Although Ashbrooke Sports Club has never had an athletics section as such, it has always had strong links with athletics. The opening day of the Ashbrooke Sports ground in May 1887 came in the form of a sports’ meeting and the annual Whit Sports were a massive source of income for the club during the rest of the century. In the middle of the twentieth century, large crowds used to turn up for the Police Sports and currently the club has been the meeting place for the Sunderland Strollers for almost forty years.
A photograph of the sports on the opening day is one of the club’s treasures (see May 14 blog). Equally valuable is a huge ledger which records all the doings of the annual Whit Sports which has survived in the club archives. Whitsuntide Sports were popular all over the country from the time that the Bank Holiday was introduced during the mid-Victorian period. Before 1887 the joint sports held by the Sunderland Rugby and Cricket Clubs at their Chester Road ground attracted huge crowds during the 1870s and 1880s. A case study of the 1893 and 1894 sports carried out recently indicates that there were 203 named competitors participating in 1893 and 207 in 1894. Some of the athletes and cyclists competed in both years leaving us with about 350 different competitors in all. Between a quarter and a third of these were cyclists and the remainder were runners. Athletes ran over distances between 100 yards and three miles with cyclists also able to plump for a short sprint or a longer contest.
Over one-third of the competitors came from within the bounds of the modern City of Sunderland (often referred to as Wearside). Around the same number had addresses in Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside and Northumberland while the remainder (just under one-third) came from South Tyneside, modern County Durham, Hartlepool and Teesside. A handful of quality competitors came from outside the area – from Hull, Manchester and London for example.
On a wider front, these sports were seen as amateur and clean and a breakaway from the professional betting sports of the early nineteenth century. They were backed by church leaders and moralists and it is clear that many ‘ordinary’ folk competed both in cycling and in athletics ( although there is some evidence of skullduggery).
For the social historian, the Ashbrooke book is a really exciting find.
It gives us a rare overview of sporting life at club level in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. The competitors were all male and mostly unmarried, in their early to mid-twenties and living at home. Most of them were average club runners and cyclists starting off reasonably high handicaps – although there were one or two competitors ‘off scratch’. They belonged to an astonishingly large number of clubs – an indication that this type of hobby had really taken off and was becoming increasingly popular.
P.S. Keith Gregson, the club archivist has a list of the competitors who took part in the 19 th century sports and in many cases he has not only names but also addresses and details of their jobs and relations. Please contact if interested.