Born out of Wenlock – an Olympian story


Born out of Wenlock – William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the modern Olympics
(DB Publishing, Derby) 2011; 192 pp; 30 bl/wh plates; ISBN 978-1-85983-967-6
Price: £12.99 + £2.30 p&p
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Born out of Wenlock by Catherine Beale‘The Wenlock people alone have preserved and followed the true Olympian traditions’.
Pierre de Coubertin, 1897


At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, London Mayor Boris Johnson memorably said of London 2012 that 'Ping-Pong is coming home'. In fact, he might justifiably have said that 'the Olympic movement is coming home'.


In 1850, Shropshire doctor William Penny Brookes began Olympian Games for the ‘moral, physical and intellectual improvement’ of all classes of the local population of Wenlock Borough. Within a decade he had donated a prize for athletics in Athens and was urging the Greeks to revive their ancient Games. He had also begun agitating for physical education to be compulsory at primary schools in England, an effort he sustained until the measure was finally passed in 1894.


Brookes, with help from John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of London, staged Britain’s first National Olympian Games at the Crystal Palace in 1866. WG Grace won the 440yd hurdles whilst simultaneously playing cricket for England at the Oval. But Brookes faced opposition from the elite Oxbridge and metropolitan athletes, for whom the Wenlock endeavour, with its egalitarian credentials, had definitely been conceived on the wrong side of the blanket.


In 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin travelled to Much Wenlock, met Brookes and watched the Wenlock Olympian Games. Within two years, Coubertin had decided to revive Olympic Games as an international sporting championship, and in 1896, the first of the IOC’s Olympic Games were held in Athens. Brookes died just seventeen weeks short of seeing international Olympic Games become a reality.


In this engaging and lively account, Catherine Beale tells the story of the Wenlock Olympian Games, and considers their influence on the modern Olympics (and indeed on British sport). Besides portraying remarkable success against the odds, persistence, dedication and endeavour, she reveals the infidelity, cheating, imprisonment, embezzlement, drowning and even murder of its Victorian characters.


'...packed full of detailed information... Brookes was a visionary', from the Foreword by Olympic gold-medallist Jonathan Edwards.