The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 1 - October 1988

The Lenton Steeplechase

Each year one Sunday morning in late September or early October spectators eagerly gather at the roadside to cheer on runners as they take part in Nottingham's marathon and half marathon races. The streets of Lenton constitute some four miles of the course so local residents have every opportunity to get a good view of the runners. Probably most express a casual interest in who is winning; more often the vital concern is to check out how friends and relations are faring. Lentonians have been treated to this annual spectacle for the last eight years, but it is clearly not the first event of athletic prowess to happen here. One that Pat Bailey came across while working on the index of Nottingham papers for the Lenton Local History Society took place almost a hundred and fifty years ago. This was the 'Lenton Foot-Steeplechase'.

Photo by Paul Bexon

Not the Lenton Foot-Steeplechase, but this year's marathoners as they came along Leengate.
Photograph by Paul Bexon.

Probably in imitation of similar races put on elsewhere in the country at the time, Thomas Rayner, landlord of The Smiths Arms on Willoughby Street in New Lenton, had organised a subscription steeplechase, which, attracted seven entrants and if the reporter from the Nottingham Review is to be believed, a crowd in excess of fifteen thousand people. These gathered on the grassy slopes of The Park, on the bank of the river Leen (which then ran where Castle Boulevard is now situated), and along the side of the canal - all places which commanded a good view of the course. 'The line of country' was considered 'uncommonly well adapted for trying the metal of the men'. The competitors had to cross the river Leen near the former Rock Chapel of St. Mary (now more or less the site of Kenning's Car Hire), then the canal which was between four and five feet deep, after which were two brooks both about six yards wide, followed by three other dykes. Once they had touched a gate alongside the railway line the runners retraced their steps back to the starting point which was up by the Barracks in the north west corner of the Park.

The entrants consisted of William Simpson, a wagoner in the employment of Mrs Thorpe baker of Pelham Street, Nottingham, William Barnett of Sneinton, Henry Hetherington the sole Lenton representative, and Messrs. Norman, Milton, Smith and Turton, all from Radford. It seems that many a wager was made on the outcome of the race. At one point Milton was adjudged to be the likely winner with odds of 5 to 4 but when Simpson made his appearance the crowd evidently liked what they saw and he became the firm favourite.

Once the runners had shed their 'upper garments' the men came to the post and after one false start got away, Milton taking the lead at a pace which it was clear he couldn't sustain. Netherington, the local hope, lay second. 'When they came to the Leen these two with Simpson dashed into it, and of course fell, amidst peals of laughter, which were still louder when they emerged from the river as their legs and thighs looked as though they were encased in mudboots'. These three kept together until they reached the canal, across which Milton and Hetherington swam. Simpson, by walking across, was the first out. He cleared the hedge alongside and then jumped the first brook, followed by Milton and Hetherington, who were beginning to show signs of distress. 'Simpson now began to make play and bounded over the field at a very strong pace leaving his competitors and made an astonishing leap over the (next) brook into which Hetherington fell'. The other five took a slight diversion, crossing by a bridge and so avoiding this particular hazard. Simpson cleared the first two dykes easily but the last was so wide that he was compelled to wade through it and came out covered up to his middle in black mud. Simpson reached the railway gate, which he touched and on his return met the other six before they had even reached the last dyke. Finding he had the race sown up, Simpson slackened his pace and beckoned to his rivals to try and catch up. Simpson waded across the canal once more, apparently showing little sign of fatigue followed by Hetherington, Barnett, Milton and the other Radford men. Simpson ran up the ascent of the Park quite strongly and finished about 100 yards ahead of Hetherington who was in a terrible state, while in third place was Barnett, Sneinton's, by now, not so white hope.

The parties, 'with several patrons of athletic exercises' retired to The Smiths Arms where they 'partook of a substantial dinner and the cloth having been drawn and the prizes awarded... a pleasant evening was passed'.

The original account of the race appeared in the Nottingham Review 24.4.1840

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