Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

27 July 2012

Victorian Pedestrianism (1) – Robert Makepeace aka ‘The American Stag’

To celebrate the opening of the London Olympic Games of 2012, here is a tale of athletic prowess from the nineteenth century.

Cover of first issue of Sporting LifeThe first issue of Sporting Life  21 August 1847 © The British Library Board Images Online


We marvel at the stamina and skill of those competing in the pentathlon and decathlon, but what would be the reaction of today’s Olympic athletes if asked to perform 15 events in 90 minutes? 

On 19 August 1849, at the cricket ground in Burnley, Robert Makepeace successfully completed the following feats within the set time of 1½ hours:

• Taking a flying leap through a fire balloon
• Running 160 yards
• Leaping over 5 men’s heads
• Picking up 25 eggs with his mouth one yard apart
• Picking up 25 bricks with his mouth one yard apart
• Leaping over 100 hurdles 4 feet high and 10 yards apart
• Walking a mile
• Running a mile
• Wheeling a barrow half a mile
• Bowling a hoop half a mile
• Drawing a gig half a mile
• Running backwards half a mile
• Walking backwards half a mile
• Drawing a barrow half a mile
• Hopping 200 yards

Robert Makepeace (and yes, we are related!) was a well-known professional sportsman, a pedestrian or ‘ped’. Pedestrianism, meaning competitive walking or running, laid the foundations for modern athletics.  Often centred on public houses, races were organised for high stakes and bets were taken on the outcome.

Makepeace had built up a repertoire of novelty skills to attract the crowds as well as competing in running races from a sprint to 30 miles. His exploits all over England were regularly reported in newspapers such as The Era and Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. Apparently he could run half a mile in the impressive time of 2 minutes 7 seconds. In February 1849 he took on the challenge of racing a horse over five miles, leaping 300 hurdles. The horse lost ground by refusing several times and throwing its rider, but eventually beat its two-legged rival by seven hurdles.

Robert’s nickname ‘The American Stag’ is something of a mystery as he came from London.   Perhaps he was one of the British peds who crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s to challenge their American counterparts?

By August 1852 Robert Makepeace was in Australia with Adelaide newspapers advertising his forthcoming athletic feats.  Then he seems to disappear from sight. Do any Untold Lives readers know what happened to him?


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:

British Newspaper Archive 

19th Century UK  Periodicals

Edward S Sears, Running through the Ages (2001)

Warren Roe, Front Runners: the first athletic track champions (2002)

Victorian pedestrianism 2-1000 miles in 1000 hours


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