Sitting at home with seemingly no opportunity in the near future of undertaking a decent long hike, Three Points of the Compass instead finds himself intrigued while reading of Pedestrianism. This was a form of long distance endurance walking that was extremely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Often quite poor men, and on occasion, women, would undertake incredible walking feats. Around them, numerous enthralled spectators wagered vast sums of money on the outcome. To mention here just some of the characters and the astonishing feats that they achieved.
One of the first to demonstrate his astonishing stamina was Englishman Foster Powell. In 1764 the law clerk ran the fifty miles to Bath in seven hours. In 1773 he walked 400 miles from London to York and back, and it should be remembered that this was on poor, rutted roads. Three thousand people escorted him the final miles to Highgate. He repeated the feat many times in the years following. At his fastest, he managed to complete it in five days, 19 hours and seventeen minutes. In 1788 he walked 100 miles in 21 hours and 35 minutes.
Robert Barclay Allardice won a 1000 guinea wager by completing a thousand miles in a thousand hours, a distance that seems to have become almost a standard expectation. Distance walking seems to have run in the family blood. Captain Barclay’s father was also a noted pedestrian- walking the 510 miles from the family seat in Ury, Scotland, to London, in ten days.
Captain Barclay built up to his 1000 mile feat. In 1796 he walked 110 miles in 19 hours 27 minutes. In 1802 he covered 64 miles in ten hours and in 1805 he fitted in 72 miles between his breakfast and dinner. In 1806, on poor roads, he walked a hundred miles in 19 hours and in 1807 walked 78 miles in 14 hours on hilly roads.
The walking exploits of these men and women usually took place on either roads across the country, passing through towns en route, or on marked sections in enclosed grounds. Entrance fees were charged to mostly willing spectators, others chose to clamber the fences and gain entry for free. Captain Barclay’s 1000 miles took place on a marked half mile section of track at Newmarket in 1809 and he kept a pace of one mile per hour, resting and snatching sleep between the miles. His strategy was simple but ultimately successful, by walking one mile at the end of an hour and the next at the beginning of the following hour, he was able to rest for some 90 minutes between exertions. Sounds simple, but he had to sustain that for 42 days.
As a further indication of the sort of man he was, in 1808 he walked thirty miles grouse shooting, starting at five in the morning, then walked sixty miles home in 11 hours. Having dined, he then walked 16 miles to a ball. He returned home at seven the following morning and then promptly went shooting again. This is perhaps not the day-to-day regime of a modern athlete. For most of his walking feats Captain Barclay eschewed any form of training, instead eating and drinking prodigiously, his walking attire normally included top hat, cravat and woollen suit.
The 100 mile challenge was attempted by many would be pedestrians and still remains a standard today. By 1842 Irishman William Mullen was already an accomplished 100-miler. The Newry Examiner reported on the large number of spectators that had gathered at Wateringdam to watch Mullen repeatedly walk the half mile out and half mile back on the Belfast road over 24 hours , he frequently stopped at the spectator stands to converse, despite his feet suffering badly, five blisters being cut out, he finished at pace. Afterwards, he ‘walked through town apparently not much fatigued’.
In 1843 the famed pedestrian James Searles, a man of modest stature, succeeded in walking a thousand miles over six weeks. His track was the public road, measuring 63 yards over a mile, between the Shakespeare Inn and the Peacock inn on the Huddersfield Road in the vicinity of his hometown Leeds. His favoured expedient was that of Captain Barclay, to walk a mile at the end of an hour followed by another mile at the beginning of the next, then rest in the intervening period before repeating the exercise. It sounds so simple, but to keep that up for six weeks must place an incredible mental tole on the individual. Searles earned almost nothing for his feat, he was provided with food and a bed during his task and was given a few presents over the weeks.
On 20 September 1852 Searles set off on a momentous attempt to walk 2000 miles in 2000 half hours on a track near the Pineapple Inn, in Toxteth, Liverpool. Searles was reported as eating eight pounds of ‘animal food’ a day while he achieved his feat, but he lost a great deal of weight and finished 30 lbs lighter. This regime paid a tole on his health, he suffered dizziness at night and his knees troubled him. However he completed his task on 1 November. To celebrate his walk, he danced a hornpipe in clogs at an evening benefit dance, though whether it was the slow or fast variant isn’t recorded.
Despite the money surrounding these events, both betting and large amounts of entrance money being taken by those promoting such walks in town arenas, particularly where more than one walker was involved, the challenge walks often became a morally dubious test of ‘who breaks first’ and there were many that regarded the sport as cruel exhibitions of self-torture.
Some of the more accomplished pedestrians became celebrities. The ‘sport’ of pedestrianism had already crossed to the US and as a result challenge matches between celebrity walkers were staged. One in particular was the 1877 match between two superstars of the time.
The ‘Great Walking Match for the Championship of the World’
The famed American Edward Payson Weston had become a household name by walking 1200 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago in 30 days, winning a $10000 wager as a result. He was the first man to walk 500 miles within six days, achieving the feat in 1874 in New Jersey with 26 minutes to spare. The press of the day pitted him against another noted pedestrian, the Irishman Dan O’Leary who had walked 116 miles in 24 hours. A few minutes after midnight on a Monday morning, 15 November 1875, a Chicago audience watched as the two set off round a track. The challenge- the first to complete 500 miles. Exceptionally, there were rules, only walking was permitted, no running. Also, the race had to be over by the following Sunday as no sporting events were permitted to take place on the sabbath. 500 miles in six days, it sounds insane.
With just two or three hours rest each night the men battled it out. O’Leary was the faster and his lead was established on the first day. On Wednesday he was 26 miles in the lead. On Saturday morning he had increased his advantage having walked 425 miles with Weston 30 miles behind. The two men were exhausted but surrounded by thousands of over enthusiastic and noisy spectators, they continued. O’Leary completed his 500th mile with forty five minutes to spare. At midnight he had walked 503, Weston managed 451 miles. Each competitor received some $4000 for their exertions that week.
The two men were pit against each other in a repeat of the 500 mile challenge in April 1877, the event taking place in the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London. Again, O’Leary was the victor having walked 519 miles and the header image above depicts the two men at the end when 35000 spectators roared them to the finish. Each received around $14000 for their efforts but continued to push the boundaries of what was achievable. The following year, while competing in the inaugural Astley Belt challenge, O’Leary walked 520 miles in six days, but his rival somehow pushed it even further- walking 550 miles over six days in 1879. Even that distance was surpassed. Racing in New York in 1888, George Littlewood achieved 623 miles in six days in 1888. Despite the fervour of the time, such events were eventually regarded with disdain, to the extent that in 1899 six day races were banned in New York state. Weston continued to achieve quite amazing walking feats. In 1910, aged 71, he walked from Los Angeles to New York, a distance of 3600 miles, in 78 days.
The term ‘walking’ was a loose expectation during many of these distance events. It was the distance that mattered to those watching and wagering. Pedestrians would very occasionally launch into a trot to ward off cramp, or probably simply to vary the miles. The codification on gait, pace and strict definition of what constitutes ‘walking’ came later.
Pedestrianism was not just a male exploit. Emma Sharp also walked a 1000 miles in 1000 hours. She is thought to be the first female to have achieved this challenge, completing it 29 October 1864 to an audience of 25000. Over a 120 yard course, she repeated Captain Barclays technique of walk and rest. So outraged were some members of the public, presumably male, that her food was drugged and numerous attempts made to trip her up. She carried a pistol for the final two days to protect herself and fired it on 27 occasions to warn off assailants. Few expected her to achieve the ‘Barclay challenge’, including her husband, and having bet heavily on herself, she won a considerable amount and combined with her share of the entrance fee profits, she and her husband opened a textile factory. During the walk her only reported ailment was swollen ankles.
“I would not attempt it”
There was one walking challenge that the great American pedestrian O’Leary refused to attempt as he believed the required sleep deprivation over many weeks was too much for the human body to endure. This was 1500 miles in 1000 hours.
London born William Gale was another of the great and celebrated pedestrians. In 1877 he undertook not only the challenge of 1500 miles in 1000 hours but also committed to walking a mile and a half at the beginning of each hour, never getting more than 37 1/2 minutes of rest at a time for the duration of the walk. This amounts to 36 miles a day for six weeks. Gale was recorded as keeping a pace of around four miles an hour, always starting stiffly but loosening up quickly. He suffered immense leg pain and took cold baths for relief. Despite his exhaustion, he couldn’t sleep at all for the final 48 hours.
When Gale had previously completed a 1000 quarters of a mile in consecutive ten minutes, he managed that with even less rest, no more than seven minutes at a time for the two weeks it took to complete the walk. Endurance walking over such huge distances became as much about the ability to perform despite sleep deprivation alongside pure physical ability and determination.
Gale was the only person to have walked 1500 miles in 1000 hours and also trained the second to achieve it- Ada Anderson. Working in the uncertain world of theatre, it is very likely that Anderson saw the financial opportunity in pedestrianism after her husband died in 1877, plunging her toward financial ruin.
This was not her first foray into pedestrianism however as she had already walked 1000 miles in 1000 half-hours over three weeks in 1877 in Newport, Wales, despite having to carry an umbrella and lamp due to several days of heavy rain. The difficulty in these events should not be under estimated. Attempting a 100 mile walk in 28 hours, the air was so thick with pollution from lamps and cigar smoke in the indoor arena that she collapsed unconscious after completing 96 miles. Later that year, both Anderson and Gale set off to walk a new record distance of 1250 miles in 1000 hours. Walking separately, with different staged breaks, they both completed the distance in the allotted time. The press immediately dubbed her ‘Champion Lady Walker of the World‘. Anderson set off to walk 1500 miles in 1000 hours on 8 April 1878, completing the challenge on 20 May. Having won a considerable amount of money from her various walking exploits in the UK, she remarried (two days after her 1500 mile walk) and moved to the US. Some of her subsequent pedestrian challenges were obviously intended to capture the public’s imagination, these included 804 miles completed within 500 hours in Cincinnati in April 1879. 2052 quarter miles in as many quarter hours, in Buffalo in August 1879 and 351 miles in six days in New York in December 1879. Ever the show woman, her chosen walking garb consisted of loose leather shoes, scarlet stockings with silver tights and black velvet breeches ending at the knee. She wore a long flowing robe of blue and scarlet and a similarly coloured cap decorated with braid and feathers.
So whatever happened to pedestrianism? Why did it almost vanish despite enjoying great popularity and encouraging considerable betting on the outcome?
It is likely that as the events became more commercialised and therefore enclosed, within sporting grounds, that rules and and strictures took over. The free-for-all ‘for the hell of it’ attitude was replaced by regular sporting fixtures. Matches and scheduled races steadily took over in the mid-nineteenth century.
Race walking became the norm. The sort of race for which a spectator could turn up, pay their entrance fee, see the sporting celebrities of the time, and also view an event that began and finished on the same day.
There was also a new kid on the block, the growing popularity of bicycles in the Victorian era quickly resulted in staged races. Spectators could now choose between watching the familiar- athletes steadily walking round a circuit or road route, or the frenetic peddling of race cyclists, with the associated risk of crashes and tumbles.