On a trip back to my birthplace last weekend, I paid a visit to the tiny market town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, some 250 kilometres (around 150 miles) north west of London.
It’s an excursion I would recommend to anyone planning to come to London for the Olympic Games in two years’ time. Because though Wenlock may be small, it boasts huge significance in the Olympic annals.
Many people will never have heard of the Wenlock Olympian Games, or of its founder Dr William Penny Brookes, but the man generally credited with reviving the Olympics, French aristocrat Pierre Frédy aka the Baron de Coubertin was under no illusions as to the significance of Dr Brookes’ contribution to Olympism.
Half a dozen years before the inaugural modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, de Coubertin visited Much Wenlock, at the invitation of Dr Brookes; and after attending the Wenlock Olympian Games, de Coubertin wrote, “If the Olympic Games which Modern Greece did not know how to establish again is revived today, it is not to a Greek that one is indebted, but to Dr WP Brookes”.
The Greeks agreed. A decade earlier, in June 1881, the Athenian newspaper, Clio reported, ‘Dr Brookes, this enthusiastic Philhelline is endeavouring to organise an international Olympian festival, to be held in Athens’.
The final seal of approval from the Olympic oracle came when Juan-Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee visited Brookes’ grave in Wenlock in 1994, and said, “I come to pay tribute and homage to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the Olympic Games’.
Fate decreed that Brookes would never see the fruits of his and de Coubertin’s labours, for the English doctor died in late 1895, just four months before the revived Games. But Brookes was one of those great, though in his case, little known Victorians, who helped shape modern British society.
Much Wenlock may seem like a backwater nowadays, and Shropshire a rural county, but 200 years ago, both were close to the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. The great Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford was Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire, and other engineering luminaries linked with the area include Abraham Darby, John Wilkinson and William Reynolds. The town of Ironbridge, a half dozen miles away from Wenlock is so named, because it was the first place in the world where a river (Severn) was spanned by a cast iron bridge, forged in the locality. The bridge was opened in 1781.
This was the burgeoningly progressive society that Brookes was born into, in 1809. And he became a fully paid-up member.
His father, also William was the local doctor, and his eldest son was sent to London to study medicine; following which he spent further time studying in Italy and France. His father died suddenly in 1830, and when he finished his degree the following year, he returned to Wenlock, and replaced his father as local doctor.
But that was just one of many pursuits for this multi-faceted man. Brookes was an amateur naturalist who became a Justice of the Peace, a Commissioner for Roads and Taxes, a leading member of local societies which built the Corn Exchange, opened the Wenlock Gas Company, and organised the construction of the Much Wenlock and Severn Valley Railway.
In 1841, Brookes founded the Agricultural Reading Society, an early lending library, from which evolved several other societies, including in 1850, the Wenlock Olympian Class. Nine years later, this became the Wenlock Olympian Games.
As a social reformer, Brookes was way ahead of his time in advocating physical education in schools, and in insisting his Games should to be open to ‘every grade of man,’ in contrast to similar sporting events, which had always been restricted to the gentry.
Brookes’ democratic philosophy was based on his study of Greek history and achievement, and it was through these channels that he lobbied in Greece for the revival of the Olympic Games, and ultimately came to meet and work with de Coubertin.
In this restricted space, it would be difficult to list all of Brookes’ achievements, and I urge you consult the archive, to read more about his remarkable man.
In closing, permit me to include my modest contribution to these annals. In 1970, I won the mile at the Wenlock Olympian Games, in 4min 14.0sec. On a rain-soaked grass track, I hasten to point out. (This year’s Games, in July, will be the first on the town’s new tartan track)
The Wenlock Olympian Society’s historians are unable to tell me if my mile time was ever beaten, because the Games were discontinued shortly afterwards, and since their revival almost a decade later, the longest track race has been 800 metres. A seven mile road race has replaced the distance events.
So I fondly imagine I’m still an Olympian champion and a record holder. And until someone tells me otherwise, sporting documentary evidence (in triplicate), I rest my case.