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Saturday 6 October 2018

William Edwards - Champion Pedestrian and Shifty Conman

by Phil Essam.

Note - I had lost this article from 2011, but was glad to find this evening.  It will be edited, expanded and the links fixed.

William Edwards – Champion Pedestrian and a Shifty Conman by Phil Essam , July 2011

 If you cast your mind back to the study of Australian history at school, you will remember the late 1800s in particular. It was a time of the Gold Rush, Bushrangers, mass immigration and a time when the inland was being settled at a great rate all over Australia. It was also a time when Pedestrianism was one of the most popular sports and provided entertainment for the masses

For the uninitiated, pedestrianism basically was athletics and included running and walking events from sprints to distances over a marathon. Pedestrianism started in England and America but soon spread its popularity to Australia and New Zealand. Pedestrian events were basically a social occasion where hundreds would gather to watch, socialise, have a drink and have a gamble on the outcome. Not much has changed in sport over the years since!

 One of the best pedestrian walkers of the late 1800s who competed in Australia and definitely someone who would hold his own amongst the champion ultra athletes of today was William Edwards. Over a ten year period, he competed in over a dozen races per year and in distances between 50 miles and six days. He wasn’t just a journeyman though, as his results constantly showed. In 24 hour races, he was consistently completing one hundred miles plus and over six days he used to average about 420 miles, which translates to about 670 km. He also competed on four occasions against the best pedestrians that the USA had to offer and was victorious each time!

There was a darker side to Edward’s career though, which today surely would have brought much needed publicity to the sport. There was at least twice that he was publicly accused of taking the profits from events he had organised. He ended up in court for deserting his wife. He clipped a boy under the ear in New Zealand after he was sledged during a race. And there was at least one failed business interest during his pedestrian career. Perhaps this is why his career in the Colonies finished sooner rather than later and he headed back to his birthplace in England? In this article, I shall endeavour to outline his career in more detail, provide more information about his indiscretions and attempt to fill in the gaps about his life and career. Whilst researching his life it was disappointing to note that I could not find one picture or photo of him in any historical records!

Edwards was born in England in 1851 and had his first race as a professional pedestrian when he was 16 years old – winning a ten pound purse over a two mile distance. He moved to New Zealand in 1869 and gradually worked his way up to completing the ultra distances. As an aside, I noted that in 1873 there was a champion pedestrian by the name of Edwards who organised a pedestrian carnival at Beechworth in Victoria for the local hospital. He apparently absconded early the next day with the takings and was never to be seen of again in Beechworth. Edwards’s ultra career began to really take off in 1874 when he walked 100 plus miles in a 24 hour period three times in the same year. This was in New Zealand and took place at Dunedin, Christchurch, and Wellington. These performances were to improve over the coming years, though.

In 1878, he extended his personal best to 110 miles for the 24 hour at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and a year later at Bathurst he walked 111 miles. He was to extend his 24 hour record again in Sydney when he walked 113 miles and then kept going to complete 181 miles for the 48 hour period. Over 1879/1880, I counted at least a dozen ultra performances by Edwards in various corners of south-eastern Australia. They were over distances from 50 miles to 48 hours and he always finished first, second, or third.

 Early in 1881, Edwards stepped up to six day racing and was to be champion at that distance as well. His first six-day race was at Adelaide in April 1881, at which he won a belt and 150 pounds with a distance of 451 miles (~ 720 km). He also took part in a six-day race in Sydney in the same year. He was to finish second with a distance of 423 miles. His next six-day race was in Geelong, where he avenged his Sydney loss to Swan and completed 431 miles. He was to beat Swan by ten miles in that race. He was then to take on a Trotting horse over six days at Geelong. The horse, aptly named “Conquering Hero” was to win with 431 miles with Edwards completing 423 miles.

In 1883, Edwards was to race for the first time against famous American pedestrian, Daniel O’Leary. Edwards was to win this encounter with a lower total of 373 miles and beat Daniel O’Leary by 20 miles. It should be noted, though, that O’Leary wasn’t in the best of health for this race. However, two months later they were to have a rematch and Edwards was again victorious, completing 446 miles. This was 13 miles ahead of O’Leary. O’Leary challenged Edwards to a third six-day race, at which Edwards once again ruled supreme over his American opponent.

In 1883, Edwards was to embark on a tour of New Zealand, but was to be in trouble with the law on his way out of the country. He was charged with wife desertion and ordered to pay 40 shillings a week over a 12 month period. He was to pay the full amount in one go and then left the next day on the boat to New Zealand. One of Edwards’s first matches in New Zealand was a two-day race against the famous New Zealand pedestrian, Joe Scott. It was in that race that Edwards was to be in trouble with the law again. He took exception to a young boy barracking for Scott and giving himself a hard time and hit him with a clenched fist. Edwards was fined 5 pounds and told by the judge not to be so thin-skinned in the future. Newspaper research of Edwards around that time also revealed scant information about a failed business dealing involving ownership of a New Zealand Public House. I was unable to find the conclusion or resolution of this matter.

It was a short time after that when Edwards moved to the United States and probably the scene of his greatest triumph. In 1884, he was to take on the famous American black pedestrian, Frank Hart in a six-day race in Boston. Edwards was to beat his more fancied opponent by a distance of 10 miles, completing 426 miles. After that, he was hoping for more matches around the United States, but it wasn’t to be and he was soon back in Australia competing wherever the dollars could be found for performances. Perhaps his last major effort was the six-day race against Joe Scott in 1886 where Scott completed 424 miles and Edwards completed 406 miles.

It appears that by 1888, Edwards had finished as a competitor and turned his hand to promoting pedestrian races full time. He promoted a six-day race in Melbourne in 1888 and then in 1889 he was managing Joe Scott. He took Scott to an Exhibition match in Sale, which Scott lost to a doubles combination. There were accusations in the press afterwards that Edwards had not delivered his promise on the winnings and the pair had left Sale in a great hurry. The pair next came to the attention of the press when both of them were in a hotel in Fitzroy and Scott was accused of drawing a pistol to the barmaid. It is not known whether this matter went to court. By then it appeared as though Edwards was living on borrowed time in the Colonies and in 1890 he moved back to England. He ran a public house in Essex. Nothing was heard from him after that until 1896 when it was reported that he had succumbed to heart disease and was dead at the age of 45.

No one could doubt that William Edwards was the Australian champion pedestrian of his time. He would have held his own with the “Flying Pieman” (William King) of the 1850s and he would have held his own with the better ultra runners of today’s era. He also held his own and defeated two of the better pedestrians from America during his career. There are a lot of unanswered questions, though, about his personal life and business dealings. It appears as though he was a larger than life character in his time and did have a great level of support due to his athletic ability. Was he competing around the countryside and the Colonies to avail himself of the best competition or was he moving around the countryside to escape the bookmakers and the law? There are many intriguing questions that I hope to answer one day. I have established a website for Edwards at More information will be added when it becomes available, so please visit and read more about his incredible story. Note: Information in this article and at the website sited above is sourced from newspaper articles from the Australian National Library and the New Zealand website, Papers Past.

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