ONE hundred years ago this week, sad news filtered back to Darlington from the Belgian battlefields about the death of the town's first Olympian.

“To fall on the battlefield has been the fate of George Butterfield, the noted athlete,” said the D&S Times of October 21, 1917. “He was killed on the Belgian front on September 24, and official intimation of his death was received in Darlington on Thursday.”

In three consecutive years, Butterfield had won the English amateur mile championship and his time in 1906 – four minutes and 18 seconds – was the fastest in the world that year.

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He was born in 1879 in Stockton, where his father was a blacksmith, but he came to live in Darlington to train with the famous Harriers club, leading them to the national club championship at Haydock Park.

Indeed, as no human being could come close to him, one snowy day during the winter of 1907-08, he took on a greyhound. He was attending a coursing meet at Skutterskelfe Hall, near Stokesley, in which two greyhounds were to race off after a hare. But one of the dogs, Lordship, slipped in the snow and dislocated its shoulder, so Butterfield leapt out of the crowd and chased after the other greyhound, Lord Nelson II, until they disappeared out of sight. Later that evening, he turned up in a pub in Hutton Rudby, sweating profusely. “Following him was the sorriest-looking greyhound imaginable, perfectly abject and weary,” recalled an eyewitness. “George said he must have run over five miles over the roughest country he could ever remember, and had captured his quest in a wood.”

It was obviously a good warm-up for the next athletics season.

“In 1908, he represented the English championship, he ran in Sweden, where he created something of a sensation by his doings on the track, carrying off no less than six silver cups and seven medals," said the D&S. "In all, Butterfield won over £1,000 in prizes, and created an amateur record by winning £100 worth of trophies in one week.”

This Swedish tour was probably the high point of his athletics career. He was now so well known that the British Olympic Committee invited “Butt”, as he was known, to carry the Union flag at the opening ceremony of the 1908 Olympics, which were held at the White City Stadium in London. He was the nation’s greatest hope of gold, and probably the first Darlingtonian to step foot on an Olympic running track.

However, the gods of the games were against, as he finished third in both of his heats – in times which would have won other heats – and so he failed to make the final of either the 800m or 1,500m.

For 29-year-old Butt, his race was run – literally. At the end of the games, he retired, and never again appeared on a track. Instead, he and his new wife, Cissie, went behind a bar, running the Leeds Arms in Darlington’s Northgate (which is now beneath the ring road). When it closed in 1909, he became licensee of the newly-rebuilt Hole in the Wall Hotel in the Market Place.

“He joined the Army in December 1915, and went to France the following June,” said the D&S, as Butt became a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. “He was wounded in the hand some months ago, but after a stay in England again proceeded to the front some eight weeks since.”

On September 24, at the age of 38, he was killed – his legs were blown off at Bellewaerde, and now he lies in a Belgian cemetery about three miles from Ypres.

The D&S’ sister paper, the Evening Despatch said in its obituary: “When George Butterfield returned to the front a few weeks ago, after recovering from wounds, he had a presentiment that the worst would happen.

“On his departure, he remarked: ‘I have made a name that will stand on the annals of time as a runner, and I will leave my name behind as one who has given his life in honour of his country.’”

The D&S said: “His wife, who has carried on the hotel during his absence, is left with a young son (Charles, who was about 10), and much sympathy is felt for them. Genial in disposition, ‘George’ made friends wherever he went, and his death will be sincerely regretted not only in Darlington but in athletic circles throughout the country.”