This is Nottingham
BY the spring of 1870, Nottingham Forest Football Club had just completed its fifth season of play, though this meant the team had competed in fewer than 30 matches in total.
Home games were played on the Forest Recreation Ground which was bounded only by ropes – making the charging of admission to games impossible, although few people were actually watching games in those days.
The first record of a paying public at a home game came in January 1870 when the Reds faced Sheffield Norfolk at Trent Bridge. The first noted Forest attendance was "more than 400" that day.
One way for the club to raise funds was to branch out into other sports. The players at the time were often seen as all-rounders, playing cricket, rowing and running, so it was a natural progression for the club to plan an athletics meeting at the end of the football season, and to do so at Trent Bridge where they could charge for admission.
Members of the Forest club resolved to form a committee, as they often did in those days, and the newly-formed, and grandly titled, Nottingham Philathletic Association was born.
In April 1870 they hosted their first event, becoming pioneers in a movement that saw football clubs across the Midlands host similar sports days.
Behind the event was a host of local dignitaries, including MP Sir Charles Seely, Anthony John 'A J' Mundella, a local Justice of the Peace and Sheriff of Nottingham as well as a serving MP, and Auberon Herbert, a writer, philosopher and MP.
The official starter at the races was Sir John Turney, the renowned Nottingham industrialist.
An estimated 2,000-3,000 people paid to watch more than a dozen races and competitions and the meeting's popularity meant it quickly grew in size.
A year later the crowds had doubled to 6,000 when Forest co-hosted the event with the Nottingham Manufacturing Company, founded by Mundella; but by 1872 the Philathletic Association was dissolved and the event was renamed the Forest Athletic Sports.
By 1878 the crowds broke the 10,000 barrier and the event drew competitors from all around the country. For comparison, Forest's largest crowd during the 1877-78 season had been 3,000.
In the early 1890s the event was described as "amongst the best managed, best attended, and most substantially rewarded gathering of the kind in the country".
Local writers described the scenes at the meetings in glowing terms, claiming that, "never throughout the year does Trent Bridge present such a pretty spectacle", as men, women and boys in their 'Sunday Best' migrated across the river for the day's festivities.
It wasn't just about a nice day out in the spring sunshine, though. The quality of the competitors improved dramatically and a good indication of the level which the Forest Sports had reached came with the revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
The 100 metre sprint at the first modern Olympics saw the bronze medal won in a time of 12.6 seconds. Eighteen years earlier 12.5 seconds was the winning time recorded for the 100 yards event at Trent Bridge.
In 1878 the amateur world record for the mile was 4 minutes 24.5 seconds, while at the Forest Sports that year the winning time was 4 minutes 29 seconds. The Forest Sports were not merely an end-of-season jolly.
C J Spencer, from Basford, was one of the early stars, being one of the first athletes to measure his strides between hurdles and to use the 'tucked leg' method of clearing the obstacle.
Also excelling at the early events was the inimitable Sam Weller Widdowson, innovator and top scorer in eight of Forest's early seasons. Widdowson was the man to beat at most of the running events from sprints to middle-distance races.
Sam Bestow was another who gave world class performances. He reached 5 feet 5½ inches in the high jump, while the first Olympic competition gave a silver medal to a jump of 1.65 metres, or 5 feet 5 inches. Bestow won more than 200 athletics prizes during his career, including 95 first place finishes.
Alongside the whole range of running, walking and jumping events, the sports included an early version of the pole vault and gymnastics exhibitions.
Then came a series of more unusual competitions which might have been more suited to It's a Knockout. These included "ball gathering", a sack race and a ball-kicking competition. At the inaugural event in 1870, W H Revis, who had notched the Reds' winning score in their first ever game against Notts County, won the prize for the longest kick with a football, reaching an impressive 161 feet 8 inches, and this with the heavyweight Victorian ball.
Harry Davies won an award for the "neatest costume" as judged by a committee of ladies, while Forest continued to be forward-thinking by hosting a velocipede race which would be known as a cycle race today.
The racers sat on a 'boneshaker' cycle which was made with an iron frame and wooden wheels. The wheels had 'tyres' made out of iron and gave a very uncomfortable ride, especially across uneven surfaces. Reports of the event referred to participants "ploughing their way along the turf", which would have dismayed the groundsman.
The sports continued up until the time of the First World War but then petered out. There was a brief attempt at a revival during the Second World War but it is the earliest days which are the most memorable.
In 1891 it was written that "the Forest Football Club... has been the vehicle for bringing forward and encouraging some of the most capable athletes in the country," showing once again that Forest was one of the most innovative clubs in the land.
The full story of the athletic sports meetings and much more will be revealed in the forthcoming three-volume Historical Almanac. It will not be for sale in shops and can only be pre-ordered directly from Pineapple Books. The A4 sized, hardback books will be individually numbered, signed by an ex-Forest player and contain the subscriber's name. There will not be a paperback version. Details of the £60 set can be found at www.pineapplebooks.co.uk
The books, totalling more than 700 pages, include details of the club on a season-by-season basis, full statistics of every match played in more detail than ever published before, and biographies of more than 1,500 players and staff members.
The first volume is being printed in May 2014 and will be sent out soon afterwards. Copies can be reserved by sending a £20 deposit payable to Pineapple Books Ltd, 246 Nottingham Road, Burton Joyce, NG14 5BD. You can contact Rob Jovanovic at email@example.com for more details.