Illustration by Lisa Wyman
Running Race - Williams the Walker, Dartmouth History
If you dig deep, Dartmouth has an interesting sporting history. In his booklet “Sports People of Dartmouth”, Alan Coles, the late editor and proprietor of the Dartmouth Chronicle (1962-68), wrote about some of the outstanding personalities and events.
This second extract is reprinted with the kind permission of the Dartmouth History Research Group. Copies of the book can be bought from the Harbour Bookshop, the TIC and Dartmouth Museum (see www.dartmouth-history.org.uk)
As sport has grown in stature, both nationally and internationally, it is strange that in Dartmouth it has declined at top level. There was a time when the town was one of the centres of Devon sport. Champion boxers fought on the New Ground – now the car park – top flight athletes competed there, as did racing cyclists: Dr. W.G. Grace played cricket against HMS Britannia and horses which ran at first-class race meetings, like Ascot, were trained at Bowden.
The tail end of the 19th century was the year of the marathon runner or long-distance walker as far as Dartmouth was concerned. The athletic club was in fine fettle and attracted many English champions to show off their skills on the New Ground. But the event which captured most the imagination of the locals was pedestrianism. This was the day which Shanks’s pony was the great prover of men. Walking matches were as popular as the counter attraction of cycle racing. A favourite local bet was walking a mile fully attired to the Royal Castle Hotel, with the loser buying drinks all round.
Although Dartmouth was not walking country, it had as a resident the legendary Charlie Williams who boasted that he could walk anyone off their feet. Williams trained on hills and when he came down to flat track walking, it all seemed surprisingly easy to him. For years he held the championship of Devon and his many friends were convinced that he was one of the greatest walkers in Britain, if not in the world.
Unfortunately Charlie was not an amateur. He competed for money. Some of his matches were made with stakes of anything up to £50, a handsome sum in Victorian times. Although there was no official county professional title, Charlie acquired it by throwing out challenges through the columns of the Sporting Life, which provided stakeholders and referees.
But Charlie was no fool. He made his own terms for the contests and often when the competition might be tough he insisted that there should not be a referee. It is doubtful today whether his style would have passed the scrutiny of athletic officials, but he was a popular man in Dartmouth and there was no-one who had the nerve to call him or rule him out of a race for running.
In 1888 there arrived in Dartmouth a namesake of his – but no relation – who had heard of Charlie’s walking feats and was determined to beat him. He was Billy Williams, a Royal Marine onboard HMS Britannia. Younger and considering himself fitter, Billy challenged Charlie to a two hour endurance race, a time which many considered that Charlie was incapable of seeing out. But the wily Dartmouth man won easily. Within a few months the young Marine threw down the gauntlet again, and lost for a second time.
It was obvious to those who watched these matches that Billy’s style would never make any impression on Charlie’s near jog-trot, so the marine began to train in secret and plot the downfall of the Dartmouth veteran. Nothing was heard of him for nearly 18 months; meanwhile Williams senior was becoming more confident with successive victories. In the April of 1889 he had one of his toughest tests when he took on the London walker Ernie Wells at Dartmouth football ground. One thousand spectators were there to see the Londoner who had won dozens of prizes for events between 50 and 100 miles, although he was known not to be a time expert.
Charlie had the exceptional knack of pacing himself well and rarely would be shaken out of his hour-glass like timing. There was nothing between the two over the first mile, which was completed in ten minutes; then the next two miles were reeled off at nine and a half minutes per mile. The pace slackened a little but with Charlie leading, Wells kept at his shoulder. After an hour however, the pistol shot, signifying the end of the race. Dartmouth’s hero was a mere three yards ahead and had covered six miles 350 yards. The victory won him £30 in stakes and almost as much in side-bets.
Williams, the marine, was shaken by this latest triumph and went into collusion with Bill Barrett, a shipmate onboard Britannia. In an attempt to draw Charlie out he was challenged by Barrett to a go-as-you-please race – walk or run – for two hours. All that was at stake was 50 shillings, but Barrett demanded a five minute start. The Britannia partners knew about Charlie’s vanity and he could not refuse this public challenge.
Barrett lost no time in trying to set up a long lead over the New Ground course. After he had been running by himself for five minutes he had covered more than a mile. On the crack of the handicap gun Charlie tore after him. In 30 minutes he gained a lap, having estimated that if he could maintain this progress he would catch Barrett just before the end of the two hours.
After 60 minutes he was on schedule, having covered seven and a half miles of the track against Barrett’s eight. Ten minutes later, however, with his face screwed in agony his stride began to falter; he put his hand to his side and almost fell. His friends tried to get his weary legs going by rubbing them with towels and they also forced stimulants between his lips, but he was forced to give up. Barrett had done his job well and now his marine friend was confident of cracking Charlie himself later in the year and from secret trials he was sure he could eclipse the fading local legend.
Charlie wanted his revenge over Barrett first however, on his own terms, which were confined to walking over seven miles. Barrett was no match for him and although given a two minute start, he was lapped by Charlie after four miles, a mile later Barrett limped out of the race.
For the next seven months there followed challenge and counter challenge between the two Williams. First the marine sought a race from Torquay to Dartmouth, in turn his rival replied: ‘Race me to Slapton and back.’ Meanwhile in the summer of 1889 Charlie took on the only other walker who could stay with him, Dick Wise of Teignmouth.
The distance was five miles and after three laps Charlie was half a circuit ahead and eventually breasted the tape nearly a mile in front in a time of 41.5 minutes. Marine Williams had been an interested watcher: meticulously he had clocked the laps and was more convinced than ever he could outsmart Charlie. His needling campaign began with a public exhibition on the New Ground, which was considered his namesake’s home patch. Before a large crowd he dashed off five miles in 37.5 minutes, a few seconds outside the British amateur record. However, there were many who considered that he was jog-trotting, although in fact his style resembled that of his arch-rival.
Charlie’s public image was in danger of being tarnished and rather like the great boxing champion John L. Sullivan, who was rip-roaring around the world at about the same time, he threw out another series of challenges. All of them had the proviso that there would be no referee. His marine did not rise to the bait immediately. Not until the October were the terms of the race finalised – with most of them putting Charlie at a disadvantage. Rarely did he race against more than one opponent, but Dick Wise, who was still smarting from defeat, had joined forces with Billy Williams and wanted his revenge too, in the same race.
Most of Charlie’s contests had been in summer, but this one was to be in November when it was generally known that colder weather affected older athletes’ muscles. The third condition against him was that instead of being staged in his native Dartmouth it was to be at Paignton.
Both the Williams men trained religiously for the match, which would undoubtedly be the turning point of their athletic careers. Betting was rife, in addition to side-stakes of £30 that were deposited with the Sporting Life, which, contrary to Charlie’s original stipulation, was to provide a referee.
Pace-making then was not the highly devised tactic that it became after Roger Bannister broke the 4 min. mile barrier in 1954, yet it was obvious from the start of the race that Billy Williams and Wise had planned a system. With his first stride Wise dashed into the lead; some spectators swore that he was running. Charlie tacked on to him, sometimes forsaking the heel–and-toe rhythm essential in track walking. He kept at the Teignmouth athlete’s elbow for lap after lap, while Billy Williams was content to lurk behind.
After two miles Wise’s gait became noticeably slower and it was then that Charlie realised it was not the man in front he had to fear, but the man in the rear. Having performed his pacemaker’s task to perfection, Wise dropped out after two miles. At this point Billy Williams made his effort; he swept into the lead and his long, stringy legs powered him along like piston rods. Gradually Charlie’s strength sapped as he saw the marine building up a lead yard by yard. After five miles his moment of truth came. It was obvious that unless the younger Williams collapsed he had the race in his mercy.
Charlie was now in a position to look across the track to see his fresh opponent half a lap ahead; he had never been lapped in his life and the threat was there at this stage. Before the end of the 6th mile he gave up and tottered into the arms of his supporters. His reign as Devon champion – unofficial though it might have been – was over.
Billy Williams, the new champion, could have stopped there and then; instead he chose to go on and demonstrate his superiority completing the 7 mile course by himself in the creditable time of 1 hr 5 mins.
First published December 2010 By the Dart