Born Out of Wenlock

Born Out of Wenlock by Catherine Beale

Introduced by Catherine Beale


In 1850, Shropshire doctor William Penny Brookes began Olympian Games for the ‘moral, physical and intellectual improvement’ of all classes of the local population of Wenlock Borough. Within a decade he had donated a prize for athletics in Athens and was urging the Greeks to revive their ancient Games. He had also begun agitating for physical education to be compulsory at primary schools in England, an effort he sustained until the measure was finally passed in 1894.


Brookes, with help from John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of London, staged Britain’s first National Olympian Games at the Crystal Palace in 1866. WG Grace won the 440yd hurdles whilst simultaneously playing cricket for England at the Oval. But Brookes faced opposition from the elite Oxbridge and metropolitan athletes, for whom the Wenlock endeavour, with its egalitarian credentials, had definitely been conceived on the wrong side of the blanket.

In 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin travelled to Much Wenlock, met Brookes and watched the Wenlock Olympian Games. Within two years, Coubertin had decided to revive Olympic Games as an international sporting championship, and in 1896, the first of the IOC’s Olympic Games were held in Athens. Brookes died just seventeen weeks short of seeing international Olympic Games become a reality.

In Born Out of Wenlock I tell the story of the Wenlock Olympian Games, and consider their influence on the modern Olympics (and indeed on British sport). Besides portraying remarkable success against the odds, persistence, dedication and endeavour, I reveal the infidelity, cheating, imprisonment, embezzlement, drowning and even murder of its Victorian characters.


Catherine Beale is a historian and writer based in Presteigne, not far from Hay


Anne Brichto’s Olympics Bookseller’s Breakfast


The Bookseller’s Breakfast often happens like this: I wake up at just before 8am and feel I have two hours before the shop opens. I do the laundry, tidy some shelves up, move some books off the floor and I am hoping inspiration will strike in a gentle sort of way. I am in the sports room and see our Olympic shelf and my mind does mmmm, oh well, I suppose I could, it should be noticed, it only happens every four years…

Then I pick up one of the books on early Greek sport – I find out that originally the athletes did not run naked but wore not so little loin cloths like sumo wrestlers. I am crying with laughter at the vase paintings showing a line of men giving it their all while wearing what basically looks like massive nappies as I realise it is half past nine and I have half an hour to do breakfast.

I’ve been away so there seems to be nothing but condiments and two elderly peppers in the fridge. I grab my purse and run to Londis. I buy everything that looks nice: Greek yoghurt, croissants, bananas and raspberries. Someone will be having a lovely breakfast says the owner’s mum as she serves me.

I rush back to my shop, run upstairs, make a banana and Greek yoghurt with honey smoothie on an almond milk base, boil the kettle and start to arrange the books and the croissants on the stairs just as our lovely Saturday girl walks in. She is a bit early and I hear that she has been poorly but is getting better. She looks a bit pale and her six foot frame is even narrower than usual. If she didn’t love elephants and books so much she could have had a career in modelling. Jessy hadn’t watched the opening ceremony but enjoyed the shots of Andy Murray nearly knocking Princess Anne out with our Olympic flag. So I’m laughing again as I take the photo. The weekend for this bookseller has begun.

This post is for Southcart Books in Walsall who will have their re-opening party today. Their shop looks amazing and it makes me feel so happy that bookshops are suddenly beginning to thrive after a 15 year slump!




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