Honest John Purcell World Record Holder

‘Honest’ John Purcell  was the world record holder in the long jump in the 1880s with a jump of 23′ 11.5″/7.3025m. He was one of the first Irish athletic internationals, representing Ireland in overseas meets against Canada and the U.S.A. in 1885.  Between 1884 and 1887 he was almost untouchable in the long jump and triple jump winning Irish titles in all those years, English AAA titles in 1885 and 1886 and a Canadian title in 1885 before emigrating to San Francisco in 1888 where he continued a long and illustrious athletic career.  It is believed he earned the moniker ‘Honest’ by calling a foul on himself in a triple jump attempt where he had cleared the world record distance at the time.

1885 Irish Athletic team that competed against Canada and U.S.A.

John Purcell on left (Number 1)

On Monday June 26th the Mayor or Ennis Municipal District, Cllr. Clare Colleran Molloy hosts an event in the memory of Honest John Purcell, an Athlete of whom Clare is Proud. 

  • Honest John Purcell Athletic Track Memorial Gate unveiling
  • Book launch of ‘Hero of Renown – Honest John Purcell of Barefield’ by Seamus O’Sullivan   

John Purcell – Ballymaley, Barefield, Co. Clare. Born May 1860.

John,known as ‘Honest John Purcell’, was considered by many as the world’s greatest all-round track and field athlete during the 1880s. He competed for three athletic clubs in the Dublin area – the Metropolitan Hurling Club, the Civil Service Harriers Athletic Club and the Haddington Harriers Athletic Club before emigrating to the USA in 1888 and continuing his career there with the famous San Francisco Olympic Athletic Club. He was a versatile athlete, competing in the hurdles, sprints, long jump and steeplechase among others, with the hop step and jump (triple jump) being his premier event.

An American Report selecting the top 10 greatest athletes of the decades up to the 1990s listed John Purcell at Number 9 for the decade of the 1880s. In the records for the various decades, names such as Babe Ruth, Don Bradman, Bob Fitzsimons, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Michael Jordan, just to name a few, are mentioned. John Purcell was ranked with the very best and the Clare Journal once described him as An Athlete of whom Clare is Proud.  

Malcolm W. Ford, a renowned American long jumper, writing in the Sunday Herald of 1890, described Honest John Purcell as “one of the best amateur athletes of his time”. The tribute to Purcell was written after he had successfully taken the Pacific Coast Title in the Hop Step and Jump. Ford wrote that Purcell was one of the best athletes seen in Great Britain, Canada and the USA. He described him at the time as being 29 years old, 5 ft 11 1/2 inches tall and weighing 165 pounds and he hoped he would reconsider his just-announced retirement as he considered him still capable of competing at the top level.

Ford reminded his readers that this brilliant all round athlete had done 10.45 secs for the 100 yards, 17.25 sec for the 120 yards hurdles, 53 secs for the 440 yards, 5 foot 7 inches for the high jump, 10 feet in the pole vault, 28 feet and ½ inch in the long jump, 38 feet in the 16 lb shot, plus a world record in the Hop Step and Jump of 48 feet 8 inches.

It is understood that John earned the title ‘Honest’ John Purcell due to the high standard he imposed on himself, frequently requesting that record-worthy distances achieved would not be officially recorded, in one case questioning whether there was a downhill slope on the approach. John was his own worst critic and quickly earned himself the moniker ‘Honest’ John.

To record every winning achievement accredited to him would be a daunting task given the excellence of Purcell and the frequency of his participation in competitions in Ireland and indeed further afield. The attached note lists some of his career world-leading performances.  

John frequently competed overseas and, reporting on a major meeting at Stamford Bridge London on July 10th 1886, the Times said the exploits of the Hibernian contingent astonished the Saxon. Purcell beat the best jumper that could be got to represent the honour of Olde England when he jumped 22 ft 4 inches beating his opponents by a full 8.5 inches. In the British Athletic Championship Records, John Purcell is listed as the champion in the Long Jump for 1885 in Southport and 1886 in Stamford Bridge London.

Michael Cusack, the founder of the GAA, commenting in the Irish Times of August 15th 1903 on the performance of Purcell and a fellow athlete at Limerick in 1887 noted that “Purcell led the way with 23 feet 5 1/2 inches, 3 1/2 inches in advance of the registered World’s record.” He went on to write “The jumping of these two neighbours was as natural to them as his own manner of locomotion was to a kangaroo. There was very little training as training is now understood. They got the training at home. It had been coursing through the family veins down along the ages.”

Renowned Irish Sports commentator, Tony O’Donoghue (RIP), pays homage to John Purcell in his book ‘Irish Championship Athletics 1873-1904’ with several references to Honest John’s achievements in the 1880s.

Having arrived in the USA, where he was already recognised as a world class athlete, John settled in the city of San Francisco.  He joined the famous Olympic Club and represented them at many championships. His home was in the suburb of Oakland. He married Mary Higgins from the south Dublin/Wicklow area in New York in 1888 and they had four children, sons Leo, Laurie and Percy and a daughter Anita. Regretfully, John died tragically on January 11th, 1904, at 43 years of age, leaving behind his wife and four children. John’s great-grandson Michael who lived in San Rafael, San Francisco until his passing in 2022, presented some of his great-grandfather’s trophies and gold medals to the San Francisco Olympic Club.

John is buried in St Mary’s Cemetery, Oakland, San Francisco. His father, also called John, and his Purcell ancestors are buried in Drumcliff graveyard in Ennis, just a stone’s throw from his home in Ballymaley and the athletics track which is now dedicated to him.

On April 30th 1904, the local San Francisco paper reported that “Sporting organisations in California are coming together to honour the memory of the late great athlete John Purcell. The Barefield man was one of the greatest athletes of his generation and a monument is to be erected in his honour in San Francisco”.

“It is scarcely necessary to speak of the credit and glory which John Purcell shed on the Gaelic name. He was the greatest athlete of the latter part of the 19th century, and in Ireland and in this land he maintained the honour of the Irish name on the athletic field. His name was one to conjure when he was at the height of his prowess.

Champion after champion went down to defeat before him and record after record was broken by him. He was a genuine amateur. He could have made money if he wished, but he preferred to gain his victories for his race and good name. He earned the title Honest John and kept it without blemish to the last”

Please visit the following link for updated references to John Purcell

Records, Titles and International Caps

188525-05-1885Triple JumpIRCaledonian GamesBallsbridge, Dublin47′ 3″[3]
188517-06-1885Triple JumpIRTralee, Ireland47′ 7″[5]
188617-04-1886Triple JumpIRCork, Ireland47′ 7′[5]
188626-08-1886Long JumpIR WRMonasterevin SportsMonasterevin, Ireland23′ 3″[3]
1886Long JumpIR WRDublin23′ 11.5″[4]
188709-06-1887Triple JumpIRAthletic SportsLimerick48′ 3″[3][4]

Records (IR-Irish Record WR-World Record)

1885Canada v USA v Ireland T&FToronto, Canada26-09-1885
1885USA v Ireland T&FNew York, USA09-10-1885

International Caps [1]

1884Long JumpDublin21’5″MHCAAAI
1884Triple JumpDublin42’10”AAAI
1884Shot PutDublin35’6″MHCAAAI
1885Long JumpDublin21’8″MHCIAAA
1885Triple JumpDublin46’8″IAAA
1886Long JumpDublin22’8″HHACIAAA
1886Triple JumpDublin46’9″HHACIAAA
1887Long JumpDublin21’8″GAA

Irish National Titles [2]

1885Long JumpEnglish AAA ChampionshipSouthport21′ 10.5″CSH[4][6]
1886Long JumpEnglish AAA ChampionshipStamford Bridge, London22′ 4″CSH[4][6]
1885Triple JumpCanadian T&F ChampionshipToronto, Canada31′ 3.75″Ireland[4]
1888Shot PutPacific Coast Athletic Association37′ 1.5″Olympic AC[4]
1888Pole VaultPacific Coast Athletic Association9′ 3″Olympic AC[4]
1889Shot PutPacific Coast Athletic Association35′ 6″Olympic AC[4]
1889Pole VaultPacific Coast Athletic Association8′ 5″Olympic AC[4]
1890Shot PutPacific Coast Athletic Association37′ 1″Olympic AC[4]
1890Pole VaultPacific Coast Athletic Association9′ 4.5″Olympic AC[4]
1890120 Yds HurdlePacific Coast Athletic Association18 3/5 secsOlympic AC[4]
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