John Howard cleared almost 30ft in 1854 – with some help! 

What fun it must have been for Victorian middle-class families to take a day out by train in the mid-19th Century! It was only in 1830 that the first railway passenger service had been started in Liverpool, and in the second week of May 1854 the station at the nearby historic city of Chester was thronged with travelers. The attraction was the annual Chester Races, which had been first held in 1539, and the “Cheshire Observer” and “Chester Chronicle” newspapers were to excitedly report the presence among the dignitaries of the Earl of Chesterfield, the Marquis of Waterford and the Lords Maidstone, Dunkellin, Exmouth and Clifden – and at a rather lower end of the social scale “buxom dames and laughing wenches of the agricultural districts with their husbands, sweethearts and friends”. The thronging crowds attracted the attentions of the local rogues and vagabonds, and there were to be 65 arrests for the ubiquitous crime of picking pockets to be so vividly portrayed in Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist”.

The horse-race meeting began on Tuesday 9 May, and at the end of the week the “Chronicle” announced that 62,986 passengers had been counted through the city’s railway-station, arriving every 15 minutes from Birkenhead and from Crewe, Manchester, Holyhead, Shrewsbury and Sheffield. Yet neither the diligent correspondents for the “Observer” and “Chronicle”, nor the tens of thousands crowding the streets and the Roodee race-course on the banks of the River Dee, seem to have paid any heed to what was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable athletic feats of the age. On the rainy Monday of that week a professional sprinter and long jumper of considerable renown throughout the North of England, John Howard, had apparently achieved a stupendous leap of 29ft 7in (9.01m) in an enclosure set up on the grassy expanse of the Roodee – and even allowing for the presumed advantage of the artificial aids which he used this was surely something noteworthy.

The “Chronicle” for the following Saturday, 13 May, devoted most of a page to an account of the horse races and was careful to mention the names of anybody else other than the aristocracy who was still of consequence and who had been in attendance – though not a word about Howard. Thus we know instead that the guests at the Royal Hotel were all distinguished “Gentlemen of the Turf”, including Sir William Cooke, Sir Charles Burton, Sir Edward Smith and some 40 others, but on that Monday, says the “Chronicle” reporter, “we never remember the betting to have been so slack”. Could it be that Sir William and his fellow-punters had put aside their race-cards for the morrow and hurried down to the Roodee to see John Howard in action and wager their money among themselves on this novel spectacle? The unobservant reporter for the “Chronicle”, and for that matter his colleague at the “Observer”, missed a scoop.

Howard had taken up a challenge for a prize of £50 to leap 27ft, but after three attempts was still three feet short, and the leading present-day authority regarding 19th Century athletics, Peter Lovesey, has established that by that juncture some £1000 had been bet against him. Howard then produced his timely 29ft 7in effort, and he and his backers no doubt collected a fortune in winnings. This has all the makings of a clever subterfuge by Howard, which would not have been at all unusual in the murky business of professional athletics (“pedestrianism”) of that era. Howard also trained notable sprinters Henry Whitehead, James Telford and Thomas Watson and worked as a meeting referee and starter. He must therefore have made a very profitable living throughout his extensive career, still competing at the age of 44, though his long-jump opportunities were severely constrained. For 10 years his public challenge to jump against any opponent who cared to step forward remained unanswered.  No one dared take him on.

Curiously, there have been conflicting reports over the years as to the exact distance that Howard jumped in Chester. He has also been credited with 28ft 6in on that occasion and his 29ft 7in (9.01m) has been attributed to elsewhere, either in Lancaster later in 1854 or even at another meeting two years afterwards. Certainly, however, throughout the 19th Century, the more reliable sources were agreed without question that it was, indeed, in Chester in 1854 that Howard achieved his momentous leap. Significantly, the brothers J.I. and J.M.K. Lupton (both were confusingly christened”James”!) listed Howard’s jump as such in their well regarded work, “The Pedestrian’s Record”, published in 1890.

Could it be that once Howard has sailed past the tape marking 27ft, and had remained upright on his feet, as stipulated in the challenge, none of the onlookers were too concerned as to how far he had precisely jumped – neither those who had won money, nor those who had lost?   In truth, 165 years later it really does not matter what the exact distance was, though zealous track & field statisticians may consider it to be heresy to say as much.

Record? What record? Who knew about such things?

To be fair to the local newspapermen and the general public, no one could have fully appreciated the value and significance of Howard’s performance at the Roodee. The reason is simple – there was no readily available information by which to judge it. Amateur athletics was still a decade away from starting to be organised, and who among the general public, or even the “Gentlemen of the Turf”, was likely to know that the best long jump that any professional had by then achieved was barely over 20 feet? There were no handy lists of published records to which to refer.

The particularity of Howard’s jumping technique was that he used weights which he threw behind him as he took off from a raised board, and in the years to come to the end of the century his achievement was to become a regular talking-point in the sporting press. No other athlete remotely approached his distance, and no one of expertise in the more than 160 years which have since passed has yet offered a fully satisfactory explanation as to how the weights could have helped him to such a considerable extent

Eventually, research at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2002, based on the fact that the Ancient Greek Olympians used weights in the standing long jump which was part of their pentathlon competition, indicated that a few centimetres could be gained because the body’s centre of gravity was favourably moved, but this principle does not apply to the conventional running long jump where carrying weights would be a serious disadvantage during the approach to the take-off point. An obvious conclusion is that it was the take-off board itself which enabled Howard to propel himself to such massive distances.

Peter Lovesey first wrote at length about Howard in 1965, stating: “It is difficult to ascertain when John Howard began using weights to assist his jumping. By experiment he learned, as the Ancient Greeks had done, that he could improve his performance when he carried two dumb-bells varying in weight from one to three pounds. His other aid was a piece of wood about two feet square which he would solidly embed in the earth as a take-off point. When in position it had a rise of about four inches from front to back”. Yet the conditions under which Howard jumped must often have been of the most primitive. Did the organisers go to the trouble of digging a sand-pit specially for him, for instance, or was he required to land on unforgiving grass?

Howard had been born in the moorland hamlet of Burnley Wood, in Lancashire, which is now part of the town of Burnley, on 24 June 1824, and already at the age of 13 he was competing professionally and winning the then vast amount of £5 in a 150 yards race. While still in his mid-teens he beat the leading professional sprinter of the 1830s, Robert Coates, but suffered a serious illness and was not heard of again until he arrived in London in 1843, by which time, according to Peter Lovesey, Howard was 5ft 8½in (1.74m) tall and weighed 10st 10lb (65kg). He was credited with a time of 9¾sec for 100 yards uphill in 1850 but probably ran even faster in losing narrowly to the visiting American, George Seward, when he ran 9½sec the same year.

Seward and Howard became close friends, and in his biography of Seward published in 2008, Edward S. Sears reports that at the Vauxhall Grounds, at Boston, in Lincolnshire, on 31 March 1851 “Howard jumped 24 feet on the second try without any takeoff aids or dumb-bells”. This is confirmed in a detailed summary of Howard’s competitive career published by “The Illustrated Sporting News” in 1862, which refers to Howard having achieved “24ft, a fair run leap”.

Sears says of George Seward that “another way he entertained fans was by performing jumping feats such as leaping over hurdles or horses. Jumping contests were not as common as foot races in his era, and there are few reports of him taking part in them other than as exhibitions. Strangely, although he and John Howard were friends, there is no record of them competing with each other in a jumping match”. Maybe the reason was that they didn’t want to spoil their amicable relationship by getting caught up in all the hyperbole and deception which so often was associated with such challenge contests  Instead, one of Howard”s exhibition specialities was to jump lengthways over a billiards-table brought outdoors to accommodate his 20-yard run-up. No reports survive of any damage to him or to the table on failed attempts, if there were any.

The curious inconsistencies in “Bell’s Life” reporting

The leading weekly newspaper for coverage of pedestrianism, “Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle”, which was published from 1822 to 1886, makes numerous references to Howard throughout the 1840s and 1850s, but it is sometimes difficult for the readers to know what to believe. For example, on Christmas Eve 1853 Howard ran a dead-heat with an opponent at 120 yards in “a time said to be 12 seconds”, and yet only a fortnight later “Bell’s Life” quoted Howard as admitting that “he is not the man he was before his accident in jumping over horses”, and revealing that he had become landlord of the “High Sheriff Inn”, in Rochdale, in Lancashire. The obvious implication was that Howard was retiring from athletics competition, but before the month was out he was challenging a sprinter with the splendidly Dickensian name of Natty Bodycot to a race – and, as we know; would achieve his momentous leap in Chester little more than three months later!

Peter Lovesey has recorded so many other exceptional jumps by Howard that there can be no doubt that he was a prodigious athlete, whatever his technique. He cleared 28ft in a demonstration for admiring undergraduates at Cambridge University, 27ft 8in at Yarmouth, 27ft in Norwich and Retford, 26ft 9in in Birmingham and 26ft 2in in Sunderland. He had won the “Championship of the World” against 15 others “bounding 24ft 8in with perfect ease”, and in a contest in Newcastle, watched by a crowd of 4000, he reached 27ft 8in, clearing a 3ft hurdle set 20ft from the take-off point.

There is no certainty that Howard used his habitual aids in all of these contests. “The Sportsman” newspaper in 1873 was to say specifically that Howard’s take-off was from “a firm block of wood, two feet in length, wedge shaped, and raised four inches in front”. But even this description is ambiguous – was it the density of the wood that was “firm” or the positioning of the wood in the ground? Whatever the explanation, it would be reasonable to assume that Howard chose the wood for its qualities of springiness, would it not? In 1852 Howard had made the bold claim that he could jump 30ft “without the assistance of a spring-board”, which rather suggests that he usually did use such a device.

Accepting that Howard’s 24ft jump in 1851 represented his ability in conventional circumstances, he would remain unsurpassed for 47 years until Walter Newburn cleared 24ft 0½in (7.33m) for Ireland against Scotland at Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 16 July 1898. No Englishman jumped further than Howard for exactly 70 years until Harold Abrahams did so with 24-2½ (7.39) at Woolwich on 7 June 1924.

John Howard died suddenly in banal circumstances in Bradford on 14 October 1875, suffering a seizure as he was ordering a pint of beer in a local public house. Despite all his lavish earnings as an athlete, he had been living in a common lodging-house and working as a billiards marker – what an irony to be reduced to such a humble occupation leaning deferentially over the tables which he had once boldly leaped over with such verve and vivacity! He was survived by his wife, son and daughter and by a brother he had not seen for three years. The “Bradford Daily Telegraph” reported from the inquest that Howard had 13 shillings in his pocket at his death, and that is worth at least £60 in 2019 terms, but the explanation may well be that this was his life’s savings, kept on his person for safety reasons.

Footnote: A year before Howard’s death an Irishman, John Lane, had become the first athlete, amateur or professional, to be credited by historians with exceeding 23ft in orthodox fashion. Then in 1879 a Canadian named C.H. Biggar is reputed to have long-jumped 23ft 3¾in in Guelph, Ontario, carrying 16lb weights until the instant of take-off. Now that’s another story that would be well worth investigating! After all, the irresistible headline would be “The Biggar the Better”.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Peter Lovesey for his original article about John Howard, which appeared in a now long defunct magazine entitled “Athletics Arena”, and for his continuing interest in the subject. Maybe there are Northern Athletics website readers who can add some technical expertise to what little has been written about jumping with the aid of weights.