The Brotherhood of Centurions 1911 - a short history
What is a Centurion?
“A Centurion is one who, as an amateur, has walked in competition in Great Britain 100 miles within 24 hours.” This definition describes the members of a very special Brotherhood that was founded in 1911.
1911 - the foundation of the Centurions
Between 1902 and the Centurions foundation in 1911 walking as an (amateur) athletic sport had become established (professional athletes still existed) and some 50 people had qualified in six events by the above definition.
A fascination with long-distance walking in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century contributed directly to the formation of the Centurions in 1911.TThe idea of forming the brotherhood was conceived by E.R. Bob Gillespie, who had walked 106 miles non stop in a 24 hour race in 1908. The formation meeting was held at the Ship and Turtle, situated at 131, Leadenhall Street, London on 11 May where Mr James Edward Fowler- Dixon, having walked 100 miles in a recorded time of 20 hours 36 minutes 8 seconds in a race at Lillie Bridge, Fulham, London in 1877, was elected President, being the senior and longest qualified person present, and given the auspicious membership number “1”. The founding Centurions were in part the same small group of walkers – including Hammond, Neville, and Barnes-Moss - who in 1907 founded the Southern Counties RWA. [see below signatures of those early Centurions taken from Minute Book One]
The rules for membership were that an applicant must have fulfilled the performance criteria and the application must be unanimously accepted by members at a general meeting. Membership numbers would be awarded in strict sequential order of qualification/ election. Only 2 numbers have ever not been used, 99 and 453, the former due to a disputed performance, the latter due to the applicant subsequently being found already to hold a number.
Since then, Centurion members have come from many countries around the world. The numerous Dutch and Belgian members of the Centurions 1911 have their own active organisation, the Centurion Vereniging Nederland (CVN) and each year the English and Dutch Centurions compete for a special trophy. Some other countries organise Centurion races and make their own awards. The other five Centurion organisations worldwide are: the Continental Centurions (based in The Netherlands,) and those of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Malaysia. [read more on these organisations]
Between 1877, when Fowler-Dixon walked 100 miles, and 2012, 89 Centurion qualifying events have been held in the UK. The 2012 event in Colchester saw number C1105 awarded. Centurion qualifying events have generally been held annually (except during the two world wars when competitions were suspended) and have come to incorporate the RWA long distance championship. The great majority of Centurion qualifying events have been road races, with 16 of the 89 events held to date taking place entirely on the track. On some occasions, other events, including the RWA National 50kms championship, have been held alongside the 100 mile challenge. Kings Lynn in 2005 saw a “twilight twenty” miles race and the Isle of Man in 2006 saw over 100 walk a “starlight twenty,” giving a wider community of walkers the experience of being part of the Centurion race.
From the earliest events, 24 hour track races took their place alongside the epic road journeys which survived until road traffic pressures in the 1970s and 80s caused organisers to seek alternative courses, first around quiet rural lanes and then around parks and other “closed” spaces. One attraction of the track has always been the opportunity it presents to achieve fast times under conditions which allow for close judging and support. The roads too have inspired some outstanding times and performances, many walkers favouring the experience of the “journey race.”
From the early years of Centurion qualifying events, some excellent times were achieved. Tommy Hammond’s 1907 time of 18.13.37 was for the full 104 miles Brighton double journey. For some years, the 100 miles times on the Brighton road were not always recorded. Tommy Richardson (holder of the world 50 mile track record) was awarded Centurion number 100, in a time of 17.35.04 achieved in the 1936 Brighton event. The Brighton double journey was organised by Surrey Walking Club 17 times between 1902 and 1967. Other point-to point events took place on the Bath to London Road (1952,) Birmingham to London (1953), Blackpool to Manchester and back (1954), and Sheffield to Harrogate and back (1956) - these four races organised uniquely among 100 mile events by the RWA itself with sponsorship from the Sunday Dispatch newspaper. Between 1958 and 1978, Leicester WC organised the Leicester to Skegness race 11 times. In 1998, the chance to complete a beautiful journey was presented by the Isle of Man 85 miles Parishes walk (during which the walkers touch the gate of each parish church on the island) to which was added 15 miles along Douglas promenade.
Events on shorter road courses, during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, included the Chigwell, Bristol, Ewhurst (six times,) and Leicester Congerstone and Hungarton courses (eight events.) More recent events in public parks, sports grounds, and private spaces have included the Hendon, Battersea Park, Colchester, Newmarket, King’s Lynn and Douglas events. The 1993 Battersea Park event, organised by Surrey Walking Club and the Metropolitan Police WC, was the only British event to host a 200 kms qualifying race for the Paris-Colmar classic. Various tracks have provided venues for the 100 miles race, from Lillie Bridge in 1877 onwards. They include the tracks at White City and Woodford Green, London, Walton and Motspur Park, Surrey, and tracks in Bradford, Brighton, Leicester, Colchester, Ware, Blackpool and Milton Keynes.
Enormous gratitude is owed by walkers to those clubs which, over the years, have organised qualifying races, and to all those officials, timekeepers, judges, lap recorders, feeding station helpers, and supporters in many other capacities, who devote their weekend to making such events possible.
Perhaps the most notable track event took place at Walton in 1960 where Hew Neilson (C145) set a new world record for 24 hours of 133 miles 21 yards. Hew completed 20 Centurion events, a feat only equalled by Sandra Brown (C735) in 2005. Since then, Martin Fisher (C788) and Chris Flint (C849) have also completed 20 100s (2008 and 2010 respectively).
Colin Young (C317) achieved his Centurion status at Walton, completing over 131 miles in 24 hours. He became the first British walker to complete the Paris-Strasbourg (now Paris-Colmar) “Olympics of long distance walking” coming 3rd and 5th in his two participations. Since then Richard Brown, Sandra Brown and Jill Green have completed this event (540km for the men and 340km for the women with only short breaks).
Olympians who have been Centurions include Tommy Hammond (C10) who qualified in the London to Brighton and back in 1907, Len Mathews (C316) who qualified on the Leicester to Skegness in 1960 (at the time he was the oldest ever new Centurion at almost 67 years of age), Frank O’Reilly (C276) (competing for Eire) who qualified in 1958 also on the Leicester to Skegness, Don Thompson (C631) (Olympic gold medallist at 50km in the 1960 Rome Olympics) who qualified in 1978, and Dominic King (C1098) who qualified at Colchester in 2012 alongside his twin brother Dan (C1100), the first twins to become Centurions.
The Dutch and Belgian members of the Centurions 1911 are an enthusiastic and highly supportive group. Their number increased rapidly following the qualification of the first Dutch walker, Lieuwe Schol C291 in the 1959 London to Brighton and back. Including the Colchester 2012 qualifying event, Dutch and Belgian members of the Centurions 1911 number 317. Their many outstanding performances include the overall winners, other scorers and winning team in many events, Jaap Visser C944, the seven times winner of the Eddie McNeir trophy for the first man over 65, and other notable walkers such as Annie van der Meer C1055. The consistent support of our Dutch and Belgian friends is hugely appreciated, as walkers – many returning year after year, like Gerrit de Jong who completed 19 UK 100s – and in helping and supporting our events in many ways, including the compilation of race results and statistics on Centurion performances worldwide.
“Now the matchless deed’s determined, dared, achieved and done”