Posts tagged: Shropshire

Captain Webb: ‘Shropshire Lad’ and the original swimming hero

By , 16th September 2011 17:59

Matthew_Webb_1848-1883The public reaction to David Walliams’ marathon eight-day swim along 140 miles of the River Thames in aid of Sport Relief is reminiscent of the acclaim received by an earlier endurance swimmer. When, at 10:41 am on 25 August 1875, Captain Matthew Webb struggled ashore near Calais to become the first man to swim the English Channel unaided, he too became a national hero.  Occurring at the time when sports such as football, rugby and tennis were becoming more organized and codified, his achievement did much to popularize swimming as a sport. It also heralded a golden era of pool design between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War when more than 600 baths were constructed.

Webb was born on 18 January 1848 at Dawley, Shropshire, one of twelve children of Doctor Matthew Webb and his wife Sarah. Dawley is just a few miles from Much Wenlock where, in 1850, another doctor founded the Wenlock Olympian Class which later inspired de Coubertain to establish the modern Olympic Movement.

His birth certificate records that the son of the surgeon was born at Dawley Green. British History Online notes,”By the mid 19th century High Street, as Dawley Green came to be known, had gained most of the features of a small town…”.

When Matthew Webb was just a few years old, the family moved the short distance to nearby Madeley. The 1851 census, lists the Webb family as living in High Street, Madeley. By his eighth birthday, the younger Matthew had learned to swim in the River Severn below Ironbridge.

Aged 12, he joined the training ship Conway on the Mersey before embarking on a career in the merchant navy where he gained a reputation as a strong, but not necessarily fast, swimmer. In 1874, he was awarded the Stanhope gold medal after diving into heavy seas in the Atlantic in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a passenger who had fallen overboard.

Webb was serving as captain of the Liverpool ship, Emerald, when, in early 1875, he read a newspaper report of an unsuccessful attempt to swim the English Channel.  Inspired, he left the merchant navy to prepare for his own attempt.

A first attempt on 12 August 1875 was thwarted when heavy seas threatened to overwhelm his support boat.  He started his second attempt on 24 August, diving off the Admiralty pier in Dover at 1 p.m.

Battling against strong currents, it is estimated that Webb actually swam close to 40 miles in the 21 hour 45 minutes he spent in the water.  (Benefiting from the 130 years of open water swimming experience accumulated since Webb, David Walliams’ completed his 2006 Sport Relief channel swim in less than half the time: 10 hours 34 minutes.)

As a national hero, Webb was feted everywhere as he toured the country lecturing.  However, his celebrity did not bring prosperity. Having married Madeleine Chaddock in Fulham on 27 April 1880, he was compelled to take part in a variety of endurance swimming races in Britain and America in order to earn a living.

He ended a race against Dr Jennings on 1 October 1881 at Hollingworth Lake near Rochdale in a state of utter exhaustion.  This was considered to be a turning point in his career.

In search of what he hoped would be a big pay-day, Webb sailed with his wife, son and baby daughter to America in 1883.  His plan was to swim downriver through the narrow gorge that runs away from the foot of Niagara Falls and on through Niagara’s treacherous Whirlpool. Disregarding warnings from friends, Webb left his family at Nantucket, where he had spent a few days training, and traveled alone to the Falls.  At 4 pm on 24 July he dived into the middle of the river from a rowing boat.  He was instantly swept away by the strong currents. His body was recovered by fishermen some days later and was laid to rest in the nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

Some 34 years after he conquered the Channel and helped re-ignite interest in swimming as a sport, his elder brother Thomas unveiled a memorial to Webb in his Dawley birthplace.


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This was the year after FINA, swimming’s world governing body, was established at a meeting on 19 July at the Manchester Hotel, London, at the culmination of the 1908 London Olympics.

Much Wenlock, the Shropshire GP and the modern Olympics

By , 20th July 2010 15:37
Birthplace of William Penny Brookes

7 Wilmore St, Much Wenlock

William Penny Brookes was born, lived, worked and eventually died at 7 Wilmore Street in the tranquil Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock.  It is surprising how a man who spent so much of his life in such a small, if beautiful, patch of rural England played such a major part in the creation of the modern Olympic Movement.

Born on 13 August 1809, Brookes followed his father into the medical profession training in London, Padua and Paris. On his father’s death in 1831, he returned to Much Wenlock to take over the practice and become a leading figure in the local community.

In 1841, Brookes established the town’s Agricultural Reading Society as an early lending library. This gave birth to a number of ‘classes’ promoting the arts and sciences.  Convinced of the importance of physical exercise Brookes set up the Wenlock Olympian Class in 1850 under the umbrella of the Reading Society with the objective of holding an annual games to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially the working classes.”

Including a mix of classic athletic events and traditional country sports, the first games were held in October 1850.  Open to all-comers, the second Games in 1851 were already attracting competitors from Wolverhampton and Birmingham.

When Evangelis Zappas staged the Athens Olympian Games – restricted to Greek nationals – for the first time in 1859, a £10 donation from Brookes on behalf of the Wenlock Olympian Committee resulted in the Wenlcok Prize being awarded for the ‘Sevenfold’ race.

By 1860, the Olympian Class flew its nest in the Agricultural Reading Society to become the Wenlock Olympian Society that exists to this day.  It was also in this year that Brookes launched a new initiative: the Shropshire Olympian Games. Conceived as a biannual event, the staging of the Shropshire Games would be taken on by a different town within the county every two years – a model later adopted by the Olympics.

In 1865, Brookes extended his horizons further when, in collaboration with John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of the German Gymnasium in London, he was instrumental in establishing the National Olympic Association.  This “union for different Olympian, Athletic, Gymnastic, Boating, Swimming, Cricket and other similar societies” staged its first festival at Crystal Palace over three days in 1866.  (The fourth National Olympian Games were held in Much Wenlock in 1874.)

The success of the event, which attracted 10,000 spectators, promoted the formation of the Amateur Athletic Club by a group of ex-public school athletes determined to preserve sport for ‘amateurs and gentlemen’.  Despite the efforts of the AAC, which later became the Amateur Athletic Association, athletics remained open to what Brookes described as ‘every grade of man’.

A sustained campaign to see physical education included in the school curriculum led to the first contact, in 1889,  between Brookes and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Congress on Physical Education.  At Brookes’ invitation de Coubertin arrived by train to attend the Much Wenlock Games on Linden Field on 22 October 1890.  That evening, he was guest of honour at a dinner hosted by the Wenlock Olympian Society at the Raven Hotel in Barrow Street.  It was during this visit that Brookes shared his dream of reviving an international Olympic Games in Athens – an idea that de Coubertin acknowledged in an article in La Review Athletique on his return to France.

Unfortunately, Brookes died at home in Wilmore Street on 10 December 1885 just four months before his dream was realised with the staging of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens.  In an obituary for Brookes, de Coubertin wrote:

“If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr William Penny Brooks.”

Brookes is buried just across the road from his home in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church.   On visiting the grave in 1994, Juan Antonio Saramanch, the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Samaranch said,

“I came to pay tribute and homage to Dr Brookes who really was the founder of the Modern Olympic Games.”

Much Wenlock’s Museum and Visitor Information Centre on the corner of High Street and Wilmore Street displays a collection of documents and artefacts associated with Brookes and the Much Wenlock Olympian Games.  It is also the starting point for the Oympian Trial which takes visitors to all the major landmarks linked to the town’s Olympic connection.

Visit Britain has produced this video on Penny Brookes and Much Wenlock.

2012 mascots celebrate Much Wenlock & Stoke Mandeville

By , 20th May 2010 13:25

So LOCOG has unveiled Wenlock and Mandeville, its (first?) mascots.

Described as having been “created from the last drops of steel left over from the construction of the final support girder for the Olympic Stadium,” the new mascots are the first to have been designed for the new media age.  They will inevitably be available as cuddly toys as well!

Its great to see that they commemorate the significant contributions that two towns – away from London – have made to the development of the Olympic and Paralympic movements.

Much Wenlock, to the south west of Telford in Shropshire, first staged the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850.  Established by a local doctor, William Penny Brooks, who harboured a vision of reviving the Olympic Games in Greece, the Wenlock Olympian Games predate the “first Olympic Games of the modern era” by nearly half a century.

In 1889, the initiative came to the attention of the young Baron Pierre de Coubertin who shared Penny Brooks’ vision of re-establishing the Olympics as an international celebration of sport.  A visit by the French nobleman to the Shropshire town in 1890 was a significant milestone along the road to the creation of the International Olympic Committee.

The 124th Wenlock Olympian Games were staged between 9 and 12 July 2010.

Stoke Mandeville’s most famous sporting connection also starts with a doctor. In February 1944, Dr.Ludwig Guttmann arrived at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, to set up a new unit to deal with war casualties suffering from spinal cord injuries.

Sir Ludwig believed sport would help his patients make the most of their remaining physical capabilities while providing much-needed exercise. Sport would also help patients rebuild their self-esteem and provide the confidence to contemplate re-entering the world of work.  Initially, games for individuals such as darts, archery, snooker and table ten­nis were offered, but these were quickly supplemented by team sports including wheelchair polo and basketball.

To coincide with the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Sir Ludwig organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled athletes.  Over the following years, the Stoke Mandeville Games expanded steadily, attracting ever more international competitors and laying the foundations for the Paralympic Games.  If Olympia is the spiritual home of the Olympic Games, Stoke Mandeville can justifiably claim to be the Olympia of the Paralympic Games.

Today, Stoke Mandeville is the UK’s National Centre for Disability Sport offering facilities for a wide variety of land- and water-based sports and regularly hosting competitions.

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