The Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) first muted the idea of an indoor athletics competition in December of 1934. Stimulated by the successful events that had been held in American for many years, the AAA were keen to get this latest venture off the ground as they considered it a means to increase public interest in the sport. The date and venue, the Empire Pool at the Wembley Sports Arena on April 6th 1935 was agreed upon, with the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association also invited to take part. Of course this would not be the first time that athletes competed indoors in Britain. ‘Indoor’ pedestrian events in halls, skating rinks, gymnasiums and specially erected tents all over the country in the 19th century became popular at a time when endurance, rather than speed gripped the public imagination. Ultra-distance challenges, already popular outdoors, started to move indoors, with six-day events, thus avoiding Sabbatarian sensitivities, soon becoming the rage. The aim here was simple but daunting, just go around the track as many times as possible over the six days. Under the rules of pedestrianism, colloquially known as “go-as-you-please”, competitors could walk or run, eating and drinking as they went, more often than not playing up to the crowd as they monotonously slogged on and on. At one such venue, typical of the time, the Agricultural Hall in Islington, military bands would play while bookmakers hollered their odds and increasingly intoxicated spectators rowdily barked at their favourites to get a move on. Indeed during the late 19th century more spectators watched indoor athletics than outdoors.
In contrast to such professional proceedings, the inception of the 1935 AAA event was driven by the amateur National Governing Body (NGB), although a similar amateur undertaking, overlooked and under-reported, which took place in 1863, probably marked the first time that amateur athletics had seriously attempted indoor competition. In 1934 the press speculated as to whether the idea would take off and viewed the ‘novel’ endeavour with some indifference at first. This initial lack of media enthusiasm contrasted sharply with journalistic attitudes during 1863, when the proprietor of Cremorne Gardens, established a Gentlemen’s Gymnastics Club, and set apart the Ashburnham Pavilion, in which ‘..Pedestrian Matches and other manly sports might be engaged in during the winter months by the gentlemen amateurs of the Metropolis’.
The exact chain of events has been somewhat ‘lost in translation’ over the years, but it would seem that this small corner of modern day Chelsea could possibly lay claim as the birthplace of indoor athletics, with the availability of such a ‘capacious building’. The press enthused about the new indoor athletic arena, the racing portion of which included a 100 yards sprint track and a circular track for longer races being 220 yards in circumference and although the turns at first appeared tight, ‘…a very little practice enables the pedestrian to get round them with the greatest ease and comfort to himself’. Added to that, there remained ‘..ample space for every other known gymnastic sport and for the accommodation of several thousand visitors’. The seats for spectators were covered in scarlet cloth and the whole enterprise lauded for offering athletic sport in a perfectly dry and warm environment.
The inauguration meeting of the Gentlemen’s Gymnastic Club was held on November 7th 1863, when the members of the West London Rowing Club opened their winter campaign by engaging in a series of pedestrian matches. Rowing clubs at the time held athletics events during the winter months, in order that their members kept in good condition ahead of the summer engagements. However, prior to the availability of a building such as Ashburnham Pavilion, these events took place outdoors at the behest of the elements. The programme consisted of five events in all – 100 yards, 220 yards, quarter and half mile with the whole day being wound up with a lively hop, step and jump competition, which was won with a leap of 31 feet 3 inches (9.52m).
The full benefit and comfort afforded by competing indoors were all too evident on a day when it rained heavily during the afternoon. It obviated the necessity of stripping off in the damp or cold and the ‘shortness of time from business hours until dark’ being of no hindrance as the Pavilion was illuminated throughout by gaslight. Generally it was regarded that, with the possession of such a building of immense proportions defying the interference of the weather, the Ashburnham Gentlemen’s Gymnastic Club would prove a great success. A repeat event occurred in January 1864 but by the following month had moved back to its previous home, the Brompton Running Grounds. The reasons for the demise of this indoor event are unclear, financial, lack of support from other clubs or something as simple as the alternative distractions from the nearby Pleasure Gardens proving to exciting for the spectators to ignore!
The 1934 decision to attempt to make athletics an all year-round sport by staging an indoor championship was borne jointly from its popularity in America and the desire by the AAA to increase public awareness of the sport. This would, announced the press, ‘be the first time in the history of British Athletics that indoor championships have been held’. The newly opened Empire Pool was chosen as the venue, where a special wooden running track was to be constructed over the pool, with a sandpit for the jumping events. April 6th 1935 would see the AAA show-case six events while the Women’s Association were to stage five, Mrs Muriel Cornell, the honorary secretary of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA), stating that negotiations had been opened with the AAA to decide the races in conjunction with the Women’s Athletic authorities. By March final arrangements were in full swing and events were decided as:-
- 70yds sprint * 60yds sprint
- 70yds hurdles * 60yds hurdles
- Long jump * Long jump
- High jump * High jump
- Pole Vault * Putting the weight
- Putting the weight
After the event the press decreed that although the ‘experimental’ meeting suggested the Empire Pool to be an ideal setting for indoor athletics, more suitable flooring was definitely needed. Competitors were unable to use their usual spiked shoes on the wooden boards and the sprinters in particular, forced to wear regulation rubber-soled shoes, were in constant danger of slipping.
A full list of winners as reported are show below:-
The following year a 142 yard flat board circuit was installed which meant that longer races could be incorporated into the programme. Later in 1936 an agreement was signed to stage the AAA indoor championship at the Empire Pool for another three years, an indication that the efforts to popularise this branch of athletics was gaining ground. Further improvements were made to the track by banking it at both ends. By 1937 it was being reported that of the many dramatic changes in the promotion of track athletics of late by the AAA, the brightest was that of the promotion of indoor athletics. Indeed a record crowd of 5000 spectators filed into the Empire Pool in March to watch the country’s top athletes perform and many records were broken. It was announced by the AAA that it hoped to develop indoor athletics further in 1938 by staging several international matches and an invitation was sent to Germany for a meeting with British athletes in April. This country, the press declared, ‘has led the way in indoor athletics and the present invitation, which is understood to be accepted, is an attempt to extend it to European countries’. However for whatever reason this match never came off.
Unfortunately with the outbreak of WWII the 1939 championships were the last for some time and apart from a two day festival of sport in 1953, no more indoor athletics were held at the Empire Pool until March 1962. A new portable banked board track of 145 yards circumference was installed with associated field event facilities and nine two-day meetings were held on the track between 1962 and 1965, including the resurrected AAA championships between 1962-64. On 6th/7th April 1962, what was heralded as the first full-scale indoor international athletics match ever to be held in Great Britain, highlights of which were broadcast on the BBC, took place as GB entertained West Germany. It is further claimed that this was also the first indoor international match held anywhere in the world. Eventually the AAA took it’s championship to Cosford and the facility at the Empire Pool was not used again.