Frank Cross – Lancashire’s World-leading half-miler of the 1880s

Britain’s fastest middle-distance runner for almost 40 years from the 1880s onwards was a Lancastrian. Francis John Kynaston Cross, known familiarly as “Frank”, had been born in Eccles, which was then in Lancashire and is now part of Greater Manchester, on 14 November 1865. The Cross family had become immensely wealthy as cotton-mill owners, and he was the younger son of Edward Cross, who lived at Bradford House, in Bolton, and was co-owner of Bolton’s first bank and was a Justice of the Peace, described as “one of the town’s most noted citizens”. The Crosses & Winkworth company was among the largest cotton spinners in Lancashire, operating three mills in Bolton containing 325,430 spindles. The spinning mule, which revolutionised the textile industry, had been invented by Bolton-born Samuel Crompton in the 1770s.
Edward Cross’s elder brother, John Kynaston Cross, had inherited the family cotton-spinning business, and he diversified into politics, becoming the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bolton from 1874 to 1885 and serving as Under-Secretary of State for India under William Gladstone’s government. Funds were thus no problem for Francis Cross to be sent to Harrow School and then on to Oxford University. John Cross’s parliamentary career was a highly active one as he made 526 contributions to debates in the House of Commons, but he suffered from severe bouts of depression brought on by diabetes and tragically committed suicide by hanging at his home, Fernclough Manor, Heaton, near Bolton, in March 1887 at the age of 54. He nett personal estate was valued at £155,000 (£17.2 million in 2017 terms). Fernclough Manor was sold in 1895 for £4,750 (£6,065,000 in 2017 income). Frank Cross’s father died in 1890, aged 56. His elder son, James, lived to the age of 94, dying in 1959.
It is fair to say that the iconic British athletics performance of the 19th Century was Walter George’s 4min 12¾sec for the mile in 1886 which remained unbeaten as the World’s fastest for 29 years and as a British best for 49 years. Yet Frank Cross’s outstanding track achievement is intrinsically superior if the two are to be compared in stark statistical terms. He ran 880 yards (equivalent to 804.67 metres) in 1min 54 2/5sec in 1888, and the “Scoring Tables of Athletics” so studiously compiled by a trio of Hungarian statistical experts and first published in 1982 show that in their estimation Cross’s time is equivalent to a mile in 4:11.82. Cross’s record did not survive as long as George’s but long enough – seven years as a World best and 38 years as a British best.
Of course, quibbling over the value of a few tenths of a second from ages gone by is a pointless exercise, and in the Victorian era there was far less obsessive attention to detail than there is now. Reports of athletics meetings were often conflicting from one newspaper to another in the details which they gave, and for some reason the AAA ratified Cross’s performance as one-fifth slower than it actually was. According to the account in “The Sportsman” newspaper on the day after the race, “The time was taken by several watches, which all agreed”, and a couple of months later, as if to settle any lingering doubts, another widely-read sports publication, “Athletic News”, published confirmation: “Mr C.N. Jackson, the well known athletic authority at Oxford, vouches for the correctness of the 1min 54 2/5sec performance by F.J.K. Cross”. Jackson, who was a co-founder of the AAA, had been the starter for Cross’s race.
The record was achieved on Friday 9 March 1888 in a race organised for “strangers’ (local parlance for an “open” event) at the Wadham College sports on Oxford’s Iffley Road cinder track of future fame, which in those days measured three laps to the mile. Cross was an undergraduate at New College, and there seems to have been some careful planning, just as there was to be for Bannister’s historic sub-four-minute mile of 66 years hence at the same venue. The “miserable weather“ seemingly served as no more of a deterrent in 1888 than it was to do in 1954, according to the description of the race in “The Sportsman”: “Madeley made the running for some distance, when he was passed by Cross and LeMaitre, who ran together into the straight, when Cross went to the front and won by 10 yards”. The pacemaker, W. Madeley, was also at New College, and Alfred LeMaitre, was a regular rival of Cross’s at 440 and 880 yards during their years together at Oxford. Only two days previously Cross had won another half-mile at Oxford by 50 yards in 1:56 2/5.
Cross, described as “a fine tall young fellow but not a particularly graceful runner”, never won the Oxford-v-Cambridge 880 yards – for the simple reason that there wasn’t one at the match until 1899, and so he commandeered the mile instead, winning for four successive years from 1886 to 1889. This remarkable achievement was equaled surprisingly soon, by William Lutyens, of Cambridge, from 1892 to 1895, but not again until Roger Bannister’s fourth success for Oxford in 1950. Cross’s half-mile time stood alone for 44 years as an Iffley Road track record until in 1932 it was equaled by Tommy Hampson, and Cross was there among the crowd at the Oxford University-v-AAA match to see him do it. Nine weeks later Hampson was to become Olympic 800 metres champion in World-record time and the first man to break 1min 50sec. It was not until 30 May 1953 that the antiquated track record was at last modernised when a charged-up Bannister decided at five minutes’ notice to abandon a sub-four-minute mile attempt because of the strong wind and run the half-mile instead, which he did in 1:51.9.
Frank Cross was a 21-year-old undergraduate in 1887, and it is a tribute to what must have been his remarkable resilience of spirit that he continued, apparently unaffected, with his studies and his sporting endeavours despite his uncle’s suicide. Less than a fortnight later he beat another outstanding middle-distance runner of that era, William Pollock-Hill, by 30 yards in the London AC spring meeting 880 yards in 1:57 3/5. A month previously, on 26 February, Cross had equaled the fastest ever half-mile by a British amateur, 1:57.0, at Oxford. Walter George had done the same time in a match race which he lost to the skeletal Lon Myers at the Manhattan AC Polo Grounds in New York on 4 November 1882, and Myers had set a World best of 1:55 2/5, again at the Polo Grounds, in a handicap race on 3 October 1885.
We know nothing of Cross’s training except that the general concensus of opinion in that era was that two or three sessions a week consisting of a few sprints and one or two fast runs at shorter distances and an occasional full-distance time-trial were sufficient for a half-miler. In a book entitled “Athletics for To-Day”, published in 1901, the author, Harold Graham, wrote, “A man must really suit himself – do just what he feels he wants. Really hard ‘quarters’ and six hundred yards improves the pace. If he finds it hard to stay the distance, plenty of three-quarters of a mile or even further will strengthen the legs”. Cross raced occasionally at 100 yards and 440 yards and frequently at the mile, and he had placed 3rd in the 1885 Inter-Varsity seven-mile cross-country race, though maybe that one experience was enough for him because he did not appear again. The author of “Athletics for To-Day” had also been a middle-distance runner at Cambridge, winning the Inter-Varsity 880 yards in 1899 and 1900, and he was only 24 years of age when he wrote his book.
After winning the Inter-Varsity mile again in 1887 Cross achieved a highly impressive double at the AAA Championships on 2 July at Stourbridge, winning the half-mile from Alfred LeMaitre in 1:59.0 and then the mile from James Kibblewhite in 4:25 2/5. “Athletic News”, said of Cross that “it was capital going considering the loose state of the track”. Back at Oxford on 18 November Cross set a 600 yards record of 1:12 4/5 and six days later improved his 880 time to 1:56 4/5, winning from scratch in a handicap race at the Queen’s College sports. After Cross’s record-breaking half-mile and his third Inter-Varsity mile win in 1888 “Athletic News” carried a glowing tribute in its issue for 15 May: “Mr F.J.K. Cross, the president of the Oxford University Athletic Club, is in such grand form this season that it is to be hoped he will have another try to ‘cut’ a few more records. He is certainly one of the fastest middle-distance runners we have ever seen. Indeed, I should not like to assert that we have ever seen a better man”.
Cross duly won his fourth Inter-Varsity mile in 1889 in his fastest time of 4:23 1/5, but the “few more records” eagerly anticipated by the correspondent for “Athletic News” never quite materialised. Cross continued competing for several more years and also played football for the Old Harrovians and the eminent Casuals club, but no doubt his law studies had by now taken precedence. He had graduated with a BA from Oxford and was then accepted as a barrister-at-law in 1894 and was to be rewarded by a long and prosperous life, prominent in public affairs. He made a good marriage to the Henourable Eleanor Phillimore, daughter of Baron Sir Robert Phillimore of Shiplake and Lady Agnes Phillimore, and Mr and Mrs Cross made their home in considerable style at the 17th Century Aston Tirrold Manor House, Didcot, in Berkshire. Their influential friends included Sir William Mount, High Sheriff of Berkshire.
Cross was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1906 and became chairman of the District Council in the well-to-do Thames valley market town of Wallingford and a prominent member of Berkshire County Council. Maintaining his interest in athletics by officiating for some years at the Inter-Varsity match, he was also a regular writer of letters to “The Times”, particularly on rural matters of concern to him. The first of these, in 1909, took issue with Sir William Anson following his criticism of Berkshire County Council’s purchase of a 3,700-acre estate and its treatment of the inhabitants of 74 tied cottages, which Cross strongly refuted. Sir William was as formidable an opponent as any that Cross had ever met on the track, having been Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, an MP and secretary to the government’s advisory Board of Education.
Reverting to his sporting interests, Cross wrote to “The Times” again in November 1913 in support of the fund-raising efforts for the next Olympic Games, concluding by saying: “I do trust that the Games will receive the full support of our athletics and other clubs, and that our best men will attend and be at their best. That, it seems to me, is all that really matters – that we should give of our best”. There was considerable feeling in England at the time that the Games were becoming too serious, but that fear was not to be soon realised, as the planned Games of 1916 did not, for obvious reasons, happen. Far greater fears existed by then as the World War I death toll mounted.
Subsequent subjects about which Cross wrote to the newspaper included in 1918 exemption of farmers’ sons from military service during World War I in his role as chairman of the Berkshire War Agriculture Executive Committee. In 1924 he strongly refuted the claims by the Labour government’s Minister of Agriculture, Noel Buxton (later Lord Noel-Buxton), about the high levels of poverty in rural communities. Cross and his wife were regular contributors to charities, and among them was the appeal which led to the setting-up of the National Playing Fields Association, which by 1927 had raised over £300,000.
Frank Cross and his wife had three sons and a daughter. Mrs Cross died in 1949 and her husband on 31 December 1950, aged 85. Earlier that same year Roger Bannister had taken a share of the record of four successive Inter-Varsity mile victories first set by Cross 61 years previously.
Note: the full text of the book “Athletics for To-Day”, by Harold Graham, is one of the most recent additions to the invaluable website.

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