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Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games

Much Wenlock
Shropshire
England, United Kingdom.


An eccentric gathering, half school-sports-day and half village fete. Avoiding the noisy shouts of the five-a-side football competition there are plenty of tennis, athletics and archery to be viewed on The Linden Fields, elsewhere, in the vicinity athletes young and old; good and bad, are engaged in competitions of clay pigeon shooting, golf and cricket. Perhaps the loudest cheers of the day were for the daring pilots of the veteran cycle races - competative, good humoured and with the element of danger that only a fall from a penny farthing could provide. It makes one wish for the revival of a few of the sports that no longer appear on the modern programme, such as tilting or tent pegging, and I assume they no longer dance upon the bowling green between 3pm and 8pm.

At a public meeting in Much Wenlock on Monday 25th February 1850, the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society resolved to establish a class called The Olympian Class: "That it was desirable that a class should be established in connexion with the Agricultural Reading Society for the promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement Of the inhabitants of the town & neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the Working classes, by the encouragement of out-door recreation, and by the award of Prizes annually at public meetings for skill in Athletic exercise and proficiency in Intellectual and industrial attainments." The Minutes of that meeting continue: "That this section of the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society be called "The Olympian Class".

Dr. William Penny Brookes, circa 1880.
Dr. William Penny Brookes, circa 1880.

The secretary of the Class and driving force behind the Olympian Games was Dr. William Penny Brookes. The first meeting was held at Wenlock racecourse on 22-23 October 1850.

 

In 1859, The Olympian Class sent £10 to Athens for a prize for the best runner in the longest race at an Olympic Games held in November, the Wenlock Prize was the largest prize on offer. At a meeting in the Reading Room Dr Brookes read portions of a correspondence between himself and Sir Thomas Wyse, H M Plenipotentiary at the Court of Greece, with reference to a prize of £10 which the Wenlock Committee had forwarded to be competed for at Athens. "Athens, February 2nd 1860. Dear Sir, - I have the satisfaction to transmit to you the accompanying papers, copies from those of the Greeks, in Greek and translation, which will put you in possession of the manner in which this first attempt at the renewal of Athletic Exercises in Greece has been conducted, and how the contribution which you and the Members of your local Institution, for similar purposes, at Much Wenlock, have requested me to present to the Greek committee, has been disposed of ….". The winner of the Wenlock prize was Petros Velissarios, a native of Smyrna".

The Olympian Class, in 1860, became officially the Wenlock Olympian Society and Dr Brookes adopted some of the athletics events from the Athens 1859 Games of November and added them to the programme of the Olympian Games.

 

Baron Pierre de Coubertin visited the Olympian Society in 1890, who held a special festival in his honour. 'The Wellington Journal' and 'Shrewsbury News' recorded the event: "A special or autumn festival in connection with Wenlock Olympian Society was held on Wednesday, under the presidency of Mr R. B. Benson, of Lutwyche Hall. The object of the festival was chiefly to enlighten Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French gentleman, who desires to introduce athletics more largely amongst his own countrymen, upon the methods adopted for the training of athletes in England. Dr Brookes, who is an untiring advocate of physical education among the young, was on this occasion largely instrumental in bringing about this meeting....."

Inspired by Dr Brookes, Baron Pierre de Coubertin went on to establish the International Olympic Committee. Dr Brookes was named as an honorary delegate at the 1894 Sorbonne Congress at which the IOC was established, although he was unable to attend due to ill health. The Wenlock Olympian Games continued intermittently after his death in 1896, with significant revivals in 1950 and 1977. The current series has been running since 1977.

 

Should the events on the athletics track and sports field not hold your attention then an easy walk may be made to the remains of a windmil that squats upon a hill overlooking the Linden Fields. There is a small museum in the town itself with a number of photographs and exhibits relating to the Wenlock Olympics and Dr Brookes himself. Dr Brookes is buried in the nearby graveyard at Holy Trinity Church. Standing next to the church is The Guildhall, constructed in 1540 and open to the public. Also open to the public is Wenlock Priory, a twelfth century Cluniac Priory today operated and cared for by English Heritage.