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The Olympics of Much Wenlock: How the modern games were inspired in the Shropshire Hills

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: March 30, 2012 
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From the beginning, pomp and circumstance was an important part of the Wenlock Olympics. The games began with a colorful band-led procession of competitors, officials and flag bearers through the decorated town to the meadow that is now permanent home to the games.

In 1860 the Wenlock Olympian Society was formed, and remains the active body governing the games today. Dr. Brookes continued to be the driving force and inspiration of the games and would remain so for the next 30 years. While continuing his medical practice, the indefatigable doctor and town magistrate spurred the renovation of Much Wenlock's medieval Guildhall and the building of the Corn Exchange, and with his brother, Andrew, brought the railroad to town, setting up the Wenlock and Severn Junction Railway.

With all this, William Penny Brookes was a tireless correspondent, crusading for causes ranging from the recognition of military surgeons to physical education in school curriculums. He also encouraged nascent Olympic games in Greece and inspired Olympic games in the Shropshire county town of Shrewsbury. His lifelong dream, however, was the establishment of an international Olympics.

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In 1889 the young French Baron Pierre Coubertin, organizer of the International Congress on Physical Education, was in England studying sports education. Brookes wrote to Coubertin and invited him to visit the Wenlock contests the next year. In October 1890, Coubertin came to witness the Wenlock Olympian Games, and to visit with the good Dr. Brookes, now 81. From discussions between the two men, Coubertin carried away the foundations of what became in 1896 the first international Olympic Games.  

Unhappily, William Penny Brookes died in December 1895, just months before the revived games were held in Athens that next April. Coubertin wrote a eulogy for Brookes, acknowledging: "If the Olympic Games that modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is not due to a Greek, but to Dr. William Penny Brookes."

Today an Olympian Trail around Much Wenlock follows places of interest related to Brookes and the Olympian Games. Indeed, the trail takes in most sites of interest in the small market town, from the doctor's lifelong home to the field where the games are still held—adjacent to the William Penny Brookes School. Follow the parade of athletes from the Gaskell Arms Hotel, down the pretty Victorian High Street, past the dramatic ruins of Wenlock Priory to Linden Field where the games are centered.

While all sporting eyes are focused on London's Olympics this summer, Wenlock will celebrate its 126th games. In addition to track and field and several pentathalon events, athletes will compete for Wenlock Olympian medals in equestrian and aquatic events, cricket, badminton, archery, clay pigeon shooting, fencing, volleyball, tennis and golf.

The Wenlock Olympian Games will still feel a world away from London and the international press broadcasting the 2012 Olympiad throughout the world. Dr. Brookes probably would not know quite what to make of the massive production in London, but he would still recognize the games he began and nurtured in Much Wenlock.  

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