George Wilson was a very famous pedestrian of his day, and became involved in a great controversy when in the middle of one of his 20 day 1000 mile wagers he was stopped by the authorities and charged with causing a breach of the peace. He lost the wager and ended up in debtor’s prison. Not one to give up easily, he then proceeded to walk 50 miles in 12 hours in a tiny prison yard, a mere 11 by 8 yards, making over 9,000 turns. The caption on the print above proved prescient, for upon his release from jail, in November 1816, he covered the 1000-mile distance at the astonishing pace of just under 18 days.
Competitive walking appeared around 1600 in England. It appears to have grown from the practice of having “footmen” accompany the English aristocracy on their journeys by horse-drawn coach. The footmen hurried off ahead of the coach to carry messages or make advance arrangements at the inn or country house that was the coach’s destination for the evening.
It became an amusement of the nobility to match their footmen against one another in races and place large bets on the results. Eventually, talented footmen were trained to compete in matches arranged over varying distances, and a class of professional pedestrians evolved.
The rules were fairly loose, however it was understood that footmen were expected to keep pace with their master’s carriages without actually running. According to William Gordon Wallace:
Competition between footmen gave way during the second half of the 18th century to men racing against time over long distances. “Pedestrians” (as the walkers were called) could win a very handsome fee for walking dozens — or even hundreds — of miles within a proscribed time. Side bets were, of course, very welcome.
One of the more popular goals involved covering at least 100 miles in less than 24 hours. Those meeting this goal were (and still are) called Centurions.
Another goal involved covering 1,000 miles in 20 days, and Wilson was among those who considered that his specialty.
In the early 19th century races where men competed directly against each other once again became popular. “Town-to-town events, supported by gambling, became quite the rage — even becoming the most popular sport in England for a while.”
Thomas Palser was a printseller, bookseller and engraver active with businesses in London from 1799 to 1843.
Condition: Generally very good with the usual light toning, foxing, soiling, discoloration, soft creases.
Milroy, Andy. “1000 Miles: a history,” Ultramarathon World. 1998, http://fox.nstn.ca/~dblaikie/uw-1000m.html.
Wallace, William Gordon (1989) quoted by Phil Howell in “A Brief History of Racewalking in the United States.” North American Racewalking Foundation. http://members.aol.com/RWNARF/ahstrw.htm