SHEFFIELD may be preparing to watch its star athletes compete in the biggest event of their lives but, as a new book reveals, Sheffield’s athletics prowess stretches back more than 150 years.
In fact, in the 1850s Sheffield was the athletics centre - particularly sprinting - of the United Kingdom, attracting runners from all corners of Great Britain.
Such was the allure of Sheffield’s athletics scene that this month, more than 150 years after Sheffield’s track heyday, author Tom Carruthers has published his Running for Money - an account of the city’s athletics history.
“Sheffield was the centre of excellence for running,” says Tom in his book.
“When the fast-developing railway infrastructure of the 19th-century became established, a clutch of enterprising sports promoters sprinting into a highly-organised commercial enterprise.”
Industrial towns such as Sheffield built stadiums and tracks to accommodate this influx of spectators and runners and ‘handicap races’, where better runners were made to start the race several yards behind their less-able competitors, were designed to produce tense races, which thrilled audiences.
The races were called the Sheffield Handicaps and took place at places such as the Hyde Park Stadium.
These audience were, on the whole, made up of factory workers, for whom the races were cheap, local entertainment.
But it was dirty business. While the athletics prestige of the city pulled in the best sprinters, it also attracted gamblers, game-fixers and cheats.
“The handicaps allowed the poorer runners to start ahead of the others but because of the money involved and the backers, some of the best runners hardly ever won a race,” says Tom.
“The ‘official handicapper’ set the handicaps based on runners’ times fed back from time keepers but runners would try and trick the system by having strips of lead sewn into their shoes.”
This fixing happened beneath the noses of the police and the crowds.
“Everybody knew about it,” says Tom. “The police were not there very much and there was a lot of rioting when people realised they had been duped. Some people even made death threats over losing money. People were certainly beaten up on several occasions - it was pandemonium at times.”
It’s not hard to see why. “The amount of money involved in the racing was phenomenal - we’re talking millions of pounds in today’s money.”
Tom’s interest in Sheffield’s racing heritage goes back to his great grandfather, also Tom Carruthers, who was a top athlete in his time and travelled to Sheffield from Scotland for several years to compete in sprint races.
“My great grandfather was a very talented athlete - he won his first big race in Sheffield in 1861 and he must have made a lot of money on that.”
But no sooner than his great grandfather won his first race, the American Civil war had started.
And while this seemed like an a remote event, it had a knock-on effect for Sheffield’s sprinting scene. The war kick-started measures to penalise import to America, which, of course, had a knock-on effect in industrial Britain.
President Abraham Lincoln introduced measures to cap America’s trade with Britain, vastly increasing import tax to protect America’s domestic trade.
This had a catastrophic economic impact in Sheffield.
Sheffield dominated America’s cutlery market and, naturally, American protectionism plunged Sheffield’s cutlery industry into a deep depression.
The enormous amounts of money that had, until that year, been poured into the sport had quickly disappeared.
In 1862 the star contestants, who - for a fee - appeared at Sheffield’s races in order to raise publicity, suddenly disappeared from the scene.
In 1864, the American Civil War was still raging but Sheffield’s economy had started to bounce back.
But there was another setback to that year’s games, one that would have cataclysmic consequences.
That year Tom Carruthers was to compete in the Sheffield Handicaps and was staying at the Victoria Hotel, but the night before he was due to compete at the Hyde Park stadium he was woken up in the night by a huge crash.
According to Tom’s account of that evening, a huge torrent of water ripped off the front porch of the hotel. The greatest natural disaster in Sheffield’s history was well under way - the Great Sheffield Flood. It killed 270 people and destroyed chunks of the city.
But the handicap still went ahead.
Carruthers’ racing career was nothing if not dramatic, much like the tales from the Sheffield’s sprinting scene itself.
“I started researching this when I was 60 years old - I’m 70 now so it’s taken 10 years to complete but I am quite proud of it and it has taken me and my wife to libraries across the country. It was wonderful to get the story of my great grandfather across too.”
And while the Sheffield Handicaps happened long before Tom’s time, he said: “It really was quite exciting to immerse myself in all the newspapers reports from the time. I felt like I was uncovering something that few people know about.”
Running for Money is available at troubador.co.uk or any good bookshop.
The main stadium in Sheffield in the 1960s was Hyde Park Stadium.
Runners travelled from across the country to take part.
Running for Money, Tom Carruthers’s book, uncovers the corruption of these nationally-renowned competitions.
Tom Carruthers’s great grandfather, also called Tom Carruthers was a top athlete as well as an inventor - he invented a new type of golf club.
The Sheffield Handicaps suffered a lull between 1861 and 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln implemented higher tax on imports, which hugely affected Sheffield’s cutlery trade, which meant there was less money being pumped into the races.
Tom’s great grandfather also witnessed the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, which killed 270 people.