the publisher may have been attempting to protect a successful venue for future use.