The story of Bolton's sprinting champion

Posted on Monday 4th February 2013

The resting place of Ben Hart in Tonge Cemetery

Usain Bolt is the fastest sprinter of all time – and has made himself a multi-millionaire as a result. Not that long ago, though, all sprinters were amateurs, competing just for the prestige associated with winning.

That was when athletics in England was run by the Amateur Athletics Association, the world’s oldest governing body, having been established in 1880.

But before 1880 there were hundreds of professional sprinters in Britain and in the 1820s Bolton had the all England champion – Ben Hart. The University of Bolton’s Visiting Researcher, Dr. Peter Swain, writing in the latest edition of Sport in History, has unearthed his story.

Peter said: ‘I came across Ben Hart when I was researching the history of football in the nineteenth century. He was a publican then, arranging and playing in football matches in the 1830s. I then did a little digging and uncovered the story of an amazing athlete who was revered in the town in the 1820s and 30s. Many of his races were held on the streets of Bolton but he later progressed onto Kersal Moor in Salford for really big money races in front of crowds of several thousand.

Peter added: ‘Boltonians would gamble thousands of pounds on the outcome and he was known as ‘the man what drove the sovereign’. Employers in the town were not quite so keen, however, as he was known to empty the mills when he raced, usually on a Monday or Tuesday. News of his races would be sent back to the town by pigeon post and thousands would wait on Manchester Road, eager to hear the result, and, of course, collect their winnings.'

Benjamin Hart, born at Pikes Lane in 1806 died in1881 aged 75 and is buried in Tonge Cemetery.

Students can access Peter’s article entitled ‘Pedestrianism, the Public House and Gambling in Nineteenth-century South-east Lancashire’ through Athens and ‘Sport in History’.