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20 July 2012

Breaking records in Hackney Wick

BEFORE the Olympic Park was built most people would not have associated Hackney with international athletics. However, 150 years ago world records were being made and broken within a mile of where the Olympic stadium now stands.

In 1857, James Baum, an enterprising publican at the White Lion in Hackney Wick, built a running track outside and started advertising long distance races.

It was not the best track in the world, nor was it very long, with runners having to do nearly seven laps to cover one mile. It also had some awkward bends and a large number of trees nearby meant spectators didn’t get a very good view.

But for the next ten years it was one of the most important and well-known tracks in the country.

At the time, running and walking races were called ‘pedestrianism’ and all the best ‘pedestrians’ in the UK raced at Hackney Wick. They usually competed for money and there was a lot of betting on the races.

To make things interesting, Baum also had special prize belts and cups made for certain races.

If you won a belt or cup you got to keep it for a while, but other pedestrians could challenge you to another race for it. If you won three races in a row, however, you got to keep the cup or belt for good.

Baum did well out of the racing. As well as charging an entrance fee, he sold food and drink to spectators. He also put on wrestling bouts to entertain the crowd between races and fireworks in the evening.

The most successful period was between 1861 and 1863, when Deerfoot, the celebrated native American runner, arrived in Britain and challenged many British pedestrians. During his stay he competed all over the country, but his most important races took place at the White Lion.

He soon became a favourite with the crowd, despite beating many of the best British runners. On 25 November 1861, a crowd of 10,000 people came to Hackney Wick to see him race – and beat – Sam Barker for the ten-mile cup.

In January 1862, he raced against Edward Mills. During the race Mills broke the British record for the greatest distance covered in one hour and Deerfoot broke the world record.

The last time Deerfoot raced in Britain (and in Hackney) was in May 1863, when John White, the ‘Gateshead Clipper’, beat him in a ten-mile race.

White ran the first six miles in 29 minutes and 50 seconds – a British record which was not broken for more than 70 years.

The popularity of the Hackney Wick races continued after Deerfoot stopped competing.

Major races were held in the mid and late 1860s and more records were set and broken both in running and walking events.

Among these was the decisive smashing of the record for walking 21 miles in less than three hours. But in 1868, James Baum died and the track’s popularity gradually decreased, eventually closing in 1872.

This summer more British and world records are set to be broken in the vicinity of the White Lion site during the 2012 Games.

This article was compiled by staff from the Hackney Archives service, for more info visit: www.hackney.gov.uk/archives

The running track at the White Lion public house in 1862

The running track at the White Lion public house in 1862

The running track at the White Lion public house in 1862

Archives,Hackney History,News

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