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In the United States and Britain in the 19th century, there was a competitive activity that at one time might have been the most popular sport in either country.
Tens of thousands of people would show up to witness it live and the top athletes got endorsement deals and had their own trading cards. And of course, tremendous amounts of money was wagered on the outcomes.
However, it wasn’t football, baseball, cricket, or boxing.
It was competitive walking.
Learn more about pedestrianism, aka competitive walking, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
As hard as it may be to believe, one of the popular sports in the 19th century was walking, or as it was known at the time, pedestrianism.
Before the rise of team sports like association football, American football, rugby, baseball, and cricket, the biggest sports were individual sports like boxing and pedestrianism.
While pedestrianism was competitive walking, it wasn’t quite like the similar events we have today.
The origins of pedestrianism are believed to date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Wealthy British who owned their own carriages or coaches would have footmen who often followed along on foot while they rode in the carriage.
They naturally began to bet each other on the ability of their footmen and how far and how fast they could walk.
These pedestrian contests began to appear at fairs and other festivals. The walking contests weren’t like the races we have today. They tended to be endurance and very long-distance affairs.
For example, a track might be set up and the contest was to see who would walk the most laps in 24 hours.
In the late 18th century in Britain, several people began to engage in feats of extreme walking which grabbed the public’s attention.
Perhaps the first celebrity pedestrian was a man by the name of Foster Powell.
His walking career began in 1764 when he walked the 50-mile road from London to Bath in 7 hours on a bet.
His claim to fame was that in 1773, he walked from London to York and back again. The total distance he covered was 402 miles or about 646 kilometers, and he did it in 5 days, 18 hours.
In 1787, he walked the 122 miles from London Bridge to Canterbury Cathedral and back in under 24 hours.
Crowds would often flock to watch him finish his walking feats. Despite his popularity, it didn’t really make him any money, despite being one of the first celebrity athletes.
The next famous pedestrian was Robert Barclay Allardice. His greatest walking feat was accomplished in 1809 when he walked 1,000 miles, or about 1600 kilometers, in 1,000 hours. It took him from June 1 to July 12 to achieve this incredible accomplishment.
Allardice’s record set the benchmark for other pedestrians.
Just six years later, in 1815, a 50-year-old George Wilson set out to demolish the record. He was going to walk 1,000 miles in just 480 hours or 20 days, and he was going to do it on a measured track at Blackheath Common, in Surrey, England.
When he first started, no one really paid attention. However, as the days progressed, more and more people started to show up to watch, and he began being covered in the newspapers.
By day 9, there were over 7,000 people in attendance to watch George Wilson walk around a track. People began placing bets on him, and there was believed to have been over £5,000 pounds that were wagered.
It became a sensation. Circus acts showed up, as did people selling liquor and everything that comes along with that.
Eventually, the police arrested him for disturbing the peace on day 16 after he had logged over 750 miles. The crowds disbanded and he was acquitted of the charge, however, he lost the £100 prize which was going to be given to him upon completion by the people of the town of Woolwich.
A collection was taken on the London Stock Exchange and he was given the £100.
Seven years later, at the age of 57, he managed to walk 1,000 miles in only 18 days in the city of Hull.
That same year, he ended his walking career by walking 90 miles in 24 hours at a racetrack in Newcastle. 40,000 people showed up to watch him walk.
I just want to make a personal comment here, lest you get lost in all the numbers.
Back when the pandemic was still fresh, I set about going on walks every day with my Fitbit and began tracking my number of daily paces. They have badges for walking 10, 20, 30, 40,0000 steps in a day. I managed to hit 45,000 steps in one day.
Their top badge is 100,000 steps in a single day. That is about 45 to 50 miles, depending on your pace.
I had developed a plan for getting the 100,000 step badge. Basically, I would wake up at like 2 or 3 in the morning, and then just walk all day until I completed it. I figured I’d hit it at around 10 to 11 pm.
Unfortunately, life got in the way and I had to move and never got around to doing the 100,000 step challenge, but I hope to do so someday in the future.
My point is that walking this far is really really hard, and it is something that most of us have never really had to do. Just doing 45,000 steps in a day left my feet and legs incredibly sore, and that took me about 8 hours to do.
Pedestrian matches became extremely popular and by the middle of the 19th century, they were up there with boxing and horse racing, the other two big 19th century sports in England.
There were also several famous women pedestrians. In 1864, Emma Sharp became the first woman to achieve the 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours mark, and in 1878 Ada Anderson managed to walk 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours, the second-best 1,000-hour performance in history.
She was dubbed the ‘Champion Lady Walker of the World’ by the newspapers.
The pedestrian craze eventually jumped the Atlantic and took hold in the United States after the Civil War.
Prior to this, the most popular sport in America had been boxing, but it found itself banned in most states due to its perceived barbaric bare-knuckles nature.
Pedestrianism filled much of the gap that boxing left in the states where it was banned.
In 1867, a door-to-door bookseller from Providence, Rhode Island, Edward Payson Weston won $10,000 by walking from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in just 30 days.
Weston was one of the first celebrity pedestrians in the United States, but certainly not the last.
In December 1874, at a roller rink in Newark, New Jersey, he set out to walk 500 miles in just six days. It drew incredible crowds and so much wagering that the governor threatened to call out the National Guard. Some gamblers who bet against him tried to pour chemicals on the track.
He made it with under 30 minutes to spare.
Weston’s popularity really made pedestrianism take off. His six-day exhibition which he did in Newark became the standard for pedestrian competition, although there were some shorter ones. The six-day race allowed for a long race, without competition on Sunday which was against the law in most places at the time.
Weston’s big rival was an Irish Immigrant by the name of Dan O’Leary. O’Leary and Weston had very different styles of walking. Weston would swing his hips like modern speed walkers, and O’Leary would pump his arms…also like modern speed walkers.
Children would actually imitate the walking styles of their favorite pedestrians.
Some companies began to create their own pedestrian teams.
As the popularity of the sport increased, things become more formalized.
In 1878, a member of the British Parliament, Sir John Astley, established the “Long Distance Championship of the World”, which was a six-day which became known as the Astley Belt.
Perhaps the pinnacle of the pedestrianism movement may have occurred in New York City in 1880. It was a race for the newly minted O’Leary Belt, which was the American version of the Astley Belt.
The six-day event was held in the original Madison Square Garden. As with all six-day events, it began at the stroke of midnight as Sunday turned to Monday.
There were 18 competitors, three of which were black. At the time, there were no racial restrictions or segregation in pedestrianism.
There were small tents set up near the track for the pedestrians to rest, eat, and use the facilities.
Many of the pedestrians at this point had corporate sponsors, including salt companies.
The arena held 10,000 spectators, and it was full for most of the six days the competition took place.
The rules for the event were “go-as-you-please” rules, which meant that you could run, walk, or crawl. You just had to propel yourself with your legs.
The winner of the race, and setting a new six-day record of 565 miles was Frank Hart. Frank was coached by Dan O’Leary, and he was also one of the black entrants to the race. He won $21,567, and an addition $3,600 which he legally bet on himself to win. That is worth almost a half-million dollars today.
Frank Hart became one of the most popular athletes of the 1880s. He had his own trading card.
Hart had migrated to the US from Haiti and quickly become one of the first celebrity athletes in the US, and most certainly the first famous black athlete.
He had his share of racial abuse with people poisoning his water during his races and some people throwing pepper in his face. However, at least from the existing newspaper accounts, he was respected and popular amongst both black and white pedestrian fans in the North.
Today, he, like pedestrianism itself, has been mostly forgotten.
Pedestrianism began to fade in popularity in the 1880s as professional team sports rose to prominence. Baseball in the United States and association football in the UK.
There were still pedestrian exhibitions, however.
In 1884, Edward Weston walked 5,000 miles in 100 days. In 1896, he and his old rival Dan O’Leary teamed up to walk the 2,500 miles across America in nine weeks.
In 1909, the 71-year-old Weston walked 3,895 from New York to San Franciso in 109 days.
Pedestrianism did however eventually find its way into track and field as the event known as speed walking. Unlike the “go-as-you-please” rules of the 1880s, speedwalking has very formal rules that state that one foot must be on the ground at all times. That is the formal difference between speedwalking and running.
It became an Olympic sport in 1908 and has remained on ever since.
There are some areas where the spirit of pedestrianism is still alive.
Through hiking is just hiking the full length of long trails. For example, the record for hiking the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail is currently 41d 7h 39m. That averages out to 53 miles a day, over very mountainous terrain.
There is also an event called the Barkley Marathons which is held in Tennessee every year. The course is in the mountains, and you have 60 hours to complete the approximately 100-mile course.
Only 15 people have completed the 100-mile course in the allotted time since the event began in 1986.
I don’t think pedestrianism will ever make a comeback, but I have to confess, after having spent so much time reading and researching this topic if someone were to host a six-day race as they did in the 1800s, I’d probably watch some of it, or at least follow it online.