One of NZ’s earliest world champion athletes has a close entirely tenuous relationship to Wellington Scottish – his name was Scott.

Born in 1860, Joseph Scott was actually Irish. He came to Dunedin via Australia in 1861 or 1862. By the age of 13, he had taken up the sport of competitive pedestrianism. Pedestrianism is probably best described as ultra marathons for race walkers. And in the late 1800s it was massively popular – with its close links to gambling it drew huge crowds who would watch the pedestrians walk through the night for dozens, or hundreds, of miles.

Former Scottish club member David Colquhoun, writing a history of athletics for Te Ara, notes:

“There were widely publicised matchups between the best performers, with large amounts gambled on the outcome. A particular interest was in endurance walking, on tiny circuits in smoke-filled halls, with competitors trying to outlast each other over very long distances.”

Jane Thompson, writing for Te Ara, records Scott’s first race walking appearance in 1874, as a tiny teenager:

“Although he was disqualified for breaking into a run, the performance of the ‘plucky little fellow’ – apparently just three feet six inches tall and out-walking tall men – was astonishing. He was presented to the governor, Sir James Fergusson, who is reputed to have said, ‘Bravo, little man.…Some day you’ll be champion of the world!’”

Helen Gilmore reports that Scott’s walking career blossomed after that:

“In 1879 he became New Zealand champion after walking 106 miles (170km) in 24hr against eight other competitors at the Garrison Hall in Dunedin. In 1885 he defeated the visiting British champion, Arthur Hancock, at the Garrison Hall, and broke the world record by eight minutes in a solo walk of 100 miles in 17 hours, 59 minutes. In 1886 he was declared champion of Australia.”

Joe Scott displaying trophies and belts

In 1887 the Christchurch Star reports on the preparations for his match against local Cantabrian, Captain Cotton.

“Yesterday men were engaged in laying the sawdust track on which the competitors will walk. It is constructed on the same principle as that on which Captain Cotton walked last year, but is, of course, proportionately wider. Some gentlemen have offered the use of a punkah for the purpose of reducing the temperature of the room for the competitors, which, as a large attendance is expected, will be appreciated by them.”

As it turns out the match was postponed. Cotton eventually won 119 miles to Scott’s 117 miles – but Cotton had started with a 10-mile handicap, so Scott had actually caught up 8 of those miles.

Two months later, the rematch was controversial:

“The 24 hours’ walking match between Captain Cotton, of Christchurch, and Joe Scott, which was to have started tonight, collapsed. A large number of persons were present at the hour of starting when Scott’s trainer made an announcement that Captain Cotton’s trainer had informed him that if Cotton was not allowed to win he would be ill when the time of starting arrived. A doctor’s certificate was read to those present. It stated that Captain Cotton was suffering from a severe indisposition, and it would be injudicious for him to walk any distance. Scott walked for an hour, and those present left grumbling. The doctor’s certificate is genuine enough, but the statement of the trainer seems inexplicable,” noted the Evening Post.

However, the story that Cotton’s trainer requested Cotton only walk if he was allowed to win — although widely reported — appears to be apocryphal.

Cotton and Scott actually raced several days later on 31 Aug 1887. Although Cotton was not yet fully recovered he nevertheless managed to walk 109 miles. When Cotton gave up the race (because he was passed), he “mount[ed] the platform (and) said he would continue if the spectators wished, but he was beaten. He had walked through the match, though utterly unfit, because he had determined not to leave Dunedin without giving satisfaction. Any thing crooked about the match had not been by him. He thanked them for the cordial sympathy shown him during the walk, and said that if he had been in Christchurch he could not have been treated more kindly.”

Moreover, it was Joe Scott who came up with the concept of a 10 mile handicap challenge, and Captain Cotton only accepted on the condition that at least 75% of the winnings went to the athlete. Cotton furthermore promised any of his winnings to charity. Captain Cotton seems like he was a righteous fellow!

By 1888 Scott was a superstar. The Otago Daily Times reported he and his trainer Alf Austin came into the newspaper office to announce his racing schedule. The story reports various debates between Scott and other racers and trainers of the day over the quantum and division of prize money. It reads like the modern-day machinations of boxing promoters. Eventually, Scott agreed to seven matches:

  • Saturday, January 21,—Joe Scott v. Arthur Hancock-to walk 12 hours, for £100.
  • Friday and Saturday, February 3 and 4.—Joe Scott v. Jack Hibberd-to walk 21 hours (12 hours per diem), for £100.
  • Saturday, February 11,—Joe Scott v. Arthur Hancock—to walk 50 miles, for £100.
  • Monday, February 20 and the following days.—Joe Scott v. Billy Howes—to walk for six days (12 hours per diem), for £100.
  • Saturday, March 3,—Joe Scott v. Jack Hibberd,—to walk 12 hours. for £100.
  • Saturday, March 17. – Joe Scott v. Owen Hancock,—to walk 24 hours, for £100.

For reference, £100 in 1888 is worth about £13,000 in 2021 or NZ$26,000.

The Christchurch Star recorded the results of some of those matches:

“Scott has won two important matches (a twelve and a twenty-four hour walk against Arthur Hancock and John Hibberd, both crack performers, and admitted to be thoroughly ‘fit’ and well. The first proved a hollow affair, for Scott merely waited on his opponent till he fairly broke him down at forty-three miles and a half. Hancock then retired, and Scott, going steadily along, covered sixty-four miles in the given time.”

Advertising Great Six Days Walking match at the Royal Aquarium, featuring Joe Scott

From there it was time to take on the world championship in London.

The Thames Advertiser gives a detailed analysis of one of his warm-up matches against the highly regarded Hancock, noting “Hancock stood as much chance as a packhorse would against a thoroughbred”. Scott was pulled off the circuit for three laps after the venue owner took offence to him wearing a singlet, but he still won comfortably.

From there it was on to the World Championship:

“The six days’ walking match between Scott, of New Zealand, and Hibberd and Franks, of England, in which the competitors had to walk 12 hours a day was concluded last night. Scott won the match, covering 364 miles, which is the best performance on record. Hibberd walked 337 miles, and Franks 319.” reported the Evening Post

He won ₤100 and the R. Lewis Champion Belt, which he paraded around Dunedin upon his hero’s return.

However the following year Scott’s luck seemed to turn. He was charged with fraud after a pedestrian tournament in Adelaide.

In 1890 he was charged with assault after threatening to shoot a barmaid.

After that, his name seems to slip from the records of the time. Gilmore records that he and his family spent much of his last years in poverty:

“In 1889 he was declared bankrupt. A boot-maker by trade, Joe eventually became ill with a throat infection, thought to have been caused by his habit of holding boot studs in his mouth while working, and developed cancer. He died on 9 February 1908, leaving his family ‘in poor circumstances’, and unable to provide a headstone for his grave.”

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