05 July 2011

Why Much Wenlock wants a flame that may be coming to Ireland

Much Wenlock ... the tiny market town wants the Olympic Torch next year. But why?

Patrick Comerford

In all the excitement about Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama visiting Ireland in recent weeks, many commentators have overlooked the fact that Dublin may be on the list to give a warm welcome to another distinguished visitor next year.

Dublin could be added to the venues for the Olympic torch relay in the build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The London organisers have already announced 74 locations for the relay, and it seems Dublin is being considered as another venue.

The Olympic Flame arrives from Greece in May and the relay starts in Land’s End and continues on an 8,000-mile, 70-day journey as far as the Outer Hebrides and Belfast, arriving in London for the opening ceremony on 27 July 2012.

A decision is expected soon on whether to include Dublin. The Olympic Council of Ireland says that if the torch comes to Dublin, it plans is to have 50 to 75 people carrying it.

But why should the flame come to Dublin?

In the early games, Irish athletes won several medals for Britain at the Olympic Games, in the decathlon, long jump, high jump, triple jump, tennis, hockey and polo. Since 1924, Ireland has been represented separately at the games and has won 23 Olympic medals, including eight gold, seven silver and eight bronze in swimming, boxing, athletics and sailing.

However, should the flame comes to Dublin next year, the people of Shropshire are going to feel very snubbed indeed. For Shropshire is one of only six counties in England to miss out on an overnight stop, although the British Olympic committee wants the torch to pass through Much Wenlock and officials in Shropshire have entered their case for the relay to stop overnight at either Much Wenlock or the Ironbridge Gorge.

So, you may ask, why Shropshire? And why Much Wenlock?

An English market town

Wenlock Edge and Wilderhope Manor ... the paths and woodlands are excellent for walks, cycling and riding

It’s now 40 years since I spent some time hitch-hiking and youth hostelling in the area around Much Wenlock and Wenlock Edge, a 15-mile limestone escarpment formed 400 million years ago.

Wilderhope Manor ... an introduction to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams 40 years ago

Wenlock Edge and its woodlands are excellent places for walks, cycling and riding, with long-distance routes like the Jack Mytton Way and Shropshire Way. During those days, I stayed seven miles outside Much Wenlock at Wilderhope Manor, which was built by the Smallman family in the16th century. There I was introduced to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who captured the dramatic landscape of Wenlock Edge in 1909 in his setting of six poems by AE Housman. On Wenlock Edge was written for a tenor, piano and string quartet, combining English pastoral and lyric music with Housman’s pastoral images of the English landscape – the glowing of a gale, church bells, or a cemetery.

Much Wenlock is a 700-year-old mediaeval market town that feels more like a village

Much Wenlock is off the beaten track on north-east end of Wenlock Edge, a rustic, 700-year-old, mediaeval market town on the way to Ironbridge from Bridgnorth. With a population of about 3,000, it feels like a village. This is a quintessentially English town, with streets lined with black-and-white, timber-framed buildings, limestone cottages, speciality shops, cosy inns and much-feted bookshops. The 16th century Guildhall, with its overhanging first floor held up by stout oak pillars, was pre-fabricated and raised in two days in 1577.

The ruins of a 12th century priory, dedicated to its first abbess, Saint Milburga, provide a backdrop for many events and performances in Much Wenlock, including “Tales from the Edge,” an international festival that keeps alive the ancient art of story-telling. Holy Trinity Church is a Norman parish church and has a battlemented tower and a Jacobean pulpit with carved panels depicting some two-tailed mermen.

And there lies another tale. For Dr William Penny Brooks is buried in Holy Trinity churchyard.

The High Street in Much Wenlock is lined with black-and-white, timber-framed buildings, and limestone cottages

Two years ago, while the world was marking the bicentenary of the birth in Shrewsbury of Shropshire’s most famous son, Charles Darwin, Much Wenlock was celebrating the fact that Dr Brookes was born there 200 years ago in 1809. And it is all because of that good doctor that Much Wenlock challenges Athens for recognition as the birthplace of the modern Olympic movement, and wants to rank alongside other famous British sporting venues, such as Twickenham, Wimbledon, Wembley, Old Trafford and St Andrews.

Dr William Penny Brookes created the Much Wenlock Olympics that inspired the creation of the modern Olympic Games

The little market town holds its very own Olympics every July, recalling how Dr Brookes created the Much Wenlock Olympics that inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) to create the modern Olympics.

‘Every grade of man’

Much Wenlock has many speciality shops and cosy inns

Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895), a surgeon, magistrate, botanist and educationalist, was the son of a local doctor in Much Wenlock, and he lived, worked and died in the Shropshire market town apart from the time he spent as a medical student in Guy’s Hospital and Saint Thomas’s Hospital, London, and in Italy and France.

Padua was known for its 16th century mediaeval herb gardens, and there he developed an interest in herbal medicines and botany. At the Sorbonne, he learned of his father’s death from typhoid. Returning to Much Wenlock in 1831, he inherited the family home and his father’s practice.

As a botanist, he provided information on plants around Much Wenlock for Charles Hulbert’s The History and Description of the County of Salop (1837), and William Leighton’s Flora of Shropshire (1841), and his herbarium survives at the Much Wenlock Museum.

As a GP, Brookes actively campaigned to have physical education on the school curriculum. As a social reformer, he sought opportunities for what he called “every grade of man” to expand his knowledge and to become mentally and physically fit.

One of the many and much-feted bookshops in Much Wenlock

In 1841, he established the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society, an early lending library that developed into lecture classes including art, music and botany. In 1850, he established the Olympian Class to help local people to keep fit and “for 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...”

As a Philhellene, Brookes admired the ideals of ancient Athens, where all were expected to vote, to take an active part in politics, and to compete in sport. He resisted requests to limit the games to public schoolboys and the sons of professionals, and his Olympian Class opened the door to the working class to enter competitive sport, until then a privilege only for the elite.

When the class was renamed the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1859, Brookes was criticised for insisting the games must be open to “every grade of man.” His critics claimed this would cause rioting and lewd behaviour, and that men would leave their wives.

Much Wenlock’s 16th century Guildhall was built in two days in 1577

The events were a mixture of athletics and traditional sports, including quoits, cricket and football, as well as occasional fun events to entertain the crowds, such as the “blindfolded wheelbarrow race” and the “old woman’s race for pound of tea.” The most popular event was one known as “Tilting at the Ring,” requiring expert horsemanship to unhook a small ring hanging from a cross bar using the tip of a lance.

Developing links with Athens

The ruins of Saint Milburga’s Priory provide a backdrop for many events in Much Wenlock, including ‘Tales from the Edge’

The games were a huge success and none of the threatened disturbances occurred. News of the games spread and competitors came from as far afield as London and Liverpool. Meanwhile in 1859, Brookes also established contact with Evangelis Zappas (1800-1865), a wealthy Greek living in exile in Romania, who organised a Greek-based revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1865.

On behalf of the Wenlock Olympian Committee, Brookes sent £10 to the Athens games organised by Zappas. The Wenlock Prize went to Petros Velissariou, a Greek soldier from Smyrna (present-day Izmir in modern Turkey), who won the “Long” or “Seven-fold” Race. His name was the first foreign name added to the honour roll of the Wenlock Olympian Society, and events from the games in Athens were adopted in future programmes at Much Wenlock.

Brookes also helped establish the National Olympian Association in 1865. Their first Olympic Games, a national event, were attended by over 10,000 spectators in Crystal Palace in London in 1866. The cricketer WG Grace, then 18, came first in the 440-yards hurdles.

In 1877, Brookes asked King George I of Greece for a prize to honour Queen Victoria’s jubilee. The king sent an inscribed silver cup that was presented at the National Olympian Games in Shrewsbury. Brookes become close friends with John Gennadius (1844-1932), the Greek Chargé d’Affairs in London, and tried to persuade the Greek government to revive the Olympics at an international level. However, his attempts to organise an international Olympian Festival in Athens in 1881 failed because of an internal political crisis in Greece.

Brookes invited Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education, to visit Much Wenlock. The two met at the Raven Hotel, the venue for the gala dinner at each year’s Olympian Games, and in 1890 the Olympian Society staged mock games for the baron in Much Wenlock.

The Raven Hotel ... the English doctor and the French baron met here regularly to discuss their Olympian ideals

Inspiring influence

Back in France, Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in Much Wenlock. Later, 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.” He is said to have been so inspired by his visit that he began the process that resulted in setting up the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. Two years later, the first Olympic Games were held in Athens under the auspices of the IOC in 1896.

Although Coubertin later down-played Brookes’s influence, he kept in touch with the doctor for several years and sent him a gold medal for the Much Wenlock games.

Brookes died on 10 December 1895 aged 87, just four months before the first modern Olympic Games opened in Athens in April 1896. He never knew his dream had been achieved. But shortly before his death, the Board of Education finally agreed to include physical education as a compulsory subject in British and Irish schools.

He is buried beside Holy Trinity Churchy, a few feet from his own front door. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the IOC, visited Much Wenlock in 1994 and laid a wreath at Brookes’s grave. “I came to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games,” he said.

The Wenlock Olympian Society maintains his ideals and continues to organise annual games. The 125th Wenlock Olympian Games take place this year on 3 and 8 to 11 July.

Dr Brookes is buried beside Holy Trinity Church, a few feet from his own front door and from the Guildhall

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the July 2011 editions of the Diocesan Magazine (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Church Review (Cashel and Ossory).

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