THE fascinating history of a Bolton runner — said to be the 19th century equivalent of Usain Bolt — has been uncovered by a university researcher.
Just like thousands of people turn out to watch super runner Bolt in action, so the people of Bolton in the 1800s would turn out to watch Ben Hart run, with work grinding to a halt until the race was over.
Dr Peter Swain, the University of Bolton’s visiting researcher, has uncovered the story of Mr Hart, the all-England champion in the 1820s, while researching sport in Bolton.
Mr Hart, from Bolton, was well known before 1880, when athletics in England was run by the Amateur Athletics Association, the world’s oldest governing body.
At that time all sprinters were amateurs, competing simply for the prestige associated with winning.
Dr Swain 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.
“Just like Bolt, people everywhere would stop what they were doing to see him run.”
Dr Swain, who has told the story in the latest edition of the Sport in History journal, said: “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.”
Mr Hart was born in Pikes Lane in 1806 and died at the age of 75 in 1881. He is buried in Tonge Cemetery in Tonge Fold.