MARTIN SMITH: Walking into history

George Littlewood poster.  Islington Library archive
George Littlewood poster. Islington Library archive
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HE WAS the sporting superstar of his age.

Known throughout the world, feted on both sides of the Atlantic, records set by Sheffield’s George Littlewood in the 1880s still stand today.

Littlewood the ‘Sheffield Flyer’ was a prodigious athlete born the son of a steelworker in Rawmarsh, raised in Attercliffe and was a sporting phenomenon who rode the wave of the ‘pedestrianism’ craze of the 1870s and ’80s

Training on a diet of chicken, calves foot jelly, oysters and beer he would run from Sheffield to Doncaster and back for excercise before breakfast – picking up meat from his mother’s favourite butcher in the town as he ran.

He once raced a horse called Charlie from Sheffield to Doncaster and lost by threequarters of a mile – though Charlie was pulling a cart.

A good all-rounder, he also entered a lion’s cage in a Wombwell menagerie for a bet in 1890.

Not that he was short of cash.

At the height of the pedestrianism craze just before Littlewood hit his peak, an American athlete called Charlie Rowell won $50,000 in two races in Madison Square Garden, New York in 1879.

Though some of the fanaticism for six-day endurance races – and the prize money – had died down by the time Littlewood was on top they still attracted up to 170,000 fans and massive amounts of gambling.

One story – though uncorroborated by Littlewood’s biographer and author of King Of The Peds Paul Marshall his great-great nephew – has it that Littlewood, during a race in New York, stopped to bathe his blisters in a bath of alcohol when a gambler, irate at George’s winning the race rather than the man he had backed, tossed a match in the bath and badly burned Littlewood’s legs.

The story goes that George defied the agony of his burns and carried on to win the race.

Tough of the track indeed.

“I have done quite a bit of research and couldn’t find any evidence of this story,” said Paul, of Elsecar, Barnsley.

“But that is the kind of thing that went on. Gambling was huge aroung the pedestrianism races and fans flocked to see them. Competitors used to get nobbled by people in the crowd who would push, trip and throw pepper in the athletes’ faces.

“The races all took place indoors, Sheffield’s Drill Hall used to hold them. Some were bigger than others but the competitors ran and walked on ‘sawdust and tanbark’ tracks which were specially rolled to produce a flat surface. Some were eight laps to the mile, Sheffield’s was 13.

“Many of the races would start on a monday just after midnight – they would’t run on the Sabbath – and finish just before midnight on the following Saturday.

“They were a huge money-maker. In 1888 George won $3,500 in New York and also had a substantial side bet on himself that would have made him around $10,000.”

These were vast sums to a man who might have earned around £2 a week as a skilled man in a steelworks at home in Sheffield at that time.

“Littlewood the Lionheart” took on all-comers on both sides of the Atlantic in gruelling ‘Go-As-You-Please’ races where contestants ran or walked as far as they could in six days, often getting by on as little as two hours sleep every 24 hours,” added Paul aged 53.

“In his later days George had the King’s head pub in Atterclffe and although he had to work very hard for his money he became a very wealthy man. In 1882 he set the record in heel and toe racing at 530 miles in six days and six nights. That record still stands.

“In December 1888 he beat American Jimmy Albert’s world record of 621¾ miles for go-as-you please. His world record of 623¾ miles wasn’t beaten for 96 years until 1984, when the Greek ultra-marathon man Yiannis Kouros covered 635 miles 1,023 yards at Randell’s Island, New York.”

Although those records are unlikely to be challenged again, as six-day endurance races are not in great demand these days, it is believed by physiologists that Littlewood and his contemporaries were working at the outer limits of human endurance.

George Littlewood died 100 years ago this week on December 4, 1912, aged 53, and possibly the greatest ultra long distance foot-racing athlete who ever lived.

Around 3,000 Sheffielders attended his funeral at Darnall cemetery where his headstone can still be seen.