William Penny Brookes

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William Penny Brookes
William Penny Brookes 1875.jpg
William Penny Brookes in 1875
Born William Penny Brookes
13 August 1809
Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England
Died 11 December 1895(1895-12-11) (aged 86)
Much Wenlock
Resting place Much Wenlock Church Yard.
Residence Much Wenlock, Shropshire.
Nationality British
Education Doctor of Medicine, Surgeon
Occupation Surgeon, physician, magistrate, apothecary, entrepreneur
Known for founder of Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games, founding father of International Olympic Movement
Website http://www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk

William Penny Brookes (13 August 1809 – 11 December 1895) was an English surgeon, magistrate, botanist, and educationalist especially known for inspiring the modern Olympic Games, the Wenlock Olympian Games and for his promotion of physical education and personal betterment.

Motivated by the plight of the working classes, he founded the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS) in 1841 for the "diffusion of useful knowledge" which included a library for working-class subscribers. Interest groups called "classes" met at the Corn Exchange, the WARS headquarters, and in 1850, the Olympian Class was formed to encourage athletic exercises, ranging from running to football, by holding an annual Games offering prizes for sports competitions. Later, competitions for "cultural" events were added. Following the 1860 Games, the Olympian Class separated from WARS due to an irrevocable difference of opinion between the two organisations, and it changed its name to Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS) to emphasise that it was now independent.

Brookes was born, lived, worked and died in the small market town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England. He was apprenticed to his father, Dr William Brookes, and later studied in London, England; Paris, France and Padua, Italy, before returning home to Much Wenlock in 1831.[1] His lifelong campaign to get Physical Education on the school curriculum brought him into contact with Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In 1890, the young French aristocrat visited Much Wenlock and stayed with Dr Brookes at his lifelong home in Wilmore Street. The Society staged a Games especially for the Baron and, inspired by the event and his discussions with Brookes, Coubertin wrote: "If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives there today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes".[2] Coubertin went on to set up the International Olympic Committee in 1894, which was followed by the Athens 1896 Olympic Games that came under the auspices of the Committee. In 1994, the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, laid a wreath on the grave of William Penny Brookes saying, "I came to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games".[3]

Dr. Brookes was a social reformer, who tirelessly campaigned to give opportunities for what he termed "every grade of man" to expand their knowledge and become mentally and physically fit. He established the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS) in 1841 to provide the opportunity of acquiring knowledge for the benefit of the people of the vast Borough of Wenlock and its neighbourhood, but especially to provide opportunities for the working classes. He established the Olympian Class of that Society in 1850 to inspire local people to keep fit by encouraging them to train and take part in the sports competitions at the annual Wenlock Olympian Games.[4] This opened the door for the working classes to enter competitive sport which, in the United Kingdom, had previously been the privilege of only the elite.


File:William Penny Brookes.jpg
William Penny Brookes

William Penny Brookes was born in Much Wenlock, where his father, William Brookes, was a local doctor. He was apprenticed to his father on 12 August 1824, studied at St Thomas' Hospital, London from September 1829 to May 1830, then studied in the hospitals of Paris, until the end of August 1830. Later he went to Padua in Italy famous for the Orto botanico di Padova, 16th century herb gardens. There he studied herbal medicines and botany, although not as a student of Padua University, and was there for about six months before returning home to Much Wenlock at the end of February 1831.[1] During his medical studies in Paris he learned of his father's death. When he arrived back at Much Wenlock in 1831, he returned to the family home and took over his father's large medical practice.[5]

As a botanist, he provided information on plants growing around Wenlock and also Shropshire for Charles Hulbert's The History and Description of the County of Salop (1837), and William Allport Leighton's Flora of Shropshire (1841). His herbarium is held at the Much Wenlock Town Council's archives. He also became actively involved in the local community, becoming a Justice of the Peace in 1841 and remaining an active magistrate for over 40 years. It is likely that he would have been confronted with cases of petty crime, drunkenness, and theft in the local community, which almost certainly influenced his desire to develop structured physical exercise and education for the working classes and young people generally. Also in 1841, he instigated the setting up of the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS), with its early lending library "for the promotion and diffusion of useful information". From these endeavours evolved various interest groups called "classes" including art, music, botany and subsequently an Olympian Class.[5][6] All the WARS "classes", the lectures they held and the library were open to "every grade of man", at Brookes' insistence.

"The Olympian Class" was set up in 1850 "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, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation, and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in Athletic exercise and proficiency in Intellectual and industrial attainments".[7] The first Games meeting was held in October 1850, and included competitions in classic athletics and also country sports such as quoits, football and cricket. The Games quickly expanded, and within a few years it was attracting competitors from as far away as London and Liverpool.

Brookes was himself elected to annual office in the Society as: Secretary in years 1850 and 1851, 1860 and 1874; Treasurer 1858 and 1859, 1870, and 1880 to 1882; and President in 1854 and 1855, 1857, 1862 to 1867, and 1891.[8]

Brookes was a Philhellene, who admired the perceived definition of Ancient Greek democratic ideals, that all men were equal and allowed and indeed expected to vote, take an active part in governance, and compete in sport. In reality, this was a misconception as only free-born adult male citizens (approximately 20% of the population) were permitted to vote, etc. (see also (Athenian democracy). In nineteenth century Britain it was usually young men educated at public schools or the sons of professionals who had the opportunities to enter competitive sport. Brookes applied what was commonly thought to be the ethos of the ancient Olympic Games – that they were open to "every grade of man," and added to this mediaeval chivalry: he wanted working class men to compete in sport but to exercise fair play/chivilary at all levels of competition.

When the first Wenlock Olympian Games were staged in 1850,[9] there was heavy criticism of Brookes's insistence that the Games was open to the working classes and thus have a large number of scantily-dressed young men performing in front of women. It was felt that such an event would cause drunkenness, rioting, lewd behaviour, and that men would leave their wives. The Games were a huge success and none of the threatened disturbances occurred.[10]

In 1858, Brookes established contact with the organisers of an Olympic Games revival in Athens sponsored by the Albanian-born, Evangelis Zappas, who was of ethnic Greek origin. The Olympian Class sent a prize of £10 which was awarded to the winner of the Seven-Fold Foot Race, Petros Velissariou,(an ethnic Greek from Smyrna, the former Greek city which at this time was in the Ottoman Empire). Velissariou was made the first Honorary Member of the Wenlock Olympian Class. The 1859 Wenlock Olympian Games were much expanded following nine years of work to build up subscriptions and attracted more competitors with new competitions and brought in spectators through more organised pageantry and better advertising. The following year, even more people came as there was a well-publicised opening celebration for the laying of the first stone for Much Wenlock's first railway which was another of Brookes' projects. This, coupled with the discovery of the Roman city of Viroconium in the village of Wroxeter and the inclusion of a whole range of spectacular competitions open to regiments from the newly instigated national Volunteer Rifle Corps encouraged a further increase in competitors and spectators. Also, inspired by the revived Greek Olympic Games, Brookes added "throwing the javelin" and writing an "Ode to the Olympian Games" to the Wenlock Olympian games programme. In the November following the 1860 Games, the Olympian Class separated from WARS and changed its name to Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS), due to an irrevocable difference of opinion between some members of the WARS Committee and Brookes (who was supported by his Olympian Committee).[10] In that same year, Brookes instigated the setting up of the annual Shropshire Olympian Games. These would move from town to town around the county. In 1865, Brookes was instrumental in setting up the National Olympian Association based in Liverpool. Their first Olympian Games, a national event, held in 1866 at The Crystal Palace, London, was a surprising success and attracted a crowd of over ten thousand people. W.G. Grace, who would later gain fame as a cricketer, won the hurdles event. The Amateur Athletic Club, later to become the Amateur Athletics Association, was quickly formed as a rival organisation to the National Olympian Association. In 1877, Brookes requested a prize from Greece to mark Queen Victoria's jubilee. In response, King George I of Greece sent a silver cup which was presented at the Shropshire Olympian Games held that year in Shrewsbury. In 1881, Brookes was again in contact with the Greek government, when he tried to instigate an Olympic Games in Athens open to international competitors. Sadly this attempt failed as Greece had many pressing political problems.[5]

Brookes was also heavily involved in many other local activities. He became Chairman of the Wenlock Gas Company in 1856, which first brought lighting to the town. He was a Commissioner for Roads and Taxes, Overseer of the Poor, and also became a Director of both the Wenlock and Severn Junction Railway Company and the later Wenlock Railway Company. The first train to Much Wenlock was arranged to coincide with the Wenlock Olympian Games of 1861. He was manager of the Much Wenlock National School, where, in 1871, he helped introduce drill and physical exercise into the curriculum. He believed that as children at the school were likely to be employed in jobs that required physical strength, such as farming or quarrying, development of their physical strength was equally as important as their mental ability.

Regarding his own education, Brookes had been given the opportunity to experience some of the best teaching, hence his travel to Padua in Italy, one of the finest places in the world at that time to learn about herbal medicine and botany as the city's university is located in the grounds of the mediaeval herb gardens. Also, he attended the "walking the wards" teaching at the hospitals in Paris to observe innovative new methods in medicine. Brookes was also progressive for his day in noting the link between mental and physical agility.[citation needed]

I came to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games

Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee in 1994 on the 100th anniversary of Brookes death.[3]

In 1889, he invited Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education, to Much Wenlock. He accepted, and in October 1890, he went to stay at the Brookes family home for several days. A meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Games was held in Coubertin's honour with much pageantry. After every Olympian Games there was a dinner, and on this occasion, the dinner was held at The Raven Hotel. Today The Raven Hotel has a display of several photographs about WOS by kind permission of the Society, including copies of original letters from Baron Pierre de Coubertain to William Penny Brookes.[11] On his return to France, Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in an article, "Les Jeux Olympiques à Much Wenlock", and referred to his host's efforts to revive the Olympics. He wrote : "If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives there today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes".[2] Although Coubertin later sought to downplay Brookes's influence, he corresponded with him for several years and sent him a golden medal (made of silver) in 1891 to be presented to the winner of the Tilting Competition.[12]

Brookes died just four months before the 1896 Summer Olympics held in Athens in 1896, organised by Coubertin's International Olympic Committee.

The Wenlock Olympian Society maintains his original ideals, and continues to organise annual Olympian Games. The Live arts takes place in March each year, and the sports takes place in July.[5] William Brookes School[13] in Much Wenlock is named after him.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wenlock Olympian Society archives
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wenlock Olympian Society archives Minute Book 2
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hart, John. The National CV of Britain: A non-PC history of Britain. Edfu Books. pp. 150–. ISBN 978-1-905815-61-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Wenlock Olympian Society archives: Minute Book 1
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 William Penny Brookes. Wenlock Olympian Society Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "wos" defined multiple times with different content
  6. Darwin Country – Brookes, William Penny. darwincountry.org
  7. Beale, Catherine (2011). Born out of Wenlock, William Penny Brookes and the British Origins of the Modern Olympics. DB Publishing. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-85983-967-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Beale, Catherine (2011). Born out of Wenlock. pp. 183–184.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>List of Wenlock Olympian Society Office-Holders 1850–95
  9. Wenlock Olympian Society Minute Book 1 1850
  10. 10.0 10.1 Wenlock Olympian Society archives Minute Book 1
  11. "Raven Hotel website". 8 October 2010. Retrieved 8 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. William Brookes School

Further reading

  • Ashrafian, H. (2005). "William Penny Brookes (1809–1895): Forgotten Olympic Lord of the Rings" in British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005;39:969 doi:10.1136/bjsm.2005.019331
  • Beale, Catherine (2011). "Born out of Wenlock, William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the modern Olympics". Derby: DB Publishing. ISBN 978-1-85983-967-6.
  • Furbank, Muriel; Cromarty, Helen; McDonald, Glyn (1996). William Penny Brookes and the Olympic Connection. Much Wenlock: Wenlock Olympian Society.
  • Mullins, Sam (1986). British Olympians: William Penny Brookes and the Wenlock Games. London: Birmingham Olympic Council. ISBN 0-901662-01-1
  • Nicolle, Dorothy (2010). William Brookes and the Olympic Games. Wem: Blue Hills Press. ISBN 978-0-9560293-5-5.

External links