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William Penny Brookes - The Olympic Connection

William Penny Brookes was born in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock in 1809. His father was the local doctor who had a medical practice in the town.

Brookes would eventually leave Much wenlock to study at Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospital in London before moving on to study in France and Italy. In 1831 Brookes would return to Much Wenlock to succeed is father as the towns local doctor.

The Corn Exchange in Much Wenlock

Brookes quickly became involved in local affairs and aged thirty two he became a Justice of the Peace and Commissioner for Roads and Taxes. It was during this time that Brookes became heavily involved with the renovation of the towns Council Chamber which is located in the Guildhall and also the building of the Corn Exchange.

Brookes had a keen interest in Botany which probably started during his studies in Padua, Italy where there were medieval botanical gardens attached to the University's school of medicine. Many examples from Brookes herbarium still survive although not all of these collections are held by the Much Wenlock Museum.

Brookes was persistent in his campaigns for the inclusion of physical education to be included in the curriculum of British schools and through the Wenlock Olympian Society he petitioned Parliament in 1868, 10 and 1890. It was shortly before Brookes death in 1895 that the Board of Education finally agreed to include physical education as a compulsory subject in British schools.

Dr Brookes founded the Agricultural Reading Society (a form of early library) in 1841 for "the promotion of useful information". Over time this society evolved to include classes in Art, Philharmonics and Botany. The Wenlock Olympian class (Later renamed Wenlock Olympian Society) was formed in 1850 to "promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants". 1850 was also the year that the first games were held.

Most of the events were open to "every grade of man" and contained a mixture of athletics and traditional sports including quoits, cricket and football. These also included the odd 'fun' event to entertain the crowds such as the 'blindfolded wheelbarrow race' and the 'old woman's race for pound of tea'.

The games became a cornerstone of Much Wenlock's events calendar and a certain degree of pomp and circumstance was added. The procession of flags, officials and competitors were led through the decorated town streets by a band. Eventually they would reach the destination - the Racecourse or the Windmill Meadow (Linden Field as it is known today and also the Games permanent home).

Over the years news of the Wenlock games spread with competitors coming from places a far afield as London and Liverpool.

Perhaps the popular event was one known as 'Tilting at the Ring' which required expert horsemanship for a competitor to unhook a small ring, hanging from a cross bar using the tip of a lance.

Fencing at the Much Wenlock Olympian Games

By 1861 the Shropshire Olympian Games were founded. These Games were hosted in different towns where the host town had responsibility for their finance. This idea was later adopted by Baron de Coubertin when he revived the Modern Olympic Games.

Athens played host to the first Olympian Games in 1865. These were funded by a wealthy albanian named Evangelis Zappas who lived in exile in Romania. On hearing news of these Games, Brookes sent 10 on behalf of the Wenlock Olympian Committee. The Wenlock Prize was awarded a member of the Greek Royal Army named Petros Velissarios who won the 'Long' or 'Sevenfold' Race. This was Brookes first contact with Greece and within two years, Velissarios was elected as an honorary member of the Wenlock Olympian Society.

During the 1877 Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Brookes requested an Olympian prize from King George of Greece. A inscribed silver cup was provided and subsequently awarded at the National Olympian Games in Shrewsbury. This presented Brookes with an opportunity. He had become close friends with His Excellency J. Gennadius,the Greek Charge'd'Affares and through their friendship he would try and persuade the Greek government to revive the Olympics at an international level. Regretfully the political situation in Greece at the time meant that this was overlooked.

Baron de Coubertin

During 1889, Baron de Coubertin, the organiser of the International Congress on Physical Education was in england seeking information on sport education. Brookes wrote to Coubertin and invited him to see the Wenlock Olympian Games. The following year Coubertin attended the Wenlock Games in October. The two men would discuss their desire to se an international Olympic Games revived and held in Athens.

Dr Brookes died in December 1895 just four months before the revival of the international games. He never knew his dream had been achieved.

When Coubertin was writing Brookes' obituary he 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 Brookes."

Brookes is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, just a few feet from the front door of his former house.

The Wenlock Olympian Games are held in Much Wenlock every year as a lasting legacy of Dr Brookes.

For more information about the Wenlock Olympian Society, please visit http://www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk

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