Harry Webster, champion race-walker of the 1870s. But was it “unfair going”?

Race-walking in its formative years of the 1860s and 1870s was something of a hit-or-miss affair. There were no properly formulated rules regarding the methods used by competitors, and so the times achieved – some of them quite remarkable – need to be regarded with caution. One of the most prolific “record-breakers” of that era was Harry Webster, from Liverpool, who on nine occasions between 1877 and 1879 set the best recognised times ever achieved by an amateur at distances from one mile to seven miles, and these were only eventually beaten by the Dublin-born William Sturgess, of Polytechnic Harriers, who would win eight AAA titles at two miles, four miles and seven miles from 1895 through to 1902..
It will never be known for certain whether or not Webster was a fair walker, but there is at least one reasonable assumption that can be made – and that is that “sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t”! The authoritative source on which that statement is based is that of the pre-eminent contemporary athletics historian of the 19th Century, Montague Shearman, who in his classic work, “Athletics and Football”, published in five editions from 1887 onwards, included a chapter on race-walking and its leading exponents which is a model of industrious research and considered opinion. The quality and comprehensiveness of Shearman’s writing is hardly surprising as he had been a fine athlete himself (Inter-Varsity 100 yards winner in 1876) and a noted administrator (co-founder of the Amateur Athletic Association) who would later be appointed a judge and be knighted for his public services.
Shearman makes several pertinent references to Webster, particularly regarding his appearances at the annual Championships in London organised by the Amateur Athletic Club, which was the predecessor of the AAA: “We believe that H. Webster was a fair and fast walker in his early days, but in the Championship of 1877 he simply trotted away as he liked from H. Venn. The next year Venn had learnt a lesson, and when he had first appeared on the path his fair form had been unmistakable, but in the Championship of 1878, when he met Webster again, the pair both more or less ran the whole way, Venn running rather faster than Webster. In 1880 Webster again competed for the Championship and finished an easy 1st, but after passing the post the judges told him he was disqualified for unfair going and awarded the race to the second man, G.P. Beckley. The decision naturally gave rise to some unpleasantness, and when the prizes were given away there was a noisy demonstration.
“A month or so later we saw Webster win unchallenged the three-mile Championship of the Northern Counties at Southport, and took occasion to watch his style narrowly. His gait was certainly not that of a walker if the upper part of his body and hips only were looked at, as each step was undoubtedly a spring, but as long as walking is to be judged solely by the criterion of there being always one foot on the ground it must be admitted that when not turning round a sharp corner Webster was within the definition. The present writer on the occasion in question, upon which Webster completed the three miles in 21min 28sec, lay flat on the ground at different places to watch Webster’s feet, and it certainly could not be said that in the straights he had both feet off the ground at once.
“To this day controversy rages about the fairness of Webster’s walking: some averring that he never walked a yard in his life, and others that he should never have been disqualified. Our own opinion is that his gait was not the gait of a true walker in the sense in which it is understood by the public, although he probably knew how to keep on the right side of the line drawn by judges, who only look to the requirement of both feet not being off the ground at the same time”.
Shearman said further of Webster that he “could undoubtedly walk fast and fairly upon occasions but was in the habit when tiring of getting into a very jumpy action, although it was hard to say that at any time he had both feet off the ground.at once“. Shearman believed in a much broader definition of valid race-walking than was prevalent, and he stated specifically that he regarded “the three characteristics of walking which distinguish the exercise from running are these: (1) The weight of the body is on the heels when the step forward is taken; (2) One foot is always on the ground; (3) The knee is perfectly straight as the foremost foot reaches the ground”. Even when the AAA was founded in 1880 and drew up their first rules of competition there was no definition of race-walking and the only reference was that “cautions and disqualifications to be left to the discretion of the Judges”.
Another close observer of 19th Century athletics who knew his stuff was Charles Westhall, who had set a professional record for the two miles walk in 1851 and became a leading journalist. In 1863 he wrote a book lengthily entitled, as was the custom of the day, “The Modern Method of training for Running, Walking, Rowing & Boxing”, in which he voiced a strident opinion of race-walking: “It is the most useful and at the same time most abused branch of the athletic sport of Old England; not so much from the fault of the pedestrians as from the inability or the want of courage of the judges or referee to stop the man in his eagerness for fame or determination to gain money anyhow”.
There are references to numerous other race-walkers in Montague Shearman’s book, and it seems that the one he regarded as being most clearly above suspicion was Walter Rye, of London AC and the Thames Rowing Club, who was a predecessor of Webster’s in setting eight records at one mile and two miles in the 1860s, culminating in times of 6:55.0 and 14:54.0 in the same race in 1868. Rye admitted that his style was “certainly not pretty” but added that “it ran the gauntlet of every imaginable referee so must have been fair”. Maybe, though, Rye could have chosen a more diplomatic word than “ran”.
Webster’s recognised records were as follows;
One mile walk:
6:47¼, Wilmslow, 26 June 1875
6:41.0, Stoke-on-Trent 12 August 1878
6:36.0, Preston 12 July 1879 (during a two miles race)
Two miles walk:
14:18½, Widnes 16 June 1877
14:17.0, St Helens 21 July 1877
14:15.0, Rainhill 28 July 1877
13:47¼, Heywood 7 August 1877
Five miles walk:
37:22.0, London (Lillie Bridge) 7 April 1879 (during a seven miles race)
Seven miles walk:
52:34.0, London (Lillie Bridge) 7 April 1879

Whatever the propriety of Webster’s walking action, he is a significant figure in athletics history of longer-lasting significance. as it was he and two other AAC Championship-winning race-walkers, Thomas Farnworth (1867) and William Morgan (1873-74-75), who – consciously or otherwise – were instrumental in breaking down the social barriers which divided athletics at that time. Farnworth and Webster were both from Liver pool and worked as a barman and a wheelwright respectively, while Morgan was an assistant in a London store – in other words, all regarded as “artisans” in an age when clubs, and particularly the hugely influential London Athletic Club, restricted their membership and entry to their meetings to those they regarded as “gentlemen”. Gradually this ruling fell into disuse, and Farnworth, Morgan and Webster were among the first working-class athletes to compete at the highest national level. Even so, it still seems surprising that they should have been so accepted in such an age of snobbery and class distinction, as Peter Lovesey – who has made so close a study of and written extensively about Victorian athletics – points out:

“Looking back to the beginnings of the Amateur Athletic Club and their definition of an amateur, excluding anyone who was a ‘mechanic, artisan or labourer’, it’s amazing how as early as 1867, in the AAC’s second year of existence, their seven-mile walk was won by a Liverpool barman named Thomas Hodgson Farnworth (1844-1887), and by only six inches from John Graham Chambers, the founder of the AAC. Maybe Farnworth slipped under the radar, but William J. Morgan was one who didn’t. His work as a shop assistant was at the Shoolbred’s department store in Tottenham Court Road, in London, and there was quite a furore when he entered the AAC Championships. His affiliation was to Atalanta Rowing Club when he started, but when he was later controversially admitted to London AC nobody could object any more. Farnworth and Morgan probably broke the ice a bit for Harry Webster to follow”. .

His first major race-walking success at the age of 20 .

Christened with the first name of Henry, Webster had been born on 14 May 1854 in the district of Liverpool known as Knotty Ash and was the son of Michael and Margaret Webster, being baptised at St John the Evangelist church, in Knotty Ash, on 11 June. The 1861 Census records that Henry Webster was the second youngest of seven children (five boys, two girls), and the family owned a butcher’s business and was presumably comfortably off by the standards of the day. Harry Webster was only 16 years old when he had his first walking race in 1870, finishing 2nd in a handicap two miles at the Atlas Cricket Club sports, in Liverpool, but it could have been an initiation to put him off for life. “His ambition”, wrote a reporter for “The Athletic News”, “was considerably damped, as owing to the secretary of the sports decamping with the money of the club he received no prize”..

Webster was soon to enjoy so many pleasanter experiences in his teenage years that in 1875 “The Athletic News”, the Manchester-based weekly sports journal launched that year by the future press magnate, Edward Hulton, featured Webster as Number XIV in their series of profiles of “Eminent Athletes”. The author of the full-page article had clearly been diligent in his researches because dozens of races over the preceding five years or so are referred to in detail, and nothing but praise is heaped upon Webster; Furthermore, there is no suggestion that his style was in doubt.

“The Athletic News” notes that on 6 June 1874, at Southport, Webster recorded a time of 13:55.0 for two miles from scratch, which was 39 seconds faster than any amateur had previously achieved, though Webster seems not to have received any credit for this performance, and nor did he for a mile in 6:42½ in Ormskirk on 5 June 1875. In both cases a noted walker named Tom Griffith, of South Essex AC, held the existing “records” from 1870 of 6:48.0 and 14:34½ respectively. The professionals of that era were recording faster times and in 1874 William Perkins had passed two miles in 6:23.0 during a three-mile match at Lillie Bridge, in London.
Webster was 5ft 9in (1.75m) tall, weighing 10 stone (63kg) and one of his regular race-walking rivals was a Knotty Ash neighbour and relative, Joe Spencer. Webster had also won at Ormskirk in 1874 in a time of 6:54.0, set in the annual sports on the local Grammar School cricket field, and the “Liverpool Daily Post” had reported enthusiastically that “the weather was favourable and a very large concourse of spectators witnessed the sports”. The one mile walk was a handicap event which attracted 15 competitors and was won by John Hughes, of the Pembroke Cycling Club, in Liverpool, who received 50 yards’ start, with Webster 2nd off scratch. No one robbed the till on this occasion, and the winner took home a prize worth £4 – equivalent to £332 in current terms! – and there were similar rewards on offer for the numerous other events that afternoon.

Webster’s time would appear to have been an estimated one, but in any case the following year, on 26 June at Wilmslow, in Cheshire, he improved to 6:47¼, again beating the British amateur “record” by Griffith. “The Athletic News” said of Webster that “as he gave Brown, of Wilmslow, 200 yards and H.N. Clarke, of Hulme, 190, this must be considered one of his best performances”. On 12 September Webster travelled to Northern Ireland, and in a prestigious annual three-mile race at Lurgan had beaten William Morgan, though Montague Shearman was sceptical, complaining that “an acrimonious controversy followed as to whether the judge had not been too lenient”.

The horses leave the grasslands and the walkers plough on

Conditions for race-walking were often far from ideal and “The Athletic News” reported of one event in Manchester on 17 June 1875 that it took place on “a very bad grass course upon which a horse show had been held a few weeks previously”. Whatever the state of the grass tracks on which they raced, there was no lack of competition for walkers in the North-West, and it was not uncommon for them to appear at two different venues in the same afternoon. On 31 July, for instance, Webster raced at the Blackley Cricket Club sports, in Lancashire, winning at two miles, and then immediately set off on the 13-mile journey to Farnworth, near Bolton (by carriage or by train, presumably), and won again at a mile.

Just a fortnight before “The Athletic News” printed its tribute, Webster had decisively beaten William Morgan again at two miles in Southport, with another fast time of 14:30½ which has failed to impress the statisticians, though the “Athletic News” reporter observed that Webster’s “defeat of Morgan, the Southern champion, comes opportunely to verify our eulogies”. Webster took the lead at one mile “and walking in grand style was never again approached”. To emphasise even further his admiration, the reporter concluded: “This remarkable performance will probably place Webster in advance of his contemporaries for some time to come, for at present there is no amateur walker before the public likely to eclipse such extraordinary fast times unless it be Webster himself”. .

The first of his four successive two-mile records in various races in Lancashire during 1877 was set in a handicap event at the annual two-day Widnes Sports, with 8000 people in attendance, and he gave away as much as 300 yards to various of his fellow-competitors but came through to win by 80 yards, with the third finisher another 200 yards back.

However, his venture to the AAC Championships at Lillie Bridge on 15 April 1878 was not so impressive as he retired at 4½ miles in the seven miles walk and Harry Venn, of London AC, went on to win alone in 52:25.0. This was one of the races which caused Montague Shearman such anguish, and maybe he was instrumental in the decision by the AAA when they drew up the first list of recognised records in 1887 not to include Venn’s time. Peter Lovesey wittily pointed out in his Centenary history of the AAA, published in 1980, that this ruling against Venn “must have caused some embarrassment as he was by then the Chief Judge of the Championships”. Nor did Harry Webster’s winning time of 52:32.0 at the 1879 Championships at Lillie Bridge on 7 April find favour with the AAA hierarchy, though – inexplicably – a time of 45:04.0 for six miles, which he set en route, met with their approval. Maybe his style was thought to have deteriorated during the last four miles.

Three months later Webster further improved his one-mile time to 6:36.0 during the course of a two-mile race in Preston and completed the full distance in 13:54 4/5. Though this was slower than his best two-mile time from two years before, it was preferred by two statistically-minded brothers, confusingly named James Irvine Lupton and James Money Kyrle Lupton, who were members of London AC, when they produced a pioneering handbook entitled “The Pedestrian’s Record” in 1890. Anatomists by profession, the Luptons had equally harsh words as Shearman and Westhall to say about race-walking, beginning their chapter on the subject with the statement that “walking is by no means as popular as it was; the ladies say men sport such grotesque attitudes when walking, and men think that they constantly witness a running match instead of a walking race”.

After the 1880 season, when he won the AAC seven miles walk by almost three minutes in 53:50.0 as a member of Stoke Victoria AC but was then disqualified, Harry Webster’s race-walking career – grotesque or not – had come at an end, and we can presume that he concentrated the rest of his active life on his chosen trade of repairing wheels. The AAA included the seven miles walk in their inaugural Championships in 1880 and onwards, and it was not until 1890 that there was a comparable time to those which Harry Venn and Harry Webster had achieved when John Curtis, of Highgate Harriers (who was also known familiarly by his second name “Harry”), won in 52:28 2/5.

Author’s footnote: Harry Webster’s birthplace of Knotty Ash has, of course, been made famous by the legendary comedian, Sir Ken Dodd, and on a visit to Liverpool last year I was told that I’d just missed seeing him unveiling a statue in the city centre. What a pity, I thought. I’d liked to have asked him whether he knew of Knotty Ash’s race-walking heritage. Perhaps he’d have been tickled. Perhaps not.

 

 

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