Victorian Strangeness: Seven singular sports from the Victorian era

By Magazine Monitor
A collection of cultural artefacts

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As the Commonwealth Games draw to a close in Glasgow this weekend, author Jeremy Clay tells the tale of the race between birds and insects, plus other curious sporting stories from the Victorian era.

Bee v pigeon racing

It was a surprise victory, to say the least. All the smart money had been on the eventual losers. Only a reckless few backed the team that ultimately triumphed.

So there was consternation at the finishing line, that day in 1888. An eager crowd had craned their necks to see the first of the competitors head for home, but instead of the pigeon everyone expected to be out in front, the field was led by a bee.

The race with a strong claim to the title of the most outlandish match in the history of sport reportedly happened in the village of Hamme, in Westphalia, Germany.

A pigeon-fancier and a beekeeper had somehow talked themselves into staging a cross-species showdown to answer the question precisely no-one else was troubled by - which creature was the fastest.

The question they actually seem to have settled was which creature was the least likely to be distracted along the way. The first bee came in 25 seconds before the first bird and three other bees before the second. At that point, the race officials appear to have grown weary of their record-keeping, and the rest of the results went unlogged.

A resounding triumph for insectkind, then. And perhaps the bees would have done better still, if they hadn't been rolled in flour before the start of the three-and-a-half mile race.

"It was very difficult to identify them," explained the London Daily News, "and though rolling them in flour before they started on their course made them easily recognisable on their arrival, it must have somewhat retarded their flight."

Dog v human swimming

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Mr Smith was quietly confident. Time and time again the champion swimmer had proved his prowess in the water. There was no reason to think his latest contest would be anything other than a cakewalk, especially when he heard his rival's chosen stroke was the doggy paddle.

On a June day in 1880, Mr Smith plunged into the Thames at London Bridge for the start of the race. And so did his opponent, a six-year-old dog called Now Then.

Roared on by spectators who'd crammed on the steamer the Prince of Wales to follow the action, the pair set off towards North Woolwich Gardens, with a flotilla of small boats in their wake.

Initially, Mr Smith had the whip hand, but his lead lasted a matter of seconds. "Under the bridge, the bitch paddled to the front and quickly drew away from her human opponent," reported the Tamworth Herald.

At the Custom House, the retriever led by 40 yards. By the Tower, she'd extended that to 50 yards. At the Thames Tunnel she was fully four minutes and 24 seconds ahead of her challenger.

That's when she really started to draw away. A dispirited Mr Smith, more than half a mile behind, gave up by Limehouse, after 47-and-a-half minutes in the river. But Now Then powered on to Deptford Creek, when the disgruntled backers of the loser finally accepted defeat.

"She was dragged into the boat occupied by her owner, looking none the worse for her exertions," said the Herald.

Gelignite fishing

Guile. Patience. Judgement. Maybe a dash of luck too. These are the qualities needed to be a top angler. By uncanny coincidence, Arthur Watkins lacked all of them in abundance.

At the fag-end of 1900, the miner and two of his mates went off for a spot of fishing in the canal at Wednesfield.

To tip the scales in their own favour, and maybe cut down on all that tiresome waiting for a bite, the trio hit upon an innovative approach. They'd use gelignite.

It may have worked too, if Arthur hadn't detonated the cartridge while trying to fix the cap with his knife.

The result? Three horribly injured men. "The violence of the explosion was indicated by the fact there was a large pool of blood on the canal side," reported the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, "and a portion of Watkins' hand was also found there."


It was Dr Finch's idea. A game of cricket on a summer's day. What could be more agreeable?

So he gathered together a team of friends. And he personally selected the opposition. Which is how, in the gardens of his private asylum in Fisherton, Wiltshire, a match came to be held which was billed as the sane versus the insane.

Dr Finch's side, who included a former patient in their number, had a poor first innings, and a worse second.

After a few hours play, the inmates left the field the victors, winning by 61 runs

"Does this not say something on behalf of the patients, as respects mind and body," said The Salisbury and Winchester Journal, in June, 1849, tickled by the score.

Sack race

However he imagined his death, as we all do, from time to time, in fleeting moments of self-indulgence, it can't possibly have been like this.

John Roberts of the Hallamshire Volunteers didn't lose his life fighting overseas for Queen and Country, but back home in Yorkshire. In a sack race.

He was falling behind the other competitors, an inquest in Beverley heard in 1890. He took an extra leap. His feet twisted, and he fell. "A sudden change took place on Tuesday," said the Manchester Evening News, "and Roberts died that evening."

Matrimonial cycling

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At the Tour de France, they race for the famous yellow jersey. At the Giro d'Italia, the cyclists battle for pink. At the Vuelta a España the lead rider wears red. And at New Jersey at the end of the 19th century, the coveted garment was white. A wedding dress, to be exact.

According to a report in the Cheltenham Chronicle, two factory hands staged a bicycle race for a husband in 1899.

"The race was undertaken because they were rivals for the possession of the affections of a certain young man," said the paper, "and the prize was the young man himself."

Off they went, bombing it over the two-mile course, followed by whatever the collective noun is for a great gaggle of bonnet-sporting cyclists, including couples on tandems.

The honours went to a woman called Nellie, who finished in four and a half minutes.

"The prize young man was waiting at the end of the course," said the Chronicle, "and he and the victor made their way through the crowd to a minister, who was in waiting, his services having already been requisitioned and in the presence of hundreds of spectators they were made man and wife."


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There were 10 shillings up for grabs. Quite a sum, back in 1890. So that Saturday night at the London music hall, John Picton took the challenge.

How hard could it be, he must have reasoned. All he needed to do was a) conquer his nerves b) get up on stage and c) wrestle a bear and throw it to the ground.

Parts a) and b) seemed to go without a hitch. But - and you'll be ahead of me here, no matter how quickly I type - c) proved troublesome.

The bear, needless to say, threw John. He died of his injuries at the London Hospital. Those 10 shillings went unclaimed.

Illustrated Police News image provided by The British Library Board.

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