FEATURE: George Littlewood ... endurance athlete supreme, world record breaker and the man who raced a horse

FEATURE: George Littlewood ... endurance athlete supreme, world record breaker and the man who raced a horse

By David Beddows | 07/04/2021

FEATURE: George Littlewood ... endurance athlete supreme, world record breaker and the man who raced a horse

 

From humble beginnings in Rawmarsh, George Littlewood went on to become an elite  endurance athlete, breaking through the pain barrier to clock up breathtaking  distances in events on both sides of the Atlantic. DAVID BEDDOWS looks at the history of a remarkable 'professional pedestrian'.

 

HE was a champion runner and walker and a man with amazing powers of endurance.

 

When he died in 1912, he was held in such high esteem that 3,000 people attended his funeral.

 

George Littlewood is arguably the greatest ultra long-distance foot athlete the world has ever seen. A sporting superstar of his day, he travelled over to America on several occasions.

 

To this day he still holds the six-day world record for walking, set back in March 1882 when he pushed his aching limbs 531 miles on a 13-laps to the mile track in Sheffield. 

 

Six years later, at Madison Square Garden in New York, Littlewood set a six-day distance record covered by foot when he travelled 623 miles 1320 yards. That record stood for 96 years.

 

And where did this legend come from? Rawmarsh.

 

George was born in Church Street in 1859.

 

By the age of eight he started to show an aptitude for running.

 

His father, George Frederick, knew he was something special and set about training him seriously. 

 

He had young George running long distances at an early age and when one day he complained that his muscles were sore, his dad offered him a carrot as a financial reward.

 

Little is known of George's early years in Rawmarsh because he soon moved to Sheffield where he eventually earned the nickname, the Sheffield Flyer.

 

Tony Dodsworth and his friends at Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group note that the parents of this future world beater were married in Rotherham in October 1858 and a bit of maths suggests his mum, Lavinia Ensor, may have been pregnant when married. 

 

Although Lavinia was born outside the area, her surname was found in Rawmarsh at the time. Her mother lived in the village and it is thought Lavinia may well have given birth to George there.

 

What is clear is that by 1871 George was living with his parents in Attercliffe, birthplace of his father, and racing was starting to seep into his life.

 

 

Littlewood lived in an era when huge sums were placed on races and form was scrupulously watched.

 

He matured to become one of the “peds”, or professional pedestrians who drew big crowds to their races and events.

 

At the age of 16 he won his first long distance event, earning a silver cup donated by Sheffield publicans, but by the age of 21 he was physically strong enough to become a long-distance thoroughbred.

 

That's because he spent the intervening years building up his endurance by running 200 miles a week.

 

He'd run to and from Doncaster three times a week, a 38-mile round trip. 

 

According to reports, while there he would pop into the butcher and buy mutton which he would run back home with.

 

In 1879 Littlewood starred in his first race as a novice long distance athlete. Held at Wolverhampton, it was one of the “go-as-you-please” events popular at the time and after six days and 72 hours on the track, 12 hours a day, he came fourth out of 28 contestants to win a prize of £4 for scoring 275 miles in the allotted time. 

 

George was, quite literally, up and running.

 

 

A year later he went to Leeds and won his first race, creating a new 12 hours a day, 72-hour world record of 374 miles on the 38th lap on the mile to the circus rink. 

 

The rewards were good — £35 for first place plus an additional £10 for beating the record. Littlewood later said that it was the greatest race he ever won.

 

The emerging athlete started to spread his wings.

 

Front page news in 1888 for the great New York walking match, won by George Littlewood.

 

His first venture to London was at the Agricultural Hall in Islington where he defeated Sir John Astley, a gold medal champion, and swelled his prize fund to the tune of another £70.

 

By now established as a name in the chosen sport, Littlewood's rising stock was underlined by an invitation to the Astley Belt, a blue ribbon 142-hour, six-day event against the reigning long distance champion, Ivan Charles Rowelll — the man who only the year before in Madison Square garden, new York, had provided a phenomenal prize Fund of $50,000 in two races in the city. 

 

George came home second but beat some very good American athletes.

 

The pride of family and friends back home in South Yorkshire was growing and some were there to see him set the new six-day walking record in Sheffield in 1882.

 

He beat the then 142-hour heel and toe world mark of 530 miles, covering 531 on a mile-long track at the Drill Hall. It's a record that still stands to this day.

 

Littlewood's race against a horse, noted elsewhere in this feature, was a pleasurable diversion from the serious business of competition.

 

He went to America in 1881 and again in 1887, when he destroyed the opposition in the World Cup Sweepstakes in Philadelphia before returning to New York to compete in his last two races at Madison Square Garden in May and December of the following year, 1888.

 

While his six-day walking world record set back in Sheffield a few years earlier had been hard, his world record in front of the Americans in December was miraculous.

 

It took place on a sawdust track and as the miles unfolded his feet were badly burned but he soldiered on.

 

At the end of the fifth day he nearly fell foul of a saboteur when he took a break to soothe his aching feet and a match was deliberately dropped into his alcohol bath at the side of the track.

 

The culprit, thought to be a fan of a rival, was never caught.

 

RESTING PLACE... at George Littlewood’s grave at Darnall Cemetery (left to right) are cemetery supporters the Rev Dave Goddard, the Baptist Minister based at Treeton Baptist Church, Luke Elmore and Norman Zide from the Darnall Cemetery restoration group.

 

Littlewood hobbled on to complete a record 85 miles in a single day and break the six-day distance record by two miles.

 

In the May race, Littlewood broke the 600-mile barrier running on raw bone in his foot.

 

When he returned home, he was given another nickname, “Littlewood Lionheart”.

 

Many years later, a prominent physiologist, writing in Advancement of Science, described Littlewood's US world record  as “probably about the maximum sustained output of which the human frame is capable”.

 

That was some claim, and little wonder that George hung his running/walking shoes up for good after that.

 

He used his winnings to buy himself a pub, the Kings Head, in Attercliffe.

 

 

George died of consumption, on December 4, 1912, aged 53.

 

The thousands at his funeral at Darnall Cemetery was testimony to the achievements of a lad born to humble beginnings in Rawmarsh.

 

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GEORGE Littlewood was confident enough to race against a horse.
 

 

He pulled on his running shoes and went head to head against a horse called Charlie over 17 miles from Doncaster to Sheffield.
 

 

According to reports, soon after setting off it became apparent that four legs were always going to beat two.
At the Star Inn at Conisbrough, Charlie was two minutes in front.

 

 

He stopped for a drink, allowing George to get within a couple of hundred yards, but the plucky runner was never able to draw level.
 

 

He persevered until three-quarters of a mile from Tinsley Bridge he was told the horse had arrived at the finishing point.
 

 

The race, in 1882, created “tremendous interest” locally.