People watching might sure be today one of the most inexpensive, harmless pursuits of idling away time or even might take such basis that identifies in fact as a hobby of sorts but there have existed an era in human history when this particular interest in watching people prevailed instead in another dimension of exploration. Particularly unfurling across the expanses of two of the most powerful presences of what makes up the Western world, Britain and America that is to say, the times through the 17th to the 19th centuries saw the spawning there of an interest in watching people walk, in differing intensities of the craze though as a form of competitive sport that came to be known, very aptly indeed as pedestrianism. Often practiced in very competitive and therefore as professional assertions, so much so that even led to wagering characterising their occurrence more often than not had been this sport that found favor also in the commercial appeal they held, funded and sponsored by brands and companies during its heydays of the 19th century after which it started seeing a decline, but not dying out altogether, instead making way for the more modern sport of racewalking to take over.
Originating probably among the British aristocrats of the late 17th century had this been form of the walking sport, indulged in by the carriage footmen of the rich masses who were pitted up against each other, perhaps as a way for their masters to assert supremacy over their counterparts. Soon thereafter, these long distance walking pursuits came to gain further mileage and went on to emerge as prominent fixture at fairs adding upon their own essence evolved pursuit of interests represented by the commonplace adherence of placing bets upon them. Assuming sometime during the close of the 1700s its very eponymous identity of pedestrianism, the pastime of sorts evolved indeed as a sport of enormous prominence ushering along with its length of rule also a volley of professionals already. Emerging on the circuit first and foremost had been a certain Foster Powell who, besides his distinction as being the first notable exponent of long distance walking, harbours also a rather distinguished legacy in having been called “the first English athlete of whom we have any record”. As early as in 1773, Powell rose to fame with his feat of walking 400 miles (640 km) from London to York and back, and following it up 15 years later with a 100 miles (160 km) pursuit in 21 hours 35 minutes. But considered the father of the sport of pedestrianism as such is Scottish man Robert Barclay Allardice of the early 19th century, so notable in his feats of long distance walking that earned him also the title of The Celebrated Pedestrian. One among such instances of remarkable speed and strength demonstrated by Allardice pertains to him being the first ever person of completing a 1000-mile walk in 1000 hours for a 1000 guineas in 1809, that indeed was commendable enough to capture public attention and propel pedestrianism up on the pedestal of popularity.
The first woman to replicate this display of persistence in the walking spirit years later was Briton Emma Sharp who achieved the distinction in 1864. But even more successful turned out to be another 19th century contemporary Ada Anderson who unlike Sharp and almost all others preceding her took recourse to formal training to stomp upon her dominance in the event. With a record equalled only by her trainer William Gale of covering 1,500 miles (2,400 km) in 1000 hours, Anderson came to be labelled by the press as ‘Champion Lady Walker of the World’. With numerous such record setting endeavours to her name achieved over the subsequent years after the epic race of 1877, Ada Anderson indeed is one of the most notable pursuers of the sport ever, even outside her biological identity as a female pedestrian. Outside this monopoly of British basis, it was American Edward Payson Weston who helped also popularise the sport with his many an enduring advances on foot, even as he urged also all and sundry to take upon such pursuits of walking both in their competitiveness as well as for the many a health benefits attributable to this mode of terrestrial locomotion.
What made pedestrianism though a pursuit more rooted in notions of competitiveness that what it might be otherwise considered worthy of had been the rather rigorous basis in which pedestrians walked about it. Even with enormous cash prizes on offer and a crowd of enthusiastic spectators watching live the course of the races, with of course the press and a separate section of betting public raising further anticipations associated with what indeed turned out to be grand events until the 1880s with also accompanying elements of songs played by bands and wares doled out by vendors and the more fancied prospect of many a celebrity fans turning up, the crux of the races still was rooted in rather arduousness. Competed over a period of six days were these standard foot races that came to be known as the Six Day Race ever since their inception in the 1870s and which went on to become events of mass frenzy.
In fact so widespread had been the fascination held by these races, popularly called as walking races or go as you please races that even led to the creation of the Long Distance Championship of the World in 1878. The rules governing the premises of these immensely witnessed races were demanding enough even in their simplicity. With contestants required to complete laps equivalent to at least 450 miles on an oval shaped sawdust track over the course of six days through such means not restricted exclusively to walking but allowing also for runs or ambles or staggers or crawls, eking out time for a mere few hours rest per day in little tents built by the side of the indoor court, while most often eating and drinking while still in motion, the exertion of this simple, even futile sounding pursuit of pedestrianism was immense indeed. Interestingly, the six day limit perhaps would have been exceeded if public amusements like these were not prohibited on Sundays which meant that matches could commence right after midnight on Sunday night or on Monday morning and continue until midnight the following Saturday. It was professional pedestrian George Littlewood of British origins who held- and still holds the 6 day world record for walking. Other pedestrians of distinction existed as well some of which could manage to qualify as centurions, having achieved such feats as completing a hundred miles in less than twenty four hours. The centurion distinction continues till this day even when pedestrianism itself has died out across its modern day version of racewalking that which effectively replaced this craze of long distance walking as more organised and professional mannerisms of competitive sports.
For all its hardships though, professionally competing in the sport of pedestrianism did yield a rich bounty of rewards. With corporate sponsorship perhaps having its origins in this particular sport before taking over the modern realm of games and play in rather profusion, pedestrianism was very much a sought after area of interest. The Long Distance Champion of the World for instance availed themselves of this distinction through means of an engraved belt of solid silver even as they enriched themselves also with a whopping 25000 dollars at that time in history. Equally appealing was the fore of the sport as it presented itself to onlookers, with pedestrians themselves taking it in their stride, quite literally as well to build up on their own antics to draw the crowds and the money. Weston for instance was noted for his trademark wobbly walk and no less intriguing was his impeccable dressing up tactic every time he would embark on his ‘journey’. Outside these elements of what captured public attention in positive light, pedestrianism though also came to be defamed for the many a doping charges that were quite often levied on the walkers, with once again Weston’s act of chewing on cola leaves during one particular race commanding all interest. Not to mention the defining identity of pedestrianism being a betting sport already and there were more than a couple of reasons that could explain the fall from grace of what had been a rather unusual but immensely enjoyed form of pastime of a couple some centuries.
Beyond the ambits of the sport itself, what also dampened the spirits of pedestrians and the public alike was the invention of the bicycle that made way for more interesting turn and tide of events to follow on laps along the track. Beyond this general spruce of interest that accompanied the entry of bicycles into the races had been also the spectacular crashes made possible by the crash of both machine and man, endowing therefore an added touch of excitement that helped therefore shift the public perspective from the feet to the tyres. Helped also by a desire to clean up the sport had been this dwindling prominence of pedestrianism, which came to manifest instead as more regulated sports dictated by a wide range of rules of fair play and legality moulding therefore this epic long distance walking pursuit into other somewhat distinct games in essence. Continuing therefore still in some aspect perhaps, this recently old sport of pedestrianism speaks about itself of a legacy that which builds essentially on the innate human desire to keep occupied, even when it is such pursuits as rarely stimulating as the very act of walking.