Women’s sport is finally flourishing in Britain. But still largely unrecognised are the pioneering efforts of the Victorian era ‘pedestriennes’ who laid the foundations for modern woman to participate in professional sport.
Dozens of these working-class women abandoned humdrum lives to become history’s first professional sportswomen. They bravely put personal safety and decorum aside to tackle astonishing walking contests of 1,000 miles or more, competing against each other or against the clock, chasing cash prizes to feed and clothe their families.
Victorian society was shocked by their chutzpah. Several of the women became rich and famous, but many had a torrid time. Huge crowds watched them trekking day and night. The public loved them, but the authorities wanted them banned. The walks were often riotous affairs that attracted gamblers, drinkers and rowdy behaviour, but it was the women themselves who would be lambasted in the press, condemned as immoral and despicable.
The controversy only intensified when they adopted the daring new ‘bloomers’ costume from America, but with hindsight it is clear they were actually pioneers for women’s rights.
Rob Hadgraft spent 26 years as a regional newspaper journalist before turning freelance to research and write about sporting history. He specialises in athletics and football, and this is his 20th book, three of which made the final stages of the annual William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards. Rob, born in 1955 and based in North Essex, celebrated 40 years as a club runner himself in 2022.
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