One of the stranger sporting events on Blackheath in the early 19th century involved the ‘Blackheath Pedestrian’ – a middle aged Geordie who was challenged to walk 1000 miles over 20 days at 50 miles a day. He became something of a cause célèbre after what can only be regarded as abuse of power by the local magistrates.
Pedestrianism was a form of competitive walking which developed in the 18th and 19th centuries often funded by challenges with large wagers, it eventually evolved into what is now known as race walking. Later in the 19th century, the same term was, slightly confusingly, used in the press to refer to running over shorter distances.
It is worth telling a little of the story of George Wilson before he arrived at the Hare and Billet. He was born in Newcastle in 1766 and had tried his hand at several trades including a clerk in his mother’s pawnbroking business (1), his own business as a hosier and draper (2) and later a tax collector (3). With the second of those he walked to London and back – a distance of over 550 miles. He spent some time in 1805 working for a London map maker measuring distances on foot in South west England with an early measuring wheel (4).
On his return to Newcastle he started looking for wagers on walking long distances – the first was to complete the 84 mile length of Hadrian’s Wall within 24 hours (5). After a legal dispute over leases to some properties in Newcastle, and a bitter separation from his wife he ended up in the debtors prison on two occasions (6). Whilst in prison, for a wager of £3 and 1 shilling, he successfully walked 50 miles in 12 hours over a tiny circuit (7).
After his release from prison he sold children’s books and pamphlets on foot in eastern England and then around Gravesend and Woolwich. Whilst in a pub close to Shooters Hill (possibly the Earl of Moira), he accepted a wager of £20 to £5 on walking 96 miles in 24 hours on 30 August 1814, which he did over a measured course on Shooters Hill Road with 30 minutes to spare (8).
He carried out similar wagers in the area before being offered 100 Guineas to walk 1000 miles over 20 days at 50 miles a day on Blackheath. The course was to be a measured mile starting opposite the Hare and Billet (9).
The exact route is unclear but he described a triangle and press reports of events at the end of his walk describe him going towards the Green Man, which was on Blackheath Hill. A possible route might have taken him from pond next to the Hare and Billet along what is now Goffers Road (although wasn’t a road at the time of Roque’s map 75 years before) past Whitefield’s Mount (covered before in Running Past), the top right image above – certainly an engraving published during the walk (below) has him passing a small hill, which could only be the Mount.
It would be then towards the Tea Hut, although it would be another 250 years before that appeared – instead the view may have been dominated by Montague House, or a new lack of it, the House was demolished in 1815. It would then across the Heath to close to the junction of Wat Tyler Road and Hare and Billet Road (bottom right photo) before returning along the latter – one of the old roads across the Heath.
The landlord of the Hare and Billet was to feed and house him over the 20 days from 11 September 1815. The pub was noisy though and he was unable to get enough sleep so he soon moved out, temporarily housed by a Blackheath resident, John Dyer (10).
Wilson was small (5′ 4″) and light (8 st 10 lb) with a slight limp probably the result of an attack when in prison. His diet was ‘fowls, jellies, strong broth, teas, milk, eggs and a moderate quantity of Madeira wine (11).”
Picture of the Pedestrian by Edward ‘Old’ Williams passing Whitefield’s Mount
He planned to delay his walking until after Sunday services, but magistrates at the Green Man decreed that he could not walk at all on Sundays (12). He kept to his original plan but moved just beyond the magistrates jurisdiction – the 6 mile stone on Shooters Hill Road – starting from around where the current milestone is.
His attire was a cotton jacket and loose striped trousers by this stage in the proceedings (13) – top left cutting. Large crowds were building, with large numbers of booths selling alcohol, see top right cutting (14). The following Sunday he did his walking at Langley Park in Beckenham, Lord Glywdir’s residence (15), presumably to get into Surrey and away from the troublesome magistrates.
Crowds were building with and Wilson had to plead for them not to get in his way, see cutting on bottom right (16), but the following day, with 5 days still to complete the Greenwich magistrates issued a warrant for his arrest, see bottom left cutting (17)
A very tumultuous assemblage of people from the surrounding and other parishes and occasioning a considerable interruption to the peace of the inhabitants…apprehend the said George Wilson….
At the subsequent hearing on October 5 1815 there was debate about whether it was Wilson or others who were breaching the peace, whether the warrant was legal, whether there had been any complaint from residents surrounding the Heath and whether in fact any law had been broken (18).
It seems that the magistrates backed down and Wilson was eventually ‘discharged and conducted home in triumph, decorated with ribbons, and accompanied by the shouts of the multitude.’ (19)
However, as there had been a nine day gap in the walk, the attempt to walk 1000 miles in 20 days was over. It appears to have been an abuse of power by the magistrates, using dubious legal means to prevent the walk after failing with the attempts to derail it by attempting to prevent walking on Sundays.
It understandably left Wilson somewhat bitter, in the autobiographical pamphlet he finished a few days after the magistrates hearing, he was careful not to leave himself open to further legal action, but wrote with a large degree of irony (20) He ‘dedicated’ the pamphlet to the magistrates saying he did not want to
question the justice and impartiality of issuing your warrant against me individually, while so many other showmen, tumblers, conjurers and gin sellers, at least equally, as I conceive, attractive of crowds as myself, were allowed to depart in peace and unmolested, with the gainful produce of their exertions in their pockets – such things are above my vulgar comprehension.
Wilson seems to have won a lot of public support and got his £100 prize after a collection at the Stock Exchange. He certainly took full advantage of his fame, a few nights after his release he appeared at the Royal Circus – a theatre on Blackfriars Road for at least three nights – taking out an advertisement in The Times (21).
He walked 1100 miles in 1100 consecutive hours, beating Captain Barclay – another leading pedestrian in December 1815 at Eaton (22). It is known that he was to attempt 1500 miles at 50 miles a day around Lords in 1816, although it may not have happened (23).
He undertook a series of walks in East Anglia in the summer of 1817 and that autumn completed 1000 miles in 18 days in Manchester. It was to be the first of three occasions that he completed this feat – the final occasion was in Chelsea in June 1820.
The last that was heard of him was at Easter in 1822, when he walked 90 miles including some in every hour over 24 hours at Newcastle Racecourse (24).
- George Wilson (1815) A Sketch of the Life of G. W. the Blackheath Pedestrian, … written by himself p16
- ibid p19
- ibid p18
- ibid p20
- ibid p22
- ibid p40
- ibid p40
- ibid p48
- ibid p52
- ibid p53
- ibid p82
- ibid p58
- Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Monday, September 25, 1815; Issue 14634.
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Saturday, September 23, 1815; Issue 14474
- Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Saturday, September 30, 1815; Issue 14639
- “Wilson, The Pedestrian.” Times [London, England] 6 Oct. 1815: 3.
- Wilson op cit, p2
- The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Oct 10, 1815; pg. 3; Issue 964
- The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, December 25, 1815; Issue 14018.
- The York Herald, and General Advertiser (York, England), Saturday, November 25, 1815; Issue 1317.
- The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, April 17, 1822; Issue 15940.