Track Stats - John Trevor

In an age of new-found devotion to manly exercises, was John Trevor the first sub-even-time sprinter?

An investigation by the Editor

John Trevor is just one name among many who are credited with an amateur “World record” 10.0 seconds for 100 yards in the years from 1855 to 1888. In fact, there are 59 even-time sprinters listed in the IAAF’s handbook, and the vast majority of them are British; otherwise, there are nine Americans, four Australians and a Canadian. There is also, incidentally, a 9½-second clocking by a further Australian, F. F. Groom, in 1864 which is included in the IAAF compilation but presumably can be regarded with some scepticism.

Of course, any number of those 19th Century performances would not have satisfied modern time-keepers, and the late Dr Don Potts, the US sprints expert, believed that all but three should be considered doubtful; the acceptable ones being those by William Tennent at the Amateur Athletic Club championships of 1868 and by John Wilson and George Urmson at the Inter-Varsity matches of 1869 and 1873 respectively. In his authoritative history, “Athletics and Football”, first published in 1887, Montague Shearman made complimentary reference to Tennent, who came from Liverpool, and to the varsity pair but without quoting any times which they had run. Also in 1887 the Amateur Athletic Association published the first set of ratified records after 16 months of research and the only accepted 10.0 was by Arthur Wharton in winning the AAA title of 1886. Perhaps neither Shearman nor the AAA committee were informed of all of the other 10-flat timings, and it’s worth pondering the fact that some would actually have been 9.9 or even 9.8, had watches registering to one-tenth or one-fifth of a second been in use rather than ones registering only to a quarter-of-a-second!

There is an intriguing note by the IAAF compiler to John Trevor’s 10-flat also achieved in 1864 to the effect of “time given as 9¾ in some sources”. Could it be that Trevor was the first man to break 10 seconds for 100 yards ? Could it be also that he was Welsh-born and therefore established a record for his native land which would not be beaten until Ron Jones ran 9.7 almost a century later (in 1959, to be precise) ? There is some tenuous evidence to support both claims. The conclusions are thus speculative, but interesting, and it is too much to expect that any new data concerning Trevor’s feat is likely to come to light more than 140 years later.

John Trevor achieved his time at the 3rd annual “Liverpool Grand Olympic Festival” meeting (described in some detail in the August 2004 issue of “Track Stats”) and he won the race by a yard or less from William Mitchell, who had himself been given a 10.0 time in the heats earlier in the afternoon. Mitchell was one of four brothers who were all fine athletes and three of them performed exceptionally well in a range of events that day, in the course of which Thomas Mitchell set another “World record” of 5ft 7½in (1.71m) in the high jump. Immensely detailed coverage of the meeting was published in the several Liverpool newspapers then in existence, but it is apparent that neither the officials nor the reporters realised the significance of the results. This is not at all surprising as there was no concept of British records, let alone World records, in the 1860s.

One Liverpool newspaper states that Trevor ran 9¾ seconds; another gives his time as “under 10 seconds”. The writer in both cases could be one and the same as there are very close similarities between the various articles, which may be due to the fact that one correspondent served different editors or that there was a substantial input by a meeting official – perhaps John Hulley, the co-promoter of the Liverpool Olympic series. If the same journalist wrote both reports, it remains a mystery as to why he should have interpreted Trevor’s time in two differing ways.

The Olympic Festival took place on 9 July 1864 at the city’s Zoological Gardens, having been postponed from the previous Saturday because of torrential rain, though this hadn’t deterred William Mitchell from accepting a challenge during the downpour at 100 yards from a Captain Chadwick, “late 9th Lancers”, and beating him by a yard. On the following Monday the “Liverpool Mercury” published a letter from William Mitchell lavishly praising John Hulley for his “prudent foresight, sedulous attention, indefatigable energy and enthusiastic devotion”. Maybe this correspondence was prompted by some discontent among would-be spectators at being deprived of their afternoon’s entertainment, and Mitchell was valiantly coming to Hulley’s defence.

The “Liverpool Daily Chronicle” had previewed the original meeting in its Saturday-morning edition with a thoughtful leader article which throws some light on the increasing interest during the 1860s in amateur athletics: “The time is gone when it was believed that the man of business, the most energetic writer, the hopeful student were youths who had withdrawn from all muscular training and chained themselves to the desk, the counter or the book all a long day. Experience has proved that the men most likely to make their way in professional or business life are they who have kept their muscles hard by exercise and training”. The “Liverpool Daily Post” said of the 100 or so competitors that “most of these men – and be it observed they are all drawn from the higher and educated classes – are in their own neighbourhood champions in the various manly exercises to which they are devoted”.

A Games to offset the “degeneration of the brave and hardy English”

This is a refrain which is also taken up by the “Liverpool Mercury” the same day, expressed in an elegantly-phrased reassurance for any readers who might view such athletic pursuits with concern : “In some of the higher circles of society the artificial modes of existence incident to the possession of wealth and an observance of the rules of modern refinement were producing an effeminacy tending to the degeneration of the character of the brave and hardy Englishman … we hope these attempts to revive the games of the Olympiad will not alarm the fearful and timid, or beget an apprehension that we are retrograding towards the Paganism of the ancient Greeks. The sports may, in a modified form, be similar; the love of approbation and human glory may and doubtless does to some extent inspire the combatants; but the festival has no religious significance and is intended solely to illustrate the advantages which are certain to result from the well regulated exercise of the physical facility with which a beneficent creator has endowed mankind but which in too many instances are suffered to rust in us unused or are lost through slothfulness”.

One can only admire the literary talent of this anonymous journalist who can express his ideas with perfect clarity in a sentence of more than 80 words in length!

The entrants for the 11 athletics contests held the following Saturday were, as the “DailyPost” had suggested, almost certainly gentlemen to a man; none among them from the artisan or labouring classes. The events were listed as 100 yards, 200 yards, 880 yards, two miles, four miles walk, one mile steeplechase, 220 yards hurdles, high jump, pole jump, long jump and standing long jump, though as the track was described as being 220 yards in circumference it might be thought that the longer sprint was at that distance, and not at 200 yards. John Trevor also won this event in a time variously reported as 22 seconds and 29 seconds. The latter figure is most surely a mis-print, but the former would be easily another “World record” if the distance was indeed 220 yards. It’s a nice idea, but it‘s rather more sensible to assume that for whatever odd reason the event actually was at 200 yards, though if this is the case Trevor’s time round two tight turns still compares very favourably with the then “World record” for 220 yards of 23¼sec by Charles Emery, of London AC, from the year before.

The weather for the delayed Festival was in complete contrast to the previous Saturday, with a brilliant sky above and a gentle breeze blowing, according to the “Liverpool Daily Courier”, and there were three heats for the 100 yards, most of them local residents:

Heat 1 – E. Jobling (Newcastle), Robert R. Deane (Birkenhead), William Hignell (Liverpool), John Trevor (Chester), Henry Simpson (Seaforth), T. Brindley (Cheltenham). Trevor won from Jobling “by a couple of yards”, as reported in the “Daily Courier”, with Simpson 3rd. Deane and Hignell did not start.

Heat 2 – J.B. Lee (Liverpool), P.M. Thornton (Cambridge), John Chadwick (New Hall, Warwickshire), Frederick Lyons (Fairfield), Thomas Beardsall (Huddersfield), H.G. Irwin (Manchester). Beardsall won from Lee. Thornton and Lyons did not start. Chadwick was presumably the same man as the Captain Chadwick who had lost to William Mitchell in the rain a week before.

Heat 3 – T.H. Baynes (Cambridge), D. Crosthwaite (Liverpool), Hugh Miller (Liverpool), William Mitchell (Fearnes Hall, Waterloo), George Mitchell (also Fearnes Hall, Waterloo), W. Williamson (Liverpool), G.L.Gwatkyn (Liverpool), A.J. Eglen (Liverpool). William Mitchell won from Eglen and Crosthwaite. None of the Liverpool newspaper reports refer to the time being 10.0sec.

A dozen of these 20 sprinters came from Liverpool or close by; Waterloo being to the north of the city. The most notable name, though, is that of one of the absentees, Percy Melville Thornton, who the next year was to set another “World record” with 2min 2½sec for 880 yards and who won that event at the Amateur Athletic Club championships of 1866. He later became the Member of Parliament for Clapham and Battersea and claimed in his memoirs to have run 1:59 for the half-mile. E. Jobling is probably M.E. Jobling, who also competed in the AAC championships of 1866, though without notable success, and was variously described that year as representing Northumberland Cricket Club, Nautilus Rowing Club, London AC and the Civil Service. Hugh Miller, unplaced in the third heat, had rather more success in later years as a high jumper, clearing 5-8 (1.73) in 1869.

It is the “Liverpool Mercury” which gives Trevor’s time in the final as 9¾sec, and if this is correct then William Mitchell may also have broken even time as he is described as being “close at his heels”, though the quarter-second watch (or watches ?) in use would presumably have given him no better than 10.0. Beardsall placed 3rd and there were six judges listed among the officials, including representatives of Manchester AC and Ulverstone AC, which suggests a fair degree of competence. The “Liverpool Daily Courier” says that “Trevor accomplished the distance in less than 10 seconds”.

Was John Trevor’s background English or Welsh?

Trevor’s affiliation is given as Chester, which was presumably his city of residence, but Trevor is a name of Cornish or Welsh origin and one of the most notable families in the North Wales county of Denbighshire, only a few miles from Chester, had included Sir John Trevor (circa 1637-1717), who had been Speaker of the House of Commons. Could John Trevor be a direct descendant ? If so, even the slower time of 10.0 for him in 1864 would have remained a Welsh record for 70 years, equalled on seven occasions between 1897 and 1934 by four others – Charles Thomas, Fred Cooper, Stan Macey and Cyril Cupid – until Cupid ran 9.8 later in the latter year. This is all splendidly imaginative theorising, but the hard evidence points in another direction. Peter Lovesey has found a John Trevor born in Chester in 1842 as the son of the County Court Treasurer, also named John Trevor, who was originally from Bolton, in Lancashire, and who became mayor of the city in 1861. John Trevor Jnr is later listed in the census returns as a cotton broker, and as this was one of the most important professions in Liverpool business life he would have fitted perfectly into the gentlemanly ambiance of the athletic competition of his day.

Regarding the performances of Trevor’s runner-up that day, William Mitchell, it was said of the Mitchell family that “in several classes the brothers fairly outstripped all competitors”. Thomas Mitchell’s high-jump success, with William equal 2nd alongside one of the 100 yards entrants, Simpson, occupied a fair part of the afternoon as the competition began at 4ft and the bar was raised “an inch or two at a time”. The winner’s method of clearance caused the “Liverpool Mercury” correspondent to remark on “a most awkward style, throwing his legs over the pole very clumsily, yet dextrously enough not to touch it”. This comportment apparently caused the crowd much amusement, as the “Mercury” said that “he got laughed at every time, but he bore this with so much good humour and showed such a generous spirit toward his opponents in this and other contests that he soon became a favourite with the spectators”. Both Thomas and William Mitchell cleared 19ft 3in (5.87) in the long jump and were also credited with “standing jumps of about four yards in length”. If this is so, then they were in excess of the officially-recognised record for that latter event of 11-4½ (3.47) to be set by the most renowned of all its exponents, Ray Ewry, of the USA, in 1904. Suffice it to say that “about four yards” may, in reality, have been nearer three.

Whether or not John Trevor ran 9¾ seconds for 100 yards on that long-ago sunny July afternoon, the “World records” at that distance and in the high jump would surely have sent the crowds of gentry and their ladies home happy as their carriages bowled back to their villas set on the hills far from the noxious docklands and tenements of the city – even if none of them had the least idea of the full value of the athletic achievements which they had just witnessed.

William Tennent, the Liverpool sprinter who ran 10.0 in 1868, has a further claim to validity for his performance. His was the only such time recognised in the first of four editions of the book, “Modern Athletics”, by H.F. Wilkinson, published in September of that year, and was confirmed in a summary of the 1868 season which appeared the next year in the magazine, “Athlete”. Henry Wilkinson was a member of London AC and his book contains a history of athletics, technical descriptions of the events, a summary of every major meeting during 1867-68, and a list of amateur and professional records. “Modern Athletics” is described as “essential reading” in the 2001 bibliography, “An Athletics Compendium”, compiled by Tom McNab, Peter Lovesey and Andrew Huxtable.

Tennent also ran 10.0 for 100 yards in 1867 at a local sports meeting as a member of Manchester AC and was notable as one of the first cricketer/athletes, preceding the illustrious W.G. Grace and C.B. Fry, though with nothing like the same pre-eminence (as if anyone could have). Yet Tennent and his elder brother, Hector, contributed a small but significant part to the history of the game. Both were educated at Merchiston Castle School, in Edinburgh, and were chosen for Scotland twice in 1865, including the first recognised international match played by the country against Surrey at the Oval in July 1865. Scotland won handsomely by 172 runs and William had scores of 5 and 47 and Hector 12 and 15.

The brothers were born in Hobart, Tasmania – Hector on 6 April 1842 and William on 6 October 1845. William played for Liverpool Cricket Club and once in 1867 for the Lancashire county side which had been formed three years before, though in his two innings he scored 0 and 3 and he did not bowl. He died at an early age at Hastings, in Sussex, on 5 July 1881 or 1883. Hector played twice for Lancashire and on one occasion as an emergency replacement for the Australian touring team in England in 1878. He was also a very capable sprinter, recording 10 2/5 seconds for 100 yards in a challenge match for high stakes at West Brompton in 1872. His name became better known in a thespian context as he was secretary/manager of the Empire, Leicester Square, in London, and founder of the H.M. Tennent theatrical agency. He died at Westminster on 19 April 1904.

The Tennent family was responsible for not one but two World best performances in the same event because a third brother, John (born 31 July 1846), also recorded 10.0 when he won the 1868 Inter-Varsity 100 yards for Oxford at the same Beaufort House track, West Brompton, in London, on which his brother would run 10.0 two months later. If the report in “The Times” for the following day (4 April 1868) is correct, it was a most spectacular race to watch as Charles Absalom, of Cambridge, who had twice run 10.0 in a day at his university trials the previous month, led by four yards, only for Tennent to come with a rush and win by 2½ yards. The other Cambridge runner, Charles Corfe, who had also run 10.0 in March, was 3rd. “The Times” says there was a “slight wind to the rear” but gives the winning time as 10 1/5. Like his brothers, John Tennent was also a cricketer and played two matches for Victoria state in Australia.

Thanks to Peter Lovesey, Peter Matthews, Neil Leitch (Cricket Scotland) and John Sturgeon (Liverpool Cricket Club) for their help with this article.