it wasn’t for a man born 200 years ago in the small Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games might not be taking place. Strange as it may seem, this small rural British market town played a vital role in re-establishing the Ancient Greek games as an international sporting event.
The man in question is Dr. William Penny Brookes, born on August 13th, 1809. He was born and bred in Much Wenlock and followed in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor. He traveled widely, furthering his knowledge, spending time at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and also in Padua, Italy.
When Brookes received news that his father had died of typhoid in 1831, he returned to Much Wenlock and took over the running of his father’s general practice surgery. Ten years later, in 1841, he also became a Justice of the Peace. It turned out to be a gold medal-winning combination.
It was as a doctor and law enforcer that Brookes realised how people could fall foul of the law when they had no guidance, knowledge, or activities to occupy themselves. He understood the importance of regular, healthy exercise.
So in 1841, he created the town’s Agricultural Reading Society. He wanted to give poor people access to information and knowledge. Its role was similar to today’s public lending libraries. From this, however, Brookes created many more groups, allowing the town’s poor to learn about art, music, and even botany.
One such group Brookes created in 1850, aimed at getting people to exercise, was called the Wenlock Olympic Class.
When he held the first Wenlock Olympic Games in 1850, the event included varied sporting activities, traditional country sports, and also a fun event, like a wheelbarrow race, to ensure that there was something for everyone. In Brookes’ Games, 14-year-old boys would run 100 yards (92 metres) for the first prize of five shillings.
An old coaching inn, the Gaskell Arms, stands at the junction of Victoria Road, Bridgnorth Road, and the High Street. Brookes often stood here to give an opening speech to congregating crowds before leading a procession of flag bearers and competitors through the town to the recreation grounds where the games would then begin. It was all very different from the highly technical opening ceremony witnessed at the modern Olympic Games!
The Much Wenlock Olympic Games grew in popularity, with similar games took place across Britain during the mid-19th century. However, there was no International Olympic event where countries could compete against one another.
Brookes desperately wanted to revive the Ancient Greek Olympics, so in 1859, he sent the Greek Olympic Games a £10 prize to give to one of their event winners. He hoped it might encourage an international event, but it was not to be. The Greek Olympic Games were for Greek nationals only, and Greece was not politically stable at the time, which meant that their games didn’t always take place.
Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1877 provided Brookes with another opportunity. He asked the Greeks if they would provide a prize for Britain’s National Olympic Games being held in Shrewsbury. The Greek King, George I of Hellenes, supplied a large silver cup, which was awarded at the Games by the Greek Charge d’Affaire in London, His Excellency J Gennadius.
Brookes and Gennadius struck up a friendship and corresponded regularly, with Brookes pushing for a revival of the International Olympics. However, despite both of them being enthusiastic, the Greek Government was not.
In 1889, Brookes spotted a newspaper advert, placed by a Frenchman, Baron Pierre Coubertin. Coubertin wanted to promote an international sporting event and was organising an International Congress of Physical Education. Brookes invited Coubertin to Much Wenlock in October 1890 and held a special Wenlock Olympic Games in his honour. Coubertin was impressed with what Brookes had achieved and was delighted to find that they both shared the same dreams.
When he returned to France, Coubertin wrote in an athletic paper, “If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survive today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W. P. Brookes.” Worthy praise indeed.
Brookes was hoping to attend Coubertin’s International Congress to increase enthusiasm for an International Olympic event. However, due to ill health, he was unable to travel. Coubertin’s Congress was a success, which led to the creation of the International Olympic Committee. This went on to reintroduce the ancient Olympics as an international sporting event held every four years.
The first modern international Olympic Games were held in Athens, in 1896.
Sadly, Brookes died four months before those first games.
To mark the International Olympic Committee’s centenary in 1994, the IOC President, Juan Antonia Samaranch, placed a wreath beside Dr Brookes’ grave in Much Wenlock saying, “I came to pay tribute and homage to Dr Brookes who really was the founder of the Modern Olympic Games.”
The town’s free museum is a treasure trove of artefacts from the early Wenlock Games and is well worth a visit. It’s clear that Dr William Penny Brookes deserves a Gold Medal of his own. He may not have finished the race to restart the International Olympics, but with the help of the sporty inhabitants of Much Wenlock, he certainly started it!
Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer based in Shropshire, on the Welsh Borders. His travel features have appeared in UK publications such as The People’s Friend, BBC Countryfile, Britain, Cumbria, This England, The Countryman and Coast, as well as in foreign publications, including Australia’s Great Walks, the USA’s British Heritage and Canada’s Celtic International. He’s also a regular contributor to Country Walking and since 2014 has written the Business of Writing column for Writing Magazine. As a keen photographer, many of Simon’s images have been used by the travel sections of the national press, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sun and The Independent, and appeared in many regional and national calendars.