Introduction: Much Wenlock and Olympic History
Much Wenlock is one of the oldest settlements in Shropshire and William Penny Brookes gave the town the distinction of links with the modern Olympic movement. However, Brookes began his work, not with sport, but with literacy when he set up the Agricultural Reading Society in 1841. Brookes was born in 1809 in the house where he lived, and later died in 1895, the subject of a blue plaque in the town today.
Brookes trained as a doctor, like his father and two brothers but he also had many other interests from international botany, to local projects like the establishment of the Wenlock Gas Company, and more importantly the Wenlock and Severn Railway Company, which also built the local railway station in 1864. After studying at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and qualifying in medicine and surgery, Brookes furthered his education in Padua, Italy and Paris, France before the death of his father in 1830 required him to return home and take over the family practice.
So the Agricultural Reading Society was more like an early lending library, part of Brookes’ wider commitment to the welfare of all classes. After many donations of books and other cultural objects, the classes diversified to botany, art and music. A separate Wenlock Olympian class was established in 1850 to hold an annual Games:
‘To promote the moral physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town of Wenlock, and especially the working classes, by the encouragement of out-door recreation and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises, and proficiency in intellectual and industrial attainments.’
We can see the idea of a healthy body and a healthy mind linked by Brookes’ philosophy. Although pre-dated by earlier examples of Ho-lympic, Olimpick, and Olympian Games in Britain, Penny Brookes inaugurated his Wenlock Olympian class at an important time in the development of modern sport, as increased codification of rules standardized different codes with their own bureaucracy, and regimes.
The Wider Impact of the Wenlock Olympian Games