Prodigious teenage milers have long figured in the development of the event in Britain, though I wonder how many “Northern Athletics” followers could immediately call to mind the fact that the current UK junior record stands not to the credit of Messrs Coe, Cram or Ovett but to Graham Williamson, whose time of 3:53.15 will in all probability celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2019. Williamson’s subsequent senior career was commendable enough, if not in the class of his three illustrious contemporaries. Among previous holders of that record were Roger Bannister, with 4:17.2 in 1948, and Chris Chataway, with 4:15.6 in 1950, but none of those who made improvements over the next 20 years were of the same calibre later on in their lives – Roger Dunkley, Martin Heath, Dick Jones, John Rix, David Wright, Paul Dennis

Yet this is a trend which is as old as organised athletics itself. Youthful milers were already making their mark in the very earliest years of competition in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s. No national records of any kind were officially recognised until 1887, but the first acknowledged “junior record-holder” in retrospect is Edward Royds, born near Sandbach, in Cheshire, on 14 November 1847, with 4:53.0 in 1866, and he was to progress significantly during his years at Cambridge University, though sadly his life was a very short one. The finest of his teenage successors throughout the Victorian era was Walter Slade, born in Chertsey, in Surrey, on 6 April 1854, who recorded successive times of 4:33 4/5, 4:32 3/5, 4:31 1/5 and 4:29 3/5 during 1872-73, by which time the senior record was only one second faster at 4:28 3/5. Slade’s junior record lasted 27 years and he subsequently ran 4:24½ at the age of 21, which was to remain the fastest by any amateur for five years.

There is an intriguing possibility, though, that Royds and Slade were preceded by another Northern teenage prodigy named Arthur Irvin, born 10 March 1848, who supposedly ran 4:32.0 while still at school and only two days past his 18th birthday in 1866. This performance has to be regarded with some scepticism, as is pointed out by Peter Lovesey, who has done so much research into athletics achievements in the 19th Century.

Of Irvin’s mile Peter Lovesey says; “We have it down in our 1866 list as doubtful. School sports performances in this era have to be treated with caution. The courses were laid down for a single afternoon, and groundsmen may not have been too particular. The races were timed by schoolmasters and the reports were written up and submitted to the newspapers by the staff. Irvin’s time was actually reported as 4:32.0 in the three sources – ‘Bell’s Life’, the ‘Sporting Life’ and the ‘Preston Chronicle’. If true, it wouldn’t have been just a junior best but a World best by any amateur, and another boy named Cole was said to be ‘a good second’, meaning usually that he was only a few yards behind. Irvin also competed in the 97 yards (which makes one wonder about the measuring arrangements, particularly as one boy did 9¾sec) and the three miles, which he won in 18:05.0. ‘Bell’s Life’ stated: ‘The time of the mile was remarkably good, better even than might have been expected, considering that the course had been laid for cricket’. I find this puzzling. I would have thought a cricket field would have been flat, mown, and ideal for running on turf”.

Irvin was a pupil at Rossall School, which had been founded in 1844 on the Lancashire coast near to Fleetwood. It was primarily for the education of the sons of clergymen, and it was described as “the first public school in the North of England”. In the manner of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Charterhouse and the other most prominent public schools, Rossall developed a very extensive sports programme, including football, cricket, hockey, gymnastics, fives, rackets and shooting, though athletics seems to have been confined to the annual sports and one other meeting for members of the school’s army cadet force. A speciality of the school was a fearsome game known as “Rossall Fives” which was a mixture of football and hockey and was played on the adjoining beach in the depths of winter. Anyone who has ever taken a walk alongside the Irish Sea at that time of the year will appreciate the hardiness required of the Rossall players.

A great deal of useful information is contained in the “Rossall School Register” which has helpfully been transcribed to the internet, though – frustratingly – one of the missing years in the list of results of the annual sports is that of 1866. There are two interesting references to the cricket pitch; firstly in 1855, which was the year that the sports were first held, when it was noted that “a part of the cricket ground was levelled”. Then in 1864 there is a reference that “the cricket grounds have been newly laid out this year at an expense exceeding £200”. That outlay on labour and materials is equivalent to over £18,000 in 2017, and for that it could presumably have been expected that the entire field would be in pristine condition – which would make the comment in “Bell’s Life” about the circumstances of Irvin’s mile even more perplexing. Incidentally, the 2nd-placed runner in this race, who may also have his claim to at least a footnote in miling history, was Edward Maule Cole, who was to become Vicar of the oddly-named parish of Wetwang, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and a noted authority on geology.

Following in the family tradition

Arthur John Edward Irvin was born the youngest of three children into a family steeped in religion as his grandfather, father and uncle were all clergymen in charge of country parishes throughout Yorkshire. Young Arthur was sent to Rossall as a boarder at the age of 10, together with his brother, and during his eight years there did not distinguish himself academically but played for two seasons in the cricket first XI. In the same year of 1866 as his fast mile he also ran 440 yards in 57sec and 880 yards in 2:28.0, which were perfectly respectable times for schoolboys in those days but are really not quite impressive enough to serve as confirmation that he could, indeed, run a 4:32 mile. Incidentally, the next fastest time for the mile at the Rossall School sports through to 1894 was a commendable 4:45.0.

Irvin continued his studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, from October 1867 and graduated with a BA in 1873, having played cricket twice as a wicket-keeper and right-handed batsman for the Oxford University first XI, though not in the Inter-Varsity match, and there is no evidence at all of his having competed at any level in athletics. He followed in the family tradition by entering the clergy and was the curate at Rothwell, in West Yorkshire, for three years and then from 1877 until his retirement in 1925 he was the Vicar at Woodlesford, also in West Yorkshire. He was highly active in the community, setting up a school for 300 children there in 1880 and becoming a member of Hunslet Rural Districi Council. It was said of him that “he appeared to have been loved and respected by all those he came into contact with”. He also maintained his interest in cricket and lived to the age of 97.

Edward Royds came from a remarkably similar background to that of Arthur Irvin. Royds’s great-grandfather was from Rochdale, in Lancashire, though the name “royd”, which was Norse in origin and meant “a forest clearing”, was most common in Yorkshire, also appearing as Ackroyd, Boothroyd, Holroyd or Murgatroyd. James Royds was clearly a man of means because he bought the living of Brereton-cum-Smithwick, some three miles from Sandbach, in Cheshire, in 1811, and his son (Edward Royds’s grandfather, and also named Edward) was installed as Rector in 1819 a year before he graduated from Cambridge University. The living included 4000 acres of land from which the annual tithes amounted to more than £1000. The first-born of his children in 1820 was again named Edward, and he in turn became Rector of Brereton in 1845; his father having died in 1836 and the living having been held in trust in the meantime. The new Rector had gone to Oxford University and had rowed in the Boat Races of 1840 and 1841, won on both occasions by Cambridge – and in the latter instance by 22 lengths!

The first of the eight children of he and his wife was a boy, born on 14 November 1847, and inevitably carrying the family name of Edward. Thus – as a help to readers – I will recap that we have now referred to Edward the grandfather (born 1790), Edward the father (born 1820) and now Edward the son (born 1847).

Edward Royds, the son, was sent to Eton College and clearly was an athlete of precocious talent there because he had the temerity to enter the first ever “national championships” in England, promoted by the Amateur Athletic Club at the Beaufort House grounds, West Brompton, in London, on Friday 23 March 1866 – the eve of the Boat Race. Royds was then aged 18 and yet he finished 2nd in the four miles ahead of six other competitors, beaten by only 15 yards by Richard Garnett, of Cambridge University. Garnett, born 18 February 1843, won in 21:42.0, passing three miles in 16:27, and was one of the foremost distance-runners of the era, having set the fastest known two-miles time by an amateur of 10:15½ two years before.

“The most earnest spirit … taking his powers to the very limit”

If anything, it was Royds who captured the most attention that day, and whoever was the author of the lengthy account of the meeting for “The Times” was effusive in his praise. Readers were told that after three miles “Mr Royds took up the running with the most earnest spirit” and that he looked “a mere lad compared with his protagonist”. The description of the finish of the race was intensely dramatic as the writer said of Royds that after “visibly taking his powers to the very limit … he reeled and fell exhausted in the grass, and after a few minutes had to be carried to the dressing-room”. This sort of spectacle, it has to be said, was not at all unusual in races during the 19th Century.

Royds went up to Cambridge later that year and ran a mile in 4:53.0 on 12 November, which is recognised by the National Union of Track Statisticians as being the first British “junior record”. His progress was meteoric because on 28 March 1867 he ran 4:36½ at Cambridge, and only two other men were faster that year – William Gibbs, also of Cambridge University, 4:34.0, and Walter Chinnery, of London AC, 4:36.0. A year later Chinnery, who was a stockbroker by profession, and then Gibbs became the first amateurs to break 4:30 for the mile, and the latter won the Inter-Varsity race at the distance in a record time of 4:31¾.

In 1868 Royds was a shade slower, at 4:37½ and was no better than the 4th-ranked miler at Cambridge, but in 1869 he came into his own in the Inter-Varsity match at the Amateur Athletic Club Grounds at Lillie Bridge, in London. The “Sporting Review” magazine reported that “on public form the mile looked a certainty for R.V; Somers-Smith (Oxford), but after a great finish with E. Royds he was beaten by three yards in 4min 35sec”. The intermediate times for each one-third of a mile were recorded as 1:30 and 3:05, and Royds did not take the lead until the last of those laps.

Tragically Royds was dead within a year at the age of 22. Mountain-climbing in the Alps had been pioneered by British enthusiasts who had formed the Alpine Club in 1857, and in 1870 Royds had travelled to Lugano, in Switzerland, with one of his five sisters, Annette, known as “Netty”, who had celebrated her 13th birthday the previous February, and a cousin, Margaret Bourne Royds, born in 1850, and an uncle. All but the uncle set out on 24 May to climb the 912-metre Monte San Salvatore, overlooking Lake Lugano, but the intrepid trio made a wrong turning on the path to the summit, became lost, and in the dark Royds fell and his body was recovered the next day at the foot of a 60ft-slope. His two young companions courageously had found their way down to safety after midnight. Annette later married, had five daughters, and outlived her elder brother by 82 years, dying in 1952 at the age of 95. There is a stained-glass window in Brereton Church commemorating Edward Royds.

Another who has a claim to the “ junior record” for the mile is Charles William Lloyd Bulpett, born 18 August 1852, who ran 4:40.0 at Rugby School in 1870 at the age of 17 and went on to Oxford University. He took part in the first Inter-Varsity rugby football match in 1872 (20-a-side and won by Oxford by a goal to nil), represented the university in the 1875 Inter-Varsity athletics match, and later played cricket for the MCC. He qualified as a barrister, became a big-game hunter and a war correspondent, and achieved some exceptional feats of physical endurance – having twice won Rugby School’s famed cross-country “Crick Run” and later in life wagering successfully on his ability to run one mile, walk one mile and ride a horse one mile within 16½ minutes, and on another occasion by swimming across the River Thames fully clothed, including gloves and a top hat, and carrying a cane. Such rugged individualism was not uncommon among Victorian gentlemen. Bulpett died in Kenya in 1939.

The outstanding milers in the second half of the 19th Century were professionals, and both Edward Royds and Arthur Irvin, as 16-year-olds, might well have been aware of the series of records which had been set at various venues in and around Manchester during the years 1857 to 1865. After all, Royds was already an athlete sufficiently committed to enter what was, in effect, the national championships the following year, when Irvin set his record at Rossall which was little more than 50 miles away from Manchester.

There had been seven improvements in all on the best professional mile times, from 4:28.0 to 4:17¼, with the latter achieved by both William Lang, from Stockton-on-Tees, and William Richards, from Bridgend, in South Wales, in a tie on a 651-yard circumference track at the Royal Oak grounds in Oldham. Two of the previous record-holders were also Northerners – Tommy Horspool, who was born in Liverpool , and Siah Albison, from the village of Bowlee, on the outskirts of Middleton and now part of Greater Manchester.

Even by the end of 1880 only 12 amateur milers – all of them from the British Isles, and including seven from either Oxford or Cambridge Universities – were known to have beaten 4min 30sec, and so the youthful exploits of Edward Royds and Arthur Irvin deserve at least their footnote in athletics history. The amateur record was no faster than 4:23 1/5 by then, but the holder was Walter George, who as a professional in 1886 would achieve perhaps the greatest of all 19th Century performances in the sport with a mile in 4:12¾.The modern era of miling had begun.

Bob Phillips

Feedback and response to this article

I just found a piece written by Bob Phillips published on your site on 22nd September 2017, which records the achievements of several schoolboy milers in the mid 19th century. I wondered if you could possibly pass this email on to Bob Phillips?
I am puzzled by his account of a race won by Arthur Irvin at Rossall School in 1866, when he states that Edward Maule Cole came second. I’ve just been writing a brief biography of Maule Cole, who was an important amateur geologist and archaeologist in the East Riding, and I’m puzzled as to where the information comes from. Maule Cole was born in 1833, and so was 33 at the time, indeed he had already been a vicar for at least four years. It seems unlikely that he could have competed in such a race. If somehow he did, at that age in the mid 19th century his performance in coming second was truly remarkable.
Best wishes
Mike Haken
Chairman, Roman Roads Research Association

Mike Haken raises an interesting question, and I agree that it seems unlikely that a 33-year-old vicar would have run in a mile race against schoolboys. But it’s not impossible ! Athletics in the 1860s was very unstructured as organised competition for amateurs had been in existence for no more than two years, and there was no distinction between ages. Teenagers often competed against athletes much their senior. For example, in the first attempt at staging a national championships in 1866 the 440 yards was won by a 17-year-old pupil at Eton College. A week before the mile race at Rossall School, the winner, A.J. Irvin, had played for the school in a football match against officers from a nearby army encampment. As I also pointed out in the article, the contemporary reports of athletics meetings in that byegone era often conflicted from one newspaper to another, and it could be that it was another athlete of the same initials and surname as the vicar who occupied 2nd place. Research continues, but the whole matter may remain a mystery for ever – one of the joys of historical investigation !.
Bob Phillips