The birth of cross-country: Shrewsbury School’s historic role in sport

“All hounds who wish to run, run hard, run well, and may the devil take the hindmost”.

Huntsman Charlie Ockleston
Huntsman Charlie Ockleston

The words echo around the grounds of Shrewsbury School and are followed by the blast of a ceremonial bugle. Huntsman Charlie Ockleston watches as a squad of young cross-country runners bustle off into the distance.

Charlie is 18 and the 186th Huntsman, which is the name of the captain of cross-country at the prestigious school, which is also called The Hunt.

Dressed in a traditional black velvet cap and clutching a whip and the bugle – both dating from the 1800s – his role is one that carries a lot of history with it.

Huntsman Charlie Ockleston gives the bugle a blast to set runners on their way

This year cross-country is 200 years old. The Hunt has a particular interest in that fact – because it is the oldest cross-country team in the world.

Written records date from 1831, but the origins of organised cross-country running at the school can be traced back to 1891.

A group of boys at the school had wanted to form a mounted fox hunting club – a request that was declined by headmaster Dr Butler.

A steeplechase water jump in the 1940s
A steeplechase run in the 1880s

Instead, the boys took to their heels and ran across the Shropshire countryside, almost mimicking the hunt.

“The Huntsman now performs the old ceremonial role of setting off the new entrants race at the start of the year, setting off various school races and of course leading the team, or Hounds as they’re called,” says Charlie, who is originally from near Malpas in Cheshire.

“It takes a lot of hours and a lot hard work to become huntsman and it’s a real honour. I wouldn’t say I’m naturally gifted at running, but I work hard and enjoy it, which helps.”

Huntsman Charlie Ockleston

The club prides itself on its history and traditions, but also points to its successes and prominence on the national cross-country scene.

The walls inside the sports area of the school are lined with a long list of huntsmen, of which Charlie is one.

“There are a few names on that list that I really aspire to be like,” says Charlie.

Notable recent Old Salopians include Oli Laws, who competed for Great Britain, and Oli Mott who competed for British Universities.

In recent years the club has swelled in numbers, with about 70 boys and girls regularly training and competing with the hunt each season.

The school’s heritage in the sport is widely recognised. Recently Charlie started the 2019 World Cross-Country Championships in Denmark with the traditional chant in recognition of Shrewsbury School’s role in codifying the sport.

History teacher Ian Haworth is in charge of the cross-country team and chooses the Huntsman.

Teacher Ian Haworth

“It’s all about hard work,” he says. “We look at third formers who are 12 or 13 and have discussions about whether they might be a future Huntsman. I have to think about it year on year.

“Running when you’re a teenager is not always a thing that gets you fired up and it not always the most popular sport to choose. But what I do think makes it a popular option is that they feel like they are part of something quite historical and important.

“For us it is very important for us to make those links to the past and inspire them to put those trainers on and get out there because they know they are in a long line of runners going back to 1831.

“The club is important. Being the head of it takes up a significant part of my time organising races and training, but it is tremendously rewarding.”

The 1923 junior paperchase gets underway

The club is part of a county-wide athletic tradition that also takes in its role as the birthplace of the Olympic movement.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s visit to the 1890 Much Wenlock Olympian Games led to the International Olympic Committee being formed, and 1896 Athens Olympics.

Shrewsbury School headmaster Leo Winkley, unlike his predecessor Dr Butler, is fully supportive.

“Cross-country is a sport that cultivates grit and determination,” he says. “It crosses boundaries and is open to all who are willing and able to take up the challenge. Shrewsbury School occupies a unique place in the history of the sport. The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt has evolved into a thriving cross-country club for girls and boys, and we are proud of our heritage and tradition.”

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