I would like to tell you the story of the remarkable James Heap, a schoolmaster who died in the autumn of 1876 at the age of eighty-four. However, as Mr Heap lived in Yorkshire, and had no connection with the capital, or none that I can see, I think I need to start somewhere else. After all, this is the London Overlooked website. But I will get to him eventually.
I think that I am safe with Charles Dickens. He knew the city intimately, and he made it the setting for many of the most memorable episodes in his novels. Who could forget Bill Sikes meeting his death on the rooftops of Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey? Or the vain William Dorrit holding court in the Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in Southwark? Or the impecunious Bob Cratchit making his way home to Camden Town, and to the bosom of his loving family, on a snowy Christmas Eve?
On the subject of A Christmas Carol, it is interesting to read Dickens’s own account of the experience of writing the story, which was published in December 1843. Not long after, early in January 1844, he wrote a letter to Cornelius Conway Felton, a professor of Greek at Harvard, in which he described how he wept and laughed while working on the story, and
walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.
And here we come to the heart of the matter, for the interesting thing about Dickens, at least as far as this article is concerned, is that he had a passion for walking.
when he was restless, his brain excited by struggling with incidents or characters in the novel he was writing, he would frequently get up and walk through the night over Waterloo Bridge, along the London, New Kent and Old Kent Roads, past all the towns on the old Dover High Road.
On and on he would walk, until he reached his new home at Gad’s Hill Place, which was more than thirty miles from the Household Words offices in Wellington Street North.
If it was not the stress of the creative process that drove Dickens to undertake these long walks, then it was the marital difficulties he had brought on himself. On one occasion in October 1857 he found the atmosphere in his London home, which at the time was in Tavistock Square, unendurable. He got out of bed at two in the morning, and walked down “through the dead night” to Gad’s Hill Place. Writing about the incident to a close friend by the name of Lavinia Jane Watson, he explained that lying awake, brooding on his problems, was pointless. He would be better off being up and doing something, which is precisely the course of action he took. The turmoil in Tavistock House, I hardly need add, was largely caused by his infatuation with Ellen Ternan.
Fascinating stuff. However, not all of Dickens’s physical activity was rooted in his tussles with his art, or in destructive desires and the consequent feelings of guilt. The simple fact is that he had been a great walker all his life, and certainly long before the need arose for some form of therapy. In his 1988 biography of the great writer, Fred Kaplan pointed out that in his twenties Dickens would walk through the London streets late at night, drinking, smoking and chatting happily with his friends John Forster and Daniel Maclise. Even in later years, when he was mired in domestic problems, Dickens was capable of walking simply for pleasure. In a letter to William de Cerjat written in 1861 he described an outing that took him from Wellington Street North down by the Houses of Parliament:
When I got there, the day was so beautifully bright and warm, that I thought I would walk on by Millbank, to see the river. I walked straight on for three miles on a splendid broad esplanade overhanging the Thames, with immense factories, railway works, and what-not erected on it, and with the strangest beginnings and ends of wealthy streets pushing themselves into the very Thames.
Nor was Dickens averse to boasting about his physical achievements. In his letter to Mrs Watson he presented his nighttime walk from London to Gad’s Hill Place as his “celebrated feat”, and he even saw fit to point out to his correspondent the distance he had covered. But goodness me, the man could certainly walk. He set a cracking pace, as his perspiring and footsore companions ruefully observed. He believed that he had it in him to be a competitive walker—see chapter ten of The Uncommercial Traveller—which gives me the perfect excuse to explore a different aspect of the subject.
Competitive walking—or pedestrianism—was a hugely popular spectator sport. The newspapers reported the achievements of champion athletes, recording distances and times, and celebrating their grittiness and pluck. The South London Chronicle provides a good illustration of this genre of sporting journalism in its paragraph on the renowned pedestrianist William Perkins, who in December 1874 attempted eight miles in under an hour at the Lillie Bridge Grounds in West Brompton. He failed, honourably:
The ground was in capital condition, but the weather was most unfavourable; and after completing his sixth mile in 46 min. 45 sec., and contending bravely against time for another lap, making his time 49 min. 29 sec., or nearly two minutes behind, he had to give in, and stopped, quite exhausted.
In the spirit of the true champion Perkins let it be known that he would make another attempt under more favourable circumstances. He duly obliged, and in September of the following year he walked eight miles in fifty-nine minutes and five seconds. The Sporting Gazette declared the occasion a red letter day for pedestrianism, and gave a vivid account of Perkins propelling himself forward, ever forward, with a brilliant technique:
Except now and then at the corners, where his enormous stride and great pace got him into occasional difficulty, he went very fairly throughout, shooting out his legs very straight and fast from the hip, thereby covering an enormous amount of ground.
He was cheered on by thousands of “the greatest roughs who ever found their way into Lillie Bridge”, and at the finish he was mobbed by a crowd of men dashing forward to have a good look at their hero.
As one might expect, there were some bizarre variations on the theme, in one of which a certain Henry Howe attempted to walk thirteen miles and a quarter at the Star Grounds, which were also in Fulham, with a two-gallon stone jar balanced neck downwards on his head. He was allowed to steady the jar up to six times, but in the event he completed the sixty-two laps, without touching the jar once, in well under three hours.
But in its purest form competitive walking was a serious matter. In 1878 a six days match was staged at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington, with competitors from every corner of the country, not to mention one from each of Scotland, Ireland and America. The prizes were generous, adding up to seven hundred and fifty pounds, and crowd interest was obviously considerable, for when the match ended there was what we would now call a pitch invasion, which brought proceedings to a very abrupt conclusion. The Graphic illustrated the event with a magnificent image of walkers with strained expressions, digging deep. The scene has some splendid details—the athlete being treated with a “magic” sponge, the toughs in the crowd, the burly copper looking out for signs of trouble.
MR HEAP OF HEALEY
All of which is just the prelude to the real story—the main event, as it were—which is the life of James Heap. We met Heap briefly at the start. He was a schoolmaster in that part of North Yorkshire known as Mashamshire. As we have seen, he was eighty-four when he died in the autumn of 1876, so he must have been born in about 1792.
Now Heap lived at a cotton mill in the village of Healey, and getting to his schoolhouse at Colsterdale, in the valley of the River Burn, entailed a four-mile walk over bleak moors and up and down inhospitable hills. So he would trudge a total of eight miles a day, come rain or shine, and rain in his neck of the woods more often than not came down by the bucketload, accompanied by fierce gusts of wind. Snow was a still more serious matter, drifting so thickly that roads were often rendered all but impassable.
And yet not even the most hostile conditions kept the schoolmaster from attending to his duties. Storms would break, but he would soldier on over the moors, arriving at the schoolhouse soaked to the skin but ready to start his lessons. He would wade through snowdrifts, arriving late but arriving nonetheless, only to find that he had no pupils to teach.
Legend has it that in a long career—from December 1822 to January 1867—Heap missed not a single day’s work. Not once in two thousand two hundred and ninety-two weeks did he abandon his little charges. Not once did he fail to walk the eight miles from Healey to Colsterdale and from Colsterdale back to Healey. When one carries out the arithmetic—just the sort of task a schoolmaster would set his pupils, one would have thought—Mr James Heap walked one hundred and ten thousand miles in the course of his professional duties. Frankly, this knocks Dickens’s hike down to Kent into a cocked hat.
TO THE MOON
A number of newspapers carried the story of the humble schoolmaster’s dedication to his calling. They must have felt that great distances expressed in miles did not sufficiently convey the scale of the achievement, for they worked out that Heap had walked “nearly five times round the world” in order to educate the children of Colsterdale. And, lest my readers wonder if nineteenth-century estimates of the circumference of the earth were way off the mark, I have checked the figures, and “five times” is pretty close. “Four and a half times” is closer, but never mind.
Well, that is not the end of it, for Heap also shared the teaching at a Sunday school in Summerside, which was about the same distance from his home in Healey as the school in Colsterdale. Apparently he made this journey—again, a round trip of eight miles over desolate terrain—on seventeen Sundays a year for forty-two of the forty-four years of his working life. As any child taught by him would have been able to tell you, this added five thousand seven hundred and twelve miles to the principal sum. “He would,” declared the Globe, “if he had continued his work for rather more than a year, have covered a distance equal to half the space between the earth and the moon.”
BY A COUNTRY MILE
When Heap died in 1876, his long years of physical activity had stood him in good stead, for he was in fine fettle almost to the end. Since his retirement in 1867 he had been in receipt of an annuity from the Schoolmasters’ Association, and not long before his death he was notified of a proposed increase in its value. Sadly, this would only have come into effect on the 1st of November, by which time he had given up the ghost, and slipped away.
One of the newspapers that told Heap’s story, the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, approved of the example he had set, for
any invigorating pursuit that takes our young men from the influences of the billiard room and the music-hall is worthy of encouragement.
One imagines that the Herald’s concern with the moral well-being of the young would have struck a chord with the hardy Yorkshire schoolmaster. And he might have been flattered, too, to be mentioned in the same sentence as Edward Payson Weston, the renowned American athlete. Weston had come to England earlier in the year, and he had caused quite a stir by walking for a full twenty-four hours without a break, covering a distance of over a hundred miles. Brilliant! But the humble James Heap is still the winner in my book, for Weston, by his own admission, only managed this feat by chewing on coca leaf as he stomped along. Which just goes to show that, even when it comes to the shadier practices of professional athletes, there truly is nothing new under the sun.
© london-overlooked 2021
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