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 The Quest for the Four Minute Mile
Bob Phillips

Our quiz is now closed.
We have our three winners of the Bob Philips new book and they will be receiving their copies of Bob's book shortly.

The question was
Everybody knows that Roger Bannister was the first man to break four minutes for the mile. Who was the second Briton to do so and in what year ?

Answer: Chris Chataway - but only just. He finished 2nd in a race at the White City Stadium, in London, on 28 May 1955, to the Hungarian, Laszlo Tabori, with another Briton, Brian Hewson, 3rd, and both Chataway and Hewson ran 3:59.8.

First three correct answers came from, Mike Welford, Ian Statter & Lewis Timms.
Well done

 BBC On This Day            Video of 4 Minute Mile Race

It was almost exactly a century before Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile that records for the event could start to be collated with some reasonable assurance that the times and distances were accurate. From the 17th Century until the 1850s there had been numerous mile races in England, but they were very largely contested on horse-racing courses or on public highways. The measurements may or may not have been precisely a mile; the watches may or may not have been calibrated to anything less than a quarter-of-a-minute or so; we shall never know. It must be assumed that a certain Mr Weller did not run 3min 58sec for a mile along the Banbury Road, in Oxfordshire, during October of 1796 – as was claimed. Had he done so, the history of the event would have been rather different !

It was in the 1840s that the nature of miling comptition changed dramatically. As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in Britain, the potential for attracting large crowds to watch such races, and to bet their money on the outcome, become apparent. Even the most downtrodden of factory workers had some free time available where they could seek relief from their life of drudgery, and as football had yet to be invented in a commercial sense some other sport could perhaps fill the need. Among the first to realise this were publicans in Manchester, where the population was growing at a massive rate but there was still some land available within the city confines.

Cover of Bob Phillips Book "The Quest for the Four Minute Mile"So probably the first purpose-built enclosed arena to have been laid anywhere in the World specifically for athletics competition since the Ancient Greek Olympics was the one situated in the grounds of the Snipe Inn at Audenshaw, in Manchester. The landlady, Mrs Betty Berry, seems to have been of a most unusual entrepreneurial spirit because in 1840 at the latest she arranged for a straight sprint course of some 200 yards in length to be constructed. Crowds of up to 3,000 were attracted to sprint events that year and the Snipe Inn remained popular for much of the Victorian era as a venue for a range of other sports such as wrestling, bowling, gymnastics and shooting. At Belle Vue House, also in Manchester, the manager installed “grounds for pigeon-shooting, pedestrian performances, and other field events”, and the running circuit may have been as much as half-a-mile in circumference. It was certainly in use by 1841 and it contributed to the gradual shift of competition from London, where the tracks which were managing to survive rapid urbanisation were hilly and tightly-curved.

The term “athletics” was scarcely in use at this time. “Pedestrianism” exclusively confined to professionals had been predominant since the late 1820s, and had attracted a large following as the rapidly growing industrial working classes were eager to watch the “peds” in action and bet some of their meagre and hard-earned wages on the results. During the 1840s other custom-built tracks were established in towns and cities such as Brighton and Reading in the South of England; Leicester and Nottingham in the Midlands; and Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Manchester, Salford and Sheffield in the North of England, where the Industrial Revolution was in full spate, and well-established networks of connections by rail and horse-drawn omnibus were providing easy access to athletics “meetings”, which mainly consisted of three or four match races. Between 1830 and 1850 a total of 6000 miles of railway lines were opened in Britain and they transformed the pace of life from one measured in single miles per hour to one measured in scores of miles per hour.

In 1857 the Copenhagen Grounds were opened at the Shears Inn, at Newton Heath, some three miles from the centre of Manchester, and became one of the most important athletics venues in the country. The track, which varied in length during its existence from a third-of-a-mile to 600 yards or slightly over, was described as being “perfectly level, thoroughly drained, with iron girds at the sides and neat but firm wooden railing”. This was a pioneering “stadium” venture because there was also grandstand accommodation for 1000 spectators.

The first proprietor, Tommy Hayes, had been a fine distance-runner himself and had famously beaten Johnny Tetlow in a four-mile race at Aintree Racecourse in 1850 for which, it was said, “the major portion of the sporting population of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and the other great towns” had turned out. Hayes thus recognised that there was money to be made from pedestrianism and he wasted little time in seeking to establish the virtues and reputation of his new arena to draw in the crowds and the bookmakers.

On 28 September 1857 Hayes staged a marvellously competitive one-mile match race in which the famed Midlands-based runner, Tommy Horspool, beat John Saville, of Oldham, by four yards and in the process equalled the “World record” of 4min 28sec which had been established by Charley Westhall in London in 1852. Horspool was 27 and had been born in Lancashire but lived at Basford, near Nottingham, where he was a glove knitter by trade. He had won the “Mile Championship” in Sheffield in 1853, had successfully defended it the following year in a time of 4:29, and had twice beaten Saville in 1856.

Horspool was proclaimed as “English champion” by Hayes, and as there was no governing body to legislate about such matters promoters were at liberty to give their races whatever grandiloquent titles they fancied and to dub the winners accordingly. Horspool was naturally invited back for a further appearance on 12 July the following year. Again he obliged his mentor, as in the words of the reporter from the periodical, “Bell’s Life In London”, he “traversed the ground in the almost incredibly short space of four minutes and twenty-three seconds”, defeating the Manchester professional, Job Smith, by 10 yards. The credibility of records was much enhanced as they were starting to be set on custom-made tracks.

Retiring as undefeated champion to become a publican, Horspool left something of a void behind him and Hayes took a year or so to find a worthy successor. On 27 October 1860 two 20-year-old prodigies met in another pulsating mile race at the Copenhagen Grounds, and the record was broken again as Siah Albison beat Bill Lang by little more than a yard in 4min 22¼sec. Albison thus retained the new championship belt which Hayes had put up for competition and which Albison had earned by another mile win in close to record time the previous August. He came from Bow Lee, near Manchester, was 5ft 11in (1.80m) tall, and his abilities extended to 440 yards, with a best time of 51sec, but he was an early developer, never again quite matching his record-breaking form. A weaver by trade, he, too, became an inn proprietor as a result of his running successes.
By the end of 1860 nine of the 12 fastest valid times recorded for the mile in Britain had been set on Manchester tracks, and of the 15 men who were credited with times of 4:40 or better only one was an amateur. This was also, to all intents and purposes, the first ever “World rankings” because there was little organised competition taking place anywhere else, though meetings had been held in the USA and Canada since the late 1830s. It was on the coat-tails of the Industrial Revolution that pedestrianism was being carried along, and as Great Britain was then so far in advance of any other country in the World in its economic growth it was inevitable that it would also have the monopoly on athletic achievement.
Whether or not Albison or Horspool was beyond doubt the best miler of his day was still a matter of conjecture. A Sheffield runner, Jem Sherdon, was widely reckoned for the next 20 years to be “undoubtedly the best mile runner that ever lived”, and maybe the hyperbole was justified. Sherdon’s most spectacular feat was to win a mile championship race against Robert Chadwick (“The Radcliffe Swallow”) at Hyde Park, Sheffield, on 11 April 1853 “in a walk” in 4min 33sec, which remained his fastest time. Yet Sherdon had “stopped to put on his greatcoat 90 yards from home” ! He had covered 1670 yards in 4 minutes (worth less than 3min 55sec for 1500 metres) and the reporter for “Bell’s Life” reckoned that Sherdon could have a run a mile in 4:12 that day.

Throughout the 1860s pedestrianism flourished in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Sheffield, as well as in Manchester and Salford. It provided an immensely entertaining and popular public sporting spectacle, and crowds of up to 20,000 flocked to the main venues at weekends and on Bank Holidays throughout the year, summer and winter. In Manchester and Salford the population explosion had been devastating as men and their families flocked in from all over the country to take jobs in the mills and foundries, and by 1861 the hapless inhabitants of Salford were packed into dank and noisome tenements and cellars at a density of more than 11,000 persons per square mile. Understandably, they were desperate to get out whenever they could for some healthy fresh air and reasonably inexpensive diversion at a cost of no more than sixpence a ticket.

No diversion more spectacular could have been provided than by the exotic appearance of the North American Red Indian runner, Hut-Goh-So-Do-Neh, also known as Louis Bennett, who ran under the evocative name of “Deerfoot”. He had been brought to England for a series of races, and such was the importance of Salford Borough Gardens as a venue that it was there that he made the first of his appearances outside London in September of 1861 for a four miles match race which he won against Jack White, the record-holder for the distance. Deerfoot wore a feather in his headband, ear-rings, a necklace and beads, and a brief loin-cloth decorated with bells which tinkled tunefully as he ran. Naturally, he created a sensation wherever he appeared.

Another major Manchester venue, the City Grounds, was opened in 1862 within easy walking distance of Manchester city centre and soon rivalled the Copenhagen Grounds in the quality of the events. Then in 1864 a 16-acre area of land was acquired by an enterprising businessman named George Martin and was opened as the Royal Oak Grounds. The venue contained a 651-yard cinder track and was on a prime site alongside the main road to Oldham, 1½ miles from the city centre and not much more than a quarter-of-a-mile from the nearest railway station. So Martin, who was also an astute manager of athletes and was endowed (maybe by his own word of mouth) with the presumptuous title, “The Wizard Of Pedestrianism”, seemed to have made a clever choice, but it has to be said that his was a sad life. The following year he began to show signs of mental instability and was committed to a private asylum in Buxton, in Derbyshire, from which he promptly escaped and made his way to London, but he died soon afterwards.
The Copenhagen Grounds, the City Grounds and the Royal Oak Grounds all figured in a splendid series of one-mile races between 1860 and 1864 which can readily be compared for competitive excitement and consistent record-breaking with the golden era of Ovett, Coe and Cram which was to come 120 years afterwards. After his success in the race for Tommy Hayes’s championship belt, Siah Albison became the track’s major asset in the early 1860s, attracting crowds of thousands to his regular appearances there.
Bill Lang, upon whom was bestowed the imaginative title of “The Crow Catcher”, also had a loyal local following. Although born in Middlesbrough, he lived in Manchester and like so many other runners he went into the licensing trade after he retired and became landlord of the Navigation Inn in one of the main streets through the centre of the city. After Albison had beaten Lang in World record time the following October, he lost by eight yards to the aptly-named Charles Mower two months later (and, surely, if this race had happened in modern times the tabloid newspaper headline would have been “Mower Cuts Down Champion”?). A return match was arranged for March of 1861 and Albison regained his title in much slower time. He went on to win four more challenge matches during 1861-62, and considering that for each of these races his opponents would have prepared themselves with the utmost diligence, and would not have taken up the challenge at all unless they genuinely believed they could win, Albison’s career of seven wins in eight championship races is one which even the aforementioned Ovett, Coe and Cram would envy.
Other Manchester promoters were anxious to cash in on the Copenhagen Grounds’ success, and they had their rewards. Bill Lang improved on Albison’s record with a time of 4min 21¾sec on an 800-yard cinder track at the City Grounds in July 1863, beating James Sanderson by 10 yards in another local derby match which excited great interest from rival bands of supporters as Sanderson was a blacksmith who came from Whitworth, near Rochdale. Lang was immediately invited the following month to challenge the holder of the “Champion One Mile Cup” which had first been contested at the Snipe Inn the previous year. Lang duly beat the Irishman, Patrick Stapleton, but that seems to have been the end of the series – and maybe the reason was that the ill-fated George Martin stepped in with a better offer.
Whether or not that was the case, only a week after Martin had opened the Royal Oak Grounds in April 1864 he had every cause for jubilant celebration because the Londoner, Teddy Mills, ran a sensational one-mile race there, opening with an electrifying lap in 60sec, easing to 2min 8sec at 880 yards and 3min 16sec at the ¾-mile, and then amid huge excitement increasing the pace to finish in 4min 20½sec and beat Lang’s record. Martin straight away put up his own “One Mile Champion Cup” for competition and Mills beat Lang to become the first holder of it two months later, narrowly missing the record with a time of 4min 21sec.
However much advantage the new cinder tracks held over their predecessors on turf, gravel and road, it has to be remembered that training methods bore absolutely no relation in the 1860s to what has come to be taken for granted in the 21st century. Billy Jackson was an eccentric rarity with his alleged 40 miles’ running a day, and for the most part Victorian athletes were great believers in saving themselves for the race and were convinced that any unduly strenuous exercise beforehand would be at best foolhardy and at worst fatal. The most dedicated of professional milers would, in every likelihood, never run in training further than ¾-of-a-mile at any sort of fast pace, and then only once a week, and – to quote one eminent runner of the era – “on the seventh day, wind and weather permitting, would take a brisk Sunday walk of from six to 10 miles, taking care not to catch a chill and to be well rubbed down after”.
Montague Shearman, the foremost athletics historian of the 19th Century, described the mile as a long-distance race, and he quoted from the following training schedule for a week of one un-named successful athlete: 1st day, two-thirds of a mile at steady pace; 2nd day, half-mile; 3rd day, slow mile; 4th day, fast half-mile; 5th day, 600 yards at steady fast pace; 6th day, a fast three-quarter mile. His book, “Athletics and Football”, published in 1889 provides an invaluable insight into these two sports as they developed in the latter 19th Century but is very largely concerned with amateurs, for whom the early 1860s was a key period with the formation of the Mincing Lane Athletic Club (soon to be renamed London AC) and the start of the Oxford-v-Cambridge matches.
The professionals should, in theory, have trained harder than the amateurs, and it may well be that some of the best of them did so, but there was a tendency for them to only start their preparations when a match had been arranged. Thus rather too much time was spent on shedding excess weight, and many of them conducted their activities in an ambiance scarcely suited to purified sporting endeavour, represented as they were in their dealings by publicans and running most of their races on tracks alongside inns.
Even so, professional middle-distance and distance runners remained a class apart in athletic achievement as much as social status and the race which took place at the Royal Oak Grounds for the Cup donated by George Martin on 19 August 1865 can be regarded as one of the finest of the 19th Century and a lasting tribute to the spirit and courage of the contestants. It was a meeting of all the champions of the era. Three months earlier another World record had been set on the track when the Scotsman, Robert McInstray, had won a £75 sweepstake half-mile race by five yards from William Richards in an amazing time of 1min 56½sec which beat the previous best by almost two seconds.
McInstray was one of the most durable runners of the era, who was already in his mid-30s, and whose career continued successfully beyond the age of 40. Richards came from Bridgend, in South Wales, but had formed a strong attachment to Manchester after being married there. Both of them were lined up in the mile race against Lang, together with Albison, Sanderson and Stapleton. The sole absentee among the elite was Mills, and even he had been on the original entry-list and was present on the day, but he was unable to start because he unfortunately injured himself just before the race.
This was an historic occasion for more than simply the outcome. The race was a carefully-arranged record attempt with a highly experienced local “hare” instructed to make the pace fast and furious; thus striking new ground in mile race promotion and anticipating what would become a commonplace occurrence in the next century. The pacemaker was James Nuttall, from Stockport. During a 13-year career Nuttall ran 440 yards in 51½sec and the half-mile in a World’s best time of 1min 55¾sec, and he had set a World record for 600 yards the previous year.
Nuttall duly led through the first two laps in 60sec and an unprecedented 2min 5½sec before Lang went ahead and the pace slowed – as it so often does when there are still several runners in contention – to 3min 14sec at the ¾-mile, but the final 440 yards was fast and furious as Lang and Richards finished 1st and 2nd in the identical time of 4min 17¼sec and McInstray was only five yards behind them. Sanderson was 30 yards back in 4th place, followed by Stapleton and Albison. Nuttall, apparently, did not finish, which reinforces the belief that he was there purely to ensure that the pace was fast. Lang and Richards met again a week later in a run-off for the Cup, but it was a relative anti-climax as Lang won in 4min 22sec. On 30 October 1863 Lang ran 4min 2sec on a stretch of the Cambridge Road, near Newmarket, which was said to be level for the first half and then downhill towards the finish, though this is hardly borne out by his successive quarter-mile times which were recorded as 55, 59, 62 and 66 seconds.
The times of Lang and Richards remained a professional record until 1881. Over a period of eight years, and always on tracks in the Manchester area, the World record for the mile had been improved by almost 11 seconds. It would take another 72 years for the record to further progress by the same margin ! The record-setting sequence between 1857 and 1865 had been as follows:
4:28 Tommy Horspool, Copenhagen Grounds, 28 September 1857
4:23 Tommy Horspool, Copenhagen Grounds, 12 July 1858
4:22¼ Siah Albison, Copenhagen Grounds, 27 October 1860
4:21¾ William Lang, City Grounds, 11 July 1863
4:20½ Teddy Mills, Royal Oak Grounds, 23 April 1864
4:17¼ William Lang and William Richards, Royal Oak Grounds, 19 August 1865

By comparison the best time recorded by an amateur before the end of 1865 was 4min 33sec by the Irishman, George Farran, in Dublin in 1862, and it was not until 1895 that any amateur surpassed the times of Lang and Richards. Pedestrianism continued to flourish in Scotland but went into decline in England before the end of the 1860s, riven by crowd riots and betting scandals, and the amateurs came into their ascendancy in terms of organised competition if not in actual level of performances.

Bob Phillips readily admits that he has pursued a consistently modest athletics career over rather more years than he cares to remember. The highlights (such as they were) included 4th place in the Hertfordshire County 880 yards (that shows how long ago it was) in 1:55.8 and 777th place in the first London Marathon in 1981 in 2:50:08. He was a member of Wallasey AC before moving to South-West France in 1999 and once managed to finish 18th in the Cheshire Veterans' Cross-Country Championship. When his knees started to give out, he took up cycle time-trialling with Ellesmere Port Cycling Club and finished 15 seconds ahead of Chris Boardman at 10 miles - having been given seven minutes' start ! For 17 years he was a member of the BBC Radio athletics commentary team and retired from that to concentrate on writing books - including biographies of Emil Zatopek and of the Salford-born 1936 Olympic relay gold medallist, Bill Roberts, and two histories of the Commonwealth Games. His most recent book, published last March, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first sub-four-minute mile. Entitled "3:59.4: The Quest for the Four Minute Mile", it is published by The Parrs Wood Press, St Wilfrid's Enterprise Centre, Royce Road, Manchester M15 5BJ telephone - 0161 226 4466;
e-mail -;
website -
price £12.95.

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