George Wilson (racewalker)
George Wilson (24 June 1766 – 14 April 1839), known also as the Blackheath Pedestrian, was a Newcastle born competitive walker.
George Wilson was born in Newcastle on 24 June 1766 to a shipbuilder named Robert Wilson and Mary Finlay. He grew up as one of six children. At a young age, his father died £200 in debt, forcing his mother to start a pawn-broking business. The debt was eventually paid off with the help of a creditor who also assisted Finlay in accruing an additional £600. John Bell, the husband of Finlay's younger sister, attempted to claim these £600 for himself in addition to £200 which was left to Finlay in her mother's will. He was unsuccessful in both cases. George Wilson would go on to marry Bell's daughter, his cousin, with whom he had 5 children.
Wilson held a number of jobs throughout his life, first serving as an apprentice cobbler under his uncle, John Bell. He reluctantly took on this role for seven years until, at the age of 21, he became a pawn-broker in his mother's business. When he married John Bell's daughter, he left this business. Bell loaned Wilson £30 to start his own business, which was largely unsuccessful and lasted only two years. After that failure, Wilson returned to the pawn-broking business, now his own, for another nine years. After that, he became a draper and hosier which required him to visit London about 6 times a year, a 522 mile journey he would always take on foot. During this time, he was also employed as a tax collector, which would sometimes require him to walk 50 to 60 miles in a day. In 1805, satisfied that his wife and children could manage his hosiery and drapery business, he began selling maps and other travel guides as he walked around the country, which had by then become the main occupancy of his time. By 1810, he became a seller of pamphlets in Kent, which would sometimes require him to walk 40 miles a day. This proved to be inadequate at providing his expenses, and by 1814, Wilson was in debtor's prison for failure to pay a £20 debt from John Bell. There he made his first steps in the world of competitive pedestrianism, walking 50 miles around the prison yard in 12 hours. He finished with 4 minutes 43 seconds to spare, winning £3 1s.
When he was released from prison, Wilson became a full time competitive walker, supplementing his meager income by selling books. His first competitive walk outside of prison began on 30 August 1814 and ended one day later. During this, he walked 96 miles in 23 hours 31 minutes, probably earning him £100.
On 26 April 1824, Wilson completed his final feat of pedestrianism at Alston, Cumbria, successfully walking 140 miles in under 48 hours, despite having been "lame in one of his legs for three months past."
The Blackheath Pedestrian
On 11 September 1815, 50-year-old Wilson undertook his longest feat: walking 1,000 miles around Blackheath Common, Surrey, in 20 days for £100, to be collected from the people of Woolwich. Each day, he walked fifty miles, averaging 4 miles an hour. He was ordered by the local magistrate to not walk on the Sabbath, so he was forced to leave their jurisdiction on the two Sundays on which he walked. Though for the first few days, he did not garner much attention, by the ninth day newspapers were writing about his walk and the crowd was at least 7,000 in size. In particular, his old age and small stature proved to be one of the factors which made his walk so appealing. The extra coverage given to him by the press only served to grow the crowds further. By the tenth day, they had become nearly unmanageable: the dust they were kicking up impaired Wilson's breathing and several disgruntled bettors tried to attack him. With an estimated £5,000 wagered on his success or downfall, men with bludgeons, staves, and bayonets were sent out to clear his path. By the 11th day, even The Times had begun to report on Wilson because this feat was considered even greater than Captain Barclay's 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours (~40 days) walk six years earlier. Still, the local authorities were not pleased with the alcohol, prostitution, circus acts, and general nuisance which the riotous assembly had been causing, so they determined that the sale of alcohol was to be banned, and by the twelfth day the grounds were cleared of liquor stalls. On the thirteenth day, a Saturday, Wilson was notified that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, but was not executed due to sympathy from the clerk of the magistrate, on the condition that Wilson would absolutely not walk at Blackheath on Sunday. This was assured, and he was taken to Peckham, Surrey, to complete his walk on for day fourteen. Heavy rainfall made the ground unsuitable, so he was then taken to Beckenham, Kent instead. The continuing rain as well as the delays caused by it earlier meant that by midnight, 6 hours left in the 24 hours period, he had only completed 32 miles for the day. Most doubted that he would be able to complete his walk for the day in the allowed time, with the odds assessed by the bookkeepers at 10:1. At 5:30 AM, he completed the 50th mile for the day, with 30 minutes left. On day fifteen, he completed his 750th mile, 75% of his journey.
Thus far, the authorities had not looked upon Wilson's walk favorably. On 26 September 1815, just 1 mile into his sixteenth day, Wilson was notified that the constables had been given the warrant for his arrest. Though he was eventually acquitted of disturbing the peace on 5 October 1815, the decision to arrest him proved to be effective: the crowds had all but dispersed. His inability to walk for the final 5 days resulted in his failure to complete the feat and he was unable to collect the £100 prize. However, the London Stock Exchange collected the same £100 for him within 2 hours.
On 2 November 1822, Wilson completed 1,000 miles of walking in eighteen days in Hull.
George Wilson wrote an autobiography entitled A Sketch of the Life of George Wilson, the Blackheath Pedestrian: Who Undertook to Walk One Thousand Miles in Twenty Days! which was illustrated by Thomas Charles Wageman in 1815. In this book he tells of his many exploits and failures, including him being arrested for causing a breach of the peace, charged and tried for "walking for money" and ending up in debtor’s prison.
In the song "On Russell The Pedestrian" which appeared in 1840 in The Tyne Songster, George Wilson is mentioned by name as a well-known competitive walker. The notes to the song mention the last feat of his walking career at Town Moor racecourse in Newcastle. The song itself is not written in a Geordie dialect, but has a strong Northern England connection.
“The Quizzical Quorum or the Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Black Beaks of Blackheath” and "Looney's visit to Blackheath" are both songs written about Wilson's 1,000 mile walk around Blackhealth Common.
- Marshall, P.S. (2016). "Chapter 9: George Wilson". Richard Manks and the Pedestrians. P.S. Marhsall.
- Wilson, George (1815). A Sketch of the Life of G. W. the Blackheath Pedestrian, ... written by himself.
- Brown, Paul. "The Man Who Walked His Life Away". Deadspin. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
- "Professional Walking Was Once So Cool, It Could Get You Arrested". Atlas Obscura. 2017-06-29. Retrieved 2018-01-04.
- Wilson, George (1815). A Sketch of the Life of George Wilson, the Blackheath Pedestrian: Who Undertook to Walk One Thousand Miles in Twenty Days! - Illustrated by Thomas Charles Wageman. Hay & Turner. OCLC 22681853.
- Whetstone, David (23 September 2004). "George walks his way into history". The Journal. Newcastle, UK: ncjMedia Limited.
- The Tyne Songster - A Choice Selection of Songs in the Newcastle Dialect. 1840.