ELHAS News - September 2019

Meeting Report September 2019

For our first meeting of the Autumn season we welcomed Derek Martin who delivered a fascinating illustrated talk entitled "Pedestriennes: Nineteenth Century Female Athletes".

Derek, who is a qualified lawyer and former tutor at Leeds Polytechnic, was also an enthusiastic amateur long distance runner. When he retired some 12 years ago he hoped to spend more time running, but sadly injuries sustained during running meant he had instead to curtail his athletic activities. He is currently studying for a PhD and researching the history of athletics.

Derek began his talk by describing the first competitive race held in Leeds in 1683 and recorded in Ralph Thoresby's Ducatis Leodiensis. This was a race on Chapletown Moor and was won by Leeds butcher Edward Preston. What amazed the audience was the prize money involved - the huge sum of £3000. Derek explained that early male runners and walkers were referred to as pedestriens, and females were known as pedestriennes. It was not until the 1860's that the term athletics came into use.

Talking about female athletes, Derek said that the conventional view was that females in the 19th century only indulged in genteel sports such as croquet or lawn tennis, although roller skating was popular during the 1870's. However he has found significant evidence of working class women involved in "Smock Racing" - so called because the prize was a smock, as early as 1738. These were generally riotous affairs attracting huge audiences, many of whom were seriously inebriated.

By the beginning of the 1800's men were taking part in Barclay Matches, named after Captain Barclay who undertook to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours, walking one mile each hour. Again huge amounts of money were involved, although probably the sponsors (in many cases pub landlords) fared better than the contestants. Working-class women were also attracted by these 1,000-mile walks, which were soon taking place in Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. It became overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the northern industrial towns, and within a month there were Barclay matches in Leeds, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Halifax and Burnley.

When the popularity of smock races waned, female athletes were no longer involved in more strenuous forms of sport until the 1830's, when women saw the opportunity to make money by taking part in Barclay Matches. These were often held in pub grounds or pleasure gardens where it was one of many forms of entertainment. Derek described the involvement of many local athletes such as Mrs Harrison who was associated with the Dragon Inn at Wortley, and Emma Sharp of Bradford who designed her own costume of a checked trouser suit. This was a new innovation as many women involved in the events were sporting the new fangled "Bloomers" designed by the American Amelia Bloomer. We were fascinated to hear that these matches were also sometimes included in music hall programmes and featured women walking round the stage sometimes singing and dressed in outlandish costumes.

The women involved in these events considered themselves equal to any men when it came to powers of endurance and stamina, and were not afraid to prove it. The best of her generation was Ada Anderson, who walked 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours, at Leeds in 1878. However, when the first modern Olympic Games were re-introduced in 1896, women were not allowed to take part. They were allowed to compete in the 1900 Olympics but only in more mundane sports like Tennis, Croquet etc. The sporting achievements of the strong working-class pedestriennes had been quietly forgotten.

Our audience thoroughly enjoyed this unusual insight into the origin of female athletics and were impressed by the stamina and endurance exhibited by the women who took part. We were grateful to Derek for giving us this talk about a subject most of us had no knowledge of, which resulted in an interesting and informative evening.

Our next meeting on Monday 28th October will be an illustrated talk by Ken Cothliff " The History of Leeds/Bradord Airport"

Pictures: courtesy of Derek Martin
1) Smock Race at Tottenham Court Fair, 1738
(Wellcome Library, London)
2) Amelia Bloomer in her famous costume (1851)
3) Cheltenham Mercury (27 May 1876)
4) Leeds Times (4 May 1878)