The History of Athletic Sports at Wellington

27 April 2020

The latest story from Wellington Archivist Caroline Jones traces the history of Sports Day, or ‘The Athletic Sports’ as it was known. Strange as it may seem, this event did not originate in the Summer term, but for almost eighty years took place over several weeks in March and April.

We believe that ‘The Sports’ began in the early 1860s, and to begin with were very rough and ready – there was little in the way of running tracks, and spectators frequently crowded onto the course, running alongside or impeding the competitors. Despite this, the finals (held after several weeks of heats) quickly became a popular event with visitors, including Old Wellingtonians, and there was even a band.

As the Sports were held so early in the year, bad weather was the norm. Year after year, reports mention bitterly cold winds, snow, rain and hail. By the early 20th century it was normal for the competitors to wrap themselves in rugs to try to stay warm between the heats, and the Year Book of 1910 contains lovely line drawings of a competitor muffled up in his scarf and coat with a rug wrapped round his waist, and a judge wearing a long overcoat.

Events were much as we would expect – flat races over distances varying from 100 yards to two miles, hurdle races, high jump, long jump, and various throwing events. Sometimes more novelty races were introduced, such as an obstacle race comprising such challenges as a maze, crawling barrels, ladders, planks and hurdles, or  a race for the band playing their instruments.

A permanent feature was the race for Old Wellingtonians, which started as a quarter mile event but was later much shortened. In 1890 it was specified that the race must be run ‘in cloth clothes’, believed to mean everyday clothes, rather than running kit, and we have some wonderful photos of middle-aged men running in their shirt-sleeves and waistcoats.

Between the World Wars, we can see the approach to athletics gradually becoming more organised. A club was formed to train College athletes in more modern techniques, and in 1937 the competition was finally moved to the Summer term. Wellington also began to compete in athletics matches against other schools, and after WW2 the focus shifted firmly to our achievements in these. You can find out much more in Caroline’s podcast, which is available here