Chris Upton decribes how overzealous Victorian sporting authorities banned one of our finest runners – for coming second.
We are used to the world of athletics being immured in controversy, usually involving the taking of performance-enhancing drugs or ducking an appointment to test for them.
Compared to the 19th century, however, today’s athletics seem as controversial as a game of croquet. There was, for one, the fine line between amateur status and professionalism, and any runner straying across the divide was likely to be thrown unceremoniously out of the sport.
Then there was the issue of betting. Like most sports in the 19th century, “pedestrianism”, as it was called, arose as an opportunity to gamble, and large amounts of cash could be stacked up on a race. And – as with cricket today – betting inevitably led to suspicions about the honesty of the competitors. Any case of “roping” – throwing a race for financial reasons – was treated just as seriously.
One victim of a betting scandal was William Snook (1861-1916), arguably the greatest middle-distance runner of his era. Snook’s rise and fall was as precipitous as any Greek tragedy; he was an Oedipus in running shoes. His story is ably told by Harry Andrews in The Follies of a Victorian Athlete (Leonie Press, 2008).
William Snook was born in Shrewsbury in 1861, and educated at Adbaston College in the town, where his sporting prowess was quickly evident, whether on a bike or on the track.
By the age of 16 he had begun to compete in amateur races, and by the end of the decade was winning most of them. In 1879 Snook joined the Moseley Harriers and later, after its foundation, the Birchfield Harriers.
Snook’s rise to fame coincided with a growing interest in athletics nationally. The Amateur Athletics Association was founded in 1880, and races were being staged in huge numbers across the country. It was not unknown for Snook to catch the train to London and run the same day, and be back for another race the following afternoon.
The middle-distance runner in those far-off days could be expected to compete over a daunting range of distances – steeplechase, cross-country or track - from a mile to 10 miles. Snook was equally at home at both ends, winning races both at home and in France. By the end of 1884 Snook had 14 national titles under his belt, and more glittering prizes lay ahead.
It was in 1886 that William Snook’s career hit the buffers. In March of that year Snook finished only second in the National Cross-Country Championship at Croydon, a race he was widely expected to win.
There were many reasons why a runner who competed as often as Snook might not win every event he entered, but to the committee of the AAA, however, it was clear evidence of “roping”, and the Shropshire runner was suspended and then ejected from the sport. A number of appeals by the athletics bodies in the Midlands failed to overturn the decision.
But it was not only Snook’s public life as an athlete that was under scrutiny; his private life too was in the papers.
In 1884 William Snook had married Elizabeth Coleman, and the two had managed a beer house – the Criterion – in Shrewsbury High Street. Towards the end of the decade the couple moved to Birmingham and managed two pubs there, first the Old Stone Cross in Dale End and then the Vine in Alma Street.
By 1891 the Snooks’ marriage was on the rocks, and Elizabeth had petitioned for divorce. There were allegations of physical cruelty towards her, as well as of her husband’s adultery with a barmaid. If that was not enough, Snook’s name was also cited in a case of a procured abortion at Walsall. Snook and the barmaid had elected not to keep the child.
It was appropriate, given all this, that William Snook should “do a runner”. With little to detain him longer in England, William Snook emigrated to France and rediscovered his love for sport, still racing (though no longer at the highest level) and cycling too.
He was the genial host for a visit by the Birchfield Harriers to Paris in 1904.
At the beginning of the First World War Snook was still in France, but his health was declining fast, and he was admitted to a Paris hospital in 1916. Lonely and destitute, Snook was facing the last lap of his race.
It was then that William Snook discovered that his friends back in the Midlands had not entirely forgotten him. The Birmingham sports paper, Sport and Play, raised funds for his medical treatment and, perhaps, to bring him back to England.
But the money raised was hardly lavish. Snook returned to Birmingham and found the cheapest of all lodgings at the Rowton House hostel next to Highgate Park. A bed for the night here cost just sixpence. But Rowton House was only one step from the workhouse, and Snook made that final step soon after.
In December 1916 Snook was rushed from Rowton House to the workhouse infirmary at Western Road and died there on December 9 of heart disease. He avoided the ignominy of a pauper funeral only through the intervention of the secretary of the Birchfield Harriers.
The club paid for the interment of their erstwhile star runner at Witton cemetery.
And so the race was run, and one of athletics’ most colourful characters laid to rest.