Sheffield steel. “Jem” Sherdon, the mystery miler of the Victorian era

A weekly newspaper which was entitled “Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle” provides athletics historians with the most detailed accounts of the races run by professionals during the years of its publication, from 1822 to 1886. It was founded by Robert Bell, a London-based printer and publisher, but was very soon sold to the owner of “The Observer” and was edited until 1852 by Vincent George Dowling and then until 1867 by his son, Frank Lewis Dowling. The primary sporting interest for both of them was prize-fighting, and the various regular contributors specialised in agricultural matters, angling, card-games, chess, cricket, horse-racing, hunting and shooting. The identities of the correspondents who wrote so vividly about athletics – then known as “pedestrianism” – unfortunately remain unknown. This is a great pity because some of their accounts can be considered among the most descriptive in the history of the sport
The 1850s and early 1860s were the heyday of middle-distance running by the “peds”. No one was all that interested in the times which were recorded, as it was simply a matter of success or failure for the runners concerned – often competing in head-to-head two-man contests – and for the hundreds or even thousands of spectators who thronged to the venues and wagered vast amounts of money on the outcome. Yet, as a result of diligent research by statisticians of much later generations, we have a reliable list of progressive best performances of that era for reference purposes, and these show, for example, the advance of the mile “record” from 4:28.0 in 1857 to 4:17¼ in 1865. Thereafter pedestrianism slid into disrepute, plagued by “fixed” races and crowd disturbances, and it was not until 1881 that a faster mile was run.
The focal points for this competition in the mid-Industrial Revolution age was not so much London, where the rapid development of housing was putting athletics grounds under threat, as the hugely growing Northern cities of Manchester and Sheffield, and all of the six performances which contributed to the progress in miling were achieved at various Mancunian venues. This may be more a matter of coincidence, or of a specific Lancastrian taste for record-breaking, than a question of one city’s superiority over another because Sheffield hosted numerous events of equal entertainment value and comparable historic significance. One of several outstanding milers from Sheffield was James (“Jem”) Sherdon, who does not figure among the “record-breakers” but who may actually have been not only significantly quicker than any of his predecessors but also of many that followed, had he been required to prove himself so when he was at the peak of his powers.
Yet we cannot be entirely sure of his date of birth – possibly 1824 or 1826 – or even where it occurred, though the majority of people who were named Sherdon in the various national censuses of the time lived in Yorkshire, and so we can assume that “Jem” Sherdon was born in or near Sheffield. Almost two centuries later, he remains a mystery, and the author of a detailed account of pedestrianism in Sheffield, published in 2012, admits he is nonplussed. “I have never in 20 years of genealogy found anyone so elusive”, says Glenn Piper. “No sight of any birth, marriage, death. No obituaries anywhere! No military records. Just reports in newspapers of his races. Every other ‘ped’ I have researched appears in at least some official records. So it is a puzzle”.

Thanks to an observant reporter for “Bell’s Life”, we have an exact physical description of Sherdon on the day of a mile race in 1855 for a stake of £100 against Robert Bunn, of Norwich, at the most favoured of the Sheffield running grounds in the city’s Hyde Park: “Sherdon is twenty-nine years of age, is a straight, clean-built man, stands 5ft 7¾in, and weighed 8st 4lb”. The detail is so precise that one wonders whether it came from some pre-race publicity material or whether Sherdon was simply asked. Bunn won the race rather easily, and this was really the end of Sherdon’s lengthy competitive career.
The same writer helpfully informs us that Sherdon had begun competing in 1844 and that “most of the best men in England had subsequently to succumb to his superior prowess at various distances”. The list that follows justifies the claim because it includes the likes of Richard Manks, John Levitt, William Jackson and Robert Chadwick – all of whom were in the front rank of their trade. There’s also a tantalising hint at a seamier side of Sherdon’s life as it is also said that “in one of his dissolute freaks he enlisted in the army, but his friends quickly purchased him off”.
The most memorable race of Sherdon’s career – at least that is how it would probably seem for those with the benefit of a retrospective over-view – took place against Robert Chadwick at Hyde Park on 11 April 1853 for a stake of £50 each and a “Champion’s Belt’ of the same value. The track had been re-laid in 1848 as a 506-yard circle three yards wide, encompassing a cricket pitch, and consisting of green turf laid on a rock and earth base. The “Sheffield Independent” newspaper enthused that “the ground can now be considered the best in England, and the recent alterations cannot have cost the proprietor less than £600 or £800”. The cricket pitch was claimed to be perfectly flat, but the track clearly wasn’t, as reports of races there frequently indicated. The customary betting frenzy among the throng of spectators, estimated at 7000 to 8000, preceded the Sherdon-v-Chadwick match, with greater backing for Sherdon, and the local eye-witness reporter for “Bell”s Life” claimed that one publican alone took £1000 in wagers – equivalent to £88,800 in 2018 terms!
Putting on steam … and taking the wind out of his opponent
The coverage of the race in “Bell’s Life” continued thus:
“Chadwick was the first to make his appearance on the ground, attended by his backer and trainer. Sherdon shortly followed suit, along with his trainer and a friend. The men at once proceeded to the place of starting, doffed their flannels, and toed the scratch for the race amidst the almost breathless silence of the assembled multitude. On the signal being given, Sherdon went off with the lead of a couple of yards, ran in advance up the hill, on the flat, down the low side of the ground, and up the back stretch again to the middle of the level ground, when Chadwick, who had been in close attendance, rushed in front three or four yards. The Chadwickites were now in ecstasies.
“The runners continued in this point for the next 130 or 140 yards, when Sherdon, who had evidently made up his mind to run his opponent off his legs if possible, put on more steam, and after a neck-and-neck race for a short distance the favourite again went in advance by two or three yards, which position he maintained until going down the hill, when Chadwick made his final effort and by almost superhuman exertions succeeded again in getting in front.
“Sherdon, however, nothing daunted, stuck manfully to his work and after a most determined and gallant struggle for nearly a hundred yards Sherdon passed Chadwick. The latter, however, kept to his man until they had reached the starting-place for the third time, when he was observed to stagger, but he nevertheless most gamely struggled on until within about 140 yards from home, when he was run to a standstill and would have fallen to the ground, had not his trainer caught him in his arms.
“Sherdon, who appeared quite strong on his legs, was about ten yards ahead at the time that Chadwick gave up and continued ‘the tenor of his ways’ until within ninety yards of the finish, when he stopped to put on his great coat, after which he ran the remaining distance ‘as merry as a cricket’ and completed the course in four minutes and thirty-three seconds, appearing but little worse for his exertions. Had he been pushed at the finish, there is no doubt this would have been the fastest race on record. At the time that Chadwick stopped, the race had occupied exactly four minutes”.
The italics are those of the reporter, and he clearly placed great stock by the times which he had recorded. Quite what degree of merriness crickets were supposed to possess is difficult to gauge 165 years later, but it can be assumed that Sherdon was more or less jogging those final 90 yards, in which case would it really have been feasible for him to have stopped, put on his coat and still finished in little over half-a-minute after his opponent dropped by the wayside? The clocking of “four minutes” said to have been taken when Chadwick retired seems oddly precise, and why would it have been taken, anyway? Whatever the true circumstances, Sherdon finished in a time which was only five seconds slower than the fastest on record (4:28.0 by Charles Westhall in 1852) and would surely on this evidence have run 4:22 or so, had he continued at his racing pace. No one would match that time for another 10 years.
“Bell’s Life” took Sherdon’s performance seriously enough to refer to it again a quarter-of-a-century later in their edition of 6 July 1878 as one of the outstanding mile performances of that era. It may be that the reporter’s memory was at fault because his version asserted that Sherdon could have run far faster that day. “Sherdon ran his man to a standstill 90 yards from the goal, and the watch being stopped as Chadwick reeled back denoted that only 4 minutes had flown – time which must have brought Sherdon home well within 4min 12sec had he raced right out”. Was the writer wrong ? Or was Sherdon capable that day of an achievement which would be matched by only one man, Walter George, for the next 60 years or so?
The fervour for pedestrianism in Sheffield during that Victorian age is marvelously captured in the history written about it by Glenn Piper, a member of East Cheshire Harriers and the author of several books on athletics, and he feels that it seems certain that Sherdon could better 4:12. Actually, Piper’s work, “Peds of the Past”, is more in the style of a compendium of facts and anecdotes because he makes very extensive use of photo-copies of original press articles, primarily from “Bell’s Life” but also from other publications. To the reader’s advantage, he has a keen eye for the sociological background which is often so much more interesting than a mere catalogue of times recorded – not that there was much of the latter until towards the end of the 19th Century.
Sherdon receives due attention, but how intriguing that we know so little about an athlete who was capable of so much. Did he live long enough to read about Walter George running 4:12¾ in 1886? Sherdon would then have been about 60 years of age, but in Victorian times, and having lived the life of a professional runner lodged in beer-houses, with the landlords for financial backers, even enjoying such a brief lifetime as this is problematical.
Note: Glenn Piper is the author of three books about athletics – “Peds of the Past 1837-1920”, “Athletics in Tameside 1837-1939” and “A Potted History of Sheffield United Harriers 1894-1926”. All are available from www.lulu.com.
There is even a reference to Sherdon’s 1853 mile in a somewhat unlikely source. The US-published “Police Gazette Sporting Annual” for 1896, carries a slightly inaccurate note: “The greatest distance run in 4min is 1,670 yards by S. Sherdon, at Sheffield, 12 April 1853”. Is this independent confirmation that Sherdon was capable of a 4:12 mile, or has this information merely been copied from “Bell’s Life”? For those with an insatiable appetite for obscure statistics, the full text of the “Police Gazette” annual is available through Smithsonian Libraries at www.library.si.edu. “Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle” is accessible through the ever-growing British Newspaper Archive at very reasonable cost. Thanks, also, to Peter Lovesey for elucidation regarding the “Bell’s Life” references to Sherdon.

Bob Phillips

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