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Home » News » Shropshire’s Olympian heritage goes on show in the summer of the Rio Game
Olympics at Much Wenlock. Exhibition at the Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery

Shropshire’s Olympian heritage goes on show in the summer of the Rio Game

To coincide with this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery is mounting a display of Wenlock Olympian Games memorabilia. This will provide visitors with an in-depth look at the Wenlock Olympian Society’s contribution to the rebirth of these modern Olympic Games and the unique role played by Doctor William Penny Brookes in that story.

The display will be placed in the balcony space of the Museum and will run from Monday 13 June 2016 to Sunday 28 August 2016 – a period covering both the Wenlock Olympian and Rio Olympic Games of 2016.

Of particular recent interest are four silver cups which have been returned from Zimbabwe 140 years after they were won at the Wenlock Olympian Games. Charles Ainsworth won the cups for the “Tilting at the Ring” event in 1876, 1878, 1882 and 1887. This was fast and dangerous, required great skill and horsemanship, and was loved by both competitors and spectators. The rider had to unhook a ring (the size of a 50p piece) that hung down from a crossbar. Later, hurdles were added to the competition to increase the difficulty.

Much Wenlock was the centre of global media attention during the period just before the London 2012 Games. The official mascot was named Wenlock in honour of the town’s contribution to Olympic history.

William Penny Brookes was born in 1809 in Much Wenlock, where his father was one of the local doctors. As a young man he left the town to study in London, Padua in Italy and also in Paris. In 1831 he returned to Much Wenlock to take over his father’s practice.

As well as his medical practice, Brookes was tireless in his efforts to improve the overall well-being of the local population. He established the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society from which sprang the Wenlock Olympian Society and its annual Games.

The first Wenlock Olympian Games were held in October 1850 and included a mix of classical athletic events and traditional country sports. Pageantry was an important element of the Games and to start the proceedings a band led a procession of flag bearers, competitors and officials as they marched through the decorated streets of the town to where the Games were to be held.

In 1889, Baron Coubertin, organiser of the International Congress on Physical Education, came to England seeking information on sports education practised in schools. Brookes wrote to the young Frenchman and invited him to come to the Wenlock Olympian Games the following year. Intrigued, Baron Coubertin accepted the invitation to come to Much Wenlock in October 1890.

At this time, the two men discussed their similar ambitions and Brookes, at the age of 81, shared with the 27-year-old Baron Coubertin his dream to stage an international Olympic revival to be held in Athens. On his return to France, Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in Much Wenlock in “La Review Athletique” journal. He referred to his host’s efforts to revive the Olympic Games.

Sadly, Brookes died in December 1895, so did not see his dream of an International Olympic Games come to fruition just four months later in April 1896. In his obituary to Brookes, Baron Coubertin wrote:

“If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survive today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr. William Penny Brookes.”

The main 2016 Wenlock Olympian Games will take place n the weekend of Saturday 9 July and Sunday 10 July, with some satellite events taking place in the weeks before and after that weekend. The complete programme consists of 17 events open to junior and senior competitors:

for junior competitors age 7 – 18 years: badminton, football, kwik cricket, modern biathlon, netball, tennis and volleyball.

for senior competitors aged 18 years and over: gliding, golf, half marathon, road race, triathlon and 100km challenge walk

for junior and senior competitors: archery, track & field athletics, fencing and hockey.

A full list of these events, and the means by which they can be entered is available on the society’s website. The website also contains much more information, both historical and current, relating to the society and William Penny Brookes.

The Wenlock Olympian Games events of Saturday 9th July and Sunday 10th July are held on and around the Gaskell Field in Much Wenlock. Much Wenlock also contains the “Olympian Trail” – a route through the town, which takes in those locations that played a significant role in the development of the Games. Brookes’ house is one of these places as are the Brookes’ family graves. The visitor may also want to visit the Coubertin Oak – planted when Baron de Coubertin visited Much Wenlock and located on the northern boundary of the Gaskell Field. In 2012, acorns from this were used to grow trees in schools between The Olympic Park in London and Much Wenlock.

The story of Doctor William Penny Brookes and the Wenlock Olympian Games is described in the town’s Museum which was refurbished with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2011. The Museum is open daily except Mondays during the summer months and Fridays to Sundays in the winter.

Stuart West, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet member for leisure and culture, said:-

“We are delighted to be able to host an exhibition about the Wenlock Olympian Society, the important contribution Dr Brookes made to physical education, and his role in inspiring Baron De Coubertin to revive the ancient Olympic Games. The economy of Shropshire was given a huge boost by the publicity associated with the London Games in 2012, and we are still reaping the benefits through increased visitor numbers to the county.”