Shropshire History

William Brookes


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William Penny Brookes was born in Much Wenlock in 1809. His father was a doctor and William was apprenticed to him before studying at St Thomas' Hospital in London between 1829-1830.  He then spent some time at hospitals in Paris before going to Padua, famous for its 16th Century herb gardens. He studied herbal medicine and botany for 6 months until his father died in 1831. William then returned home to Much Wenlock and took over his father's medical practice.


He was a keen botanist and provided information on plants growing around Much Wenlock and Shropshire for Charles Hulbert's “The History and Description of the County of Salop” (1837) and William Leighton's “Flora of Shropshire” (1841). He regarded himself as a philanthropist and in 1841 founded the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society for the "diffusion of useful knowledge". This included a library for working-class subscribers and some famous people such as Abraham Darby and the Duke of Wellington donated money and books. Interest groups met at the Corn Exchange to listen to lectures and study such things as art, music and botany. The library and all classes were open to "every grade of man" at Brookes' insistence.


 In 1850, he formed the Wenlock Olympian Class to encourage athletic exercises, ranging from running to football. The aims of the new class were "the promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation, and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in Athletic exercise and proficiency in Intellectual and industrial attainments". It was intended to hold an annual Games offering prizes for sports competitions and the first of these meetings was held in October of that year. It included competitions in classic athletics and also country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. There was great criticism at first from some quarters about Brookes's insistence that the Games was to be open to the working classes. They claimed that to have a large number of scantily-dressed young men performing in front of women would cause drunkenness, rioting, lewd behaviour and that men would leave their wives. Despite this, the Games were a huge success and none of the threatened disturbances occurred. The Games quickly expanded and, within a few years, it was attracting competitors from as far away as London and Liverpool.



Brookes also became actively involved in the local community, he had been a Justice of the Peace since 1841 and remained an active magistrate for over 40 years. In 1856, he became Chairman of the Wenlock Gas Company, 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 & 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. He believed that as children at the school were likely to be employed in jobs that required physical strength, such as farming or quarrying, development of their physical strength was equally as important as their mental ability.


In 1858, Brookes contacted the organisers of an Olympic Games revival in Athens sponsored by Evangelis Zappas. The Olympian Class sent a prize of £10 which was awarded to the winner of the Seven-Fold Foot Race, Petros Velissariou. The latter was subsequently made the first Honorary Member of the Wenlock Olympian Class. The 1859 Wenlock Olympian Games were much expanded as a result of better subscription income and it attracted more competitors with new competitions, also bringing in more spectators through better advertising. The following year, even more people came as there was a well-publicised opening celebration for the laying of the first stone for Much Wenlock's first railway. This, coupled with the discovery of the Roman city of Viroconium in the village of Wroxeter and the inclusion of a whole range of spectacular competitions open to regiments from the newly instigated national Volunteer Rifle Corps, encouraged a further increase in competitors and spectators. Also, inspired by the revived Greek Olympic Games, Brookes added the javelin and writing poetry to the games programme.


Following the 1860 Games, the Olympian Class separated from the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society due to a difference of opinion between the two organisations. The latter changed its name to Wenlock Olympian Society to emphasise that it was now independent. It still exists today. The Shropshire Olympian’s Games were founded in 1861 and they included a range of athletic and country events including cricket, jumping, quoits, a 3 mile penny-farthing bicycle race and a wheelbarrow race. Children could compete in events such as history, reading, spelling and knitting. In 1865, Brookes helped to set up the National Olympian Association based in Liverpool. Their first Olympian Games was a national event held in 1866 at the Crystal Palace in London. It was a success and attracted a crowd of over 10,000 people. WG Grace (the famous cricketer) won the hurdles event. The Amateur Athletic Club, later to become the Amateur Athletics Association, was 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 Shropshire Olympian Games held that year 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. Sadly this attempt failed as Greece had many pressing political problems.


In 1890, he met with Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a young French aristocrat who visited Much Wenlock and stayed with Brookes. The Society staged a Games especially for the Baron and, inspired by the event and his discussions with Brookes, Coubertin wrote "If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives there today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr Brookes". Although Coubertin later sought to downplay Brookes' influence, in 1891 he sent him a gold medal (actually made of silver) to be presented to the winner of the Tilting Competition. 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.






Brookes died in 1896, just four months before the first international Olympic Games were held. In 1994, the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Samaranch, laid a wreath on the grave of William Penny Brookes saying, "I came to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games". The Wenlock Olympian Society maintains his original ideals and continues to organise annual Olympian Games. The arts activities take place in March each year and the sports in July. William Brookes School in Much Wenlock is named after him.