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An 1836 illustration of a "Walking Wager", from Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation, by Anonymous, Philadelphia
Country or regionBritish Isles

Pedestrianism was a 19th-century form of competitive walking, often professional and funded by wagering, from which the modern sport of racewalking developed.

18th- and early 19th-century Britain[edit]

Foster Powell

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pedestrianism, like running or horse racing (equestrianism) was a popular spectator sport in Britain and Ireland. Pedestrianism became a fixture at fairs – much like horse racing – developing from wagers on footraces, rambling, and 17th-century footman wagering.[1] Sources from the late 17th and early 18th century in England describe aristocrats pitting their carriage footmen, constrained to walk by the speed of their masters' carriages, against one another.[2]

The first notable exponent of this long-distance walking is generally considered to be Foster Powell (1734–93) who in 1773 walked 400 miles (640 km) from London to York and back, and in 1788 walked 100 miles (160 km) in 21 hours 35 minutes.[3][4] By the end of the 18th century, and especially with the growth of the popular press, feats of foot travel over great distances (similar to a modern Ultramarathon) gained attention, and were labelled "pedestrianism".

Distance feats and wagering[edit]

One of the most famous pedestrians of the day was Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, called "The Celebrated Pedestrian", of Stonehaven.[5] His most impressive feat was to walk 1 mile (1.6 km) every hour for 1000 hours, which he achieved between 1 June and 12 July 1809. The feat captured the public's imagination and around 10,000 people came to watch over the course of the event.[6] During the 19th century, attempts to repeat the athletic challenge were made by many pedestrians, including George Wilson who attempted to walk 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in 480 hours in 1815 but was arrested after 3/4 of the distance for disturbing the peace.[7] Emma Sharp was thought to be the first woman to complete the challenge of 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in 1000 hours on 29 October 1864.[8] Later racewalkers proved to be more successful, especially Ada Anderson, who after walking 1,500 miles (2,400 km) in 1000 hours was labelled by the press 'Champion Lady Walker of the World',[9] This feat had been achieved by a man in 1852. Thomas Hicks, from Leeds, walked 1500 miles in 1000 hours at the Royal Oak Grounds, on Barking Road, Canning Town. He started on Monday 22 March and finished at 22 minutes past three on the morning of Monday 3 May 1852. Despite the early hour, upwards of 4000 spectators were there at the finish, and "the last mile and a half was walked in procession with lighted torches, a band of music and a large bonfire blazed forth to welcome the accomplishment of this unprecedented feat."[10][11][12][13] Ada Anderson's trainer, William Gale, is also alleged to have completed the feat.[14] Another popular goal was for competitors in long-distance events to walk 100 miles (160 km) in less than 24 hours, from which they earned the nickname "centurions". Enormous cash prizes were offered for the races and they were a popular activity for the press, crowds of working class spectators, and the betting public until the 1880s.[15]

Growth and controversy[edit]

Interest in the sport, and the wagering that accompanied it, spread to the United States, Canada, and Australia in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, pedestrianism was largely displaced by the rise in modern spectator sports and by controversy involving rules, which limited its appeal as a source of wagering and led to its inclusion in the amateur athletics movement and eventually the creation of racewalking.

Heel-to-toe rule[edit]

Pedestrianism was first codified in the latter half of the 19th century, evolving into what became racewalking, while diverging from the long-distance cross country fell running, other track and field athletics, and recreational hiking or hillwalking.[16] By the mid-19th century, competitors were often expected to extend their legs straight at least once in their stride and obey what was called the "fair heel and toe" rule. This rule, the source of modern racewalking, was a vague commandment that the toe of one foot could not leave the ground before the heel of the next foot touched down; however, rules were customary and changed with competition. Racers were usually allowed to jog in order to fend off cramps, and it was distance, not code, which determined gait for longer races. Newspaper reports suggest that "trotting" was common in events.[17]


African American walking match at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina, 1879

The longer form of "ultra marathon" walking featured in the popular press and in the decade after the American Civil War in the United States was a source of fascination. In 1867 Edward Payson Weston, a reporter for the New York Herald, won a $10,000 prize by walking 1,136 miles (1,828 km) from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 30 days.[18] In the United States a series of women's competitions were staged, special indoor tracks were built in some towns, and intra-community long distance pedestrianism came into vogue. American Elsa von Blumen competed as a pedestrian in events where she would walk 100 miles.[19] Frank Hart was among the first African-American national sports celebrities for his achievements in the sport, such as setting a new 565 mile record in the 6 Day Race distance. Along with sensational feats of distance, gambling was a central attraction for the large, mostly working-class crowds which came to pedestrian events.[20][21]

In the United Kingdom, member of Parliament Sir John Astley founded a "Long Distance Championship of the World" in 1878, staged over six days, which became known as the "Astley Belt Races".[22] While marking a peak in press coverage of such races, the Astley Belt Races allowed a wide interpretation of rules, with trotting, jogging, and even some running allowed. The competition was partly inspired by a desire to clean up the perception of the sport as corrupted by gambling interests and led to a push amongst some to codify pedestrianism as an amateur sport. The same process was happening to British track and field athletics and gave rise to the modern Olympic Movement.

Amateur sport and racewalking[edit]

Walkers organised the first English amateur walking championship in 1866, which was won by John Chambers, and judged by the "fair heel and toe" rule. This vague code was the basis for the rules codified at the first championships meeting in 1880 of the Amateur Athletics Association in England, the birth of modern track and field. With football, cricket and other sports codified in the 19th century, the transition from professional pedestrianism to amateur codified racewalking was part of a process of regularisation occurring in most modern sports at this time.

The codified racewalk was included when the International Olympic Committee formed in 1893. In the 1904 Olympic Games the "all-rounder" event, father of the decathlon, included an 880-yard (800 m) walk. It was only in the unofficial "Interim Olympic Games" of 1906 that racewalking became a separate event and since the 1908 Olympic Games in London, it has been an official event in every summer games.

Foot racing[edit]

Foot racing was a form of competitive running and walking of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Usually it involved feats of endurance which would now be classified as ultramarathon. It evolved into pedestrianism.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pepys Diary, 30 July 1663, accessed 24 August 2008
  2. ^ Club History: Pedestrianism. City of Hull Athletic Club Refers to Samuel Pepys writing of Footman races in 17th century London.
  3. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 3 July 2016
  4. ^ Arthur Mee (1941) The King's England: Yorkshire West Riding (Hodder & Stoughton, London) pp190–1
  5. ^ "Pedestrianism" by Matthew Algeo, Chicago Review Press, Chicago, 2014
  6. ^ JK Gillon. Robert Barclay Allardice: The Celebrated Pedestrian, (n.d.)
    Peter Radford. The Celebrated Captain Barclay: Sport, Gambling and Adventure in Regency Times. Headline Review, New Ed, (2002) ISBN 978-0-7472-6490-3
  7. ^ "Professional Walking Was Once So Cool, It Could Get You Arrested". Atlas Obscura. 29 June 2017. Retrieved 4 January 2018.
  8. ^ "Forgotten History: the Story of Emma Sharp and the Barclay Challenge". 11 May 2016.
  9. ^ "Champion Lady Walker of the World". Leeds Times. 4 May 1878.
  10. ^ "Bell's Life", Sun 4 Apr 1852 p. 7
  11. ^ "The Era", Sun 18 Apr 1852 p. 6
  12. ^ "Bell's Life", Sun 25 Apr 1852 p. 7
  13. ^ "The Era", Sun 9 May 1852 p. 5
  14. ^ Harry, Hall (2014). The pedestriennes : America's forgotten superstars. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Pub. ISBN 9781457534294. OCLC 898876817.
  15. ^ Sporting Events.; Pedestrianism Extraordinary. A Remarkable Test of Endurance—One Thousand Miles Walked in One Thousand Hours—De Witt and Goulding Both Accomplish the Feat—The Contestants Still Walking. Forty-Second Day. New York Times, 27 February 1876, Wednesday, Page 2.
  16. ^ See Walsh (1867). pp. 508–10 "I. Description of Pedestrianism: Quick Walking." in which "pedestrianism" is used for both "quick walking" by the "toe-and-heel" rule and "running". He references the scepticism about records and code enforcement.
  17. ^ Phil Howell (1996)
  18. ^ Pedestrianism The New York Times, 13 May 1874.
  19. ^ M. Ann Hall (21 August 2018). Muscle on Wheels: Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nineteenth-Century America. MQUP. pp. 44–. ISBN 978-0-7735-5533-4.
  20. ^ Kelly Collins. Old Time Walk and Run: Ultramarathon Running, Lehigh University, 11 December 1996
  21. ^ For a time the a sport columns in the New York Times bundled prize races for horses, running and walking events: The Turf.; Trotting—Racing and Pedestrianism (this example 12 June 1860)
  22. ^ Pedestrianism in London.; The Great International Match. An Early Visit to Agricultural Hall—Hospitality of Mrs. C'leary—Sir John Astley's Speech to The Contestants—Description of Some of the Pedestrians—An Impudent Fellow Ruled Off the Course—Lookingfor An Early Breakfast—Progress of the Match. The New York Times, Page 1, 1 April 1878, Wednesday
  23. ^ "Early Eighteenth-Century Newspaper Reports". grubstreet.rictornorton.co.uk.
  24. ^ Blades, Genevieve; Edwards, Ken, "Charles Samuels (1864–1912)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 3 June 2024

Further reading[edit]

External Links[edit]