Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 8 - Pedestrianism

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I AM a great advocate of Pedestrianism, and. take it to be a very honest way of getting through the world. If you ride in a carriage you may be upset; if you throw your leg across a horse's back you may meet with the fate of Sir Robert Peel; and as to getting into a railway carriage, the fearful consequences of that require for their description, a more vigorous pen than mine. I like to see a good walker; how delightful his appetite, how firm his muscle, how healthy his cheek, how. splendid his condition. Has he a care, he walks it off; is ruin staring him in the face, only let him have a couple of hour's walk, and he is in a condition to meet the great enemy of mankind himself. Has his friend betrayed him - are his hopes of fame, of wealth, of power blighted? - is his love's young dream rudely broken? Let him away from the circles of men out on the green turf, with the blue sky of heaven above, and in a very little while the agony is over, and "Richard's himself again. Were it only for the sake of the active exercise it inculcates [-85-] and requires I would say - Long live the Rifle Corps movement. The other day a gallant little band in my own immediate neighbourhood set out for an evening's march. They were in capital spirits; they were dressed in their Sunday best; they had a band playing at their head; a miscellaneous crowd, chiefly juvenile, with a few occasional females behind, brought up the rear. A deputy of the London Corporation and his brother formed part of the devoted troop. Gaily and amidst cheers they marched from the bosoms of their families, leaving "their girls behind them." On they went, up-hill and down-hill, many a mile, amidst Hornsey's pleasant green lanes, till at length the London deputy' turned pale and intimated - while his limbs appeared to sink beneath him, and his whole body was bathed in sweat - that he could stand it no longer. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. A halt was ordered - beer was sought for for the London deputy, and with considerable difficulty they got the martial hero home. Had that gallant man been a good pedestrian, would he not have scorned the beer, and laughed at the idea of rest? Look at Charles Dickens - I am sure he will forgive me the personality, as no harm is intended - why is he ever genial, ever fresh - as superior to the crowd who imitate his mannerism, but fail to catch his warm, sunny, human spirit, as the Koh-i-noor to its glass counterfeit, but because no man in town walks more than he? What a man for walking was the great Liston, foremost operator of his age. The late Lord Suffield, who fought all [-86-] the Lords, including the bench of Bishops, in order to win emancipation for the slave, was one of the most athletic men of his day. On one occasion he ran a distance of ten miles before the Norwich mail as a casual frolic, without any previous training, and he assured Sir George Stephen that he never experienced any inconvenience from it. When we talk of a man being weak on his pins, what does it imply but that he has been a rake, or a sot, or a fool who has cultivated the pocket or the brain at the expense of that machine, so fearfully and wonderfully made, we call man. The machine is made to wear well, it is man's fault if it does not. The pedestrian alone keeps his in good repair; our long livers have mostly been great walkers. Taylor, the water-poet, says of old Parr-
         "Good wholesome labour was his exercise,
        Down with the lamb, and with the lark would rise, 
        In mire and toiling sweat he spent the day, 
        And to his team he whistled time away."
    People are getting more fond of physical exercise than they were. We may almost ask - Are we returned back to the days of the Iliad and the Odyssey? The gentlemen of the Stock Exchange greet Tom Sayers as if he were an emperor, and, it is said, peers and clergymen think it right to assist at a "mill." We have heard so much about muscular Christianity - so much stress has been laid upon the adjective - that we seem in danger of forgetting the Christianity altogether. Undoubtedly our fathers are to blame in some [-87-] respect for this. Good Christians, thinking more of the next world than of this, merchants, and tradesmen, and even poor clerks, hastening to be rich, scholars aiming at fame, and mothers of a frugal turn, have set themselves against out-door life and out-door fun, and have done with sports and pastimes - as Rowland Hill said the pious had done with the tunes - i.e. let the devil have all the good ones. In vain you war with nature, she will have her revenge; the heart is true to its old instincts. Man is what he was when the Greek pitched his tent by the side of the much-sounding sea, and before the walls of Troy; when Alexander sighed for fresh worlds to conquer; when the young Hannibal vowed deathless hate to Rome; when the rude ballad of "Chevy Chase," sung in baronial hall, stirred men as if it were the sound of a trumpet; when Nelson swept the seas, and when Wellington shattered the mighty hosts of France. Thus is it old physical sports and pastimes never die, and perhaps nowhere are they more encouraged and practised than by the population of our cities and towns.
    The other day some considerable interest was excited in the peculiar circles given to the study of Bell's Ljfe, by the fact that Jem Pudney was to run Jem Rowan for £50 a-side, at the White Lion, Hackney Wick. The winner was to have the Champion's Cup. Far and near had sounded and resounded the name of Pudney the swift-footed - how he had distanced all his competitors - how he had done eleven miles under the hour - were facts patent to all sporting England; but against him [-88-] was this melancholy reality, that he was getting old - he was verging on thirty-two. However, when, after a weary pilgrimage through mud, and sleet, and rain, we found ourselves arrived .at the classic spot. The betting was very much in Pudney's favour. The race was to have commenced at five, but it did not begin before six. We had plenty of time to look around. Outside we had passed a motley multitude. There were cabs, and Hansoms, and Whitechapel dog-carts in abundance. Monday is an off-day as regards many of the operatives and mechanics of London, and they were thronging round the door, or clambering up the pales, or peeping through the boards, or climbing some neighbouring height, to command a view of the race on strictly economical principles. Several owners of horses and carts, with their wives and families, were indulging in a similar amusement; an admission fee of one. shilling enabled us to penetrate the enclosure. We pay our money and enter. The scene is not an inviting one. Perhaps there are about a thousand of us present, and most of us are of a class of society we may denominate rough and ready. Even the people who have good clothes do not look like gentlemen. They have very short hair, very flat and dark faces; have a tremendous development of the lower jaw, and, while they are unnaturally broad about the chest, seem unnaturally thin and weak as regards their lower extremities. Most of the younger ones are in good sporting condition, and would be very little distressed by a little set-to, whether [-89-] of a playful or a business nature, and could bear an amount of punishment which would be fatal to the writer of this article, and, I dare say, to the reader as well. Time passes slowly. Jones hails Brown, and offers him seven to four. (After the race had terminated, I saw ones cash up a £100 fresh bank-note, which I thought might have been more usefully invested.) Robinson bets Smith what he likes that he does not name the winner; and one gent, with an unpleasing expression of countenance, offers to do a little business with me, which I decline, for reasons that I am not particularly desirous to communicate to my new acquaintance. I am glad to see a policeman or two present, for one likes to know the protection of the law may be invoked in an extremity, and I keep near its manifest and outward sign. The White Lion is doing a fine business; there is an active demand for beer and tobacco; and a gentleman who deals in fried fish soon clears off his little stock of delicacies, as likewise does a peripatetic vendor of sandwiches of a mysterious origin. The heroes of the night slowly walk up and down the course, wearing long great coats, beneath which we may see their naked legs, and feet encased in light laced shoes. Their backers are with them, and a crowd watches with curious eyes. At length the course is cleared, a bell is rung, and they are off. Six times round the course is a mile - six times ten are sixty. Sixty times must they pass and repass that excited mob. The favourite takes the lead at a steady running; he maintains it some time; he is longer than [-90-] his opponent, but the latter is younger, and looks more muscular in his thighs. Both men, with the exception of a cloth round the loins, are naked as when born; and as they run they scatter the mud, which mud thus scattered descends upon them in a by no means refreshing shower. As round after round is run the excitement deepens; the favourite is greeted with cheers; but when at the end of the third mile he is passed by his competitor excites an enthusiasm which is intense. Now the bettors tremble; the favourite attempts to get his old position; he gains on his foe - they are now neck and neck - cheer, boys, cheer- "Go it, Jem !" is the cry on many sides. Jem the winner does go it; but, alas! Jem the loser cannot. It is in vain he seeks the lead. Fortune has declared against him, and in a little while he gives up - no longer the swiftest and fleetest of England's sons - no longer the holder of the Champion's Cup. One involuntarily feels for fallen greatness, and as Pudney was led away utterly beaten, I could not find it in my heart to rejoice. I left a crowd still on the grounds. I left Rowan still running, as he was bound to do, till he had completed his ten miles and I left the White Lion, in-doors and out, doing a very considerable business. It seemed to me the White Lion was not such a fool as he looked, and that he felt, let who will win or lose, he with his beer and brandy would not come off second best. This, undoubtedly, was the worst part of the business. The race over, for further excitement, the multitude would rush to the White Lion [-91-] the losers to drown their sorrow, the winners to spend their gains; the many, who were neither winners nor Losers, merely because others did so; and thus, as the hours pass, would come intoxication, anger, follies, and, perhaps, bitterness of heart for life.
    May I here enumerate the heroes of pedestrianism? Let me name Robert Skipper, who walked a thousand miles in a thousand successive half-hours-let me not forget Captain Barclay, who walked a thousand miles in a thousand successive hours - let me record the fame of Captain ·John T. G. Campbell, of the 91st, who, accoutred in the heavy marching order of a private soldier, on the Mallow and Fermoy road, did ten miles in 107¼ minutes. All honour be to such! long may their memories be green! Let me beg the considerate reader not to forget West, who ran forty miles in five hours and a half. Ten miles an hour is done by all the best runners. It is said West accomplished 100 miles in 18 hours. I read in a certain work devoted to manly exercises, "at the rate of four miles an hour a man may walk any length of time." The writer begs to inform the reader that he doubts this very much.