Earlier this month, British editor and publisher Scott Pack created a charming series of tweets to tell the story of Florence Ilott, who, in 1934, became the first person to run across London’s Westminster Bridge, a distance of 353.5m, in the time it took Big Ben to strike 12 noon. The tweets have now been seen by well over a million people, including British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith.
“As a teenager, in the early 1930s, she started working at the House of Commons,” Pack writes. “She was one of the tea room staff and lived on the premises. She cried all through her first night, as the chimes of Big Ben meant she was unable to sleep.”
“Her roommates told her not to worry and that she’d get used to the noise in no time. Sure enough, the next evening she slept like a log and never noticed the chimes at night again.”
Pack continues: “…there was a long-standing tradition for staff at the Commons, including MPs, to occasionally attempt to run across Westminster Bridge at noon before Big Ben struck twelve.”
By this time, Florence was 21. “Florence was an amateur sprinter and one of the MPs suggested she give it a go. So just before noon on April 14, 1934 she donned her running gear and awaited the first chime.
“The event was recorded by reporters and photographers from the Associated Press, Daily Sketch and Evening Standard, who saw her make it across the bridge by the tenth chime, becoming the first person to achieve the feat.”
Pack says Ilott had considerable success as a 220-yard-dash sprinter, in the days when runners were awarded clocks, crockery and silverware instead of money. “In later life her home was full of the prizes she had won,” he says. He knows, because Ilott was his grandmother. She died in 2002 at age 88.
Pack was thrilled to discover that someone had gone to the trouble of digitizing newsreel footage of Ilott’s run and posting it on YouTube. She can be seen booking it across the bridge, her head cocked to the right, as cars and pedestrians crowd the bridge. Pack doesn’t know whether his grandmother was aware of this footage–if she was, she never mentioned it.
The story lacks one detail of fundamental importance (which could easily be ascertained in real time): how long does it take Big Ben to strike 12 times? Interestingly, the newsreel contains a handwritten note that says “Florrie Ilott did the run by the stroke of 10–normally takes 40 seconds.” That would translate to a pace of approximately 1:53/km, which is so fast that the note-writer’s accuracy may be questioned (not to take anything away from Ilott’s accomplishment). Perhaps one day a modern-day version of the challenge will be re-staged in Florence’s honour (Dina Asher-Smith has hinted she is interested), and we’ll find out just how fast it’s possible to sprint across Westminster Bridge.