Pedestrianism, The Once Popular Sport Of Walking In Circles

By Anita Macias-Howard

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pedestrianism was a popular spectator sport in England, and by the 1870’s in the United States.  The popularity resulted from the awe inspiring physical feat of participants traversing by foot, great distances within a time constraint.  Pedestrianism was also made attractive by the wagers individuals would place on a pedestrian’s performance event or the outcome of a pedestrian competition.  Think horseracing or other modern competitive sporting events that allows wagering.

Robert Barclay Allardice in 1809 walked 1 mile every hour for 1000 hours on a roped off dirt track.  10,000 people came to watch over the course of the event.  Given the large amounts of money tied to pedestrian performance (wagers and prizes), and event attendance (gate receipts, food and drink sales, product promotions), pedestrian events would become rough at times due to attempts by spectators and co-competitors to interfere with participant performance.  In 1864 Emma Sharp matched Robert Barclay’s performance of walking 1000 miles in 1000 days.  During the event, unsuccessful attempts were to impede her progress by mugging her with Chloroform, tripping her, and even throwing burning embers in her path.

By the end of the 19th century, pedestrianism came to an end due to the codifying of walking form rules and its inclusion in the amateur athletics movement as race walking, and the resulting loss of the wagering aspect.

If you are interested in learning more about the rise and fall of the sport of pedestrianism, read the book, “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” by Matthew Algeo.  For an entertaining short lecture, watch the episode on pedestrianism from the YouTube series, “Today I Found Out”, by Simon Whistler at (below) If you enjoy fiction and murder mysteries, read, “Wobble to Death”, by Peter Lovesey, an account of a pedestrian event that is set in 1879 Victorian England.