Much Wenlock, Shropshire: home of the Olympic Games

by Neacht

With the 2012 Olympics just three years away, the story of the first modern Games held in Much Wenlock in 1850 is certain to be retold – but there's more to the Shropshire town than that…

Think perfect English village and the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock pretty much fits the bill. Thatched roof buildings? Check. Gabled houses creaking with age? Absolutely. Picture-book gardens? Dozens of them. Add in tea rooms, craft shops, a weekly market, two superb bookshops and not a sign of a faceless supermarket or newsagent. When an elderly “regular” pays up in one of the tea shops, he’s walked to the door by the owner. Outside is a water bowl thoughtfully put out for his – and other – dogs.

Much Wenlock is a town where everyone knows each other – and yet few are locally born and bred. Perhaps it was this easy acceptance of the stranger and of new ideas that made this small English town the inspiration for the modern Olympic movement. It was in 1850 that the first ever Olympian Games were held in Much Wenlock. The brainchild of Dr William Penny Brookes, the Games were designed "to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock".

Penny Brookes, born exactly 200 years ago in 1809, was a remarkable character who involved himself enthusiastically in every aspect of Wenlock life – as a visit to the local museum makes clear. The son of a local doctor, he went on to study medicine himself in London and was also a respected botanist. Later he travelled to Padua in Italy and to Paris for further studies, before taking over his late father’s medical practice in 1831.

After his years of travel, he quickly settled into provincial life, becoming a stalwart of the local community as a justice of the peace and a commissioner for roads and taxes. He helped renovate the beautiful Council Chamber in the Guildhall and the Corn Exchange, which can still be visited today. Other projects with which he was involved included the Wenlock Gas Company, the Severn Junction Railway Company and the local schools where he ensured that physical education was part of the everyday activities. In this, he was way ahead of his time.

In 1850, came the “Olympian Games” designed to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the working classes in particular, "by the encouragement of outdoor recreation". Penny Brookes, like most young scholars of the time, would have studied Greek language and civilisation and was aware of the Olympic Games of Greece and their traditions. The Wenlock Games, held in October of that year, were based around the athletic events first promoted at the ancient Olympic Games, with traditional country sports such as quoits, football and cricket also included on the programme.

Pageantry was important. A band led the procession of flag bearers, competitors and officials through the decorated streets of the town to the racecourse – as they still do to the Linden Field, now the permanent home of the annual games. Most events were open to all-comers and as the reputation of the games expanded, athletes came from all over England to test themselves against the best of local talent. In the much-expanded 1851 Games, for example, according to the newspaper report, Poyner of Albrighton won three events, Badger of Wolverhampton came second in the "half-mile foot race", while Mainwaring of Birmingham won the "leaping in distance" event.

In Greece, moves were afoot to revive the ancient Games, thanks largely to the efforts of Evangelis Zappas, a wealthy Greek living in Romania. In 1859, an Olympian Games was held in Athens with a £10 prize sent by Brookes awarded to the winner of the "Long" or "Sevenfold" race.

Brookes remained a tireless advocate of Olympian ideals all his life, though his attempts to persuade the Greek government that it should revive the ancient Games as an international festival proved fruitless . He helped found the Shropshire Olympian Games in 1861 and the National Olympian Association (NOA) based in Liverpool four years later. The NOA’s aim was to provide a sports association for amateur athletes. Its first festival, held the following year at the Crystal Palace, London, attracted more than 10,000 spectators. Cricketer WG Grace was the winner of the 400-yard hurdles – he had been excused fielding for England against Surrey at the Oval in order to compete.

In Wenlock, the Games went from strength to strength, with races for both amateur and professional sportsmen. Tilting at the ring, introduced in 1858, proved its most popular and exciting events. It required considerable skill and horsemanship for a rider, armed with a lance, to unhook a small ring hanging down from a cross-bar.

In 1889, Pierre Baron de Coubertin – organiser of the International Congress on Physical Education – was in England, seeking information on sports education in schools. Brookes wrote to the young Frenchman attaching newspapers cuttings, photographs and other background on the Wenlock Games and inviting him to attend the following year. When he took up the invitation, the 81-year-old Brookes and the 27-year-old Coubertin found they had much in common. In particular, Coubertin admired the pageantry and customs such as the prize presentation ceremony in which a laurel was presented to winners on bended knees from the hands of a lady.

“If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr William Penny Brookes,” wrote de Coubertin after his visit. Sadly Brookes was not to see his dream of an Olympic Games come true. He died in 1895 – a year before the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens. He is buried in the local cemetery along with his wife Mary and their five children, four of whom had predeceased their parents.

In Much Wenlock and in Olympic history, Brookes remains a revered figure. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of he International Olympic Committee, visited Much Wenlock to pay homage to the true founder of the Olympic Games in 1994. Every summer, the Games continue, with a special medal celebrating the Brookes 200th anniversary going to every participant at the 123rd Games, held from 10-13 July 2009.

Those wishing to explore this remarkable story can follow the Wenlock Olympian Trail, which starts and ends at Much Wenlock Museum in the square at the end of the High Street. There, a magnificent collection of Wenlock Olympian Society artefacts and memorabilia is on display. Other sites to explore locally include the dramatic remains of Wenlock Priory, dating back to AD680, Holy Trinity Church and the Guildhall. For walkers, the magnificent Wenlock Edge escarpment offers miles of trails, while the Ironbridge Gorge and the towns of Ludlow and Shewsbury are not far away.