Gambling and Sport. They go together like Love and Marriage as Sammy Cahn almost certainly should have written in his soppy and rather trite Sinatra number.
Perhaps no sport in history has been tied into the world of gambling more than Pedestrianism. Walking and Gambling; one is my pass time, the other my job. So it is no wonder if this rather forgotten sport intrigues me.
Pedestrianism, as a quick introduction for the legitimately ignorant, was a popular 18th and 19th century form of competitive walking. It should not be confused with speed or race-walking although this is undoubtedly a more regulated and evolved version of the original sport.
Pedestrinaism per se does not exist any more. It was at one time a popular spectator sport, drawing large crowds and large wagers.
In 1778 Foster Powell wagered successfully that he could walk from London to York and back in 6 days. It is said he did this for £10. On his return "there were not less than 3000 persons on foot, on horseback, and in their carriages, who came with him from Highgate" so said a broadsheet published on his death. That’s more people than Wigan home game!
Robert Barclay was probably the most well known of pedestrians. In 1801 he undertook to walk 90 miles in 21.5 hours for the princely sum of 2000 guineas. He failed twice and by the third attempt the wager had gone up to 5000 guineas. This time he succeeded which makes me think that he might just have been a complete hustler, although it is reported that inebriation and influenza caused his first two failures respectively. I think I can fake both of those pretty well.
£100,000 was wagered on this “walking match”
Famously in 1809 he undertook his greatest challenge of walking 1000 miles in successive 1000 hours. Reports suggest that £100,000 were wagered on this “walking match”. Nobody who had attempted this feat had lasted much beyond 30 days. Barclay accomplished it in 42 days. This gained so much publicity that it spawned many a copycat, including “a member of the non-athletic fraternity” who set out to consume a sausage every hour for 1000 hours. It is reported in The Celebrated Captain Barclay, by Peter Radford, that the sausage quest failed by an impressive 997 hours.
This form of walking as a sport seems rather anachronistic in this day and age when ultra marathons, ironman triathlons and long distance backpacking have become accessible to a relatively large number of people. Walking a long way doesn’t quite seem so impressive but the feats of the early pedestrians were lauded at the time. Accomplishing a walk of 100 miles in 24 hours - a popular feat amongst 19th century pedestrians that would earn the title of "centurion" - is beyond most people now, as it was then, and I am sure must have required some minor cheating in the form of light jogging.
I am happy to say that walking long distances in a limited timeframe, without ludicrously wiggling your hips (therefore not modern day race-walking), is not completely dead, at least not in East Anglia. In three weeks time a friend and I are going to take part in the Pathfinder March - 46 limb-powered miles, in a maximum of 20 hours. No wagering will be involved. It doesn't really compare to the standards of Barclay or the Centurions, but I can categorically guarantee that we will not break out into a jog, at any point although we might sip a few brandies on the way. Strictly as an homage to Captain Barclay you understand.
The Celebrated Captain Barclay. Sport, Money and Fame in Regency Britain by Peter Radford.
This is a fascinating biography of Robert Barclay, a truly extraordinary man even beyond his pedestrian exploits.
The Pathfinder March. This annual 46 mile (74 km) long distance walk around Huntingdon, in Cambridgeshire, has been going since 1997 and is designed to keep alive the memory of the Royal Air Force Pathfinder Force from World War II.