Mike Guilfoyle, a member of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, ran marathons in his youth. But he could never match the speed of Harry Hutchens.
When I crossed the line in 1990 in my third London Marathon the sense of relief was palpable. Always a journeyman runner with a club called the Bow Street Runners I marvelled at the speed and athleticism of those who had finished a couple of hours ahead of me!
But it was with a sense of calm disbelief when many years later I read an account of a late 19 century runner dubbed by one local newspaper in a 2021 article as the ‘Usain Bolt of the Victorian era’ who now lies in an unmarked grave in Ladywell cemetery Hutchens was the Usain Bolt of the Victorian era.
Indeed, in 1924 Hutchens was described by Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100m champion as “the Jesse Owens of his day.” Owens’ best time for 100 yards was 9.4 seconds.
Born in Putney in 1858, he worked for a time as a messenger at Putney railway station before discovering a remarkable ability to run fast.
He turned professional in 1876 and his subsequent running career was studded with record breaking times.
The newspaper the Otago Witness in 1905 quoted one seasoned runner with the following accolade: “I consider that Harry Hutchens of Putney was the best sprinter of all time. Only men who could run and had run with Hutchens could understand what a marvel he was. I have been doing 10.2 for 100 yards but when running with Hutchens I am lost altogether. He could do 9.5 easily!”
For a more detailed account of Henry’s running career and his local family connections I would recommend that readers follow this link to an excellent local blog for an article from 2019 https://runner500.wordpress.com/tag/henry-hutchins/
But my interest in Henry’s illustrious running career was intrigued by an incident from 1887 when he was involved in a competitive race in West London called Lillie Bridge (near to Chelsea FC’s current ground) that resulted in a largely forgotten riot in which the stadium in which it was held was burnt down!
In 1887 a professional race between Harry Gent of Darlington and Harry Hutchens attracted large crowds to Lillie Bridge, and big stakes were bet on both runners.
Things started to unravel shortly before the start when a rumour swept through the stadium that the race had been fixed.
One of the runners was not fit (Mr Gent), and it seemed local gangsters had pressed for the contest to go ahead anyway so that they could make a killing betting against him.
The bookies called for the race to be cancelled and angry spectators demanded their ticket money back. And when the managers of Lillie Bridge failed to provide refunds, the crowd erupted into violence.
The rampaging mob pulled down the wooden structure of the stadium and surrounding buildings, smashed seating and set the wreckage ablaze.
The police that were present were beaten up after trying to resist them, and one man died in the chaos. Further police arrived on the scene and eventually managed to restore order, but not before Lillie Bridge was put beyond repair.
The venue was closed the following year, never to host a running event again. Unsurprisingly ,the AAA called a halt to this form of gambling-orientated professional sprinting.
Harry Hutchens died at his address in Catford on the 2nd January 1939 . He was interred in Ladywell cemetery , the same day as this obituary appeared in the New York Times.
LONDON, Jan. 5.–Harry Hutchens, one of the greatest professional sprinters the world has ever known, died today at the age of 81. He was at his best between 100 and 300 yards, and for a period of fifteen years was unbeaten
Sadly , his grave is presently unmarked and the cemetery burial records indicate that it lies in the section of Ladywell cemetery adjoining the wall of remembrance. His legacy to the pantheon of running legends remains undimmed and who knows one day a headstone may well remember one of the greatest sprinters the world has ever known?