The parson and the policemen: Northern pioneers of 19th Century hammer-throwing

The Reverend Edmund Baddeley, Vicar in the village of Starkholmes, in the Derbyshire Dales, would seem to be an unlikely champion of English hammer-throwing in the 19th Century, but on Saturday 1 July 1882 he won the Amateur Athletic Association title in that event. Having surely been inspired by divine guidance, he might then have chosen to make reference the following day to Jeremiah 23:29 for his church sermon – “Is not my word like fire ?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer which shatters the rock ?”
The allusion to the shattering of rocks was rather more apt than the Reverend Baddeley’s congregation would have realised. Even when athletics began to be properly organised in the 1860s, hammer-throwing was still a happy-go-lucky business, and there was every chance that the occasional piece of architectural stoneware or even an oblivious passer-by might be struck by some errant implement. As neatly explained by the leading contemporary chronicler of athletics, Montague Shearman, writing in 1887,”The original rules allowed the hammer-thrower to use a hammer of any length, to take as much run as he liked, and throw from any place he liked”. It was not until 1877 that some order had been restored by restricting the throwing area for competitors to a circle seven feet in diameter, as is in use to this day..
Shearman had been a fine sprinter himself and a co-founder of the AAA, but even so he disparaged the hammer-throwing of those early years. “The spectator could hardly help arriving at the conclusion that one athletic sport at least had passed the line which divides the sublime from the ridiculous”, he wrote. “Three or four heavy men would come out, wielding what looked like a poker of five feet in length, and would spin round five or six times with almost inconceivable rapidity, after which the missile would hurtle forth, north, south, east or west, no man knowing in which direction it would be likely to fly off”.
Even at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, whose annual match had become the first regularly formalised athletics meeting in 1864, there was heated debate as to whether the hammer should be retained, and it took the persuasive powers of George Hales, who had won the Inter-Varsity hammer for four successive years from 1875, to sway the decision. He was reported as saying somewhat equivocally in the local press in 1879; “Instead of the proposal to cut out either the hammer or weight, each should be more encouraged than they are at the universities. Excellence in either event involves a great deal of pain and trouble”.
Throwing the hammer has roots in mediaeval England where even King Henry VIII is reputed to have had an occasional fling as a respite from his complex marital life, but by Victorian times it was the Irish and Scots at their rural and Highland Games who were much more adept. At the AAA Championships, from its start in 1880 until 1914, Irishmen won the hammer 18 times and Scots eight times. Only three Englishmen other than the Reverend Baddeley were successful, and one of those – Robert Lindsay, of the Liverpool Police, in 1890 – may well have been of Scottish birth, judging by his name. Incidentally, he would remain the only member of Liverpool Harriers to win a throwing event at the AAA Championships for 82 years until Barry Williams also won the hammer in 1972.
Edmund Baddeley was born on 9 April 1857 in the village of Scholar Green in the parish of Odd Rode, in Cheshire, which is at the very southern extremity of the North of England, as it borders on to Staffordshire (the parish’s postal code now emanates from Stoke-on-Trent). The imposing family home was entitled Bank House, and Edmund’s father, George Baddeley, may well have been the successful auctioneer of that name who was established in the latter county. He was most certainly a man of substantial means because Edmund was sent as a boarder to the public school in Derby, where he developed into an exceptional athlete. He long-jumped 19ft 5in (5.91m) in 1874 at the age of 17, and also competed in the sprints, hurdles and shot. The annual Derby School sports even included the hammer throw, and that was because William Burgess, who taught mathematics and the classics there, had himself been a fine exponent of the event, having won the Amateur Athletic Club “national” title on four occasions from 1869 to 1879, preceding the formation of the AAA.
It should be emphasised at this stage that English hammer-throwers of the latter 19th Century were achieving nothing like the distances which are now commonplace. The furthest throws between 1886 and the end of the century were both achieved by Northerners – 125ft 8in (38.30m) by another Liverpool policeman, Alexander Riddock, at the Bury Police Sports in 1889, and then 127-3 (38.79) by Robert Nelson Robbie, of Salford Harriers, for 2nd place at the 1891 AAA Championships.
Yet Nelson Robbie had been born near Perth, in Scotland, before moving to Manchester to work as a mental hospital nurse, and Riddock, like his police colleague, Lindsay, may well also be Scottish. The author of the history of Scottish athletics, John W. Keddie, has investigated possible connections with a Riddock family in Lanarkshire and believes that there could be relatives who are cousins. Riddock certainly competed north of the border because in July 1906 – by which time he must have been approaching 40 years of age – he beat the leading Scotsman, Tom Nicolson, at the West of Scotland Harriers’ meeting at Celtic Park, Glasgow.
A double champion – at the hammer and the long jump !
The best effort by the Reverend Baddeley was rather more modest, at 111-4 (33.94) with an unlimited run-up in 1877, by which time he had moved on from school to Cambridge University but was still only 20 years old. Even from the age of 12 or so he would have seen not only William Burgess demonstrating his hammer-throwing prowess but also Henry Leeke, who was the AAC champion in 1870 and 1872 and had been born in 1846 at Holbrooke Hall, in the village of Holbrooke, in Derbyshire. Leeke and Burgess competed against each other more than once in Derby, and young Baddeley would surely have been there as a spectator.
It’s a sobering thought that the leading British hammer-throwers of 2019 can comfortably throw twice as far as Baddeley did, but there is one achievement of Baddeley’s that the likes of Nick Miller and Chris Bennett are very unlikely to ever match. Baddeley was described by Montague Shearman as being “a very tall man, strongly and loosely built”, but he weighed only 13 stone or so, and alongside his hammer-throwing he very capably developed his teenage long-jumping skills, winning the AAC title in that event in addition to the hammer in 1878.
In the latter competition it was a case of the pupil beating the master because William Burgess was 2nd, though Baddeley must have derived equal satisfaction from achieving 22ft 8in (6.91m) in the long jump. This was only 2½ inches short of the best ever by an Englishman to that date, and though records of any kind were yet to be recognised officially – and would not be by the AAA until 1887 – it is quite likely that Baddeley would have known how close he was. It was a fellow Cambridge undergraduate, Jenner Davies, who had cleared 22-10½ (6.97) in the same pit at the Lillie Bridge grounds in London four years previously. Baddeley’s predecessor as AAC champion was John Griffith Alkin, who had also been a pupil at Derby School. Maybe this was a further demonstration of the influence of William Burgess ?
The first hammer event to be contested at the Northern Championships was in 1889, won by Alex Riddock, and at that time, according to Ian Tempest, Britain’s leading authority on the event who lives in York, “The police in the North of England, who regularly held hammer competitions at their sports days, played a key role in maintaining interest in and awareness of the event”. Ian Tempest also points out, “Robbie made a major contribution to the encouragement of hammer throwing along with other Lancashire-based throwers by persuading athletics promoters that the discipline was competitive and would be attractive to spectators. In many other parts of the country hammer-throwing did not take root for a long time. The Northern Counties’ AA was very important in its own right, hosting England’s first regional championships. Looking at today, over a century later, it’s such a pity that after a series of bad decisions nationally the regional associations are really up against problems”.
One of those other Lancastrian throwers who made a hugely significant contribution to the event was William (“Jumbo”) Barry, who though Irish-born, in County Cork on 23 September 1863, became a general practitioner in Southport in 1892, and having already won the AAA title in 1885 and 1889 did so again in 1892, 1894 and 1895. Barry was of truer hammer-throwing physique than Baddeley, standing 6ft 4in (1.93m) tall and weighing 16st 4lb (102kg), but like all other throwers of that era he seems to have relied very largely on pure natural ability – the idea that weight-training might be of aid in the throwing events would not surface for at the very least another half-century. Barry’s best throw was 137-9 (41.99) in winning the Northern title in Sunderland in 1895 and he was also champion in 1891, 1892 and 1894, with Nelson Robbie intervening in 1893.
A democratic age of athletics – when a parson and policemen meet
However paltry we in the 21st Century might consider Barry’s best distance to be, the opinion-makers of 130 or more years ago were impressed. When the Reverend Baddeley won the AAA title “The Athletic Review” described him as “a fine specimen of muscular Christianity”, adding a philosophical note that “we are evidently approaching the democratic age of athletics when we find a parson and a policeman competing like brothers together”. This was a reference to Robert Lindsay, who was 3rd. In 2nd place was Walter Lawrence, of Oxford University, who for the previous few years had been the leading English hammer-thrower, distinctively using only one arm to hold and hurl the implement.
The Reverend Baddeley moved on from the village of Starkholmes to the nearby town of Matlock, where he became curate in 1881, and then from 1889 he was Rector for the Yorkshire parish of Long Marston, some seven miles (11km) from York. His father, who continued to live at Scholar Green, in Cheshire, still exercised some considerable paternal influence because he had bought an estate in the parish of Long Marston in about 1876, together with the rectory, worth £950 a year, which formed his son’s living.
This is equivalent to more than £85,000 in 2019 value, and so under his father’s benevolent patronage the Reverend Baddeley was very comfortably off indeed. No wonder, perhaps, that he was noted for his enthusiastic rendering of the hymn, “I Fear No Foe”, at the frequent musical evenings which were such an important feature of Victorian and Edwardian middle-class socialising, The Reverend Baddeley remained Rector until 1924 before retiring to Cambridge. Unfortunately, he did not live very much longer, dying at the age of 70 on 20 January 1928.
The sequel in the years before World War I to the domination of 19th Century British hammer-throwing by the Irish and the Scots had been … even more domination by the Irish and Scots ! The Olympic titles of 1900, 1904 and 1908 were won by John Flanagan and that of 1912 by Matthew McGrath, both of whom were Irish-born immigrants to the USA, and all three medalists in London in 1908 were from Ireland – Flanagan, McGrath and Cornelius Walsh, of Canada. Flanagan had also won the AAA title in 1896 and 1900, and the best of the non-Irish Britons by far was Tom Nicolson, from the West of Scotland, who was AAA champion six times between 1903 and 1912. Nicolson was in a class of his own in his native land (21 Scottish titles between 1902 and 1927, by which time he was aged 48), though yet another Liverpool policeman, Tom Kirkwood, who was Glasgow-born, might have been a worthy challenger had he not concentrated on the shot, in which he was AAA champion in 1906 and 1907.
Before leaving Ireland in 1896 Flanagan had set a British record of exactly 147ft (44.81m) and he improved this on 11 occasions to 169-4 (51.61) in 1900 while awaiting citizenship in the USA. Meanwhile Nicolson was even more prolific, achieving what Ian Tempest usefully describes as “mainland UK” best performances in 15 separate meetings in England, Ireland and Scotland between 1902 and 1908. The best of these was 166-9½ (50.84), and even the Englishman, Alan Fyffe, who achieved the longest confirmed throw in the years 1900-to-1914, with 142-6 (43.44) in 1906, surely with such a name had some Scottish ancestry though he was London-born ! Fyffe also has a strong Northern connection because in 1911 he married Veronica Tod at Prescot, then in Lancashire and now part of Knowsley Metropolitan Borough, and Miss Tod had lived at The Grange, in Woolton, also then in Lancashire and now in Liverpool.
The North of England still had a brief but significant contribution to make to hammer-throwing on the very eve of World War I being declared. Though of relatively slight build, Alfred Flaxman was a fine all-rounder who won AAA titles in both the pole vault and hammer, and at Huddersfield on 27 June 1914 he reportedly threw the hammer 145-5 (44.32). A fortnight previously he had won the event when it was revived for the Northern Championships at Fallowfield, Manchester, with exactly 140ft (42.68), and this remained a record for the meeting until 1936. Flaxman may even have achieved 150ft on a visit to Bohemia (now absorbed into the Czech Republic) during 1914, though this performance has never been verified.
By coincidence, Flaxman’s father, like the Reverend Baddeley, was a Rector in Yorkshire, for the parish of Wombwell, and Alfred had been born in the village of Darfield, which is now part of the Metropolitan Borough of Barnsley, on 1 October 1879. The Rector moved to Grundisburgh, in Suffolk in 1894 when Alfred was aged 14, and so the youngster was sent to the local Woodbridge Grammar School. He then became a music student in London and continued to live there until joining the South Staffordshire Regiment as an officer on the outbreak of war within a couple of months of winning his Northern title. Sadly, he was reported missing on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, and though his younger brother, Samuel, who had qualified as a doctor, carried out a thorough search, Alfred’s remains were never found. He was 36 years old at the time of his death.

Bob Phillips
.

Comments are closed.

Unit 9G, Ponderosa Business Park, Smithies Lane, Heckmondwike WF16 0PR.
Tel 01924 457922
Normal Office Hours: Monday -Friday 09:00-16:30
Email: northernath@btconnect.com