In a fascinating article in The Guardian, Peter Radford argues that the 4 minute mile barrier was broken long before Roger Bannister's feat in 1954.
There were no celebrations on May 9 1970 to mark the 200th anniversary of the first four-minute mile, and no tours were organised to visit the gates of Shoreditch Church in London, where James Parrott, a costermonger, completed his measured mile in four minutes.
He had started at the Charterhouse Wall in Goswell Road, crossed the road, turned right and then ran the length of Old Street for a wager of 15 guineas to five (£1,380 to £460 in 2004 values). Parrott had wagered that he would run inside four minutes, but the men with whips and poles who had been positioned to keep his way clear did such a good job, and the conditions were so near perfect, that as he sped along Old Street it was clear he would be well inside the target time.
But James Parrott appears in no history of athletics and he has never received any recognition from the myriad statisticians and enthusiasts of athletics facts and figures. The truth is that they don't believe it. Way back in 1770, runners must have been third-rate, mustn't they? And those who measured the distance, timed the event, recorded it and reported it to the newspapers, were all probably incompetent in doing their jobs, too, weren't they? An eighteenth-century, four-minute mile, run by a man wearing snug-fitting, thin-leather lace-ups is not to be taken seriously. But the eighteenth-century, four-minute mile story does not end there.
In the late autumn of 1787, a runner by the name of Powell went one crucial stage further. He engaged himself to run a mile in four minutes and wagered the extraordinary sum of 1,000 guineas on achieving it (£780,000 in 2004 values). As part of his preparations, Powell ran a time trial at Moulsey Hurst near Hampton Court five days before Christmas. This was one of the oldest sporting venues in the country, and some of the best cricket and boxing matches and foot races of the previous 50 years had been held on its turf - several under royal patronage.
The purpose of the time trial was to assess his condition and for his backers to make a decision about how they would bet. The trial was a success and the newspapers reported that Powell ran 'within three seconds of the time' (ie within 4:03), but no details have yet come to light about the eventual run. However, it is clear evidence that runners and their backers believed that running a mile in four minutes was possible in 1787 and that they were willing to stake very good money on it.
Radford argues that the Victorian obsession with amateur sport is responsible for England's decline in running prowess prior to Bannister. The ability to train without having to otherwise work for a living certainly benefits the modern athlete, but this was denied by the 19th Century sporting ethos. "Before the Amateur Athletic Association became the controlling force of athletics in 1880, men and women of all social classes ran for money on the streets and on the moors and greens of England. Later, the sport was policed to eliminate the undesirables who ran for money, or whose jobs tainted them and rendered them 'professionals'." There's evidence to support the claim, and much more in this rich, well written piece; recommended.