‘Pedestrianism’, Sheffield Wednesday Cricket Team and sweat-scrapers – Star reporter Rachael Clegg takes a look at Sheffield’s strange sporting legacy at Weston Park Museum’s latest exhibition Sports Lab.
JESSICA Ennis, the world’s oldest football club, Sebastian Coe...yes, yes, yes. We’ve heard all that before.
But there’s more to Sheffield’s sporting history than the city’s usual suspects.
Did you know that Sheffield Wednesday was originally a cricket team? And that Sheffielders used to ‘race walk’ and that the city is one of the world leaders in sports development?
Sporting history owes more to Sheffield than you might think.
And now, in an ambitious exhibition called Sports Lab, Weston Park Museum has brought the Steel City’s sporting history back to life.
Here, in the museum’s large exhibition space, pushbikes dangle alongside woollen swimsuits, a FIFA order of merit and snow shoes from the 1800s.
The show is designed to be a sporting eye-opener, even for those involved in putting it together.
Museum curator Alistair McLean says: “No-one’s less sporty than I am so I was absolutely taken by surprise when, through working on this exhibition, I discovered how important the city’s sporting legacy is.
“I knew we had the world’s oldest football team but I had no idea the city was this massive centre for athletics.” But the exhibition’s not just about sporting competitions.
Alistair explains: “With this exhibition, we wanted to approach the event from the perspective of the sports expertise we have in this city, which includes looking at sports engineering and how equipment has evolved as well as the sport itself.”
To do so, Weston Park has collaborated with Sheffield Hallam University, whose Centre for Sports Engineering Research is one of the most prestigious sports engineering centres in the world. The department has worked with high-profile sports manufacturers such as Prince tennis rackets and Planet X bikes.
“Sheffield’s still searching for an identity in its post industrial age and it could be a place for sport. Cities such as Melbourne in Australia define themselves by sport. And I guess - looking at the bigger picture - that’s what we want to achieve in Sheffield,” says the department’s senior lecture Dr David James.
“The exhibition shows how sport symbolises key innovations in history - the bicycle, for example, was a key factor in the Women’s Liberations movement.”
And while most of us associate Sheffield’s strive to be a sports city with recent stars such as Jessica Ennis, its sporting heritage goes back much further.
Even as early as the 1800s, Sheffield was already on the athletics map through a peculiar-sounding sport known as ‘Pedestrianism’.
The sport, which consisted of high-speed walking - but not running - was popular with Sheffielders because it was one of the few sports that required little equipment. Pedestrianism was cheap, cheerful and passed the time over the weekends.
“Sport didn’t really become mainstream until the Industrial Revolution,” says Alistair. “Until then people didn’t have time for sport. But with the onset of industrialisation people had, for the first time, leisure time, weekends and so on, and so sports developed.” Competitive activities such as pedestrianism peaked in the 19th century and again in the 1920s, when the Yorkshire Telegraph and The Star revived the sport and established an annual speed-walking race, known as The Star Walk.
It was a popular sport, with hundreds of Sheffielders taking part in the run which started off in the city centre and looped back again, via Grenoside.
“Pedestrianism was so popular in Sheffield – and it hardly changed,” says Alistair, pointing to two photographs of the famous Star Walk, one taken in 1947 and the other in 1987. There is hardly any difference between the 1947 and 1987 images, apart from the changes in shop fronts.
But it wasn’t only pedestrianism that Sheffield became renowned for. Towards the front of the gallery, encased in glass, is a 19th century etching of a cricket match.
However this isn’t any old cricket match, it’s that of Sheffield Wednesday cricket team, which, eventually, became Sheffield Wednesday football club.
“Wednesday were a cricket team before they became a football team,” says Alistair. “Back then cricket team managers were concerned their players weren’t spending enough time together over the winter so they started playing football as a means of keeping fit and keeping up with team camaraderie.”
And as football became more popular, it required rules, regulations and consistency.
“To make competitions between clubs fair rules were drawn up - these are referred to as the Sheffield Rules, though they also take some of the Cambridge University rules into account as football was also played by Etonians who then took the sport to Cambridge.”
And here, in the exhibition, the original rules of football from 1857 are mounted on a stand in a cabinet. The Sheffield rules have become the rules of Association Football, which are still in use today. The rules are - rightly - accompanied by a FIFA order of merit, one of only two clubs in the world to have such an endorsement, the other being Real Madrid.
For the less sporty types, the exhibition is peppered with antiquities, including an Ancient Greek vase, made in Athens in 440 BC.
The vase depicts three athletes crowned with olive or laurel leaves, which were only given to Olympic victors.
But more insightful is the strigil and oil flask, also made in Athens in 440BC. The strigil, a curved metal tool, was part of a portable kit used by athletes, which also included a sponge and oil flask. Athletes would apply oil before competing as protection against the sun and to keep dirt from their pores. After competing athletes would scrape away the sweat, dirt and oil with the strigil - hardly an appetising thought.
Thankfully, in Sheffield – as far as we know – there were no such sweat-scraping devices, just a lot of aching feet, judging by the masses taking part in the Star Walk.
Sports Lab is open to the public now. The exhibition runs until November.