FIRST-FOOTING took on a whole new meaning for Wearsiders in Victorian times.
“Instead of hiking a piece of coal around the homes of their nearest and dearest at New Year, people hot-footed it down to Fawcett Street,” said local historian Carol Roberton.
“For it was there that a race which was to become the stuff of legends was held – a sprint along Fawcett Street to beat the chimes of the Town Hall clock as it struck midnight.”
The opening of the new Town Hall in Fawcett Street in 1890 paved the way for the racing tradition, although it is not believed to have ever been held as an official event.
“The building became a focus of many local celebrations, from Good Friday Parades to election results and Coronations. The race was probably an extension of this,” said Carol.
“It wasn’t a race against other people, but against the Town Hall clock. Perhaps it was done on a whim by just one person at first, and that spontaneous action led to a new tradition.
“Runners had to start at Gas Office corner and run the length of Fawcett Street in less time than it took the clock to sound out the 12 strokes of midnight – less than 38.5 seconds. Very tough!”
Almost nothing has been written about the Town Hall sprint over the years, although the final event – which took place in 1970 – was documented in the Echo.
“That race was held shortly before the demolition men moved in on the hall, and was the last chance for Wearsiders to try to beat the clock,” said former Echo journalist Carol.
“Some readers questioned at the time whether the legendary race was just that, a legend with no basis in fact, as so little was known about it. But it really did take place.”
Indeed, Hendon man Brian Winter contacted the Echo several years ago with his memories of the race in the 1950s, when it was run by a chap called Frank Wilkinson, of Norman Street.
“He did the run from Mackies Corner to Binns china store in about 1952,” Brian recalled. “I remember a picture of a woman kissing and consoling him after he had just failed.
“Frank was not a professional runner, but made his name as being fast by acting as a runner in local pigeon races, where the bird’s race ring had to be run to a central point to be recorded.”
Although Frank failed to beat the midnight chimes on his first attempt, he went back again the following year for another try – and found himself the centre of attention.
“It was quite a carnival event the second year, with crowds lining Fawcett Street,” said Brian. “A lot of other runners turned up too, though no-one beat the clock.
“Another local man added a bit of fun to the event – Samson Bereford, the strong man – who said he was going to dive off the bridge. But, at the last moment, he cried off.”
Other readers with memories of the race included Ellender Parker, whose two brothers were regular runners, as well as Wearside expat Margaret Rutter, formerly Gardiner, from Swaledale.
“My late husband Harry Gardiner held the record, I believe, until the Town Hall was closed and dismantled,” she said.
“He was a member of Sunderland Harriers and ran for Northumberland and Counties. I think the record was made some time in the middle 1950s. He died at only 41, in 1971.”
Today the New Year Town Hall race is but a distant memory – as, indeed, is the Town Hall itself.
“Even the Town Hall clock bells have disappeared – stolen from the underground car park beneath Sunderland Civic Centre in 1983. Alas they were never recovered,” said Carol.