Were seeds of the modern Olympic Games sown in Shropshire in the mid-19th century? In the small market town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, close to the Welsh border, the memory of William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) is proudly recalled. It was to his grave that Juan Samaranch, then President of the International Olympic Committee, came in honour in 1994. “I come to pay homage to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games.”
Local doctor, magistrate and philanthropist, Brookes strongly believed that sport was good for all. In 1850 he started a ‘class’ for the local community which he termed the “Olympian Class” designed to promote out-door recreation. The first meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Games was held later that year on Linden Fields. The custom began of rewarding victors with a laurel wreath crown.
In 1858 Brookes read about the proposed revival of the Olympic Games in Athens and became an enthusiastic supporter. In 1885 he learned of the activities of a young French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was also an admirer of English sports.
Coubertin (aged 27), visiting England, came to a special meeting of the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1890. Brookes pressed the idea of a revival of the Olympic Games to start in Athens itself. Brookes (then aged 82) had passed the torch to the younger man. He died in December 1895, just four months before the first modern Games opened in Athens.
Two years ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games, the organisers revealed, to Shropshire’s delight, ‘Wenlock’ as the proposed mascot for the summer Games. In 2012 a memorial in Linden Fields was installed to celebrate the contribution of William Penny Brookes to the Olympic movement. Memorials in the local church also celebrate the memory of this extraordinary man.