Sadly Wellington’s oldest sporting event, the Kingsley race, could not take place this week due to the coronavirus, but today we’re taking the opportunity to look back at its history.
Cross-country running was the first sport to be established at Wellington – before pitches or courts were created, it was the only one possible! It’s said to have been introduced by the Rev Charles Kingsley, Rector of Eversley and well-known in the Victorian era as a writer and social reformer. A devotee of ‘muscular Christianity’, he would take the boys out running and in 1860, just a year after the College opened, he offered a prize for a ‘steeplechase’ race which came to bear his name.
For 100 years, the race was run in the Blackwater meadows, down to the South-West of College. The course might vary a little from year to year, but always included several wet ditches, a boggy area which became known as ‘the Slough of Despond’, and a crossing of the Blackwater river. These could be formidable obstacles – the runners would finish covered in red mud or sometimes get stuck completely!
Soon there were separate races for Senior and Junior boys – the ‘Big Kingsley’ and ‘Little Kingsley’ as they were known. The race was a big event in the College’s year; there were not as many competitors as today, but all the students and teachers would go down to the meadows to watch.
During the 1950s it became more difficult to find a suitable course, as there were fewer ditches and more concern about water pollution. The last race in the Blackwater meadows was run in 1963. That year the junior race, the Little Kingsley, was won by James Hunt – later, of course, a world champion Formula 1 driver.
In 1964, the Kinsgleys record book records: The high level and polluted state of the Blackwater caused the Kingsleys to be abandoned this year. It seems quite probable that an alternative course will have to be found.’ Accordingly, in 1965, the race moved to the College grounds, where it has been held ever since. The organisers tried to keep to tradition when setting the new course, stipulating that it should be about the same length, over varied terrain, and should involve the crossing of water, with Swan Lake replacing the Blackwater as the main obstacle.
Since then, student participation in the race has increased, and new traditions have grown up around it. 2020 is not the first time the race has been cancelled – World Wars and outbreaks of influenza have had that effect in the past – but we know that it will be back as soon as possible.