Do you know where the first modern Olympics were held? If you guessed Athens, Paris, St Louis or London, you’d be wrong. The answer – unbelievably – is a small town in England called Much Wenlock in rural Shropshire.
Much Wenlock’s Olympian Games first took place in 1850, almost 50 years before Athens played host to the event in 1896. The sports ranged from foot races and hurdles to ’tilting the ring on horses’ and ‘knitting for girls’!
But how did a small market town in Shropshire become the founder of the world’s greatest international sporting event? The truth is stranger than fiction…
On the Olympic Trail
The Much Wenlock Olympics were the vision of one man, William Penny Brookes, a doctor who lived in the town. He wanted to stage a major event to improve people’s health and fitness.
This visionary Victorian also served as a Justice of the Peace, dealing with cases of petty crime, and this fuelled his desire to develop opportunities for physical exercise for the working classes, aimed at their moral improvement.
The first Games were held in October 1850 and were a mixture of athletics and traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. The early Olympic Games also included a ‘fun’ event such as a blindfolded wheelbarrow race or elderly women’s race for a pound of tea!
It’s entertaining to read the Much Wenlock Olympic programme from 1867. Big events included ‘putting the stone’, the ‘standing long leap’ and the 400 yards foot race, but there was also room for ‘glee singing’, arithmetic, sewing and knitting competitions.
How you organise an Olympic knitting contest baffles me. I can only imagine that long rows of knitters lined up to knit and pearl the fastest scarf or woolly jumper.
There was also a special ‘throwing the hammer’ event exclusively designed for limestone quarry-men and lime-burners in the parish of Wenlock. I can’t imagine why the competition was limited to this exclusive group of working men.
In a modern twist, the Olympics also featured football with teams limited to no more than 20 men per side.
‘Tilting on horses’ was one of the most popular events at the Much Wenlock Olympics, a throwback to medieval jousting contests. It must have been quite a sight – a bit like a Tudor version of our modern equestrian competitions.
Riders holding lances competed to unhook a small ring which hung from a cross-bar in an attempt to be crowned ‘Champion Tilter’.
A wonderful photograph of the 1887 champion, Charles Ainsworth, shows how this blue riband event was the Victorian equivalent of today’s 100 metres sprint with Usain Bolt.
The Much Wenlock Olympic winners won medals, books and money – and were crowned with a headpiece made of ornate olive branches.
Even young boys were rewarded in the children’s races. Boys under 14 years old ran a 100 yards race for a first prize of 5 shillings (about 25 pence today).
There were even prizes for the weirder events including Greasy Pole Climbing and Throwing the Stone, both of which sound like amusing contests.
Dr William Penny Brookes worked tirelessly to campaign for the revival of the ancient Greek Olympic Games. He was keen to get international support and invited the French educationalist, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, to the Much Wenlock Games in 1890.
Both men shared a passion for physical education and were thinking along similar lines about reviving the ancient Olympics. Brookes started writing letters to Coubertin, and the two exchanged ideas about sport and the Olympics.
in 1890, Coubertin visited Much Wenlock to see the Olympian Games for himself, arriving at the town’s old Railway Station in pouring rain. It is thought the two men talked about their shared ambitions for an International Olympic Games.
Coubertin heaped praise on the Wenlock Games and it inspired him to create the International Olympic Committee in 1894. The Baron carried the Olympic baton forward and made both men’s dreams a reality. The first Modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.
Earlier, Dr Brookes had tried to create a National Olympian Association which aimed to develop competitions in cities across Britain, but his attempts to encourage the internationalization of the games came to nothing. He also helped start an Olympian Games at the Crystal Palace, London in 1866.
Brookes was determined for the Games to be open to everyone, of every class. As Director of the Wenlock Railway Company, he had been instrumental in bringing the railways to Much Wenlock. During the Olympics, he insisted that working class men were allowed to travel free by train to the Games.
Today, you can discover the Olympian Trail to discover the story of the early Games and visit the places where they happened in Much Wenlock.
The 1.3 mile walk is great fun and takes in many of the town’s historic buildings… just pick up a tour leaflet or online map and follow the plaques.
The tour starts and ends at the Museum (in the Town Square) which is worth popping in to see the collection of Olympian Society artefacts illustrating the role of Much Wenlock in the revival of the Modern Olympic Games.
Then, head up the town’s High Street to see the Corn Exchange, a splendid old building and former corn market with an impressive arched facade.
Look up and you’ll spot a plaque celebrating William Penny Brooke’s civic achievements in the town, although strangely it doesn’t mention the Olympics.
This is a weird omission because the Corn Exchange was where Brookes established the Wenlock Olympian Society who spread the message of physical exercise and promoted the revival of the Olympic Games.
Next stop on the trail is the Tudor Guildhall nearby which was built in 1540 – it was here that William Penny Brookes presided over magistrates’ cases for over 40 years.
It’s one of the most striking buildings in Much Wenlock with its black and white timbered style and historic Court Room. Today the Guildhall is still used as the Town Council Chambers. If it’s open, don’t miss a trip inside to see its historic rooms.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that Dr Brookes paid for the restoration of the Guildhall interior and its impressive Council Chamber. He was a great philanthropist and was also involved with the town’s railway, gas company, roads and education work.
Not far away is the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church where you’ll discover the graves of Dr William Penny Brookes and his family behind a rectangle of blue railings. There’s also a plaque celebrating Brookes at the church itself.
It’s amazing to think how much Brookes did for this small town. There’s hardly a building that doesn’t have some connection with the great Victorian man.
Around the corner you’ll find a street plaque marking his contribution to physical education in schools. Brookes carried out experiments in physical education at Much Wenlock National School and devoted much time campaigning for Physical Education to be made compulsory in all English schools.
His wish came true when the government agreed to make PE compulsory not long before his death.
The Opening Ceremony
The longer you spend in Much Wenlock, the more you realise how much the modern Olympics owes to this small town.
The town was thinking big about sporting events well before today’s cities starting bidding to become Olympic host city.
The Wenlock Games was a sophisticated event for its time, complete with pageantry, pomp and a sense of occasion. It started with a procession through the town, the equivalent of today’s more extravagant Opening Ceremony.
Opening day speeches were held at the Gaskell Arms a former coaching inn, where William Penny Brookes kicked off the proceedings.
An ambitious Opening Procession was led by a young boy on a white pony followed by a band, competitors, officials and flag bearers down the decorated streets to the Linden Field where the games would be held. It must have been quite a sight.
Crowds of spectators would have caught a great view of the procession from the corner of the Bull Ring, one of the best viewing points on the processional route.
As the Much Wenlock Olympics developed, their fame spread far and wide, and people travelled from across England to witness the great spectacle.
One of the popular events was the cycle race which was much trickier that today’s Olympic bike events. There were no lycra body suits, streamlined helmets and hi-tech bikes. Instead, competitors raced on old-fashioned Penny Farthings with tyres made of rope.
With their high seats and limited manoeuvrability, it’s no surprise that there were lots of accidents as the bikes rounded the town clock and approached the finishing line.
The ‘Olympic Park’
Much Wenlock’s Olympic Park is a far cry from the modern Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and the razzamatazz of the contemporary Games.
The Olympic Park at the Gaskell (Linden) Playing Fields were the place where the main action took place. In the distance you’ll see the Tower on the top of the hill, designed in 1859 to provide excellent views of the games from its summit.
Walking around this place sent shivers down my spine. It may look like any other playing field, but the Olympic memorial celebrates the spot where the modern Olympics were born.
I was tempted to recreate the ‘throwing the cricket ball’ competition or the one mile foot race, although in reality I’m not very good at field events or running. But the Olympic spirit still thrives here with the Wenlockian Olympic Society continuing to organise their own Games every year with events for 8 to 80-year-olds.
That evening, I returned to our camp site on the edge of Much Wenlock to start training for the 2017 Olympian Games. I haven’t quite decided whether to try for the half marathon or the more sedate long distance walking contest. It’s a tough choice!
As my fitness levels flagged, I drew inspiration from the story of local sports hero Alison Williamson who was the first person to win a medal in both the Much Wenlock and modern Olympics.
She won a silver medal in archery at the age of 10 at the Much Wenlock Games and competed at her first Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona, going on to take part in the next five games.
Her biggest achievement was at the Athens Olympics where she won a Bronze medal in the Women’s individual archery event in 2004. It’s a great testament to the story of Much Wenlock and its long-lasting legacy.
The Olympic Spirit
Today, the Olympics has developed into a huge public event of gladiatorial combat in front of an international TV audience of millions. Watching the Rio Olympics 2016, I wondered what William Penny Brookes would have made of the realisation of his dream.
As I limped over the finish line of the Much Wenlock Olympian Trail, having taken a wrong turn off the track, I reflected on how proud he would have been.
Much Wenlock was far ahead of its time in seeing the potential of this major sporting event in bringing people of every background together.
Walking in the footsteps of the original Olympic pioneers is a great privilege. Let’s hope the modern Olympics can keep its flame burning for many years to come.
Tammy’s Travel Tips – Much Wenlock
The town of Much Wenlock is located in Shropshire near Shrewsbury and Telford in the English West Midlands.
The Olympian Trail is well signposted with plaques across Much Wenlock. Simply pick up a map at Much Wenlock Museum or download an online version of the map.
Trail leaflets are also available from The Guildhall and Wenlock Tourist Information Centre. There’s also a large version of the map on the wall outside Much Wenlock Museum.
Much Wenlock Museum is open daily except Mondays from 10:30-13:00 and 13:30pm-16:oo (Fridays to Sundays only in winter).
The Guildhall is open to the public between April and October on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
Whilst in Much Wenlock, don’t miss a trip to beautiful and tranquil Wenlock Abbey not far from the Olympic Linden Field at the bottom end of the town.
This Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded around 680 by King Merewalh of Mercia, but was largely destroyed during King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the early 1500s. It’s also a great picnic spot if you like atmospheric ruins and gardens.
A good starting point for more visitor information is the Much Wenlock Tourism website. If you’re looking for accommodation, there’s a good range in the surrounding ares including numerous small B & Bs and caravan/motor home sites near the town and further afield in Shrewsbury.