Foster Powell was born in 1734, and when he left his little Yorkshire village of Horseforth, near Leeds, at the age of 26 and headed to London, village inhabitants thought little of him in respect to either his mental or physical capabilities. In fact, he had a reputation “of being a quiet inoffensive lad, shy, and somewhat unsocial, with nothing in the faintest degree remarkable in him, except his fondness for long, solitary walks.” However, it would be his long solitary walks that would take him from an ordinary man to extraordinary fame, and for 20 years he would add to his fame becoming one of the most celebrated pedestrians of the eighteenth century.
Powell was described by people as mild and gentle in manner. Physically he was described as
“tall and spare, rather over five feet nine inches in height, very strong about the loins, and with thighs of immense power … His costume was eccentric, consisting of leather breeches and a jacket and a tall hat — about the most uncomfortable garb, one could think … could be devised for a pedestrian.”
He was also considered rigid in his daily routines. For example, he went to bed at 11 o’clock in the evening and slept five hours. When traveling, he refused to eat meat, and the delays he experienced at inns caused him much chagrin because “he had particular hours for taking refreshment.”
His first job in London was as a clerk. His coworkers described him as “grave and sedate.” In fact, they ridiculed him, considering “him as a milksop and a muff, and chaffed him accordingly.” One day they asked how he planned to spend his Sunday and when he informed them he was intending to walk to Windsor and back, it provoked jeers. “Thereupon for the moment he lost his temper, and challenged any one of them to walk with him to Windsor.” Two coworkers rashly agreed, “never dreaming that he could do the distance…and they soon found they had caught a Tartar.” The first fellow lasted ten miles, the second twenty miles, and Powell alone finished the walk. After this, his esteem among his coworkers was raised “immensely” and they “spread the reports of his pedestrian prowess.”
The “walking” feats of Powell’s time “had a very elastic signification … and, indeed, … were done at a jog-trot, or a with mixture of walking and running.” One of his first walks to satisfy skeptics occurred in 1764 when he walked “50 miles on the Bath road in seven hours, despite being encumbered and dressed in a great coat and leather breeches.” His first wagered event occurred in November of 1778. At that time he “attempted to run two miles in ten minutes … [but] lost it only by half a minute.” He was more successful in 1786, when he undertook a 100 mile walk “on the Bath road in 24 hours — 50 miles out and 50 miles in — he completed this journey three quarters of an hour within the time agreed.” Another successful walk occurred in 1787 and was from Canterbury to London and back again.
During Powell’s lifetime he had three losses, with the most notable one being when he undertook a 40 mile race against a publican named Mr. Richard West for a wager of 40 guineas. Powell was the favorite, and “there was much betting among the fashionable sportsmen.” On the day of the race, thousands of spectators watched the race and it was reported:
[No one could] recall a more desperate or determined struggle. The men passed and repassed each other repeatedly, but finally the plucky publican won … by about a 100 paces. The winner, however, was far more distressed … than the loser; indeed, [West’s] exertions almost cost him his life, for he was taken ill the next day … [and] did not recover for many months.”
Of all Powell’s pedestrian events, the year 1773 was one of the most significant for he completely wiped out the stain of his defeat by West and “added fresh luster to his fame, which was never dimmed afterwards.” Early in the year, he beat Andrew Smith “by a few yards” even though it was a short race and fast speed at short distances were not Powell’s forte. Later the same year, he completed an event of 404 miles and was met at Highgate by 5,000 people who escorted him to the finish line.
“The fame of this feat was spread far and wide, and there can be no doubt it was a remarkable exploit, the more so because he was suffering from ill-health at the time, and was compelled to wear a strengthening plaster on his left side. … Added to this … the weather was damp, and the roads heavy.”
Powell’s favorite walk was from York to London and back again. In 1789, Powell tramped it “in five days and 20 hours.” He repeated the same walk again a year later but this time accomplished it in five days and 18 hours. Two years later, for a third and final time, he did the walk again. Despite being 58, he believed he could make it his fastest walk, and he was right. Accordingly, he undertook his journey and accomplished it in five days, 15 hours, and 15 minutes. His win resulted in the “loud huzzas of the astonished and anxious spectators.” Soon, thereafter, because of this great exertion, he died at Clement’s Inn “in New-inn, in rather indigent circumstances, for … poverty was the constant companion of his travels through life, even to the hour of his death.”
He was buried on 22 April 1793 in St. Paul’s Churchyard, one of the most recognizable sites in London and the seat of the Bishop of London. Powell’s mild disposition, modest demeanor, and superhuman feats won him many admirers and friends. In honor of his many accomplishments, his “funeral was characteristically a walking one.” Mourners traveled from New Inn through Fleet Street, and up to Ludgate Hill.
“The followers were twenty, on foot, in black gowns, and after them came three mourning coaches. The attendants were all men of respectability, the ceremony was conducted with much decency, and a very great concourse of people attended. He was buried nearly under the only tree in the church-yard [and] his age … inscribed on his coffin.”
- “A Celebrated Pedestrian,” in Luton Times and Advertiser, 7 March 1879
- Lee, Sir Sidney, The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 46, 1896
- Wilson, Henry, Wonderful Characters, Vol. 1, 1830