How 3 men, 3 sacks of coal and 3 pubs became an International sporting event

Four years or so ago, I discovered that Gawthorpe is home to the World Coal Carrying Championships. Yes, this, blink and you’d miss it village, that you have to know how to find, is the home of an obscure world championship competition of world renown. To say this amused me would be an understatement, it naturally appealed to my love of the quirk. How yet again, ‘us fiercely proud Yorkshire folk’ can come up with a competition, dreamed up in a pub no less, which then becomes something of international renown out of our history as a mining and shoddy producing region, naturally impressed me. But let’s face it, we’ve made dark rhubarb forcing sheds a tourist attraction, so why not a coal carrying race?

Naturally, I went to see what all the fuss was about, this being pre covid. Out in the streets of this small village men and women have to struggle, uphill for the most part, for 1013.38 metres or 0.629 687.5 of a mile – to be exact, carrying bags of coal, 50 kgs for men, 20 kgs for women. Now that may have just made it sound quite easy, it’s not, Ben Fogle took part in the race in 2008 and declared it, “One of the hardest things I have done”. However, what struck me about the event was the numbers of people who turn out in support, how it has evolved into being a great opportunity to raise money for local charities and the wonderful camaraderie. Yes, in the spirit of Yorkshire, where we love supporting the underdog, the crowds cheer home the last runner every bit as loudly as the winner.

But how did it come about? How long has it been running? And what makes it uniquely from Yorkshire, other than the location that is. As I do, I couldn’t let these questions lie and set about doing some research.

The very first race was run in 1964, the winner a David Thompson, of Garforth who ran it in a time of 6 minutes and 52 seconds. Today, the record for the women’s coal race stands at 4 minutes 25 seconds and was set by Catherine Foley in 2011. The men’s world record holder is David Jones, of Meltham, who won the race in 1991 in a time of 4 minutes and 6 seconds. For good measure he did it again in the same time in 1995. Now that’s just showing off!

Some of the more fun facts I discovered are that:

  1. Such is the popularity of the event that in 2011, multiple men’s races were introduced. These allow for up to 35 men to compete in each with the best time taken across the heats.
  2. There are clearly some crazy Yorkshire men around. Terry Lyons of Meltham, near Huddersfield, has won the men’s coal race a record-equalling eight times, along with John Hunter of Scarborough. Yes, they’ve each won it eight times. Eight!
  3. Each race is officially timed by a clock that is used for timing racing pigeons, this has been the tradition from the beginning.
  4. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the characteristics of Yorkshire Folk, but there’s definitely a pub theme going on. The race was conceived in The Beehive, starts at the Royal Oak, ends at the Maypole and, if that’s not quite enough beer for you, it was sponsored by Clarke’s Brewery for over 10 years.
  5. Rather fittingly, the coal race trophies are made of real coal. The winners get a replica smaller version to keep, with the main trophy returned each year.
  6. In total, places are limited to 220 including men, women and veterans. So, think on if you want to sign up for next years’ race.

I was quite happy with that research and was going to leave it there, job done as it were. A quirk of Yorkshire covered quite adequately. But then, I happened to be flicking through Fred Hirst’s anthology, although I knew that the idea of the race was born in a pub, over a bit of banter, back in 1963 for this has been much reported, if local press can be considered, ‘much reported,’ However, did you know that a poem had been written about said encounter by our favourite Yorkshire poet, who it would appear was also there.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the moment the seed was sown, by non-other than my favourite Yorkshire poet, Fred Hirst:

The World Coal Carrying Championship

It began in the Beehive, a long time ago
The argument started as the beer began to flow.
Reggie Sedgewick, to Lewis Hartley did say,
‘I am a much better man than thee any day.
At carrying coal, I am surely the best
All tha wants to do is have a rest.’
Amos Clapham was there and this he said,
‘I can beat both of you stood on me ‘ead.’
Horace Crouch said, ‘For 10 pounds I will back
Reggie Sedgewick to be the first with the sack.’
Louis Hartley was not to be outdone
‘That 10 pounds is mine, it can easily be won.’
‘Ow’d on a minute,’ is what I said
Better introduce myself, my name is Fred.
‘There must be something we can do with this
It’s a great opportunity, too good to miss.
Let’s have a world coal carrying race,
On Easter Monday let it take place.’
It all started for a bit of fun
Surely the hardest race to be won.

Most of the research done for this post came from the Yorkshire Evening Post.
Barring 2020 the race is run on Easter Monday every year.

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