It is very nearly a quarter of a century since the first attempt was made to decide a National Championship amongst cross-country runners. Three clubs were represented in the abortive endeavour of 1876. Greater success attended the more careful arrangements of the following year, and from 1877 the contest has been continued almost without a hitch. The qualification in the last sentence is rendered necessary by the events of the winter of 1896-7, when the Southern clubs, a trifle impetuously perhaps, refused to support the fixture as a protest against the wretched arrangements (particularly in connection with the dressing accommodation) which had obtained in the race at Minworth, near Birmingham, in March of the former year. Hence the Midland and Northern clubs had the contest of the Diamond Jubilee Year to themselves. Fortunately the breach, which ought never to have been created, was healed over before another winter came round, and the clubs affiliated to the Southern Counties Cross-Country Association once more accorded the National Championship that hearty support which had previously been given by them. Glancing back over the long list of National Champions it is gratifying to learn what support the event has received from the leading amateur long-distance runners.
Beginning with P. H. Stenning, of the Thames Hare and Hounds, who won on the first four occasions (a number which has not since been equalled) the honour went in 1811 to that plucky little runner, G.A. Dunning, of the Clapton Beagles, whose defeat of W. Snook over the Roehampton course was in itself a remarkably fine achievement. It was eclipsed, however, two years later, when Dunning, to the pleasant surprise of his friends, inflicted defeat on W. G. George (the greatest runner ever seen) in the last contest held over the Roehampton course. George had won the title in 1882 and he regained it in 1884. Snook's turn came in 1886; but, for reasons which the A.A.A. considered none too creditable, he lost in the following year to J. E. Hickman, of the Coventry Godiva Harriers. The latter repeated his success in 1887.
Twelve months later, E. W. Parry, of the Salford Harriers, one of the most brilliant amateurs at any distance from a mile upwards, scored the first of three consecutive victories. Parry only just failed to equal Stenning's record, James Kibblewhite, of the Spartan Harriers, beating the former at Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, in 1891. But an even greater cross-country runner than any of those we have mentioned came to the fore. It is doubtful whether H. A. Heath has ever had his equal at this phase of athletics. There was certainly nobody in the National Championships of 1892 and 1893 who could, in the slightest, extend the Smith London Harrier. Heath went abroad after his second success and was followed as National Champion by G. Crossland, of the Salford Harriers.
An unexpected Victory for S. Cottrell, Thames Valley H., in 1895, preceded another win for Crossland, after which S. J. Robinson, of Northampton (who, like Heath, has shone splendidly both across country and on the track), credited himself with a couple of victories. Robinson was not a competitor last year, but it is safe to say that in Charles Bennett we had a National Champion who was as well worthy to bear the title as any who had preceded him. As regards the successful clubs, the honour has been fairly well divided among the South, North, and Midlands, in which three districts, it may be pointed out, the Championship is held in rotation. Excluding this afternoon's contest the South claims five successes, Thames H. and H. winning twice, and the Spartan H., Essex B., and Highgate H. one each. Salford H. are credited with five wins, the Liverpool H. being the only other Northern club which has won the Championship. Birchfield H. have gained no fewer than six victories, their one-time great Midland rivals, Moseley H., having four, all gained in consecutive years. There have been two ties - Essex B. and Birchfield H. in 1892; Salford H. and Manchester H. in 1897.
To-day (Saturday) the National Cross-Country Union broke fresh ground, and held its Championship in Yorkshire for the first time. The entry of eleven cannot be considered as otherwise than satisfactory; although it was not fully representative of the paper-chasing strength of the country. One Irish club, the Haddington H., repeated its successful experiment of 1899, but there was a total absence of Scottish and Welsh teams. By the abstention of the Manchester, Southport, and Small Heath clubs, the race was robbed of such sterling runners as J. Harrison, E. Barlow, J. T. Rimmer and J. Barratt; while not a little surprise has been expressed that the Rotherham H., who won the recent Northern Junior Championship, could not see their way to compete over their own line of country. These minor disappointments apart, followers of paper-chasing everywhere looked forward with deep interest to to-day's contest. Not the least engrossing feature was the prospect of the struggle between those past and present champions, S. J. Robinson and C. Bennett whose first meeting it was since the latter had developed into the magnificent runner he had shown himself to be during the preceding eighteen months.
About 1,500 spectators assembled in the enclosures at the Rotherham Racecourse this (Saturday) afternoon, where a lap of a mile and three-quarters had been mapped out. As this had to be negotiated six times, the spectators had an excellent view of the race. The five Southern clubs and their supporters made the journey to Rotherham by the Great Central Railway, whose splendid arrangements landed them on the ground in ample time. There have been very few more interesting contests for the National Championship, the Finchley Harriers, for whom C. Bennett was first home, winning with 72 points. Birchfield H. 92 being second; and Salford H.,130. third.