Recently I’ve been digging into my wife’s family history and uncovering several very interesting ancestors. One that I’ve been fascinated by is John Edward Molloy, whose story will take up more than one blog post.
My wife’s ancestor John Edward Molloy was born 27 April 1802 in Surrey, now South London, and christened at St George the Martyr parish church on Borough High Street in Southwark 6 weeks later on the 6th June, one of 13 children baptised that day. His parents were John Molloy and Elizabeth.
The baptism register tells us nothing about John and Elizabeth and there don’t appear to be any other children of that marriage baptised in the same church. They may be the John Molloy and Elizabeth Bonner who applied for a marriage license for St Mary le Strand parish in 1786.
In addition, a Cordelia Elizabeth Molloy (born April 21st) was baptised at St Pancras Old Church Camden on 9 Sept 1807 to a John and Elizabeth Molloy.
The next reference to John Edward Molloy is his marriage in 1823 (31st August) to Ann Wood in St Pancras Parish Chapel. He is a bachelor and she a spinster.
John and Ann’s first child appears to have been Elizabeth who was born about 1828. Elizabeth was recorded in the 1841 census enumerators book as being born in ‘Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts’ as was her mother Ann and younger sister Emma. At least that’s how it appears although the mark in that column is unclear and may be some sort of check mark. Subsequent censuses show John’s wife Ann as being born in Bromley, Kent.
There followed seven more children between 1830 and 1847. Five of them were baptised on the same day at St Giles in the Fields Holborn on 9 October 1843. One, Charles had already died – at the age of 2 years 10 months in 1837. He had been born on the 11th May 1834 according to the baptism entry of 21 March 1837 at St Ann’s Soho where he was buried less than two weeks later. We can assume that young Charles was very ill when he was baptised and that John and Ann did not expect him to survive.
Charles’s baptism in 1837 lists John’s occupation as a shoemaker. But he also had a side-line, as recorded in the Hereford Times July 7th 1838.This is the first of many references I’ve found in the British Newspaper Archive to Molloy’s walking feats. In the mid nineteenth century such endeavours were incredibly popular and this sport, an early form of race walking was known as pedestrianism. One of the early exponents was called ‘Captain’ Barclay and his record of walking a mile every hour for a thousand successive hours was something of a landmark. Molloy clearly bettered it in his efforts on Bromley Common, as reported in the Coventry Herald :
I love the idea that this feat was made even more difficult by not drinking alcohol!
The following month he attempted to walk one thousand miles in one thousand successive half-hours at the cricket ground in Camberwell but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Molloy continued to perform feats of walking (and running) endurance over the next few months and years.
In September 1838 for example, it was reported in the Chelmsford Chronicle that he had successfully completed the task of walking 400 miles in six days while abstaining from strong spirits:
“He says the best regimen for a pedestrian is beefsteaks and wine, dividing the four ordinary meals into eight. To eat little but often is the maxim. Malt liquor and ardent spirits, he says, will knock a man up.”
His achievements spread to more than distance walking, like other pedestrians he built up a repertoire of novelty skills to retain the public’s attention. On one occasion in 1840 he undertook to walk 20 miles, run one mile, walk backwards one mile, trundle a hoop one mile, wheel a barrow one mile and pick up 40 stones with his mouth one yard apart, all in five hours!
On the 5th July 1840 ‘The Era’ reported on plans for Molloy’s latest match:and the outcome was also reported: And how wonderful to get a description of the man and what he was wearing: a slight built man, 39 years of age and the father of a large family,
‘he was dressed in a silk Guernsey, long tight drawers, belt, with a crimson handkerchief around his waist, crimson silk cap and a very neat pair of side laced boots’.
By 1842 John Molloy’s son Henry was starting to take part in walking events, at the age of 12. Usually appearing with his father.
In 1843, Molloy was once again taking on the 1000 miles in a thousand successive hours exploit which he had surpassed in 1838. The Morning Post believed this to be something that no-one had done since Captain Barclay, although there are many reports of others achieving this as well as Molloy. On the face of it one mile each hour doesn’t seem too difficult, but the endurance element was explained thus:
“This wearisome task to perform which will occupy six weeks, night and day, wanting eight hours… has not been accomplished by anyone except Captain Barclay.” Molloy was described as of “middle height, and is an eight stone four man, of forty two years of age.”
Taking six weeks to perform the task certainly had to be worth Molloy’s while. He was still ostensibly a shoemaker, being described as such in the 1843 and 1845 Post Office Directories and at the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth in 1845. Pedestrian events though were heavily wagered on and many of the most successful participants became quite well off. Molloy along with many others was a professional! It’s not known how much money Molloy made from most of these feats but it was certainly enough to allow him to stop working as a shoemaker and to spend large amounts of his time competing.
In 1845 Molloy again made the papers when he completed a run across the seven bridges over the Thames and round St James’s Park, this was reported to be a distance of seven and three quarter miles, in fifty-five minutes.
There are a number of reported races where the two Molloy’s appeared together. In August 1845, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported on the Molloy’s loss of a match against the Powell’s (also father and son) at Bedfont, West London. In 1847 the same paper recounted how the Molloy’s had earned more than 35 sovereign’s between them for walking 50 miles each in 12 hours on Edgware Road.
These pedestrian matches were often set up following a challenge in one of the popular papers. The match against the Powells for example followed the Molloys issuing of a challenge to any father and son in England to compete with them walking for 12 hours for 25 to 50 sovereigns a side.
In 1850, several newspapers reported on Molloy senior’s attempt to walk 200 mile in three days at Stroud. His age was variously said to be 41, 50 or 51! He was in fact 47. The Kentish Gazette provided the most complete description with added colour: saying the task was completed for a wager of £30, that “the poor fellow was out of work” and that he started at 5am after a breakfast of coffee and mackerel (which caused him to be sick). However, “the poor fellow, did not, after all, realise so much as he had anticipated.”
Towards the end of his pedestrian career there was a short piece in ‘The Era’ for July 1851, in which he was due to begin a match against Williams to walk a mile an hour every hour until one gave up. As yet I’ve not found a report of the result, but I’ll keep looking. The Era and other papers continued over the next few weeks to report on the ongoing long walks of Searle in Sheffield and Manks in Battersea but Molloy’s name failed to be mentioned for a while. It may be that he failed to maintain the interest of the reporters but in any event he doesn’t appear to have raced much again.
In 1853, there is one final report of a walking match involving ‘Old Molloy’. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle reported on 27th March that he was due to walk to Cambridge and back in 24 hours, starting at Shoreditch Church.
Although this appears to be the end of Molloy’s walking exploits, he continued to be featured in local papers for other reasons, which I’ll cover in a future blog!
[Images reproduced with kind permission of The British Library Board, images available at Findmypast]