Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / History

Early marathon running - the British and Irish influence

Los Angeles and Paris will bid on 13 September to stage the 2024 Olympics. The first Games that were held in Paris, in 1900, were prolonged and often chaotic – in particular, the marathon, which was to be highly influenced in its formative years by British & Irish involvement.  

Pandemonium in Paris. “Preposterous”, says the perplexed Mr Pool

by Bob Phillips


The marathon race at the first Modern Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens was a rip-roaring success, and the main reason was that it was won by a Greek, accompanied for the last few yards by royalty, no less, to the immense pleasure of the 40,000 or so onlookers packed into the stadium and many thousands more on the surrounding hill-sides. The home victory was certainly helped by the fact that the only competitors who had any experience of marathon-running were the Greeks themselves, who had qualified via two trial races, and a lone Hungarian, whose athletics administrators had also been sensible enough to stage their own eliminator to see if any of their countrymen could last the distance.

The tale of how Spiridon Louis – variously described as a shepherd, a farmer or farm- labourer and a water-wagon driver – won the race has been told so often that it hardly needs repeating, but for the benefit of those few readers whose attention it has somehow escaped, and for those with an insatiable interest in the subject, I shall tell it again – briefly!

However many runners actually started the race – 13 or 17, even the experts differ as to the exact number – there were four foreigners among them: Edwin Flack, of Australia; Albin Lermusiaux, of France; Gyula Kellner, the Hungarian qualifier; and Arthur Blake, of the USA. Flack, Lermusiaux and Blake had already run in the track events and presumably thought they might as well have a go at the marathon while they were there, even though Flack had won the 1500 metres from the American and the Frenchman the day before the marathon took place. To be frank, none of them were middle-distance runners of real class, let alone long-distance, and the winning 1500 time of 4min 33.2sec by Flack – worth about 4:55 for a mile – was desperately slow, even allowing for the hair-pin turns and loose cinder surface of the track laid out in a stadium built as a faithful replica of the ancient venue at Olympia.

During the course of 1896 times of under 4/30 for the mile were achieved by 23 men: 12 from Great Britain, six from the USA, three from Canada, one each from New Zealand and Sweden. A very obvious candidate for Olympic 1500 metres victory would have been a Canadian member of New York AC, George W. Orton (the “W” stood for “Washington”), who won the fifth of his six US mile titles that year in 4:27.0. Presumably, Orton was totally unaware, like so many others, that such a novelty as an Olympic Games was taking place, and the widespread ignorance was best illustrated by the good fortune of an Oxford University hammer-thrower and scholar of Greek, George Stuart Robertson, who just happened to notice an advertisement for the Games, in the window of a Thomas Cook’s travel agency and promptly signed up for the trip. Orton, incidentally, made amendi for earlier lost opportunities by winning one of the two steeplechase events at the 1900 Olympics in Paris and finishing 3rd in the 1500.

There was no track event further than 1500 metres at the 1896 Games, even though a race of varying distances but approximating to 5000 metres had been a fixture in Ancient Greece; So had there been any sort of organised national selection process in force in England the leading three-milers of the day such as Harry Watkins, from Wolverhampton, and Henry Harrison, from Manchester, would have had nothing to interest them in Athens. How intriguing, though, to speculate as to what might have happened if there had been an audaciois English nomination for this mysterious marathon.

The natural leading candidate here would have been George Crossland, a clubmate of Harrison’s at Manchester Harriers. Crossland had been born in Dukinfield, some six miles east of Manchester, in 1872 and was a member of Salford Harriers – Salford being an adjacent city to Manchester – when he won his first National cross-country title as a revelation in 1894, to be referred to wonderingly in the club’s history, published 90 years later in terms of  “where a runner of such prodigious talent suddenly appeared from is not recorded”.

In September of that year Crossland achieved the remarkable time of 1:51:54 in a 20-mile track race at the renowned Stamford Bridge Stadium, in London, which certainly suggests that he would not have been daunted by the marathon distance. There is, however, a proviso because the event that day has also been described as lasting two hours, and Crossland certainly ran as far as 20½ miles, but he then stopped; It seems rather more likely that the reason for this was that he was satisfied to have beaten the 20-mile record, which may have been his intention all along, rather than jibbing at the thought of  five minutes or so more running.

In any case speculation, enticing as it is, as to whether Crossland knew about the revived Olympics and was interested in tackling the marathon is probably entirely academic. He won the National cross-country again in early March of 1896, and then lost to a great rival, Fred Bacon, in a two miles challenge at Belle Vue, Manchester, on 4 April in front of a crowd of 10,000, and a week later – on the day after the Olympic marathon took place – won the AAA 10 miles track championship at Leicester by five seconds from Harry Watkins. Crossland led a short and tempestuous life, working as a labourer in his teenage years but then marrying above his station a hotel landlady who was the daughter of a former local mayor. He was suspended for life by the Amateur Athletic Association in July of 1896 for accepting appearance money, promptly turning professional, and was arrested at least once in later years for drunkenness. He died of tuberculosis in 1914, aged in his early 40s.    .

So the first Olympic marathon was left to the attentions of what we would call, not unkindly, lesser men; Predictably, one of the visitors dashed away into the lead, followed by the other three, despite – or, rather, because of – their collective lack of experience. The impetuous front-runner was Lermusiaux, who apparently passed the 25-kilometre point in 1hr 34min, followed by Flack (1:35) and Blake (1:38), and if this is so then Lermusiaux was running at about 2:31 pace for the full distance. As the fastest of the Greek trial winners over the same course had done no better than 3:11:27, this was French folly indeed, and Lermusiaux slowed drastically on the hilly section which followed and eventually retired to the comfort of a seat in one the horse-drawn carriages following him. Flack was in front until Louis caught him at about 34 kilometres and then started to draw away to an eventual victory in 2:58:50. Another Greek, Kharilaos Vasilakos, was 2nd (3:06:03) and Kellner 3rd (3:06/35).

Flack dropped out at some point shortly after 36 kilometres, which seems odd, as by then he would have been almost in sight of the stadium, but he was apparently in a state of collapse, and who can say what price he had paid for his over-eager efforts in the searing heat and the swirling dust ? It was not uncommon for runners in that era who were clearly going to lose a race to retire, and Flack presumably saw no disgrace in doing so – if he was capable of conscious thought, that is. There is a stirring description of these closing stages by an American eye-witness, Burton Holmes, who was a renowned world traveler and gave more than 5000 illustrated lectures during his lifetime, recounting his experiences to enthralled audiences It was Holmes who coined the term “travelogue”, and of the Athens Olympic marathon he wrote as follows in somewhat laborious but still appealing terms:

“While from the sloping sides of the Stadium avalanches of applause come crashing down; while the King of Greece so far forgets his royal dignity as to rip the visor from his royal cap in waving it like mad; while staid and proper citizens embrace each other frantically; while tears of joy are shed; while doves, to which long white ribbons are attached, are loosed and flutter in the air;; while all Athens utters a triumphant shout, Louis, the simple peasant, the farmer from the little hamlet, Amaroussi, is escorted by two Princes and a Russian Grand Duke – all  three embracing, even kissing him – from the entrance to the far end of the Stadium where he is greeted by a royal band in the midst of such a scene as Athens has not witnessed in a thousand years”.

After such a resounding debut, is it any wonder that the marathon was to become an integral part of the future athletics schedule?  Well, yes, as a matter of fact it is to be wondered at  because some of the subsequent marathon ventures would not prove to be anything like as heartening, as shall be related in due course.

None of the intrepid trio who had dominated the first half of the Athens marathon played any part in the event’s future. “Teddy” Flack had also won the 800 metres at the Games, again in a slow time, and though always designated as representing Australia he could well have been regarded as British instead. He had been born in Islington, in London, had emigrated to Australia as a child with his family, and had returned to London to continue his accountancy career with the Price Waterhouse firm. Australia was still a collection of British colonies in 1896 and would not gain its independence until five years later.  .

Flack ran a modest three-mile time (16:15.0) the next year at the Stamford Bridge Stadium, in London, and then returned to Australia to breed Friesian cattle on his rural dairy-farm as an  understandable preference to totting up figures in some Melbourne office. He became a member of the Australian Olympic Committee and died at the age of 61 in 1935. There is no evidence that either Lermusiaux or Blake ever competed again, and the latter was not even tempted by the fact that his home city, Boston, was to witness its first annual marathon in 1897, boldly promoted by the wealthy Boston Athletic Association within a month of its foundation. One of its newly-enrolled members, Tom Burke, had won the 100 metres and 400 metres at the 1896 Olympics.

Even during World War I and World War II the race has been held every year since, though as a relay in 1918, and there is an interesting and significantly extensive English, Irish and Scottish input which provided the initial impulse. The US athletes who went to Athens were almost all students at the prestigious Princeton University, in New Jersey, and their accompanying coach from the Boston AA, John Graham, was English-born, in Liverpool in 1862.  He had emigrated to the USA as a teenager and after some success as a professional sprinter had established himself as one of the country’s most capable track & field coaches by the time he was in his 30s. He worked at Harvard, Brown and Princeton Universities, and it was said admiringly of him that he “was steeped in the most innovative ideas about training and exercise”. 

With that sort of innovative outlook, Graham had for certain been galvanised by what he saw of Louis’s dramatic victory and was duly in attendance at that first Boston Marathon. In the race’s formative years he acted as the starter and as an official in the lead automobile – and that, in itself, was a position of rare privilege and prominence. Towards the end of the 19th Century there were still only 8000 such vehicles in the entire United States, and most of the population had never seen one.

There is a further British/Irish connection regarding the 1897 winner. He was John J. McDermott, of the quaintly-named Pastime Athletic Club, in New York, who had also been the victor in the first ever US-held marathon for amateurs, contested over a course from Stamford, Connecticut, to New York in September of the previous year. McDermott led a short and obscure life, born in either 1871 or 1872 and dying either before 1909 of an inherited pulmonary disease or in about 1923 of tuberculosis, according to conflicting reports. His parents were certainly Irish, and his birthplace might well have been Ireland, which was to remain part of Great Britain until 1921.

Two others among the 10 finishers in Boston were named J.J. Kiernan and W. Ryan, and numerous other names of Irish or Scottish .origin were to appear in the results in the years that followed up to World War I. The 1898 winner, Ronald J. Macdonald, had been born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, named after the Latin words meaning “New Scotland”, which is now the most densely populated dominion in Canada. Suffice it to add that the Scots influence in that town remains so strong to this day that it stages the longest-established Highland Games outside Scotland itself. The 2nd-placed runner was named Hamilton Gray, and he was a member of St George’s AC, in New York, which must surely have been a staunchly Anglophile institution. In 3rd place was 21-year-old Robert. McLean (also referred to as “McLennon”), who is known to have been born in Scotland. McDermott was 4th.

The reasons for what would continue to be a strong Irish presence in the Boston Marathon were examined closely in an excellent book entitled “The American Marathon”, written by Pamela Cooper, and published in 1999 by the Syracuse University Press. The author achieved the remarkable literary feat of allying erudite sociology and athletics statistics, and among the numerous salient points that she made were the following:

“In the early days the BAA Marathon had a strong international component, but it was dominated by New England running clubs that were developed from older Irish American and Scottish American sport and social clubs … the presence of many Irish immigrants anticipated the marathon’s potential for the assertion of ethnic solidarity … Irish Americans running in the marathon systematically re-enacted a difficult overland journey to find opportunity and freedom”.

A most striking piece of data supplied by Ms Cooper was the fact that Irish people accounted for 35.6 per cent of Boston’s foreign-born population by the year 1913, and the next largest group was made up of citizens of Canadian origin, many of whom had originally emigrated to Canada from Great Britain.

The 1899 Boston race was won by Lawrence Brignolia, who was the son of Italian immigrants, but two runners named Sullivan and others named Maguire, Lynch, Kelley and Harrigan figured in the first dozen. The Sullivans (who may have been brothers, though the most comprehensive history of the race, written by Tom Derderian in 1995, doesn’t specify so) and Harrigan were all members of the Highland Club in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is now a suburb of Boston and was then an enclave of Irish immigrants. For further indisputable evidence of the British/Irish connection, take a look at a list of some of the Boston Marathon winners from 1900 to 1914:

1900 & 1901 – Jack Caffery, born in Hamilton, Ontario, the son of Irish immigrants, and a member of  St Patrick’s AC in that city.

1903 – John Lorden (or Lordan), burn in Ireland, at Murragh, County Cork..

1908 – Tom Morrissey, born in Yonkers, New York, the son of Irish immigrants.

1910 – Fred Cameron, born at Advocate Harbour, Nova Scotia.

1912 – Mike Ryan, born in New York, and a member of the city’s Irish American AC.  

1914 – Jimmy Duffy, born in Ireland, at Liscoghill, County Leitrim, brought up^in Edinburgh, ran for Scotland in the International Cross-Country Championships of 1909-10-11, and killed at the age 24 in the 2nd Battle of Ypres.a year after his Boston win

Just to set the record straight, all but four of the others who won the 18 races at Boston during those years were from ethnic minority groups – Michael Spring, who was Jewish, in 1904; Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Native American, in 1907; Henri Renaud, a French-Canadian, in 1909; and Fred Carlson, an immigrant from Sweden, in 1913.  The 1905 winner, Fred Lorz, may well have had German parentage, but as there had been 7.5 million German immigrants to the USA between 1820 and 1870 he could hardly be described as representing a minority!

As it is, there is a catalogue of other runners placing in the first 12 at Boston in those years who clearly had Irish or Scottish connections – Cleary, Devlin, Donovan, Flynn, Kennedy, MacCormack, McAuliffe, McCarthy, McHugh, McInerney, McTiernan, O’Biien, O’Neil!, There were others, too, whose surnames are not an immediately obvious indication of Irish birth such as Jim Crowley, of the Irish-American AC, who was 4th in 1909, and Festus Madden, of the South Boston club and then of North Dorchester in the city centre, 2nd in 1911 and 3rd in 1912,

The 1898 winner, Ronald Macdonald, and the 1899 runner-up, Dick Grant, both took part in the 1900 Olympic marathon, though finishing a distant (very distant !) 6th and 7th respectively, and no doubt they were aggrieved at this outcome, as most certainly would also have been the Frenchman, Michel Bréal, who had suggested to Baron Pierre de Coubertin that a marathon race form part of the first Olympic Games and was now witnessing his creation crumbling into disrepute in the crowded Parisian streets. The race was a shambles, and so much so that it might have jeopardised the whole future of the event, but for the simple fact that it had already fired the enthusiasm of the Bostonians. It’s a measure of the historical importance of the Boston marathon that it has achieved such status even though for most of its existence the organisers stubbornly declined to accept 26 miles 385 yards as the required distance to be covered. .

It was not only the Marathon which was disorganised – a euphemism for “screwed up” – at the 1900 Olympics. This was the age of amateurism. Every “big wig” in the Parisian capital wanted to get in on the act, regardless of their lack of experience in the administration of any sort of sport, and the numerous committees set up to arrange the events were almost 100-strrong in at least one instance, which hardly made for reaching quick and unanimous decisions. More than 58,000 competitors took part in 477 different events, including live pigeon shooting, swimming in the Seine (down stream), angling, ballooning, croquet, cricket, pelota, cannon-firing and life-saving, though despite all this frenzied activity the general public seemed largely unaware of what was going on.

To be more accurate, the populace of Paris did not know for the large part that they were watching Olympic events. The Games were more or less a side-show to an “Exposition Universelle”, showing off the mechanical and artistic marvels of the age, which was an enterprise so dear to the hearts of the increasingly prosperous middle-classes of France and, for that matter, Great Britain.   

Théato (white hat) surrounded by cyclists

and possibly two pacemakers.

The Games sports of a more conventional nature included athletics, cycling, fencing, football, gymnastics, rowing and swimming in a custom-made pool, which have figured regularly or permanently in the Games ever since. The marathon race – again bereft of any obvious Olympic affiliation – was held in circumstances so chaotic that they are graphically depicted in a photograph which shows the eventual winner, Michel Théato, nearing the finish, surrounded not only by a horde of accompanying cyclists who may or may not have had official status, but also being led by another runner who would seem to be a gate-crasher as he does not appear at all in earlier photos of the race.

There is an explanation for this, and it casts serious doubts on the validity of Théato’s win. According to the excellent history of the 1900 Games, written by Professor André Drevon in the year 2000 (“Les Jeux Olympiques Oubliés, Paris 1900”, published by CNRS Editions, Paris), Théato was accompanied from 15 kilometres onwards by two of his club-mates named Launy and Frémonteau who were not entered in the race. ! This blatant disregard for the rules does not seem to have caused the Games organisers any concern whatsoever !  

The formative years of Olympic history are beset by fanciful stories, and for decades it was regularly reported that Théato was a baker’s delivery-man by occupation, and so may have benefited in the race from his local knowledge and taken some short-cuts. It doesn’t need much in the way of detective skills to see the flaws in this tale, as the marathon course of 40.26 kilometres included a 37-kilometre loop round the city – some of it following what is now the Boulevard Périphérique – and in any case Parisians (like most French people then and now) collected their bread themselves. As it happens, this is all an academic matter because it was eventually established that Théato had not the least connection with the bakery business and was a wood-worker by profession.

The suggestion that Théato cut some corners en route to victory may well have originated from an envious rival, and the contemporary reports of the race refer to several instances of runners going off course, which is not at all surprising. Although there were seven designated “control points”, there were apparently no direction signs or course marshals in between. One of the four Americans taking part, Arthur Newton, of the New York Athletic Club, who was a mere 5ft 2½in (1.60 metres) tall, was later to claim that he led all the way and was never overtaken by anyone, and yet he was officially placed 5th more than an hour behind the winner. It’s a reasonable assumption that he simply could have taken a wrong turning or two and run a lot further than he needed to have done   

Another bizarre story which only came to light 90 years later as a result of research by a French athletics historian, Alain Bouillé, is that Theato was not French at all but had been born in Luxemburg. Théato himself only learned of his Olympic success in 1912 when it was decided that the 1900 Paris race merited Olympic standing, and he had little time to enjoy any belated fame as he died in 1919 at the age of 41. .

The three stalwart Britons who had been sent to Paris for the marathon were Frederick Randall, Ernest Ion Pool and William Saward, who were all members of renowned cross-country clubs (Finchley Harriers, South London Harriers and Essex Beagles respectively), but road-racing was such a rarity in Britain in those days that they were chosen because they had been the first three to finish in that order in the London-to-Brighton run, which was of more than twice the length of the Olympic marathon. Despite their obvious powers of endurance, the trio survived no more than a few miles of the journey through the Parisian streets, and one of them, Pool, was to complain bitterly in print after his return home.

“The marathon turned out a dismal fiasco”, he wrote; “The whole conduct of the race on the part of the responsible officials, beginning with the tardy announcement of the date abroad down to the smallest details providing – or, rather, failing to provide – for the convenience of contestants on the fatal day, and the entire absence of precautions to ensure fair play, can only be characterised by the one word, Preposterous, with a capital P”  Pool, who was already 42 years old at the time of the race, did not go into great detail about what he called “the troubles that invariably beset the strangers” except to refer to the “non-sporting instincts of the French populace”.

Yet this account has an odd ring to it; Were the three Britons running together and did they decide collectively to abandon the race, or did they by chance do so individually so soon after the start ?  How would any of the “French populace” – by whom Pool presumably meant the accompanying cyclists and the bystanders – have known who the “strangers” were in the race?  Eminently more satisfying was the experience 11 days before, on 8 July, of Len Hurst, a former apprentice brick-maker from Kent, who won a professional 40-kilometre race over a different course in Paris in a time of 2 hours 31 mins 30 seconds, which was almost half-an-hour better than Théato had done. However, for whatever reason, this event was held entirely separately from both the Paris Exposition and the Olympics, though there was an extensive programme of professional track & field events as a recognized part of the Games.

As an aside, by remarkable coincidence there was an American marathon runner of very similar ability to Ernest Pool and of almost exactly the same name. Ernest Poole, listed as living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was 6th in the 1902 Boston Marathon, and I wondered at first if he might be the same man as the Briton at the 1900 Olympics, but further research revealed that the Boston runner’s full name was Ernest Calvin Poole. Furthermore, he didn’t know what he was starting in the way of a saga because five generations of his family have now run at Boston, with the latest being Ken Poole, aged 75, who completed the race for the 20th time in 2016.

Marathon men of British origin also made a major contribution to the Olympic marathon in that same era of 1896-to-1914. No Briton has ever won any of the 38 marathons which have been contested at the Games, but the champions in both 1904 and 1912 had been born in Britain – respectively, Tom Hicks in Biriningham (England, not Alabama), but representing the USA, and Kennedy McArthur in Dervock, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, but representing South Africa. In addition, the 1906 winner, Billy Sherring, though born in Hamilton, Ontario, was a member of the St Patrick’s club, as had been Boston winner Jack Caffery, and certainly had Irish antecedence.

The 1908 winner for the USA, Johnny Hayes, liked to claim that he was of Irish birth when it suited him to for publicity purposes but was actually bon in New York of Irish parents who had emigrated from Nenagh, County Tipperary, where a statue has been erected in Hayes’s memory. Apart from the 12 Britons who ran in that 1908 London Olympic marathon (with little success, it has to be said), I have found no less than 11 others in that race with strong British/Irish connections, and there may even be more, as follows:

Charles Hefferon (South Africa), 2nd, born in Newbury, Berkshire.

William Wood (Canada) 5th, born in Plymouth, Devon.

Harry Lawson (Canada), 7th, born in Leeds, Yorkshire.

Jack Caffery (Canada), 11th, born in Hamilton, Ontario, the son of Irish immigrants.

Sidney Hatch (USA) 14th, born in River Forest, Illinois, but competed for the state Gaelic Athletic Association and for the Irish American AC in Chicago.

George Goulding (Canada), 22nd, born in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire, and also winner of the 10km walk at the 1908 Olympics !

George Blake (Australia) did not finish, born in St Kilda, Victoria, the son of Irish immigrants.

Joseph Lynch (Australia) did not finish, born in Sydney, the son of Irish immigrants.

James Mitchell-Baker (South Africa) did not finish, born in Glasgow.

Tom Morrissey (USA) did not finish, born in New York, the son of Irish immigrants.

Mike Ryan (USA° did not finish, born in New York but a member of the Irish American AC in that city.

Thus the British/Irish connection applies certainly to 24 of the 56 competitors in London – more than 42 per cent! – and there may be more fitting into the same category among seven others: Arthur Burn, Edward Cotter, William Goldsboro, George Lister, Fred Noseworthy and John Tait (all from Canada) and Victor Aitken (Australia). 

Apart from Ken McArthur’s win, the British/Irish influence on the 1912 Olympic marathon in Stockholm was not nearly so strong, though Jimmy Duffy was 5th for Canada and Mike Ryan among the US non-finishers Of the 68 starters, 28 were from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa and the USA, but only three others among the non-Britons have obvious or apparent British/Irish allegiance. Harry Smith, of the USA, who was 17th, is described as being of Irish descent, and his team-mate, John Reynolds, was a member of the Irish American AC in New York. Arthur St Norman, a non-finisher for South Africa, had been born in Brighton, Sussex.

An era was over. So far as the later fortunes of English-speaking runners were concerned, it would be a 60-year wait for another Olympic gold.

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