March 1913: Competitors in the English National Cross Country Championships climbing over a gate on the route (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) © Copyright
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Grandfathers and great-grandfathers of Cross Country

“One of the most interesting events among races is Cross-Country” - That is how the chapter about “races through the country” in one of the most famous sport books of the beginning of the last century begins (page 148).

The volume is “Races and field events” (‘les courses à pied et les concours athlétiques”) by De Fleurac and Faillot, published in 1911 in Paris by Pierre Lafitte, whose editions were located at the number 90, Avenue des Champs Elysées. The book is prefaced by Reverend Courcy-Laffan and starts with the following “The history of running is the history of the origin and evolution of our sport”.

Another French book is partly dedicated to Cross Country (22 pages). It is the “Athletic Sports” (“Les Sports Athlétiques”) released in Paris in 1895 by the “Librairie Armand Colin” which I had the privilege to find in an antiquarian bookshop in the Barrio Alto of Lisbon. The two authors, Reichel and Mazzuchelli wrote “This branch of athletics has its origins in the habit of young people of following hunting, especially hare hunting.”

Here we find the birth – typically British – of cross-country.

“The most interesting race” as described by the French authors De Fleurac and Faillot. We can say that human races reflect horseracing. One of the favourite hobbies of the English aristocrats at a certain point of the 19th century was rightly “athletic sports” as described in this book.

The idea was to substitute hares and dogs by human runners. How did it work? Two “runners” preceded the hunters scattering pieces of paper in order to shake the hunters off.

This hobby, that was also used to keep the muscles trained, was called “paper hunt”, “paper rally” or even “hares and hounds”.

Cross country running was to be an evolution of this hobby on the same principle: to mark out a course from one point of the country to another with pieces of paper, but this time without making any wrong tracks.

Should we want to set an arbitrary date to the birth of our cross-country, we could place it in 1834. In the Rugby College, England - which was made famous because of the teaching of Thomas Arnold, who is known as the father of modern physical education - was contested the first official cross country race of which we have a description.

It was called the “Barby Hill Run” and was run over an 8 miles distance, more or less 13 kilometres.  The luck of the “Barby Hill Run” was that it was described in a book of a famous student of the Rugby School, Thomas Hughes (1822-1896), which became quite a popular book among British youngsters. The “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” pages are a realistic and lively portrait of the school life in Britain at that time. The book was initially published in 1856 when Thomas Hugues was already an influential politician.

The “Crick Run” was organized three years later, in 1837, in the same geographical area, over a 12 miles distance. The winner was a certain A.H. Clough and the race became later a real “classic” of the English cross.

According to other historians, the first cross-country race had been held in 1831 at the Shrewsbury School, in Wales. That’s why I wrote “arbitrary date” as most probably the habit of organizing leisure races in the country for aristocrats or young students to fortify their legs was quite widespread.

From the 1830’s, we go directly to 1867. At the end of this year, some London Clubs started to organize regulated races. One of these first races, of which I found a detailed trace in some English newspapers of the time kept in the collection of the British Museum in Colindale (North of London), had been held on Saturday 7 December 1867.

This race was organized by the Thames Rowing Club on a distance of 2 miles ¾ (4.454 metres), in a London zone which today is one of main areas of the British Capital.

Do you know what provoked this craze to organize cross country races?

The desire of the members of the exclusive Londoner Rowing Clubs to find a way to stay in shape during winter when it was impossible to navigate on the river Thames!

Twenty-one participants were in the start list of the race called “handicap foot steeple chase” (a tougher version of our Steeplechase) but only twelve turned out for the departure.

And guess the name of the winner…………by the merest chance, Mr. Cross, Mister W.C Cross!! This coincidence has always seemed extraordinary to me. Mister Cross was a member of the organizing club, the Thames Rowing Club, which opened a section dedicated to running just after this victory. This section was called “Thames Hares and Hounds”.

At the fourth position of the race of the 7 December, we find Walter Rye, one of the pioneers of the English athletics, athlete, manager, journalist, writer, one of the great figures of our sport’s history.

We can read the following in the Wednesday 11 December issue of the Londoner newspaper “The Sporting Life”: “This event, which from its novelty has created an unusual amount of interest in the athletic world…”.

The second race was organized on the 1 February 1868, with twenty-four runners, while twenty-one participants took part in the third, one month later. One curiosity: guess who was the finish line judge at the 1 February race? The judge was Thomas Hughes, the author of the “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, who was, as I wrote, an influential politician.

This new sport became popular and attracted followers; this motivated the creation of clubs whose aim was to organize such competitions. Clubs such as the Thames Hares and Hounds, the Peckham Harriers, the South London Harriers, the Spartan Harriers and many others were then founded all over the England.

The discipline of cross country running had been born.

Ottavio Castellini
IAAF Statistics & Documentation Senior Manager