My pedestrian hero great-great-grandpa John Mountjoy


11 February 2020
Gina Lock was very happy to discover a sporting hero among her ancestors. Here she shares the story of her Pedestrian champion 2x great-grandfather John Mountjoy


On Monday 2 July 1860, it was advertised by public bills and all over the county that the famous Pedestrian John Mountjoy my 2x great-grandfather, whose wonderful feats had been heard far and wide through the medium of the sporting papers, was to visit the city of Hereford. He would be performing the task of walking fifty-six miles, every day for three successive days amongst other deeds. Even more extraordinary was the fact that John was then 60 years old and in his twilight years. 

The bills stated that he was to start from Mr Hewitson’s The Orange Tree pub in King Street and walk to the Greenman pub in Fownhope, and back again to the Orange Tree, four times in the course of one day. There is seven miles between the two public houses and the programme stated that John was to try and stick to these following times:

Start at Orange Tree at 6am – Return at 9am

Orange Tree at 9.30am – Return at 12 Noon

Orange Tree at 12.30 – Return at 3.30pm

Orange Tree at 4pm – Return at 6.30pm

Pedestrians and pugilists were a source of enjoyment in the 1800s. This was just one of the unusual, weird and wonderful entertainments that offered something more curious across the country, especially enjoyed by the working classes. One such wager where a man smoked 1lb of cigars winning ten pounds for himself. Betting on anything seemed to be the fashion of the day.

John stuck to being a walker/racer and pedestrians were held in high regard with everyone wanting to get a glimpse of the man himself.    

The Hereford Journal reported that the weather was unfavourable on that Monday morning, with horrendous wind and rain, and because of this he could not make his early start. This threw out his expected times. Would John be able to perform his arduous walk within the prescribed time? Many bets were made and wagers laid down with articles of agreement being arranged in the public house.    

The Orange Tree, an old and inviting building is known to be one of oldest public houses still standing in Hereford, and was originally called the Apple Tree.  The public house was the Rectory back in 1841 and stood 200 yards from St Nicholas Church. It apparently has a few ghost tales attached to the inn, the main one being a nun who had a secret affair with a monk from the Greyfriars Priory, which allegedly took place 500 years ago. A baby was born from this relationship and consequently the baby was taken away. The monk committed suicide and when the nun died she was buried where the church stood not far from the Orange Tree. Many years later workman were digging up just outside the public house and came across an old crypt and ever since this happened the establishment has experienced a lot of ghostly activities. The nun has been rumoured to be the cause and people say that she has come back looking for her long lost child.

The Orange Tree has gone through many changes, in April 1994 the inn suffered from a fire that caused extensive damage to the roof and upper floors, but is still standing and is now a vegan restaurant called Firefly. The blue plaque attached to the building states the site of the medieval St Nicholas Church demolished in 1841. 

John’s 12 year old son Alfred walked part of the journey every day accompanying his father. Alfred was born in 1848, the eldest from his second marriage, but like John’s other sons from both his marriages, joined the pedestrian world and tried to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Although I cannot say for sure John’s exact route I can only surmise once out of Hereford his walk would have taken him at least part way along the River Wye, walking through the village Hampton Bishop which is on fairly level ground, although still heavy going due to the reported rain. He would have then walked into Mordiford where he may have taken a passing drink from the Moon Inn that is still in business. From there this section of the walk is very hilly all the way to Fownhope and battling against the wind and rain would not have been easy.

I think John proved that he was in very good shape and his physical fitness was at a very high standard, bearing in mind his age at this point, he obviously looked after his body.

The author John Richard Judd who was born in London in 1840 pointed this out in a book he wrote called “A Complete System of Treatment for the General Care of the body, for the Young, Old, Weak and Strong” where he mentions John Mountjoy.

Tea and Coffee, not to strong, are not bad occasionally, as they stimulate the nerves, making them more active and brightening the senses. They should be taken in the morning, or when feeling drowsy and wishing to be enlivened. Men performing feats requiring an extraordinary endurance will find tea the best stimulant of all, being the favourite beverage on the track of the great athletes of Europe and America, such as Captain Barclay, W Wheeler, O’Leary, J Lambert, J Kenovan, Rowell, Hart, Brown, Mountjoy and others, who have always used it when performing these great tasks.

It was reported in the newspaper that such was his performance, that the pedestrian’s presence in Hereford caused considerable excitement. This was proved by the number attended to witness the entry’s and exits throughout the three days.

The Greenman in Fownhope, the other public house to be visited in this challenge, has been standing for over 500 years. The site was first used as an inn in 1485, the first year of the reign of Henry VII and appears in the deeds as being named ‘The Naked Boy’.

During the last few centuries the Inn has played a part in both local and national history including that of the Civil War. Although Herefordshire was not as badly affected as other areas, it did suffer from some turmoil during that period. First it was held by the Parliamentarians then back in the King’s hands quite quickly in the September of 1645. However, the village of Fownhope like so many were plundered as the troops were leaving the area. The Parliamentarians returned in December and marched through Fownhope again where a Colonel Birch spent the night in the Greenman.  After the Civil War Herefordshire reverted to being a quiet and remote county. 

The Greenman has always served a variety of roles but during the 18th and 19th century it served as a Petty Sessional Court. The most famous resident to ever come to the Greenman was Tom Spring who was a famous Pugilist and by 1823 was champion of all England. Tom was born in Fownhope in 1795 and his real name was Thomas Winter, he was commemorated by the Tom Spring Bar within the residence.

Tom’s fame spread beyond that of a mere pugilist. He was a pageboy at the coronation of King George IV and included John Keats and Lord Byron among his many fans, an amazing achievement for a son of a butcher from a small village of Fownhope. Lord Byron had a screen made which was covered in pugilists, on which Tom was illustrated. Tom retired and purchased the Castle Inn in Holborn, London and that’s where he passed away in August 1851.

John Mountjoy and Tom were very close friends as pugilists and pedestrians were often backed by the same clientele and on occasions on the same bill, and when I mention clientele I do mean the fancy dandy set with plenty of lords, marquises and even a certain prince who was very much into his wagering and betting, though these sort of sporting fitted in with everyone.

The historic and charming Greenman has a sign over the entrance in the old coaching yard which reads: ‘You travel far, you travel near, it’s here you find the best of beer. You pass to the East, you pass to the West, if you pass this by, you pass the best.’ I stayed at the Greenman for a few nights and spoke to the manager about John’s story and he was very interested to take his illustration and newspaper article and display to customers.

At the time of the last return of John’s from the Greenman, the excitement was so much greater than had ever been witnessed there. It was said that Hereford must talk no more of circuses or equestrian life or even of May Fairs.  Pedestrianism would beat them all with the number who assembled to witness the return of the veteran. From Eign Street to King Street the road and streets were thronged with human beings, and stated there were several thousands in the distance.  John’s arrival at the bottom of King Street caused a band to strike up ‘See the conquering hero comes’ as he arrived back to his headquarters, he ascended to the upper window of the Orange Tree. There he proceeded to address the vast audience before him.   John’s speech was printed in the Hereford Journal as follows:

Ladies and Gentleman – I wish to address a few words to you, I have but little to say, but it will be to the purpose. I am no orator. I am a Walker. I am much obliged to you for your attendance, and I hope you will all be orderly, advice I have given during the last 32 years. I always determined if I come to Hereford to walk, I would visit Fownhope, because it is the birthplace of my old friend and your brave countryman, Tom Spring, who so often backed me, (this caused considerable cheering) and the determination that I am now carrying out, although poor Spring is dead and not worthy to know I am doing so, but it is the respect I owe to his memory which induced me to visit his birthplace.

John went onto say that it was impossible he could perform the other challenges that evening that he had promised because the people were so crowded upon him. They would scarcely permit him to walk, but he could do and would do all he had promised. Once provided with a suitable piece of ground, would let all the folks know when and where the remaining part of his act should take place.   He asked the people to disperse quietly and peacefully and he hoped, when he had concluded his feats, they would think of their humble servant.

I visited the Orange Tree and stood outside and found myself looking up at the window thinking how I would have loved to have witnessed that speech.

The newspaper report went onto say that John has been a pedestrian for over 30 years and that during this period had beaten 78 of the pedestrians of the day, 12 horses, and the Marquis of Waterford’s bloodhounds. He had also won over 300 other prizes.

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John made another attempt to carry out the second part of his programme but again because of the crowd being so large was unable to complete and it was arranged again at a more appropriate spot where he could be protected from the crowd.  John finally carried out his following deeds in 40 minutes, which he easily achieved:

To walk forwards half a mile

To walk backwards half a mile

To run half a mile

To hop on one leg one hundred yards

To run backwards one hundred yards

To pick up with one hand thirty stones placed one yard apart, and to deposit them singly into a basket

To pick up twenty eggs in his mouth without touching the ground with his knees or the eggs with either hand, and to deposit each in a bucket of water, without breaking them

Finally to leap twenty hurdles, each ten yards apart, with the last egg in his mouth without breaking it.

How many more accomplishments will John have in his locker, we know he was still challenging the world at 71 so is there still many more to come?

Later that week John’s son Alfred also had his own race to take part in against a local barber. Articles of agreement had been set at five pounds and the distance was half a mile out and half a mile back to The Orange Tree. The race alone bought in a couple of hundred spectators who assembled in the streets and Alfred won his race by 20 yards even though his competitor was older and bigger than him.

Alfred did not stay very long in the pedestrian world, I gather he could not make as much money as his father was lucky enough to earn in this profession.  Alfred married and became a Piano forte action maker settling down in Islington, London where they went on to have five daughters and two sons. However, Alfred sadly died in 1895 age 47 in dire straits as an inmate in an Islington Workhouse.

Find out more

These are the sources that author and family historian Gina Lock used to research her 2s great-grandfather Lord Mountjoy

The Hereford Journal

Tom Spring: Bare knuckle champion of all England

Tom Spring: Wikipedia

The Cyber Boxing Zone

John Richard Judd – A Complete System of Treatment for the General Care of the Body, for the Young, Old, Weak and Strong

A Vision of Britain through time – C. Smith Map 1806

John Mountjoy Picture – Welcome Images

John Mountjoy Picture – the Illustrated Sporting News


Image: Wellcome Collection, published under the Creative Commons licence

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