Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

19 July 2016

Walter Thom’s 'Pedestrianism'

Walter Thom’s Pedestrianism; or An Account of the Performances of Celebrated Pedestrians during the last and present Century was published in 1813, an extraordinary survey of records of matches and athletes, and the application of enlightenment thinking to the documentation of sport. Thom’s intention was to celebrate the achievements of Captain Barclay, but in order to give Barclay’s achievements greater meaning he discussed the athlete’s predecessors with a diligence that provides a model for today’s sports statisticians. He categorised records according to the timescale of the race: 1) matches lasting several days, 2) matches lasting one day, 3) matches completed in an hour or more, requiring stamina, and 4) matches completed in seconds or minutes, requiring sprinting skills.


  Walking race

 Walking Match from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 22 November 1875, page 185 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Thom focuses on the life, genealogy, skills, training and achievements of Captain Barclay Allardice, whose competitive career began at the age of 15 in 1796, when he walked six miles in an hour for a prize of 100 guineas. He followed this two years later with a 70-mile walk in fourteen hours. While the records for the shorter distances are likely to have been possible – umpires were present when Barclay did a quarter mile in 56 seconds - it is the longer distance matches that raise questions. Thom reported that Barclay walked 150 miles from London to Birmingham via Cambridge in two days; 64 miles from Charing Cross to Newmarket in ten hours in 1803; and from Charing Cross to Colchester in June 1806 without stopping for breakfast. Barclay also rowed and ran, but he was marked out by his incredible stamina, being able to maintain a walking pace of 4-5 mph on the flat or over hills.

  Captain Barclay

Captain Barclay from Walter Thom, Pedestrianism (1813)   Images Online  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Barclay’s most famous achievement was the celebrated ‘1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours’ walking race against the clock, in 1809. The event stretched over 42 days, and Thom tells us what Barclay ate, how he slept, his muscular pains, digestive powers, and whether he perspired. He describes Barclay’s style as ‘a sort of lounging gait, without apparently making any extraordinary exertion, scarcely raising his feet more than two or three inches above the ground’, and bending his body forwards so as to ‘throw its weight on the knees’. He gives us details of the athlete’s clothes, ‘strong shoes and lambs-wool stockings’, his weight loss (two stones and four pounds, 14.5 kilos), and his morale – ‘not so cheerful as during the day’, ‘in good spirits’. The athlete inevitably slowed during the course of this endurance trial, slowing from a speed of over four mph to under three mph by the final week. The account ends with the statistics of each day’s performance: distance covered, conditions, time taken, average time per mile, down to seconds.

For Thom, Barclay was not just an outstanding athlete but a man of ‘inflexible adherence to strict principles of honour and integrity’. However Thom was primarily fascinated, even obsessed, with the athlete’s body, his weight, pains, size, digestion, perspiration levels, speed. The publication of Pedestrianism marked a new kind of public ownership of the body of the athlete. By the end of this summer those of us who watch sport on television will feel we have got to know some athletes’ bodies quite well; a major landmark in history of this process is Walter Thom’s celebration of Captain Barclay.

Julian Walker
Writer and artist - leads workshops at the British Library on literature, art, history, printing and the English Language.

Julian’s latest book The Roar of the Crowd is published by the British Library. This is an illustrated anthology of sports writing, featuring writers as diverse as P.G. Wodehouse on cricket, Ernest Hemingway on sport fishing, Doris Lessing on swimming, Homer on wrestling and Joyce Carol Oates on boxing.

Further reading:

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

Victorian Pedestrianism (2) – 1,000 Miles in 1,000 Hours


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