The Celebrated Pedestrian

 "With the exception of Captain Barclay,  Abraham Wood, of Mildrew in
Lancashire, holds the first rank amongst pedestrians. He is a remarkablyy
 fine, tall, well-made man, and is not only a swift runner, but is also
 possessed of good wind and great bottom."
From "Pedestrianism" by Walter Thom, published in 1813.

I would be rather envious of his “great bottom” if it wasn’t for the fact, I suspect that means something else…

Researching my relative Captain Abraham Wood, (1786-1817), I kept drawing blanks but trawled up constant  references to one Abraham Wood, (1778-1824), ‘celebrated pedestrian’.

Abraham Wood “the celebrated pedestrian”  is now largely forgotten, but I was able to reconstruct a surprising amount of information about him, from the 19thC newspapers.

Still thinking of that rather hot  fabulous sportsman, Mr. Laing,  I dropped my own Regency period Abraham Wood, to follow the story of this alternate Regency Abraham Wood. Both men seemed to spend substantial amounts of time in York. Mine, as a mariner living on North Street. The other Abraham – as one of England’s earliest professional athletes. York’s racecourse, the Knavesmire, was an ideal location for early feats of pedestrianism. Huge wagers were placed on the men, as the horses.

Abraham was known as a long distance runner and seems to have made a fortune betting on himself to win various ‘matches’ against other celebrated pedestrians.

At the late York races, Abraham Wood, a Lancashireman, and Jack Brown, a Yorkshireman, started upon the race course for a considerable wager, to run four miles in the shortest time, which Wood performed in twenty minutes, and nineteen seconds; Brown performed the distance in twenty minutes and a half.

The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Thursday, August 26, 1802

According to a newspaper of 1811, Jack Brown was from Kirkbymoorside. This was in fact a re-match of another race between these two, also at the Knavesmire, in 1797, when Abraham was just 19.

Abraham’s most notorious feat came in 1807, when, as champion long distance runner of the day, he challenged champion long distance walker of the day, Captain Allardice Barclay, to a race, starting at Newmarket. The race was to last 24 hours, and Abraham sportingly gave Barclay a 20 mile head start.

Abraham had run 40 miles in a time just shy of five hours, in training, on Newmarket Heath, so he entered the competition confident and at the height of his powers.  The stake – even for the training session – had been 500 guineas.A reporter who saw this run remarked that Wood was “a remarkably fine tall well-made man.  He ran without shoes or stockings, and had only a pair of flannel drawers and a jacket on him…”

(At this date “jacket” was a word used for both a woven and a knitted garment).

At the half-way point, with characteristic Regency elan, he leapt into a post-chaise to take a glass of wine and a biscuit.

On the big day, Wood started as favourite, but his stock dropped, as the race progressed.

Abraham’s fame was such that “the race attracted the greatest concourse of persons ever seen at Newmarket in the memory of the oldest inhabitant. ..” according to one reporter. The race started at 8.a.m and Abraham covered the first mile in less than half an hour. At first, Abraham ran at a ‘lounging’ pace. The odds were shifting.

Over three hours in, and with 24 miles under his belt, Abraham stopped for refreshment in a marquee at the starting post., where his trainer (‘old Ben of Lancashire’) and back up team waited. At 32 miles he lay down and had an ankle massage, now appearing “tired” to onlookers. This time, when he emerged from the tent he was shoeless. He had been known to do a Zola Budd and run in bare feet before. Somewhere over that next 4 miles he injured a foot on a sharp stone, and his pace dropped enough for the spectators to figure out something had happened.  At 5 hours and 20 minutes, he retired to his marquee again and sent out word he’d resigned the match. Captain Barclay did 18 miles at a steady pace of 6 MPH, and then stopped for some “warm fowl”.  The Regency style of long distance racing seems to have involved copious amounts of game and ale, en route!

Barclay continued another 4 miles after Abraham resigned the race, “to settle some bets”, and then, after having covered 36 miles in 6 hours, folded.  There was some confusion and not all bets were settled. Abraham had raced 40 miles in under 5 hours, a few months previously, and this turn of events seemed to shock everyone.  Two surgeons attended Abraham and confirmed he was “feverish” and incapable of continuing the race.  London newspapers subequently were a little previous, reporting his death.  Abraham lived to run another day, but the match with Barclay was a defining moment, and his career seems to have slowly declined after that day in 1807.  After the race, he recovered and then travelled home to Oldham.  Rumours circulated of a re-match the following spring, with 1,000 guineas riding on the race.

Barclay had bet 5,000 guineas in 1800 that he could walk 90 miles in 21 1/2 hours, and after his match with Abraham, he went on to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours. The regency professional sportsman was professional because he earned by betting on himself, in other words. 5,000 guineas was more than a lifetime’s income, to many people.  With these amounts of money resting on matches, the stakes were literally, high.

Abraham Wood, the pedestrian, is matched to run fifteen miles in one hour and forty minutes, for a wager of forty guineas a side, on Thursday next. It will be fixed on Tuesday whether he runs on Knavesmire, or the turnpike road, but it is to be within two miles of this city.

The York Herald, County and General Advertiser (York, England), Saturday, April 03, 1813

In 1816, towards the end of his life as a professional pedestrian, Abraham made a wager that is almost heroicly ‘Regency’.

After a three day-and-night drinking bout, he bet that in an hour he could: catch a duck on the turnpike road, pluck it, roast it, eat it, and then run a five-minute mile.  He won the bet, devouring the duck (washed down with a quart of ale), then running a 4:56 mile, all within the hour.

Running Through the Ages: Edward Seldon Sears

In 1813, Abraham also ran 9 miles in under 50 minutes at Pontefract racecourse. His life as a professional pedestrian was drawing to a close. I found his death notice in The Lancaster Gazette, Saturday, June 26, 1824:

“DIED… On Tuesday se’ennight, Mr Abraham Wood, the celebrated pedestrian.”

My own Abraham Wood drowned in 1817 and was buried at Cawood.

I will be reconstructing a 19thC sporting jersey and publishing the knitting pattern, in my upcoming book. Hope to see you there. But I might stop half way and have a glass of wine and some warm fowl…


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