The opening Ceremony for The London 2012 Olympic Games takes place on Friday 26th July with Events starting the day after until the closing ceremony on Sunday 12th August, so I thought I would pay tribute to Dr. William Penny Brookes, who played a major part in getting the Modern International Olympiad going in the first place through his promotion of physical education and personal betterment.
He was born on 13th August 1809 in the small market town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England and when he first started work He was apprenticed to his father, a local Doctor, Dr William Brookes, and later studied at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, England, another hospital in Paris and Later went to the 16th Century Orto botanico di Padova, in Padua where he studied herbal medicines for six months before returning home to Much Wenlock at the end of February 1831 and took over his father’s large medical practice
He also worked a surgeon, magistrate, botanist, social reformer and educationalist and as a botanist, he provided information on plants growing around Wenlock and also Shropshire for Charles Hulbert’s The History and Description of the County of Salop, and William Allport Leighton’s Flora of Shropshire. His herbarium is held at the Much Wenlock Town Council’s archives.
He also became actively involved in the local community, becoming a Justice of the Peace in 1841 and remaining an active magistrate for over 40 years. It is likely that he would have been confronted with cases of petty crime, drunkenness, and theft in the local community, which almost certainly influenced his desire to develop structured physical exercise and education for the working classes and young people generally and thus Motivated he campaigned tirelessly to give better opportunities for what he termed “every grade of man” to expand their knowledge and become mentally and physically fit, to this end he founded the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS) in 1841 for the “diffussion of useful knowledge” which included a library for working class subscribers with the aim of providing the opportunity of acquiring knowledge for the benefit of the people, and to provide more opportunities for the working classes.
He also established an Olympian Class in 1850 to inspire local people to keep fit by encouraging them to train and take part in the sports competitions at the annual Wenlock Olympian Games. which comprised of events ranging from classic athletics, quoits, football and cricket, and offered prizes. The first Wenlock Olympian Games, staged in 1850 were a huge success and quickly expanded, and within a few years it was attracting competitors from as far away as London and Liverpool and also opened the door for the working classes to enter competitive sport which, had previously been the privilege of the elite.
His lifelong campaign to get Physical Education on the school curriculum also brought him into contact with Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In 1890, the young French aristocrat visited Much Wenlock and stayed with Dr Brookes at his home in Wilmore Street. The Society staged a Games especially for the Baron and, inspired by the event and his discussions with Brookes, Coubertin went on to set up the International Olympic Committee in 1894, which was followed by the Athens 1896 Olympic Games that came under the auspices of the Committee.
In 1858, Brookes also established contact with the organisers of an Olympic Games revival in Athens sponsored by the Albanian-born, Evangelis Zappas, who was of ethnic Greek origin. The Olympian Class sent a prize of £10 which was awarded to the winner of the Seven-Fold Foot Race, Petros Velissariou, from Smyrna, and he was made the first Honorary Member of the Wenlock Olympian Class.
The 1859 Wenlock Olympian Games were much expanded following nine years of work to build up subscriptions and atttracted more competitors with new competitions and brought in spectators through more organised pageantry and better advertising. The following year, even more people came and the inclusion of a whole range of competitions open to regiments from the newly instigated national Volunteer Rifle Corps encouraged a further increas in competitors and spectators. and Brookes, inspired by the revived Greek Olympic Games, added “throwing the javelin” and writing an “Ode to the Olympian Games” to the Wenlock Olympian games programme.
In 1865, 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. W.G. Grace, who would later gain fame as a cricketer, won the hurdles event. The Amateur Athletic Club, later to become the Amateur Athletics Association, was quickly formed as a rival organisation to the National Olympian Association. In 1877, Brookes requested a prize from Greece to mark Queen Victoria’s jubilee. In response, King George I of Greece sent a silver cup which was presented at the National Olympian Games held in Shrewsbury. In 1881, Brookes was again in contact with the Greek government, when he tried to instigate an Olympic Games in Athens open to international competitors.
Brookes was also heavily involved in many other local activities. He became Chairman of the Wenlock Gas Company in 1856, which first brought lighting to the town. He was a Commissioner for Roads and Taxes, Overseer of the Poor, and also became a Director of both the Wenlock and Severn Junction Railway Company and the later Wenlock Railway Company. The first train to Much Wenlock was arranged to coincide with the Wenlock Olympian Games of 1861. He was manager of the Much Wenlock National School, where, in 1871, he helped introduce drill and physical exercise into the curriculum.
Unfortunately Brookes passed away just four months before the 1896 Summer Olympics held in Athens in 1896, organised by Coubertin’s International Olympic Committee, and to this day The Wenlock Olympian Society maintains his original ideals, and continues to organise annual Olympian Games. The Live arts takes place in March each year, the sports in July and The William Brookes School in Much Wenlock is named after him.