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Good sports

Mark Riddaway explains how Borough Market’s sports day became an event of national significance, thanks to some eye-opening acts of athleticism and the intervention of the world’s most famous man


Every year on Shrove Tuesday, Borough Market plays host to a pancake race – frenetic, eccentric fun, but hardly an athletic event of any great note. There was a time, though, that this great London institution was responsible for putting on grand sporting occasions, none of which involved hot batter.

For many years, the Borough Market Sports – an annual sports day for Market porters held at the Herne Hill Athletic Grounds – had a huge public profile, drawing crowds in their thousands. Its foundations were laid in 1904, when a cricket match was arranged between the Market’s fruiterers and salesmen. According to one report, “the fruiterers beat the salesmen in hollow fashion”, but a good time was had by all. The next year they gathered for a more general sports day, which became established as a genuine annual event in 1906.

In 1908 it took place in Herne Hill and by 1911 it had moved to Crystal Palace. Unfortunately, just as the sports day was becoming a regular fixture in the calendar, the First World War began and the event was seemingly consigned to history.

One of the main organisers of the sports day had been a fruit and veg trader and secretary of the Borough Market trustees by the name of William Blackman. By the late 1920s, he had begun to toy with the idea of reviving the tradition, no doubt encouraged by young porters in family firms who were sick of hearing their dads’ endless tales of athletic glory.

Blackman set about raising funds and inspiring publicity for a Borough Market Sports revival, scheduled to take place in September 1930, by writing piles of letters to newspapers, businesses and celebrities.

His hard work paid off when, on 27th June 1930, a letter was sent from the Hollywood offices of Charlie Chaplin, whose impoverished childhood had been spent on the streets of Southwark. Chaplin’s manager announced that yes, the actor would love to contribute to the sports day and so enclosed a cheque for £20. A famous name has always been PR gold, and with probably the most famous man in the world on board, Borough Market Sports suddenly became a matter of genuine national interest.

The headline event – partly because it was such a brutal test of strength, speed and balance and partly because it was the one that Chaplin’s prize money supported each year – was the half-bushel basket carrying handicap, which was open to all-comers and involved competitors racing around the stadium with 12 wicker baskets, each weighing almost 2kg, stacked precariously on their heads.

In 1930, this was rendered particularly tough by strong winds – a comic scene captured on the day by a Pathé News crew. “I can’t tell you ‘ow ‘appy I am to win this event for the Borough Market chaps,” the bashful-looking winner tells the reporter at the end, clearly shattered by his exertions. From the back of the crowd of jostling porters, all wearing flat caps and big suits, a voice shouts out: “Now give ‘im a pint!”

A similar event involved the carrying of 10-bushel baskets. Also fiercely contested, from 1933 onwards, was the inter-market relay race, in which the champion athletes of other London markets sought to spoil Borough’s big day. Many of the events were open only to staff of Borough Market and South London Fruiterers – as well as conventional cycling and running events, these included the obstacle race, sack race, band race, boot race, tilting the basket and novelty cycle race.

In 1933, Chaplin’s contribution included “two valuable prizes” for a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition. According to the South London Press: “Borough Market has among its porters a number of clever amateur actors, and they were practising ‘making up’ behind piles of potato sacks to impersonate the famous film star.”

Although 10 entries were received, only five cane-wielding little tramps turned up on the day. “One would not think numbering bashfulness among the traits of a Borough Market porter,” wrote the Daily Telegraph. Ever the joker, in 1935 the actor stipulated that, as a consolation prize, £2 10s of his contribution should be presented to the wife who had endured the misfortune of being married to an unsuccessful competitor for the longest time.

Some competitors found fame of sorts. A feature in the Evening Standard in 1938 included an interview with Alfred Hardy, 19, who worked on his father’s stall in the Market. As the winner of the half-bushel race, he had walked away with the Chaplin-sponsored prize of a suit, an overcoat and a gold watch. How did he train? asked the reporter. “Well, I gave up smoking for a month and practised carrying 18 baskets in short runs round the Market after work.”

Borough Market Sports raised thousands of pounds for charity. The main recipient was Guy’s Hospital, but lots of other charities and benevolent funds also benefitted. It is a crying shame, then, that the event came to such a sudden end.

The event scheduled for 6th September 1939 was set to be the biggest yet, with the BBC apparently preparing to broadcast highlights. The posters had been pasted up and a chunky 64-page programme had been printed. Then, on 1st September, German tanks poured across the Polish border and the battle for the half-bushel basket carrying cup was cancelled for a contest of a far more brutal nature.