1887 was an historic year in many ways. Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee; crowds gathered in Paris to witness a public execution by guillotine; a third assassination attempt was made on the Czar of Russia; the Channel Tunnel Bill was rejected by the House of Commons after second reading; a serious outbreak of scarlet fever hit London; and the Lillie Bridge Grounds at West Brompton were burned down by the crowd when the much publicised and heavily betted foot race between Hutchens and Gent was called off. [More on Lillie Bridge]
But 1887 also saw the founding of a harriers club that no one dreamed would ever reach the heights subsequently attained. That club was Belgrave Harriers.
It was a cold blustery day in the early Autumn of 1887, Saturday 24th September. Horse-drawn vehicles battled their way through the crowds heading for the Kennington Oval. No, it was not a cricket or football match they were heading for but the Annual Athletics & Cycling Meeting of South London Harriers. And by the time the traffic had quietened down and the meeting started, an estimated 10,000 spectators had congregated round that immaculate grass oval, in the middle of which a grass track had been marked out.
As usual the meeting had been widely advertised and details of entries with previews of the meeting had been featured in The Sporting Life. The programme included cycling events besides eight running events from 100 yards to 4 miles and a walking handicap over 2 miles. More than 500 entries had been received and with over 100 opting for the 100 yards, 300 yards and 1 mile handicaps, there were plenty of preliminary rounds to be enjoyed prior to the excitement of the finals.
Amongst the enthusiastic crowd was a small group of friends who had crossed the Thames from Pimlico. Some of them had already shown an aptitude for running, particularly A.H.N. Edwards, J.H. Martyn and T. Gee.
Alf Edwards would today have been regarded as a miler, but he was game for anything from 100 yards to 10 miles. An intelligent self-confident man in his mid-twenties he was an enthusiastic follower of athletics and was highly regarded by his many friends. Twenty year old John Martyn was a sprinter of more modest form, whilst Tommy Gee, a half-miler and boxer, was an extroverted character who would take anyone on at anything, and often did!
This Pimlico group of fans had witnessed several athletic meetings since being drawn together. The excitement of this particular SLH meeting prompted them to take their interest a stage further. In 1951, a few years before his death, John Martyn recalled, “During the meeting one of us had a brainwave and said: ‘Instead of going to watch sports meetings why don’t we form a harriers club of our own?’ This idea was at once agreed to and it was arranged to meet and discuss the matter further.”
Right: a selection of sketches from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of October 2nd 1886 showing events at a meeting of South London Harriers at the Kennington Oval, the year before the formation of Belgrave Harriers.
1887 • Why don't we form a harriers club of our own?