David Owen

When Armand Duplantis, Katerina Stefanidi and their rivals go for Olympic gold in Tokyo this week, they will be vaulting on the shoulders of giants. A remarkable succession of these early champions came from the same friendly English market town that spawned comedian Stan Laurel.

One of the things I love about old books is that now and again you stumble upon a sentence which catches you completely unawares. I came across one such sentence on page 288 of a book called Track and Field Athletics that I picked out some time ago in our local second-hand shop.

The weighty blue volume had been published in 1947 and was the work of two University of Iowa academics, George T. Bresnahan and W.W. Tuttle. It is basically a compendium of then state-of-the-art information relating to a succession of athletics disciplines.

The sentence in question, which occurs in Chapter XI - The Pole Vault, reads as follows: "For years, the world’s record-holders all came from one small town, Ulverstone, in the north of England."

Come again? My late grandmother's family actually came from Ulverston, to give it its correct spelling, yet I had never heard a word of this remarkable nugget. Could it possibly be true?

After a bit of time immersed in the electronic newspaper archives that are among the unqualified blessings of the digital age, I managed to ascertain that yes indeed it was true, near enough.

Arguably the foremost of the Ulverston pole vaulters - the Sergey Bubka of the Furness peninsula, if you will - was a man called Tom Ray, whose chief accomplishments occurred in the 1880s, so just before the modern Olympic era.

This is how the gloriously entitled local newspaper Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer summarised Ray’s achievements while marking his rather premature death, aged just 42, in August 1904.

Ulverston today ©David Owen
Ulverston today ©David Owen

"During his career with the pole - he was also a first-class high-jumper - the deceased won several hundreds of prizes, and in his best days was champion pole jumper of the world…

"On September 19 1879 he established himself as a pole jumper by clearing 11ft 2 ¾in, the highest jump on record at that time…

"[Ray] enhanced his reputation at the Grasmere sports in 1885, when he once more broke his record.

"The height on this occasion was 11ft 5in…

"It was at Whitehaven in August of 1886 that he created a sensation by jumping 11ft 5 ¼in - another record.

"Whitehaven again provided another record [in 1887], when Ray cleared 11ft 6⅝in, undoubtedly the highest jump on record in those days…

"On August 22 1887, he went to America…

"On September 17, he beat the American champion, Baxter…

"Ray won the Canadian championship at Toronto, and also jumped with success at New York and Philadelphia.

"Returning to England, he competed at Barrow, where he made his highest jump (11ft 8 ½ in)."

A man of (increasingly) heavy build, he had stopped competing by the end of the decade. A long profile of Ray published by the Athletic News in July 1886, when he was at his peak, notes that he was inspired to take up pole vaulting by the success of another Ulverston man, Edwin Woodburn.

Edwin Woodburn has been described as the
Edwin Woodburn has been described as the "father" of Ulverston pole vaulting ©Courtesy of Jennifer Snell

I am indebted to local historian Jennifer Snell for a summary of the "pole leaping" exploits of this amateur athlete, who was a son of the owner of an imposing mill which still survives near the town centre, adorned with a couple of small Woodburn carvings cut into the stone on either side of the door.

Perhaps Woodburn’s finest hour as a competitor came at Ulverston in 1876, when he cleared 11ft 1in. According to Snell, this established him as "world champion and almost unbeatable".

For her, Woodburn was the "father" of the sport, since he "awoke the public to the spectacle", won countless medals and prizes, and inspired other young men to "take up the pole".

Other noted 19th-century vaulters from this tiny patch of north-west England included Lat Stones, who became a more than worthy opponent for Ray towards the end of his career, and Richard Dickinson, who improved the British record in 1891.

Having discovered something about these pole vaulting pioneers, I naturally wanted to visit Ulverston to retrace some of their steps. I was greatly assisted in this by Snell and her husband, Maurice, who escorted me to relevant landmarks ranging from Woodburn’s mill to the grave of Ray’s parents in the town churchyard to Flan hill, epicentre of Ulverston’s vibrant 19th-century sports tradition.

The earliest mention I found of the Flan sports dated from 1835, although this no doubt reflects the availability of newspapers in the archives rather than the true origins of the tradition.

According to the Westmorland Gazette’s reporter, the day was "uncommonly fine", with those "whom leisure permitted to be spectators, or who intended to take part in the sports… on the qui vive early in the morning".

The technique on show at Tokyo 2020 is very different to that of Ulverston's famed voters ©Getty Images
The technique on show at Tokyo 2020 is very different to that of Ulverston's famed voters ©Getty Images

The day began at 10am with a six-mile "trail hunt" won by a dog called Crowner. After a pigeon-shooting contest came the day’s pièce de résistance - a wrestling competition featuring around 60 men staged in a ring "which was forty yards in diameter, well roped round, and as beautiful a piece of turf as ever man was thrown upon".

By the time the "Pole High Leap for One Guinea" (£1.05/$1.44/€1.22) made its debut, seemingly in 1849, Flan sports had expanded to two days, drawing thousands-strong crowds from miles around and delighting local innkeepers. According to the Kendal Mercury, an addition to the "leaping prizes" that year showed the "daring and agile manner in which the youth of the district can, with the assistance of a pole, clear at one bound a bar between eight and nine feet high".

By the following year, the prize pot for the event had soared to £2.50 ($3.43/€2.92), with first prize claimed by a certain Henry Harrington of Keswick in the English Lake District. Reported the Westmorland Gazette: "This portion of the sports at this great meeting seemed to create great interest in the numerous mass of lookers on. The pole high leap aptly illustrates the extreme agility the youths of the north attain with a little practice. The height cleared with a pole over a bar at one bound off the bare hard ground was not less than 9ft 5in. It is computed to be the greatest height that has yet been cleared in any public match. The ease and grace with which Harrington… seemed to fly over the bar won the admiration of every one who witnessed it."

Reading this, I wonder whether it would be legitimate to classify pole vaulting as the original "extreme sport".

Wrestling was and remained the blue riband event, however, with reporters alluding occasionally to Ancient Greece in their efforts to invest proceedings with their due decorum and significance. The account published in 1840 by the Cumberland Pacquet and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser starts with a poem referencing Ajax and Homer, before going on to describe the arena in which "Greek was shortly expected to compete with Greek in the manly and scientific pastime of the northern wrestling ring".

Local historian Jennifer Snell at grave of vaulter Tom Ray's parents in Ulverston churchyard ©David Owen
Local historian Jennifer Snell at grave of vaulter Tom Ray's parents in Ulverston churchyard ©David Owen

I have been unable to nail down a definitive answer to why this bustling little town and surrounding districts should have developed such an expertise for the pole-vaulting art. Yes, the area is criss-crossed with obstacles such as streams and dry-stone walls where, in the absence of gates and bridges, vaulting skills might have come in handy. But then so are many other places.

Having said that, the website of the local cricket club, founded in 1849, includes the following fascinating details.

"For many years the club operated with the largesse of the wealthy Kennedy family who owned and mined the huge haematite reserves on the Furness Peninsula… The ground, though amongst the most picturesque in the north of England was very inaccessible. It had no road access or mains services, and could only be reached by a footpath across three fields.

"There is a belief locally that the sport of pole vaulting was developed by Ulverston players en route from the cricket field to the town as a means of clearing the field walls."

While the club moved to new premises more than 40 years ago, local historian Snell was able to show me the field where the old ground was, adding that she could remember reporters from the newspaper where she worked being sent to traipse up there on Saturday afternoons to relay the score. I can confirm, if nothing else, that the scenic spot does seem somewhat remote, even today.

If there is scope for further probing into pole vaulting’s Ulverston origins, it is crystal clear why the reign of local men as pole-vaulting champions came to an end.

Their supremacy was based on a distinctive "climbing" technique explained admirably in my second-hand copy of Track and Field Athletics.

Pandemic-themed Laurel and Hardy graffiti seen in Ulverston ©David Owen
Pandemic-themed Laurel and Hardy graffiti seen in Ulverston ©David Owen

This reads: "The method employed by the 'climber' was as follows: He used a long and rather heavy pole, shod at the lower end with a tripod of iron, with a spread of two-and-one-half to three inches. The vaulter ran slowly down to the take-off with the pole grasped in the middle, and planted the tripod about three feet in front of the crossbar. He then let his body swing up and began to climb; the upper hand was raised a foot or so on the pole, and the lower hand brought up to it. This operation was repeated four or five times. By this time, the pole would be off balance and would begin to fall forward. The athlete would then raise his feet and go over the bar in a sitting position."

This technique must have required enormous strength, timing and technique to deploy effectively.

It is worth adding that, according to Snell, it is thought that the tripod device was invented by Stones. The metal prongs, she adds, often broke off in competition, requiring replacement on a regular basis.

As my book continues, the "peculiar technique employed by the Ulverstone [sic] school precipitated much discussion...

"In 1890, the pole-climbing technique was barred by American rules and later by Olympic rules."

Without this, it seems highly likely that Ulverston vaulters would have stepped onto early iterations of the Olympic podia to which Duplantis and Co now aspire.

If that had happened, I doubt their 19th-century feats of supreme athleticism would have faded into such obscurity.