Should we be celebrating, not the 60th but the 244th anniversary of the first four-minute mile? Scholars raise the possibility that some now forgotten professional runners in 18th century England achieved the feat. Plausible? Or just folklore?
What is certain is that professional running was well established by then, and had been since the previous century as the diarist Pepys attests. England’s wealthy classes wagered large sums on foot races, as they did on pedestrianism (competitive walking), prizefighting, cock-fighting, horse racing, rowing, and cricket, then often played as gambling-friendly contests between two men or teams of two.
Three candidates to be the first four-minute milers emerge from contemporary newspaper accounts: James Parrott, a London costermonger, and two runners known only by their family names, suggesting they were tradesmen or in the employ of wealthy patrons. They were Powell, a plater from Birmingham, and Weller, one of three brothers from near Oxford famed for running prowess. The upper classes might have staged, promoted and wagered on these sporting spectacles, but the lower classes mostly did the legwork, the two coming together in an entrepreneurial demimonde of money and masculinity.
Parrott’s run took place on the streets of London’s Shoreditch district on May 9, 1770. He had wagered 15 guineas to five ($2,940 to $980 in today’s money) that he could cover a mile inside four and a half minutes. The contemporary reports say he made his bet by running it in four minutes exactly.
See also: Breaking the Four-Minute-Mile Barrier
Seven years later 1,000 guineas (equivalent to $196,000 now) was wagered against Powell running a mile inside four minutes. That was a huge stake. A farm worker earned 15 guineas-20 guineas in a year then. As part of his preparations — and so his backers could assess his form — he ran a timed trial at Moulsey Hurst, a famous sporting venue of the day. Jackson's Oxford Journal reported that Powell came in just three seconds over goal, i.e., in 4 minutes 3 seconds. It is not known whether he was successful in the wager race itself.
The first evidence of a sub-four-minute time appears in October 1796. The Sporting Magazine reported Weller had won with two seconds to spare a 3-guineas wager to run a mile along a road near Oxford in four minutes. That would put his time at 3 minutes 58 seconds.
None of these timings has ever been ratified, and there are inevitable doubts about their accuracy. Details are sketchy, some accounts are hearsay, and uncertainties arise about the measurement of both the distance and the time, not to mention the evenness of the courses. Contemporary paintings of cricket matches at Mousley Hurst show an uneven terrain. The first precisely measured level running tracks were not laid out in England until the mid-1800s.
The timings shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, though. The technology for accurate measurement of courses existed. Distances, over grass or in the streets, would have been measured with an agricultural chain, which would have been accurate to half an inch. There are 80 chains to a mile, so distances, at worst, should have been accurate to within four feet, or less than a stride.
Chronology, too, had advanced to a point where timings to within a second were possible. However, the first reference to a timing device with features that we would recognize today as being those of a stopwatch dates to 1776, though it wasn’t until 1821 that a recognizable stopwatch, accurate to within a fraction of a second, was developed in France to time racehorses. Watch-sized versions weren’t available until the 1830s.
That time and distance could be measured accurately does not necessarily mean that they were. Horse race tracks often did double duty for foot races. They were frequently yards off their stated distances. However both parties in a wager — and that was why 18th century runners ran – would have had an umpire, and the event a referee to arbitrate disputes over sharp practice. That need for agreement, with money on the line, provided at least a rough check on the accuracy of both distance and time.
Skeptics doubt that Parrott, Powell and Weller, even if they were exceptionally naturally talented athletes kept fit by manual labor in a pre-industrial economy, could have achieved such fast times without modern training, nutrition and competition. But Peter Radford, a former professor of Sports Science at London’s Brunel University and a former European 200 meters record holder, points out that the study of nearly 600 footraces in 18th century England finds reports of many race times across various distances that would be creditable by modern standards.
He unearthed the equivalent of a 2 hours 10 minutes marathon in 1769 in London and a 12 miler by James Appleby in 1730 that was only a couple of seconds per mile off the pace of the current U.S. record for that distance. Radford says that crunching all the numbers he could find for an academic paper he published earlier this year, "Performance Trends of British Male Elite Runners Since 1700", he came up a hypothetical best one-mile time for 1775 of 4 minutes 6.5 seconds.
He acknowledges that the quality and quantity of the available data mean the margin of statistical error to that number is about six and a half seconds either way, i.e., anything from exactly 4 minutes to 4 minutes 12.9 seconds. "It becomes a matter of philosophy as well as mathematics to then decide what was most likely," he says. But the mathematics "opens up the intriguing possibility that 4 minutes was actually run."
An even 4 minutes at the very upper end of the probablity range? "The fates are playing games with us," Radford adds.
All of which raises another question of why performances fell off so dramatically after the end of the 18th century. Professional foot races in England remained popular well into the 19th century until the Victorians started remaking sports social purpose by organizing and codifying them as an amateur pursuit of gentlemen, taking the gambling and money out of it and pushing professional running to the periphery. Radford contends that it was the Victorian obsession with amateur and team sports that was responsible for the decline in running prowess. The recognized professional record for a mile, 4 minutes 12.75 seconds set in 1886 by Walter George, wasn’t bettered by an amateur until 1915.
Before the Amateur Athletic Association became the controlling force of athletics in 1880, all social classes in England ran for money, in the streets, on greens and across moors. Little heed was paid to records. No professional runner would want to run faster in any race than they had to win, so as to better their odds in the next one.
The AAA at first kept two sets of records, one for professionals, one for amateurs. Then, records could only be set on authorized 440 yard tracks and, Radford writes, “the sport was policed to eliminate the undesirables who ran for money, or whose jobs tainted them and rendered them ‘professionals’.”
Even in Bannister’s era, the Swedish runners Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg (whose world record Bannister would break) fell foul of officialdom for alleged professionalism. Bannister, himself, would have a record breaking time in a 1953 mile race disallowed by the AAAs because another athlete acted as a pacemaker, considered unsporting.
We may never know for certain whether Parrott, Powell and Weller or any of their unchronicled contemporaries ever ran faster than Bannister. The balance of the evidence we have is that is was unlikely but not impossible. But, as Radford told The Active Times, "the idea of the four-minute mile was alive and well in the 18th century. We will never be able to authenticate these performances, but we can see that the standard of running was very high in the 18th century."
Nor should anything be taken away from celebrating Bannister's feat sixty years ago of running a mile in under four minutes. He remains the first person we are certain did so.