Florence Ilott: The Sprint
Three-hundred-and-fifty-three meters in fifty seconds.
It was in 1934 that Florence Ilott dashed across the Westminster bridge in the time it took Big Ben to ring out his twelve chimes at noon.
A member of the staff at the House of Commons, Florence was a young Brit and an amateur sprinter. She had started working in one of the tea rooms Parliament as a teenager. Like much of the young, unwedded staff would have, Ilott lived on the premises where the chimes of Big Ben would ring out all through the night.
It was one of the members of Parliament, a man who knew of Ilott’s love for sprinting and her speed, that suggested she undertake one of Britain's most challenging running challenges. Though the origins of the challenge are unclear, workers at the House of Commons, staff and Members of Parliament alike, had long attempted to sprint across the bridge in less than twelve chimes.
On the morning of April 14, 1934, the 20-year-old Ilott donned her running gear (which, let’s face it, was likely made of wool or something equally as heavy at the time) and readied herself at the southern end of Westminster Bridge. The buzz was huge, as no one had ever successfully completed the run in time before. Members of the press lined up, cameras in hand, hoping that Ilott might be the first to run the bridge in less than twelve chimes.
The first bell chimed at noon and Ilott was off. She dashed past walkers and onlookers, writers from the Associated Press, the Evening Standard and the Daily Sketch, and traffic-bound cars alike. As the bells chimed, Ilott picked up speed, hitting her full-sprint stride within the first hundred meters.
By the time she’d reached the finish, Big Ben’s bell had only rung ten times. Not only did she beat the challenge, but Florence Ilott beat it with time to spare.
It had taken fifty seconds.
Extrapolated out, that’s equivalent a 56.6-second four-hundred-meter dash which, in 1934, would likely have been a world record (the first women’s world record wasn’t recorded until 1957 when it was clocked at an even 57.0).
Ilott became an instant celebrity around Britain as the press went wild for her and her feat, leading to her having a hugely successful career as a sprinter specializing in the 220-yard dash.
Sadly, this was back when female runners were unable to compete professionally, thus the fruits of Florence Illott’s talents were the clocks, crockery and cutlery she’d won at race after race in lieu of prize money; talismans of her lightning-quick speed that filled her home as she raised a family throughout the rest of her life.