Today (April 2) in London History – “Walkies”

Before we get back, today in London first. Try that wonderful little French bistro in Upper Street. La Petite Auberge. It’s not all that far from the Business Design Centre, which was known as the Royal Agricultural Hall when it opened back in 1862. And it’s there – the Royal Agricultural Hall – that were headed in this podcast.

Ok, let’s go.

To use an American expression, I’ve got a couple of items right out of left field for this Today in London History podcast. 

They’re very different. One of them – let me put it this way – is nothing but facts. If facts were iron filings this first piece of London April 2nd history would a sackful of them.

The other one is completely zany.

But I’m an omnivore when it comes to London stories – I’m voracious about London stories and London facts and bits of bobs of London information, whatever form they take.

Let’s start with the iron filings tale.

It’s April 2nd, 1871. It’s census day.

Counting heads, that’s nothing but hard facts – iron filings if you will.

So here’s what the head counters came up with for London. On Sunday, April 2nd, 1871, there were 3.2 million people in London. That was an increase of nearly half a million people in ten years. The houses occupied by 3.2 million people stretched along the banks of the Thames from Woolwich up to Hammersmith…and across its stream from Norwood to Hampstead.  That’s an area of about 122 square miles. Comes to an average of 2,669 persons per square mile. Narrow the focus to the City of London, 75,000 people slept in the City on the night of the 1871 Census. 

In the 1861 Census it was 113,000 people.

The population of London in 2021, the year of the most recent census, was nearly 9 million. And our London is a whole lot bigger than the London of Charles Dickens at the end of his life – he died in 1870. Our London runs to 606 square miles.

The population of the City of London last year was 9000 people. 

The trends come as no surprise. London’s population grew steadily throughout the 19th century and right up until World War II. In 1801 – the year of the first census – it was just under a million. From that it goes up and up. Dramatically so. Peaks at about eight and half million just before World War II. Then for 40 years it declines, fairly sharply – by over half a million a decade in the 60s and 70s. And then come the 1980s it’s on its way back. Climbing climbing climbing. Today’s nearly 9 million Londoners is a 36 per cent increase on the 6.6 million Londoners in 1981.

And 606 square miles as opposed to 122 – that speaks for itself.

Finally, the third stat – the decline in the population of the City of London – it was a sharp decline from 1861 to 1871 and that trend has more or less continued for the last 150 years. 

Ok, let’s do a handbrake turn.

Something completely off the wall. The facts are pretty hard but they’re in a different league entirely from what comes off the Census Return conveyor belt.

We’re still in that 1870s decade but we’ve forged ahead a few years.

It’s April 2, 1877 to be precise. We’re at a sporting contest. A sporting contest held in the Agricultural Hall in Islington. 

It starts a few minutes after midnight on April 2nd and lasts for six days, ending shortly before midnight on Sunday, April 8th. It attracts thousands of spectators. It’s international. The prize is £1,000. That’d be about 130,000 today. A tidy sum. It’s a rematch. The same two competitors did battle a year earlier in Chicago. Have you guessed? A boxing match? A title fight? If that’s what you guessed, you guessed wrong.

No, we’ve dropped in on The Great Walking Match. The competitors are Edward Payson Weston of America and Daniel O’Leary who’s, yes, you’ve guessed, Irish-American. 

It’s a lovely thought that O’Leary, he grew up in Cork, first crossed the Atlantic 11 years previously in steerage as a penniless immigrant. His return voyage was in first class. He was a celebrity. A sporting champion. O’Leary had form. Earlier in the decade – the only non-Englishman in that walking race – he’d defeated 16 Englishmen. He’d done so, needless to say, to the cheers and boisterous applause of thousands of his fellow Irishmen in the crowd. Remember that 20 per cent of London’s population at the time was Irish – and they had a bone to pick with the English. Ireland’s breaking free of Britain’s yoke was still decades in the future. So, yes, O’Leary was the man. He was the titleholder. Indeed, he’d dethroned America’s champion, Weston – outwalked him – in their first match seventeen months previously in Chicago. And so here they were, squaring off again in the electric atmosphere – brass bands blaring and a packed house shouting itself hoarse – of Aggie Hall in Islington.

From the perspective of 145 years later, it’s, well, astonishing, how much interest there was in watching half-dead men stagger in circles for days on end. One reporter, filing from that earlier match in which O’Leary had triumphed against a field of 16 Englishmen, spoke of the men going round and round something like a school of herrings in the Brighton aquarium. Round and round in groups, in twos and threes, in ones and twos, in threes and fours, round, and round and round.” 

And remember this wasn’t for an hour or two one afternoon – it was for a week.

That said, the distance covered is jaw-dropping. O’Leary’s winning distance in the great walking match against Weston was 520 miles in seven days. Ten miles more than Weston managed. That’s nearly 75 miles a day. Or, if you prefer, walking from London to Edinburgh and then halfway back again. And then tacking on another 20 miles for good measure. Or walking from Paris to Munich. Or San Francisco to Tiajuana, Mexico. Or walking from London to Brighton and back to London five times.

How did they do it? True grit and determination. And fitness. They each a tent at trackside that they’d rest in for two or three hours a day. So it wasn’t non-stop for seven days. That doubtless would have killed them, no matter how fit they were. Both men had to sign a contract that spelt out what exactly constituted walking. It read: “we have mutually agreed to consider all walking fair so long as neither of the two competitors has both feet off the ground at the same time. We consider the distinction between running and walking to be that the former is a succession of springs, in which both the feet are off the ground at the same moment; the latter to be a succession of steps, in which it is essential that some part of one foot must always touch the ground.”

There was a great deal of comment in the press about the different walking styles of the two competitors. “O’Leary has a steady, well-balanced style, which quite comes up to an Englishman’s idea of what walking should be; while, on the other hand, Weston, has a peculiar jerky gait, which is the reversal of graceful. In speed, also, there is no comparison. O’Leary is much faster than his opponent, and has a combination of speed and endurance rarely found in one man. In fairness to Weston, however, it must be stated that he was walking a losing match for the last three days – that was because O’Leary had built up an insurmountable lead; and the manner in which he, Weston, walked the last few miles, with certainty of defeat, completely won the applause of the spectators. 

As for stage props, O’Leary grasped in his hands a pair of bone castanets, while his competitor held a slight cane or switch in the right hand and sometimes rested the left hand upon his hip, in the attitude styled ‘akimbo’.

As for fuel… Well, in that earlier race, the one with the 17-strong field, one of the competitors, William Corkey Gentleman, had tanked up on his wife’s greasy eel-broth. Another, Blower Brown, was renowned for his beer-swilling and bone-chewing. Nor had O’Leary done himself any favours nutrition-wise – he’d quaffed some bad port, which made him sick and destroyed his appetite. So, malnourishment and dehydration on top of sleep deprivation – the stuff that champions are made of. O’Leary said he didn’t eat anything for six days. He said he was so dazed he couldn’t see the edge of the track. 

Both of O’Leary’s countries relished his taking down the 16 Englishmen in that earlier race. The American magazine Harper’s Weekly crowed, “with this triumph the effeteness of monarchical institutions becomes more evident to many minds.” And as for the Irish, well, it bears repeating – O’Leary had become a proxy in Ireland’s fight for Independence. 

Chicago was where O’Leary had settled in America and it had a huge Irish population. The Chicago Tribune  said, “Ireland is in a very sunburst of excitement over the achievements of her favourite son who…beat the ‘blarsted Britisher’ on his own soil.”

The Great Walking Match. Who knew? Well, you do now. And they certainly did then.

And that’s another tile in the great London mosaic.

See ya tomorrow.

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