June 16, 2012

When the athlete was anonymous and there were no sports pages

two congressmen fighting with sticks, one kicking the other in the knee.  Meanwhile others look on, including one man in a comfortable seat and another who looks to be cheering.  An old sketch

“Congressional Pugilists” 1798

While Prince William, and most of the media, followed the European cup, Kate Middleton went to the theatre instead.  Sports are big news today, and almost every top athlete is a household name.  Things weren’t always that way.

In June of 1812, a man from the county of Somerset came up with a challenge.  He bet 500 guineaus that he could walk 1000 miles in as many hours.

Now, a mile an hour is not an impossible feat, up to a point.  And our hero apparently continued this task for 30 days, which would have meant about 720 miles of walking.  He was doing so well, that the betting odds were in his favor.

Well, those who bet against the walking man cashed in.  On Wednesday 4 June, 1812, time caught up with him.  One hour that day, I’m not sure which hour, he didn’t make his mile.  So, what happened to the walking wonder of 1812?  Well, the Ipswitch Journal reported that he had injured his feet and hamstrings, and lost 20 pounds.  (Of course, back then fat wasn’t cheap, and the weight loss was not looked on as a good thing.)  And, he was forgotten.

The one man marathon

On the same day, a young hairdresser ran a marathon, by himself, in just under 2 1/2 hours.  “Whitehouse”, as he was known, didn’t do the whole run non-stop, but his time included his brief stops.  “Whitehouse” bet he could get to Barnet, Hertfordshore and back in 2 1/2 hours, and he did, with a minute to spare.

So, if he only had 2 1/2 hours, why stop?  Well, I guess before the marathon became a big race, there was no one to hold out a bottle of water.  So, along the way, “Whitehouse” stopped at the local Inns for a wee drink.

While noteworthy feats were mentioned, the people who accomplished them normally weren’t (or if they were, like “Whitehouse”, it was a small story, and only part of their name, or a nickname, was used).

These events were only reported because the feats they performed were a curiosity in themselves, kind of like the Guinness Book of Records, and perhaps because a lot of money exchanged hands when people bet on the outcome.  It was possible to make a living in sports and remain anonymous.

Very few athletes were mentioned by name.  And these were usually pugilists, or boxers.  When a “noted pugilist”, like Isaac Perrings died (Jan 13, 1801), it made the paper.  However,  Mr.Perrings didn’t only box, he was also an engine worker.  Other pugilists doubled as runners, fathers, wrestlers and thieves, and it was their acts outside the ring that seemed to bring them the most attention.

Cricket also made the papers, in a small way.  If the local married men played a game against the single men, the score might be printed, so you’d know which team won.  The results of the match between two colleges might also be printed.  But, apart from a freak accident, like a cricket ball hitting and killing a five year old child, the score was all that was printed.  There were not highlights, no player lists, and no “man of the match.”

Even the top athletes were never as newsworthy as your average archaeologist, poet, playwright, foreign diplomat, or politician.

It wasn’t that the newspaper was devoid of details.  Parliamentary debates were printed in full.  Letters from soldiers on the front were too, as were poems, and even speeched given at benefit dinners.

But, Britain in 1812 didn’t have a celebrity culture.  Stars of the stage, (such as actresses) were well known for their performances, and sometimes the lines that got the most laughs, or the other highlights of the show, were reprinted.

As far as personal life goes, however, a “star” didn’t make the paper except when she (and the star was normally a woman) got married, retired, or was praised for her talent in an obituary.

An athlete wouldn’t even be mentioned at marriage, unless the athlete married a top actress, scientist, politician, or more noteworthy person (or, unless that athlete was being praised for work in another profession, such as soldier).

Or, as in the case Mrs.  Cribb delivering a “thumping” child to her pugilist husband, the story delivered a good pun.

Sure, boxers got a bit of attention.  But, Compared to the early 19th century, we now live in “the Age of Sport.”

One athlete, however, became very well known, and his name filled the papers, for all the wrong reasons…  (to be continued.)

thumbnail of boxing congressmen, reflected