Tag Archives: George Wilson

Walking 1100 Miles in 1100 hours on Blackheath – Josiah Eaton, the Woodford Pedestrian

A few months ago the blog covered the tale of George Wilson, the Blackheath Pedestrian who attempted to walk 1000 miles over 20 days in the late summer of 1815 around a mile course from the Hare and Billet.

Wilson was prevented by local magistrates from completing his walk, while they eventually backed down; he failed in his challenge as there was a gap in the walk.

The landlord of the Hare and Billet clearly saw pedestrianism as a means of increasing his income and another even longer walk was planned for a couple of months after Wilson’s ill-fated attempt.  The pedestrian this time was Josiah Eaton, the Woodford Pedestrian.

Josiah_Eaton,_a_long_distance_walker._Etching._Wellcome_V0007073

 

The nature of the walk was a little different to Wilson’s; the Blackheath Pedestrian was to walk 50 miles a day in one block of walking.  While the daily distance to be covered by Eaton was just 24 miles, the big difference was that it was that a mile needed to be completed in every single hour – meaning that there was no potential for any sustained rest.  This was the same approach to distance walking as that used by perhaps the most famous pedestrian of the age, Captain Barclay.

IMG_0924

The route though was the same mile loop as Wilson’s – which is likely to have have taken Eaton from the pond next to the Hare and Billet along what is now Goffers Road past Whitefield’s Mount (covered before in Running Past), the top right image above.  It would be then towards the location of the Tea Hut (although there would have been a 250 year wait for a cuppa) .  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.

Eaton started on 10 November 1815 and was due to finish his task on Boxing Day. The Times noted on 18 November that when he started, the betting had been against him completing the walk but after a week the smiling Eaton was winning the gamblers around despite poor weather (1).

Eaton Times

By Christmas Day The Times reported him in ‘undiminished heath and spirits’, despite apparent suggestions of cheating which saw his backers swear affidavits at the Mansion House as to witnessing him undertaking the feat (2)

Eaton Times 2

His walk was completed at around 8:15 on Boxing Day but he kept on until dusk to satisfy the crowds that gathered during the day and to enable a ‘large party of respectable persons’ to watch him at 4:00 pm (3).

It is not known how much Eaton made from his successful walk – but after swearing an affidavit in front of the Lord Mayor he issued a series of challenges (4):

  1. Josiah Eaton will undertake, at the completion of his present task, to perform another thousand, or even fifteen hundred miles in as many hours, as The case may be, without resting from the fatigues of his present undertaking. Or he will start immediately against any other man, to walk a mile an hour until either decline the contest, for a proportionate subscription, to belong entirely to the winner. All claims to the subscription, however, to be abandoned by either party on the non- performance of the task.
  2. Eaton will also, for a subscription of one thousand pounds, undertake to walk one mile every hour for three months successively; and should he fail, even towards the conclusion, he will forfeit all claim to reward.
  3. Eaton, for an. adequate subscription, will undertake to walk 60 miles per day, for- 10 days successively, and of course to forfeit all^ claim to reward if he failed even on the last day.

Little is known of Eaton prior to his 1100 mile walk on Blackheath other than he was born in Woodford in Northamptonshire around 1770, was by trade a baker and was a small man – 5’2” (158 cm) tall.  It must be presumed that he had undertaken some similar feats prior to arriving in Blackheath but records of these seem to have been lost.  The Blackheath walk is the first mentioned in his entry in the Popular Biography of Northamptonshire published in 1839.

Eaton returned to the Hare and Billet the following summer and completed the same task although making it a lot harder for himself by having to finish each mile by 20 past the hour – the previous autumn’s walk allowed back to back miles (5).  There was a dinner celebrating the second walk’s completion in Cornhill on Friday 6 September – with tickets at 15 shillings, which included a bottle of wine (6)

He continued to perform almost Herculean feats over the next few years – on 5 December 1816, he completed 1998 half-miles in 1998 succeeding half hours on Brixton Causeway (now Brixton Hill & Brixton Road) – it was to be 2000 but after a dispute with a backer he issued a ‘press release’ a ended the walk an hour early.  In June 1817 he successfully competed with another walked, called Baker, to complete 2000 miles in 42 days.

In August and September 1817 he walked from Colchester to London one day then back to Colchester the following day – a distance of 51 miles, completing the circuit 10 times.

In Stowmarket, Suffolk, in 1818 Eaton took the lack of sustained rest to a new extreme – walking a quarter of a mile every successive quarter of an hour for six weeks – finishing just before 2:00 pm on 23rd June 1818.

That appeared to be the end of Eaton’s walking career but he then re-appeared in New York aged 77 proposing again to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours in November 1847 at a 30 yard course at a bowling alley.  While it is known that he started the feat, Scientific American mentioned it in passing; it isn’t known whether he completed the walk.

Josiah_Eaton

Notes

  1. The Times (London, England), Saturday, Nov 18, 1815; pg. 3; Issue 9682
  2. The Times (London, England), Monday, Dec 25, 1815; pg. 3; Issue 9713
  3. Nottingham Journal, 30/12/1815
  4. The Times (London, England), Monday, Jan 01, 1816; pg. 3; Issue 9719
  5. Edinburgh Register June 13 1816
  6. The Times (London, England), Saturday, Aug 24, 1816; pg. 1; Issue 9922.

 

 

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George Wilson – The Blackheath Pedestrian

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).

Notes

  1. George Wilson (1815) A Sketch of the Life of G. W. the Blackheath Pedestrian, … written by himself p16
  2. ibid p19
  3. ibid p18
  4. ibid p20
  5. ibid p22
  6. ibid p40
  7. ibid p40
  8. ibid p48
  9. ibid p52
  10. ibid p53
  11. ibid p82
  12. ibid p58
  13. Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Monday, September 25, 1815; Issue 14634.
  14. The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Saturday, September 23, 1815; Issue 14474
  15. Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Saturday, September 30, 1815; Issue 14639
  16. ibid
  17. ibid
  18. “Wilson, The Pedestrian.” Times [London, England] 6 Oct. 1815: 3.
  19. ibid
  20. Wilson op cit, p2
  21. The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Oct 10, 1815; pg. 3; Issue 964
  22. The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, December 25, 1815; Issue 14018.
  23. The York Herald, and General Advertiser (York, England), Saturday, November 25, 1815; Issue 1317.
  24. The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, April 17, 1822; Issue 15940.