Much Wenlock - Olympian Games - Linden Grounds

The Crescent : TF13 6JF Much Wenlock - Olympian Games - Linden Grounds : Map credit National Library of Scotland Much Wenlock - Olympian Games - Linden Grounds : Image credit Wenlock Olympian Society
Much Wenlock Olympic Games started in 1850 as a local sports initiative. It was organised by Dr William Penny Brookes who formed the Working Men's Recreation and Olympic Society. The original objective of the Games was to "promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock "

In 1865, Dr Brookes was instrumental in setting up the National Olympian Association based in Liverpool. Their first Olympian Games, a national event, held in 1866 at The Crystal Palace, London, was a surprising success and attracted a crowd of over ten thousand people.

The early Games included a mixture of traditional games such as football and cricket, athletics, and an event to entertain the spectators - this once included an Old Women's Race and a Blindfolded Wheelbarrow Race. The Much Wenlock Olympic Games gathered momentum over the next few years and attracted competitors from as far away as London and Liverpool.

The Wellington Journal of July 30th 1859 reported that 3,000 spectators were at the Windmill field for the Olympian Games. Apart from sports, there were competitions for poetry, singing, drawing and knitting. The sporting events were high jump, running, archery, quoits, javelin and football (no more than 20 a side). In the afternoon there was a wheel race (probably bowling a hoop), tilting the ring (on horseback) and a jingling match (blindfolded players try to catch one not blindfolded player who keeps jingling a bell). After the sports there was a dance and Mr Dutton's balloon ascended ‘with a brilliant display of fireworks attached.' The spectators then formed a procession lead by several bands and returned to the Corn Market to hold the prize giving.

The first time that bicycle racing was reported in the Games was in The Wellington Journal which advertised that there would be bicycle races at the Whit Tuesday 1876 meeting. At the 1878 Games there were one and three miles bicycle handicap races, after that bicycle races continued to be included, usually 1 and 2 miles handicap events.

In September 1890, Dr Brookes proposed to hold the sports the following month and include running races, bicycle races and tilting. At the meeting it was stated that Ms Coubertin* was trying to introduce athletics into French schools and would be invited to be a guest at the dinner following the sports. Coubertin subsequently visited Much Wenlock to watch the sports and stayed with Dr Brookes

With the death of the founder Dr Brookes, the 1896 games was shorn of its ceremony and style, with the sports on the Linden field taking centre stage. The events including running races, one mile and three miles bicycle handicap races, hurdle tilting and a gimcrack (horse) race.

At the 1908 Games, there was again a procession, led by a brass band, from the Corn Exchange to the Linden field with many floats and decorated bicycles. The sporting events included a two miles bicycle open handicap race. The day finished with dancing in the bowling green,

Bicycle events at the Games continued in the 1900's and in 1914 there were the usual one and two miles handicap events. The Olympian Games stopped running in 1932 because of a lack of interest.

The Birmingham Gazette of July 31st 1950 reported that, on August Bank Holiday Monday, the Games would be revived on the centenary of their founding, thanks to the efforts of the Much Wenlock Town Clerk and a former Mayor.

The Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS) Annual Games are still held in July, at the Windmill Field, now called the Gaskell Recreation Ground. The WOS website contains information on the Society's activities.

The mascot for the London 2012 Summer Olympics was named Wenlock after Much Wenlock where the WOS and its Games began. The triple jump world record holder and Olympic gold medallist Jonathan Edwards was elected President of the WOS in 2011

* Pierre de Coubertin's meetings with Dr Brookes influenced his thinking about athletic competition to some extent. A trained physician, Brookes believed that the best way to prevent illness was through physical exercise. Coubertin went on to set up the International Olympic Committee in 1894, he initially credited Brookes with the idea, but later took the glory for himself. Following the establishment of the IOC the Olympic Games were revived. Dr Brookes sadly died in April 1896, just four months before the first International Olympic Games in Athens.

Much Wenlock - Olympian Games - Linden Grounds : Image credit David Fletcher personal collection Much Wenlock - Olympian Games - Linden Grounds : Image credit Wenlock Olympian Society
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Photos : Wenlock Olympian Society, David Fletcher personal collection
Maps    : National Library of Scotland