The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles
April 19, 2021, 10:49:53 am *
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: - The Lighter Side Of Steampunk, follow @brasstech for forum technical problems & updates.
   Home   Blog Help Rules Login Register  
Pages: [1]   Go Down
Author Topic: Victorian Strangeness: The sport of "pedestrianism"  (Read 2701 times)
Siliconous Skumins
Server Monk
Rogue Ætherlord
United Kingdom United Kingdom

« on: August 22, 2014, 02:41:15 am »

In the late 19th Century, thousands came to watch one of the most gruelling events in sporting history. As the clock struck 01:00 on that Monday morning, 17 Englishmen and a single Irish-American set off.

A military band played while bookmakers shouted the odds and the bars and restaurants of the Agricultural Hall in Islington, north London, teemed with customers. The more inebriated screamed at their favourites to get a move on.

The early morning of 18 March 1878 saw the start of what was described as the greatest sporting event in the world. The aim was simple but daunting - to get around the track as many times as possible over six days.

Under the rules of "pedestrianism", colloquially known as "go-as-you-please" racing, competitors could walk or run. Eating and drinking as they moved, playing up to the crowds - who also displayed considerable stamina - they plodded on and on.

Their incentive in this race - the first of five in a "world championship" taking place in the UK and US - was a prize of £500 and the newly created Astley Belt. Thousands attended and the latest updates on proceedings dominated the front pages of the newspapers.

The man who put up the money and gave his name to the gold and silver-decorated belt was the Conservative MP for North Lincolnshire, Sir John Dugdale Astley.

Known as the "Sporting Baron", this portly, bearded veteran of the Crimean War had been a runner in his youth and had gained a reputation as a prodigious gambler. His aim in creating the Astley Belt was to clean up a sport which was seen as disorganised and fixable.

He was a respectable Conservative Member of Parliament, and his involvement helped to legitimise pedestrianism. He wasn't really ruthless at all, he was rather a pleasant promoter. He wanted to see pedestrianism develop good values. There were plenty of ruthless promoters who just wanted to make money for themselves.

Pedestrianism had grown up since the mid-to-late 18th Century, encouraging ever more remarkable feats of physical endurance. The American Edward Payson Weston had attempted to walk 2,000 miles around the shires of England in exactly 1,000 hours, missing by just a few miles.

He was also a showman, constantly playing up to the crowd. Weston used to keep on his formal clobber for a few laps before racing in his pedestrian costume, he sometimes fooled around with a trombone and even spun plates on his walking stick as he competed.

The first of the Astley Belt contests was won by Daniel O'Leary, an Irish-born American, who managed 520 miles by the end of the sixth night. Six months later he took the second round at New York's Madison Square Gardens, a baying pit of excitement and betting, notching up 403 miles.

But, in the following March, he was forced to retire from the third race through exhaustion brought on from consuming too much champagne, wrongly perceived to be a stimulant. Weston won and the penultimate race, in September 1879, was taken by the muscular Charlie Rowell, who went on to keep the belt.

The sport was pretty brutal, with contestants racing about 22 hours a day. These men were seen as the gladiators of their time, a reminder of the contests in the Colosseum in Rome. And the people couldn't get enough of it.

Followers spanned the class divisions of Victorian England. Aristocrats mingled with gangsters and down-and-outs who paid for entry so they could use the venues as a dry place to sleep for six nights.

Scottish champion George Cameron, to gain a greater following, reversed his surname to Noremac. Just to be different.

The excitement of the Astley Belt contest was not to last. Astley himself continued to support pedestrianism, but newspapers began to comment more on the brutality of the contests and the vulgarity of the crowds. Financial rewards dwindled as spectators stayed away. In the US, baseball became the main spectator sport. In the UK, football and cricket dominated.

Still, the competitors kept plodding on. In 1882, George Hazael of England broke the 600-mile barrier for a six-dayer. Two years later Weston walked 5,000 miles in 100 days.

The achievements remain remarkable, as does the hype surrounding what was, after all, nothing more than a mixture of long-distance walking and running.

Images and text taken from, and heavily edited for reproduction here, the BBC News story "How Samantha Cameron's ancestor 'reinvented' walking" By Justin Parkinson, Political reporter.  Link :

"John Dugdale Astley 26 July 1894" by Leslie Ward - Published in Vanity Fair, 26 July 1894.Downloaded from Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

[Server Prayer]
Spoiler (click to show/hide)
Zeppelin Overlord
Netherlands Netherlands

A.K.A. Scanner Camera Builder

« Reply #1 on: August 22, 2014, 08:51:55 am »

Wonderfull article. If I got it right, the goal of the sport was an endurance race. One could walk for 22 hours a day or run for less hours. The mind game along the way was to show ones stamina or (lack of) speed.

The best way to learn is by personal experience.
Fairley B. Strange
Zeppelin Overlord
Australia Australia

Relax, I've done much dumber things and survived..

« Reply #2 on: August 22, 2014, 10:06:50 am »

Still, the competitors kept plodding on. In 1882, George Hazael of England broke the 600-mile barrier for a six-dayer. Two years later Weston walked 5,000 miles in 100 days.

Just doing some maths.
100miles per day. 162km/24hours = 6.75km/h with no sleep. 8km/h with 4 hours sleep.

50miles/81km per day average. 81/20= that's only 4km/h but thats every day without the benefit of high-tech shoes or probably consistent roadways.

Choose a code to live by, die by it if you have to.
J. Wilhelm
╬ Admiral und Luftschiffengel ╬
United States United States

Sentisne fortunatum punkus? Veni. Diem meum comple

« Reply #3 on: December 03, 2020, 10:21:56 am »

I found this other article on a race that took place a few years earlier on Monday, November 15, 1875. The stadium was inside the Interstate Exposition Building in Chicago, Illinois.

Source: The Insane 6-Day, 500-Mile Race That Riveted America, Condenser version by Matthew Algeo, for Mental Floss, December 22, 2015. Original article: "Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport", by Matthew Algeo for Chicago Review Press.

It was just after midnight on Monday, November 15, 1875, and the Interstate Exposition Building in Chicago was buzzing. Spectators swarmed the auditorium, hundreds of people craning their necks to get a glimpse of the two legends on the track. One of the men wore a black velvet suit with black boots, a silk sash draped across his chest. The other looked the part of a conventional athlete in white tights and a striped tank top. They stretched their legs, then approached the line. As the crowd roared, the starter counted: “One! Two!”

On “Three!” they were off. With hips swiveling and arms pumping, the Great Walking Match for the Championship of the World had begun.

 The men on the track were Edward Payson Weston and Dan O’Leary, and what played out before a screaming fan base was more than just a race. Weston, a New England dandy who often competed in flashy outfits, was the man to beat. He’d made his name eight years earlier, when he walked the 1,200 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in under 30 days, winning a $10,000 wager in the process. A blue-blooded Yankee, Weston embodied old money and an old America.

O’Leary’s story couldn’t have been more different. Born in County Cork, Ireland, he had arrived in the States, alone and penniless, some 10 years earlier. Finding opportunity in a burgeoning sport, O’Leary had jumped into pedestrianism less than two years prior to this race, walking an astounding 116 miles in under 24 hours and establishing himself as the working man’s hero. He also became Weston’s biggest rival. This was the first time the two squared off, and the public was lapping up the hype.

For Chicago’s Irish community, O’Leary wasn’t just an athlete; he was a symbol of hope. Four years earlier, another O’Leary—Catherine (no relation)—had been blamed for igniting the Great Fire of 1871 when her cow supposedly knocked over a lantern. In a city devastated by the flames, Catherine became a convenient scapegoat, an easy punching bag for an angry and xenophobic populace. Tension between the city’s Irish immigrants and its “native” population had only grown worse. And in that divide, Dan O’Leary was left carrying his community’s dream on his back—hoping to prove an Irishman’s worth by walking his way to glory.

From the start, it was clear that O’Leary, seven years younger, was faster. The difference in their gaits was also immediately apparent. According to one observer, O’Leary walked with a “straight form, quick stride, and bent arms.” He held his head up and looked straight ahead. Meanwhile, Weston seemed “rather to drag than throw his feet.” Worse still, the observer bemoaned how he seemed “to carry his head on his breast and to see nothing but the dirt before him.” O’Leary’s crisp form translated into results, and he shot into the lead, completing his first mile in 11 minutes and 3 seconds. It took Weston more than a minute longer.

With no grandstands to watch from, the audience pressed close to the tracks, jockeying for position. Some crossed over to view the action from within the concentric ovals, to the chagrin of the walkers. On several occasions, police had to clear the way for the pedestrians. Even the Chicago Tribune, despite its breathless coverage, seemed stumped by the frenzy. “Walking,” the paper observed, “is at best not an absorbingly entrancing sport.”

By the end of the first day, Weston trailed O’Leary by 19 miles (110 to 91). Still, he exuded confidence. His strategy was simple: slow and steady. Weston was convinced that fatigue would overcome O’Leary before the race ended. After all, the men got only three to five hours of sleep a night in small rooms in the Expo. For the most part, the two didn’t even stop for meals; more often they ate as they walked. Weston was partial to rare beefsteak; O’Leary preferred mutton and sipped hot tea and Champagne on the move.

When the two pedestrians retired on Tuesday night, O’Leary had added three miles to his lead. By the end of Wednesday night, he had stretched his advantage to 26 miles. It was starting to seem obvious that O’Leary would not wear out as Weston had expected, but Weston was too proud and stubborn to alter his strategy, and he continued to plod forward.

As O’Leary’s lead steadily increased, the Expo overflowed. The audience was packed with Irish immigrants shouting themselves hoarse in thick brogues as they cheered for their compatriot. Those unable to afford the 50-cent admission tried to barter for entry, offering to guard the building’s marble statues in exchange for free admittance.

Finally, as Saturday morning dawned, the outcome no longer felt like a question: O’Leary was ahead, 425 miles to Weston’s 395. By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the line for tickets snaked around the building. That the competitors were by now practically wilting from exhaustion only added to the excitement.

By 9 p.m., 6,000 people had packed into the Expo. “The crowd was motley, but largely respectable,” the Tribune wrote. “It represented wealth, standing, and brains, and thieves, gamblers, and roughs. Ladies were there in large numbers, some with husbands and some with lovers, but all had a terribly hard time of it in the ceaselessly moving and noisy throng.” Small boys crawled through the forest of legs to get close to the action. The older, more adventurous ones clambered up the Expo’s trusses and took seats on the beams near the roof, more than 100 feet above the floor.

As O’Leary neared his goal with each passing mile, a tense murmur moved through the building. Around 10:15, he completed his 495th mile, and it seemed clear that he’d reach 500 well before midnight. Weston, for his part, plodded wearily on.

At 11:15, O’Leary completed his 500th mile. The Expo erupted in delirious cheers. Men threw their hats in the air. The band played a celebratory tune. O’Leary’s wife greeted him at the finish line in front of the judges’ stand with a large basket of flowers. O’Leary paused, caught his breath—and then continued walking. When the hands on the big clock reached midnight, he had completed 503 miles. Weston had clocked only 451.

Both Weston and O’Leary would take home serious winnings: After expenses and a cut for the promoters, each walked away with more than $4,000—nearly $90,000 today. But it was O’Leary’s triumph that was celebrated by every class, from the businessman to the bootblack, as a city that had spurned his people now embraced him as a native son. Newspaper editorials sang his praises. Poets composed verses in his honor. O’Leary’s victory helped the Irish gain some acceptance, if not equality, in Chicago.

The article states that running was NOT allowed, contrary to Mr. Skummins description. The rule was that one foot had to be on the ground at all times. The American athlete Edward Payson Weston participated in races on both sides of the Atlantic (see illustration provided by Mr. Skummins, above), and in Chicago he was at the time the star, competing against Dan O'Leary, an Irish immigrant in the United States. The arena was comprised of two concentric tracks made of pressed mulch, more commonly known as “the tanbark."

On the American side at least, there was one more rule: Chicago, like most cities in America had "Blue Laws," regulations which forbad certain activities such as sales of alcohol or "public amusements" during Sunday. the holy day of Sabbath, this being a long standing tradition for the Protestant faithful in the United States.* Six days was as long as the athletic event could last, so the doors of the Expo opened at 11:00 p.m. on Sunday and in spite of the day and hour up to 300 people would pack the arena.

*On "Blue Laws":

In fact as late as 1980 - I believe there were Blue Laws forbidding the sale of non-food items and even toys in Texas supermarkets - I remember during a visit from Mexico when I was a kid, and instance when a cashier at an Austin supermarket told me that I couldn't buy a die cast airplane on Sundays - this was sometime between 1976-78.  In 1993 when I went to college in Austin and I worked at a supermarket, sales of non-food items were allowed on Sundays, but alcohol sales were forbidden per Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules). Today, you can buy anything you want on Sunday as far as I know - I think the limitation is on the hours of the day (after midnight sales not allowed on Sunday, I think).
« Last Edit: December 03, 2020, 10:23:27 am by J. Wilhelm » Logged

Pages: [1]   Go Up
Jump to:  

Powered by MySQL Powered by PHP Powered by SMF 1.1.20 | SMF © 2013, Simple Machines Valid XHTML 1.0! Valid CSS!
Page created in 0.33 seconds with 16 queries.