Dr William Penny Bookes – Life Interests

A Brief History of his contribution to the town of Much Wenlock

Penny Brookes was heavily involved in local affairs. The following summaries reflect this involvement.

Justice of the Peace.

As an active magistrate for approximately 40 years he would preside in the local court room, the Guildhall. The experiences gained as a JP would no doubt have influenced his desire to encourage the pursuit of physical exercise and education for the local working classes.

The Guildhall.

The Guildhall has always been an important building in the town of Much Wenlock. Brookes’s civic pride therefore prompted him to assist in the maintenance and, as necessary, the restoration of the building. He donated items of furniture and the oak panelling both of which are still prominent features within the premises. Today the Guildhall is used as the Town Council Chambers and invariably used when receiving distinguished visitors to the town. It is also open to the general public where many aspects of local history can be witnessed.

Commissioner for Roads.

Shortly after becoming a JP, Brookes also became a Commissioner for Roads and helped to achieve improvements to many of the local roads. Even after the post of Commissioner was abolished he continued to help raise money for the construction of the Longville and Corvedale roads. He would have used these roads extensively during his medical rounds, so would have been very aware of their condition and the importance to the agricultural communities around the town.

The Railway.

Brookes, along with others, was closely involved in the process for bringing the railway to the town, An extract from the Shrewsbury Chronicle (8th October 1852) reveals:

 “….. at a meeting in the Raven Hotel, Much Wenlock, attended by a deputation of gentlemen – Sir George Harnage, Thomas Summons Esq, W P Brookes Esq, Mr H Philips, Mr George Shepard and George Burd Esq. The aim was to ‘ consider the desirability of establishing a single branch railway line between Wenlock and Coalbrookdale, to join the Severn Valley line. Gentlemen at the meeting were appointed to meet Directors of the Severn Valley Company’ “.

Brookes became a Director of both the Wenlock and Severn Junction Railway Company. The cutting of the first sod of the line, the building of a new bridge at Shienton Street and the opening of the rail connection were all major events. A band would lead the party through the town in celebration of the event.

The first train to Wenlock coincided with the Wenlock Olympian Games of 1861. A more comprehensive presentation of the events surrounding the development of the railway to the town can be found through reference to:

The Wenlock Branch. Jones K. published by The Oakwood Press
The Shrewsbury Chronicle (25th October 1861)
The Wellington Journal ( February 1862)

The Gas Supply.

The town of Much Wenlock was, for the early part of Brookes’s life, a dark and dimly lit place, with old fashioned oil lamps sparsely situated in the streets and tallow candles in the shop windows the only form of lighting. The development of a reliable gas supply was suggested over many years, but the small size of the town had made this difficult to achieve. Brookes became Chairman of the Wenlock Gas Company in 1856. The gas works site in Barrow Street was also purchased. The town was first lit by gas light during a fund raising event at the Corn Exchange, – see also the accompanying Agricultural Reading Society web page for further detail on the initial lighting up of the Corn Exchange.

A further, more detailed ,treatise on the development of the gas supply to Much Wenlock can be found through reference to; Wenlock Gas Works (A Brief History). Williams J G (1999). ISBN 0 9515885 2 4

The Town Sewers.

For many hundreds of years a stream ran down the length of the town’s High Street ( then called Spittle or Hospital Street) , this stream also served as the town’s open sewer so that ” all manner of scum and rotteness was carried down through the main street” (Wellington Journal 1895). Brookes, through his medical training and access to evolving medical research, would have realised that this sewer could have been responsible for the ill health of some of his patients. Ultimately the sewer system was diverted and covered.

Herbarium, Local Geology and Archaeology.

As a resident in a rural area Brookes, a respected botanist, would have been very aware of the natural environment around the town. His education at Padua, famous for its 16th Century botanical gardens, further helped develop his interest in plants and botany. Brookes collected many different species of plants found on Wenlock Edge and the surrounding area and meticulously catalogued and displayed them, often at meeting of the Wenlock Garden Society. When the town’s railway station opened Brookes was instrumental in the planting of a rockery of rare and exotic plants outside the building. His time at Padua also raised his interest in archaeology and geology, this must have motivated him to develop a museum in the rooms of the Agricultural Reading Society building, the Corn Exchange.

The National School.

Much Wenlock National School was built at a cost of £1000 by public subscription, in 1848. Dr W P Brookes served as a Manager of the School.

In addition to their teaching at school the pupils were encouraged to develop their education through competitions held in music, literature, crafts and science at the Agricultural Reading Society.

In 1871, under the influence of Brookes, drill and physical exercise was introduced into the school curriculum. Vaulting, Indian Club and general exercises were part of the pupils school day. Brookes discovered that, over a period of a year, children who exercised regularly saw their chest size expand by two inches over those who took no exercise. He believed that as children at the school were likely to be employed in jobs that required physical strength, such as farming or quarrying, development of their physical strength was equally as important as their mental ability.

Brookes wrote to many public figures such as Gladstone and Lord Shaftsbury urging them to make physical education compulsory in schools. Shortly before his death, in 1895, The Board of Education agreed to give special Grants for physical exercises, drill and gymnastics in schools, which, again, was one of his life time campaigns.

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