William Penny Brookes, Father of The Modern Olympics!


(Image from Wikipedia)

Now I know what most of you are thinking: no, that was Baron De Coubertin, everyone knows that!

In actual fact, De Coubertin was inspired to hold the Olympics in Athens after visiting The Wenlock Olympian Society Games, an annual event founded by a local surgeon, humanitarian and PE enthusiast, William Penny Brookes, and held in Much Wenlock, Shropshire since 1850.

De Coubertin organised the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 after visiting Britain in 1890 to find out more about sport in our public (i.e. private) schools the previous year. Dr Brookes invited him to visit the Much Wenlock Olympian Society Games where they competed in quoit-throwing, cricket, running, hurdles and football amongst other events. De Coubertin eventually employed many of Dr Brookes’ ideas including the opening ceremonial parade, holding the event in different cities and opening it to all sportsmen from around the world (women were not invited to participate!)

Sadly, Dr Brookes didn’t live to see the Games in Athens, he died a few months before at the age of 86.

Dr Brookes’ role in the founding of the modern Olympic movement was acknowledged by Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, when in 1994 he came to Much Wenlock and laid a wreath in Dr Brookes’ memory.

Dr Brookes was keen to improve the education, health and opportunities of the working classes. He set up a library for their use and was particularly keen on promoting sport ‘for the development of the manliness of the human race’. He was active in local justice and administration and concerned for the welfare of his fellow citizens. He campaigned tirelessly for the introduction of sport into the school curriculum.

He is still much revered in his home town. There is a blue plaque to mark his lifelong home and a marble memorial in the local parish church of Holy Trinity where he and all his family are buried. There is also a Brookes’ room inside the entrance of the church which has a children’s area and a kitchen.


The Games are still held annually in July in Much Wenlock. My son and his friends took part for a bit of fun in their student days, which nevertheless led to fierce rivalry. Last year, now in their 40s, they decided it was time to have another go. One of them came all the way from Dubai just to take part – with a torn hamstring! He spent the night before with ice packs tied to his leg in all sorts of pain. Nothing was going to stop him taking part! He came fourth in the pentathlon.


You can follow The Olympian Trail around the town of Much Wenlock – there are plaques embedded in the pathways – you can also visit Dr Brookes’ grave which lies in a beautiful and peaceful setting in the grounds of the 12th century Holy Trinity Church, orginally the church of the nuns of the local priory.

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Children from Steiner Schools all over the country carry on Dr Brookes’ programme when every summer they gather in the grounds of one of their schools to take part in traditional Olympic sports – including wrestling – whilst camping out and making their own food.

One of the early winning Olympians was none other than W.G. Grace, the famous English cricketer.


(Image from Wikipedia)

So, why is cricket – an original Modern Olympic sport – no longer an Olympic event? It is played all around the world on streets, in parks, on beaches, in back gardens as well as in much-anticipated international matches.  I think I know the answer, but out of courtesy to my US readers, my lips are sealed 😉

Copyright: Chris McGowan

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