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The Shapwick Express Reaches Journey's End Late--111 Years Late, To Be Precise

The Shapwick Express Reaches Journey’s

End Late – 111 Years Late, To Be Precise


Much more than a century after his greatest triumphs, and 70 years after his death, Great Britain’s first athlete to become an Olympic champion is at last receiving the accolades due to him. At the Paris Games of 1900 Charles Bennett won the 1500 metres and led home the victorious British team in the 5000 metres team race, but his achievement has long been lightly regarded – even by informed statisticians and historians – because those events were then in their infancy and his times, though record-breaking, were of no great note. Yet the Olympic successes were only part of a highly successful athletics career which entitles Bennett to be remembered as one of the finest distance-runners of his generation … or any other, for that matter..


The story of the revival of interest in Bennett begins in the year 2000 when an enterprising member of Bournemouth Athletic Club with a sense of history had the idea of holding a millennium one-mile race in Bennett’s name in his birthplace village of Shapwick (pronounced “Shabbick” locally), near Wimborne Minster, just north of Bournemouth, in Dorset. This event, watched by the half-mile and mile World record-holder of the 1930s, Sydney Wooderson, among others, raised £3.500 towards a playing-field fund set up by the Shapwick Community Trust. Four years later the facility was opened and was named the “Charles Bennett Village Green”, with a commemorative plaque installed alongside to honour Bennett’s reputation. In the meantime Chris Bennett, a grandson of Charles Bennett, had been inspired to search for his grandfather’s lost grave in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, at Kinson, now absorbed into Bournemouth, where the pioneering Olympian had lived most of his life.


The grave, buried in grass and weeds, was eventually uncovered, and now a new gravestone donated in 2011 by a local mason marks the spot. It reads: “In Loving Memory of Charles Bennett 1870-1948. First British track and field athlete to become Olympic champion. Bennett, known as the Shapwick Express, won two gold medals and a silver at the Paris Games in 1900”. Charles Bennett was born on 28 December 1870 and died on 18 December 1948. He is one of only four Olympic gold-medallists in any sport to have been born in the county of Dorset; in South-West England, the others being Herbert Perry (shooting, 1924), Jane Bullen (equestrianism, 1968) and Mary Gordon-Watson (also equestrianism, 1972).


The extended Bennett family had been residents of Shapwick at least since the 18th Century, working as farm labourers or servants. Charles was the seventh of nine children, consisting of five brothers and four sisters, of whom two had died at a very young age before him. Charles Bennett’s mother died in 1872 soon after giving birth to twins, one of whom also died. The 1881 Census lists the occupation of Charles Bennett’s father, Henry, who had re-married, as being that of a carter, which might indicate some upward mobility in the family’s situation.


In the 1880s the family home was at Manor Farm House, West Woodyates, which is between Blandford and Salisbury, in Dorset, and the first reference to Charles Bennett taking up running is when he became a member of Portsmouth Harriers at the age of 21 in 1892. At some time he had joined the railway service and he was employed as an engine-driver on the route from Bournemouth-to Waterloo, in London. Detailed research by the British statistician historian, Alex Wilson, into Bennett’s career has shown that his first athletics success of note was in the South of the Thames cross-country championships in March 1895.


In July of that year at the English Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) Championships Bennett was 4th at four miles, which was a standard track distance in those days and was won by Henry Munro, of United Hospitals’ AC and London AC, in an excellent time of 19:49 2/5, only three-fifths slower than the Championship record set the previous year by a very fine runner of that decade, Fred Bacon. Bennett’s time is not known, except that he beat the standard of 21:00. He transferred to Finchley Harriers at the beginning of 1897, as he was apparently able to do some running in London between his engine-driving shifts. Finchley is not the most obvious location convenient to Bennett’s regular London rail destination, but the club was a distance-running stronghold throughout the 1890s and would win the Southern Counties’ cross-country team title in 1896 and 1897. Bennett, 15th in 1896, was 7th on the latter occasion for his new club.


A track performance of note during 1896 had been his time of 3:13 4/5 for the ¾-mile at the South London Harriers’ autumn meeting on a grass circuit at the Kennington Oval cricket ground described as “rather heavy”. He won the handicap race by 10 yards off scratch from Arthur Butler, of Polytechnic Harriers, who had been 3rd in the AAA 880 yards the previous year, with Henry Munro six yards further back and another fine half-miler, Albert Relf, 4th. Relf was a Finchley clubmate of Bennett’s and would win the AAA 880 in 1897 and 1898.   


The first of his AAA titles and then on to cross-country success


Also in 1897 Bennett’s first AAA title came at four miles, beating C.E. Haydon, of South London Harriers, by merely 1½ yards in 20:27 2/5, with the holder, Henry Harrison, of Manchester Harriers, 4th. The meeting was held in the North of England,  at the Fallowfield track, in Manchester, and Bennett also had a 4th place in the mile final the same afternoon. A typical Mancunian July afternoon it was, too, by all accounts – the weather was described as “miserably dull, cold, windy”.


From 1898 onwards Bennett was to start to establish himself as the best cross-country runner in England. He won the Southern title that year and retained it in 1899 and 1900. The course used on each occasion was at Wembley Park, covering 10 miles or more of what was largely grassland, with a stretch of road but none of the ploughed fields which were a common feature of cross-country running then. In the first of those years the going was reported as being very heavy and Bennett gradually drew away in the closing stages to win by some 30 yards from a man who would be a regular adversary of his, T. Bartlett, of Essex Beagles. The winning time was 1hr 5min 41 1/5sec, reflecting the interminable nature of cross-country racing in those days.


The English National Cross-Country Championships that year were a fortnight later, on 5 March, on the Horton estate, near Northampton, in the Midlands, and was won by a future fellow-Olympian, Sydney Robinson, who was a member of the local Northampton club, with Bartlett 2nd, Harrison 3rd and Bennett 4th. Finchley Harriers placed 3rd to Salford Harriers and Essex Beagles in the team event. Robinson had also won the National the previous year.


The 1898 AAA 10 miles track championship was held at Stamford Bridge, in London, a month later, 2 April, and there were 23 starters, including Robinson, Harrison and Bennett. The entry-list is worth giving in full as it contains some other intriguing names:


Edward Barlow (Manchester H), Charles Bennett (Finchley H), W.J. Clark (Essex Beagles), Montague Davie (Ranelagh H), E.D. Dixon (London AC), John Dixon (London AC), M.F.S. Dixon (London AC), S.W.F. Dixon (London AC), Henry Harrison (Manchester H), C.E. Haydon (South London H), W.B. Holmes (Tee-to-Tum AC), C.J. Lee Warner (Blackheath H), J.D. Marsh (Salford H), Henry Munro (United Hospitals’ AC/London AC), Charles Pearce (Newport Pagnell AC), E. Reenan (Highgate H), Sydney Robinson (Northampton & County C & AC), W.H. Sanders (South London H), Walter Stokes (Worcester City H), Jason Tennant (West Cheshire H), Edward Tilley (South London H), George Weedon (Highgate H), J.G. Wood (Highgate H).        


John Dixon is clearly the ultra-distance runner who was already then 47 years of age and became better known as John Fowler Dixon, and are the other three runners from the same club therefore his brothers or even his sons ? If so, is this the only time that four such relatives have taken part in the same AAA event ? None of the Dixons figured prominently in the proceedings, as Robinson, Bennett and Barlow were together on the last lap before Robinson pulled away to win by 30 yards: Robinson 53:12.0, Bennett 53:18.0, Barlow 53:22.0. Weedon was more than a minute behind in 4th place, Tennant 5th and Reenan 6th.


Bennett retained his AAA four miles title on 2 July at Stamford Bridge, beating the former champion, Henry Munro. “The Times” reported that “Bennett’s finishing power proved too much for Munro and he put in a marvellous sprint and won easily”. Someone was astute enough to put a watch on Bennett’s last lap and it was recorded at 59 2/5 !  The winning time was 20:14 4/5, and so it would seem that Bennett was capable of well under 20 minutes on the day, had he had the opposition to press him. Of course, slow-run races, with everything depending on a mad dash in the last lap, were characteristic of the era. No one paid too much heed to fast times just for the sake of it. In another of his occasional track races Bennett won a 1½ miles handicap off scratch by 100 yards at the United Hospitals’ meeting on 10 September.


The second of his Southern cross-country wins in 1899 was achieved on 18 February, again at Wembley Park, with 300 yards to spare over J. Pratt, of Highgate Harriers, and the Essex Beagle, Bartlett, was 3rd. The same course was used for the National on 4 March. Bennett took the lead “directly the field settled down”, and though Henry Harrison was one of a trio close up for a while there was soon only one man in the race. Bennett won by 1min 10sec, with Bartlett coming through for 2nd and another Southerner, J.G. Wood, of Highgate Harriers, 3rd.  


Breaking new ground at Versailles as the French are “whitewashed”


An England team was sent off to Paris to respond to a challenge from the French Federation, and so the first international cross-country race was staged over a course of nine miles or so from Ville d’Avray to Versailles on 20 March. Maybe the hosts soon began to regret their hospitality as the eight English runners all finished before the first Frenchman reached the line. Sydney Robinson was the winner from Henry Harrison, with Bennett 3rd, Bartlett 4th, John Marsh 5th, Edward Barlow 6th, John Crook 7th and A.H. Meacham 8th. Apart from his return to Paris two years later for the Olympics, Robinson would also figure in the winning England team when the first official International Cross-Country Union Championships were held in Scotland in 1903. He, too, deserves a study of his life – like Bennett, Robinson is still one of only two Olympic athletics champions to have been born in the county of  Northamptonshire (the other being fellow distance-runner Bill Coales who won team gold in 1908).


Converting his good form to track use, Bennett won a four miles at Kennington Oval on 1 April at the South London Harriers’ spring meeting, always in front and coming home by “nearly a furlong” from the Highgate Harrier, Pratt. Three weeks later Bennett took his first AAA 10 miles title in bizarre circumstances against only seven other runners at the Vulcan Athletic Grounds, Derby, while a Football League match was taking place simultaneously on the infield between Derby County and Sheffield United ! (Derby County won 1-0, if you really must know !).


Three of the other 10-mile competitors were from the local Derby & County AC, and apart from Bennett only the 2nd man to finish, John Rimmer, of Southport Harriers, was a runner of real class. Even he was 19sec behind, but he would be another of Bennett’s Olympic team-mates the following year. On 10 June at Southport Bennett ran four miles in 19:46.0, which was less than seven seconds outside the incomparable Walter George’s record from 1884. The AAA Championships were held at Wolverhampton on 1 July in inauspicious circumstances – poor weather, heavy track – and Bennett was no doubt content to finish only 1½ yards behind a fine Scottish athlete, Hugh Welsh, in the mile and win the four miles against modest opposition in the slowest time recorded in the event since 1887.


Bennett wins the Southern and National cross-country titles again


In 1900, after winning his third successive Southern cross-country title, again at Wembley Park, Bennett completed the “double double” a fortnight later at the National championships at Rotherham on 3 March. “The Times” reported enthusiastically: “Rarely has a better race taken place in the competition, the first five men home keeping close company for the greater part of the 10½-mile course”. Bennett had forced the pace from the start and gradually dropped his pursuers, though the margin at the end was only 10 yards over Sydney Robinson. Finchley Harriers took the team title, with 73pts to Birchfield’s 93. Bennett did not defend his 10-mile track title at Stamford Bridge on 7 April which Robinson won.   


It seems hardly likely that there was any conscious build-up towards the Olympic Games during that winter and the summer of 1900. The AAA Championships were held on 7 July, a week before the Paris athletics began, but “The Times” made not a single mention of the forthcoming Games, even though Americans won eight of the 12 AAA events for which they were entered. One title which did not go to the visitors was the mile which Bennett took by a dozen yards from George Gazeley, of Herne Hill Harriers, with the previous year’s US AAU champion, Alex Grant (actually a Canadian), 3rd and an American, Edward Bushnell, 5th. Bennett again attempted the double at these Championships but was comfortably beaten at four miles by John Rimmer, with the as yet immature Alfred Shrubb 3rd. It wouldn’t take Shrubb long to develop – he would win both that event and the National cross-country for the next four years, plus the AAA mile in 1903 and 1904.


Very few British athletes were apparently interested in going to France, despite a contribution of £100 by the AAA towards overall travelling expenses, and all credit to the distance men for rallying in force: Bennett, Rimmer and Robinson made the journey, together with the AAA 880 yards champion of 1899 and 1900, Alfred Tysoe, and the only other GB representative was the Irish-born all-round jumper, Patrick Leahy. In the space of two days, 15-16 July, Britain collected three gold medals and a week later won two more, as follows:


800 metres (16 July): 1 Tysoe 2:01.2, 2 John Cregan (USA) 2:01.6, 3 David Hall (USA) 2:02.5.

1500 metres (15 July): 1 Bennett 4:06.0 World record, 2 Henri Deloge (France) 4:07.2, 3 John Bray (USA) 4:09.0. Rimmer 7th.

2500 metres steeplechase (15 July): 1 George Orton (Canada) 7:34.4, 2 Robinson 7:35.8, 3 Jacques Chastanié (France) 7:42.0.

5000 metres team (22 July): 1 Bennett 15:20.0 World record, 2 Rimmer 15:25.5, 3 Henri Deloge (France) 15:32.0. Robinson 4th, Tysoe 7th. Team – 1 GB 26pts, 2 France 29.

4000 metres steeplechase (16 July): 1 Rimmer 12:58.4, 2 Bennett 12:58.6, 3 Robinson 12:58.8. 


The athletics events in Paris began on Saturday 14 July at the Croix-Catelan grounds of the Racing Club de France in the Bois de Boulogne, and it seems odd that neither the 1500 metres nor the first of the steeplechases was held on that day, instead of both taking place the day after. As this latter was a Sunday, John Cregan, the AAU mile champion of 1897 and 1898, and Alex Grant (also representing the USA in Paris), the 1899 winner and current steeplechase champion, withdrew from those events for religious reasdons. Grant had won a 1500 metres in Philadelphia in June with a time of 4:08 3/5 a couple of yards ahead of his fellow-Canadian, George Orton, and this was the fastest so far recorded in what was then a rarely contested event.


Bennett led from the start at Croix-Catelan, and on the second lap of the 500-metre track Henri Deloge, a member of the host club, moved up alongside, which naturally caused great excitement among the 3,000 or so spectators. Bennett went ahead again on the last lap and had a lead of 10 metres with 100 metres to go which Deloge closed to about four metres at the finish. Bennett’s time of 4:06 1/5 was a new World best and almost exactly equivalent to his fastest mile, though it did not bear comparison with the best mile time by an amateur – 4:15 3/5 by Tommy Conneff, of the USA, in 1895.


The startling feature of this Olympic race is that Bennett ran the last 500-metre lap in 1:10.2, which is equivalent to a closing 400 metres in 56sec !  The presence of Cregan, Orton or Grant might have given Bennett an even harder race, but Deloge was a very capable athlete who was four times French champion at 1500 metres, and there is no reason to discredit Bennett’s success. In any case, Grant was not in the form he had shown the previous month as on the opening day of the Games athletics he had come last in his 800 metres heat. Orton ran 4:09 4/5 for 1500 metres, less 20 metres, in a handicap race on the same track the following Thursday.


In the year 2000 a splendidly detailed account of these chaotic 1900 Games by Professor André Drevon was published in France, and in this the author reproduces the comments made three days later by Bennett to a reporter from a publication entitled, “Le Journal des Sports”. Bennett said (allowing for translation): “In the straight I gave everything that I could. At any moment I was waiting to see him surge. I am told that Deloge has only been training for a year. If that is true, you can be proud that in France you have an extraordinary man”.


The 5000 metres team race did not take place until the following Sunday, 22 July, and on the Thursday previous Rimmer and Robinson ran in a handicap steeplechase at Croix-Catelan without success – Rimmer 5th, Robinson did not finish – but there was no mention of Bennett.


George Orton, the Canadian who beat the British in the first of the steeplechases, was a member of New York AC and had been the AAU steeplechase champion every year from 1893 to 1899. He was also an outstanding miler who had won the AAU title from 1892 to 1896 inclusive and again in 1900 and had set a Canadian mile record of 4:21.8 in 1892 which stood for 30 years. However, he had placed only 4th in the AAA steeplechase the previous week, a very long way behind Sydney Robinson, and so it is surprising that he chose to contest that event and not the 1500 metres in Paris. Equally intriguing is the fact that John Rimmer, who had beaten Bennett for the AAA four-mile title, ran the 1500 and not the steeplechase because the next day Rimmer won the longer steeplechase, at 4000 metres, from Bennett and Robinson, with the Canadians, Orton and Grant, well beaten, 5th and 7th respectively. Tysoe’s victory at 800 metres the same day over the American, Cregan, was a repeat of the AAA result, though by a much narrower margin       


The fact that the 5000 metres team event was held on a Sunday might seem to explain why the only participating teams were from Great Britain and France. Yet two Americans, John Bray and David Hall, had finished 3rd and 4th in the 1500 the previous Sunday; another, Arthur Newton (not the Rhodesian-born distance-runner and voluble coach of later years), had been 4th in the steeplechase that day but ran the marathon the following Thursday. Furthermore, there were four other Americans who had taken part in the handicap races the same day as the marathon.


So it remains a mystery as to why a US team of some sort was not raised. As it happens, the 5000 was a close contest between Britain and France, which any American representation would have had difficulty in beating. Bennett won in a time which has been reported as both 15:20.0 and 15:29.2, but in either case is a World best, though the fastest three miles by an amateur, 14:17.0 by Britain’s Sid Thomas in 1893, was clearly worth 30-to-40 seconds faster. Rimmer was 2nd, Henri Deloge 3rd. Robinson 4th and Tysoe 7th. Britain won by 26pts to 29.


Bennett maintained his fine form after the Games, and at the Polytechnic Institute Sports at Paddington, in North London, on 22 September he set a British record for the ¾-mile of 3:10 4/5, beating the future mile record-holder, Joe Binks, by a yard. Bennett’s time was pronounced a “fresh amateur record”, improving on the 3:11 4/5 by Alec Nelson, of Salford Harriers (coach to Cambridge University in later life), of the previous year. The World best then was 3:02 4/5 by the American, Tommy Conneff, in 1895, and one can’t help feeling that the likes of Conneff and Bennett would have run very much faster for the mile than they ever did, had they been given the opportunity – “opportunity” being defined as organised pace-making.


On 20 October, at Belle Vue, Manchester, Bennett and Alfred Tysoe met at ¾-of-a-mile, with 5,000 people gathered to watch this battle of the champions. Bennett led in 62.5 and 2:09.0 before Tysoe went by 200 yards from the finish and won by a dozen yards or so. Sadly this was to be the last time that the two great runners would display their talents. Tysoe  contracted pleurisy soon afterwards and died the following year. Bennett was entered for the 1901 National cross-country at Leicester Racecourse but was ill on the day and in his absence Alfred Shrubb won the first of his four successive titles. What a pity that Bennett and Shrubb never met at their best !


For domestic reasons Bennett then gave up competition. He had met a dressmaker, Sarah Lena Lewis, and they were married in 1902. It is said that she did not like his absences when racing, but it may be that Bennett in any case felt that at the age of 32 it was time to retire from competition. He became the licensee of the Dolphin Inn, at Kinson, presumably having resigned from his train-driver’s job, and this was a small hotel catering in particular for commercial travellers and touring cyclists, with horse-stabling facilities, all of which no doubt occupied an increasing amount of his time. He and his wife had five children and they continued to live at Holt Lodge, Wimborne Road, Kinson, where he died in 1948.    



Charles Bennett’s races 1895 to 1900 Compiled by Alex Wilson




¾ mile


1 Mile

2 Miles

3 Miles

4 Miles

5 Miles

6 Miles

10 Miles







15:20.0 e +

20:36.e +



































































9 March, Norbury, South of the Thames CC, 1st

20 April, Kennington Oval, AAA 10 miles, did not finish, 15:20e at 3 miles, 20:36e at 4 miles

6 July, Stamford Bridge, AAA 4 miles, 4th, 20:40.e



22 February, Wembley Park, Southern Counties CC, 15th

24 May, Bournemouth, 1 mile, 1st 4:30.0.

19 September, Kennington Oval, ¾ mile, 1st, 3:13.8

25 September, Bournemouth, 1 mile, 1st, 4:30.0



20 February, Wembley Park, Southern Counties CC, 7th

19 April, Bournemouth, 1 mile, 1st, 4:30.0

2 May, Barking, 4 miles, 1st, 20:05.2

29 May, Catford, 1 mile, 1st, 4:28.4

7 June, Bournemouth, 1 mile, 1st, 4:27.0

3 July, Fallowfield, Manchester, AAA 4 miles, 1st, 20:52.6

10 July, Chelmsford, 2 miles, 2nd, 9:41.e. R. Wellin won by 10y in 9:39.2

14 August, Wood Green, ¾ mile, 3rd, 3:15.5e. Albert Relf 1st 3:14.4, Wellin 2nd 3:14.5 five yards ahead of Bennett



19 February, Wembley Park, Southern Counties CC, 1st

5 March, Horton, National CC, 4th

20 March, Ville d’Avray-Versailles, GB v France CC match, 3rd

2 April, Stamford Bridge, AAA 10 miles, 2nd, 53:18.0. Sid Robinson 1st 53:12.0.

            6 miles, 31:33.0e+

16 April, Ilford, 3 miles, 3rd, 14:54.6. Henry Munro 1st 14:48.8, Sid Robinson 2nd 14:52.0

14 May, Catford, 1½ miles, 1st, 6:57.8

30 May, Bournemouth, 1 mile, 1st, 4:26.4

31 May, Yeovil, 1 mile, 1st, 4:40.4

2 July, Stamford Bridge, AAA 4 miles, 1st, 20:14.4

10 July, Stamford Bridge, 1½  miles, 1st, 6:54.4

16 July, Manchester (Belle Vue), 4 miles, 1st 20:23.0

24 July, Paris, 2500m steeplechase, 1st

30 July, Northampton, 3 miles, 2nd, 14:56.e. Charles Pearce, 80 yards start, 1st 14:49.8 by 35 yards

1 August, Hendon, 1 mile, 1st, 4:24.0



18 February, Wembley Park, Southern Counties CC, 1st

4 March, Wembley Park, National CC, 1st

31 March, Kensal Rise, 1 mile, 1st, 4:32.0

1 April, Kennington Oval, 4 miles, 1st, 20:36.0

22 April, Derby, AAA 10 miles, 1st, 54:18.4

10 June, Southport, 4 miles, 1st, 19:46.0

24 June, Stamford Bridge, 1½  miles, 6:51.0. British record

1 July, Molineux Grounds, Wolverhampton,  AAA 4 miles, 1st, 20:49.6

1 July, Molineux Grounds, Wolverhampton, AAA 1 mile, 2nd, 4:26.2. Hugh Welsh 1st 4:26.0  by a yard.



17 February, Wembley Park, Southern Counties CC, 1st

3 March, Rotherham, National CC, 1st

28 May, Nottingham, 5 miles match v Sid Robinson, 1st, 25:48.7. Won by 60 yards

7 July, Stamford Bridge, AAA 1 mile, 1st, 4:28.2

7 July, Stamford Bridge, AAA 4 miles, 2nd 20:24.8. John Rimmer 1st 20:11.0


15 July, Paris (Neuilly), Olympic Games, 1500 metres, 1st, 4:06.2. World record

Bennett blazed through the last 500m in 1:10.2 to win by five  yards from France’s Henry Deloge.


16 July, Paris (Neuilly), Olympic Games, 4000 metres steeplechase, 2nd, 12:58.7e. Rimmer 1st 12:58.4  by 1½ yards

No official time was given, 24 hours after winning gold in the 1500 metres 


22 July, Paris (Neuilly), Olympic Games, 5000 metres team race, 1st, 15:29.2. World record

Splits: 3000-9:20, 4000-12:30.  Stan Rowley, of Australia, was allowed to run for Britain so they could field a team.


18 August, Portsmouth, half mile, 1st, 2:01.2

25 August, Reading, ¾ mile, 1st, 3:12.2

22 September, Paddington, ¾ mile, 1st, 3:10.8. British record

20 October, Belle Vue, Manchester, ¾ mile, 2nd, 3:16.e. AlfredTysoe 1st 3:13.0 by a dozen yards






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