The curious story of the great wheelbarrow craze of the 19th century

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    Sawdust Jack, if he could only extract himself from the crowd, intended to race all the way from Newcastle to London, but with the impediment of a heavy wheelbarrow to push in front of him. He proposed to cover at least 30 miles a day, but his main object was to overtake another wheelbarrow pedestrian and beat him to the capital.

    His adversary was a Scotsman named James Gordon, who had the disadvantage of having started on his barrow attempt almost 200 miles further north, but the advantage of a lighter barrow and a considerable head start. Gordon had left his hometown of Dundee in early November, clad in a brown tam o’shanter, coat and trousers of a similar hue, and stout leggings. He passed through Newcastle on 13 November, where he was similarly met by a surging crowd, cheered on by massed street urchins and serenaded by a band from a travelling menagerie. When Sawdust Jack finally extricated himself from his supporters and left Newcastle on 21 November, Gordon was long gone – more than 100 miles south of him in Doncaster, with but 170 miles left between his wheelbarrow and London.

    The race was on, but unsurprisingly, it never really got going. Sawdust Jack only made it as far as Selby, after 105 miles and four days, when he gave up owing to lack of support. However, James Gordon progressed onwards to London, where he was welcomed like a conquering hero. He was even treated to write-ups in several major newspapers, including the Illustrated London News, which described him as “a very poor man, but a brave one”.

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    After receiving the adulation of the capital, Gordon made his way back north, arriving home in Dundee on New Year’s Day 1887, whereupon the crowds were so boisterous that he was nearly killed and had his barrow smashed by the jubilant locals.

    Fasting and pigeon-eating

    So, what on earth had got into people to make wheelbarrow-walking such a celebrity activity? This is a question that I grapple with in my new HistoryExtra podcast series, The Tiger Tamer Who Went to Sea, but it seems that it was partly down to newspapers with an eye for a story. The details of the barrow combatants were reported widely in the papers of the day, particularly within the pages of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, which stoked the frenzy and revelled in branding it the “wheelbarrow craze”.

    Yet it appears that this was a period particularly prone to fads and crazes – and not just those related to wheelbarrows. In 1886, the same year as the barrowing began, there was a fasting craze. Inspired by an Italian named Merlatti who was fasting in Paris, various people followed his lead and tried to starve themselves for days on end. According to the Buchan Observer and East Aberdeenshire Advertiser, these included an English lady who kept a boarding house, a minister of foreign extraction in Kent, a buxom young lyric artiste from New York, and an Anglicised Frenchman who painted silk for a living.

    Skipping forwards a few years, there was also a craze dedicated to eating, not fasting: the pigeon-eating craze of 1901. Indeed, the Burnley Gazette of 13 March that year recorded that the trend was spreading across Yorkshire, with several men attempting to eat a pigeon a day for 15 days on the trot. As ever, things escalated, with a Nottinghamshire man called Sproston deciding to eat a page of the local newspaper before tucking into his pigeon.

    There was also an appetite for people undertaking long-distance challenges. According to a round-up published in the 7 March 1908 edition of the Northern Weekly Gazette, these endeavours were similarly eccentric: a few years earlier, a “Danish journalist [had] started to walk round the world with his hands tied”, while a “young German travelled from Hamburg to New York in a packing case 6ft long, 4ft high and 3ft wide”.

    Jumping on the handwagon

    So that’s the context of the wheelbarrowing antics of Sawdust Jack and James Gordon, but it was the newspapers that fostered the rivalry. As so often happens, it wasn’t long before they started to take aim at the very people they’d built up. Reports soon began to take on a distinctly mocking tone, expressing incredulity at the ridiculousness

    of the endeavour, with one correspondent worrying that were Gordon’s “exploit to set a precedent, we might have the north road blocked by Scotch nursemaids wheeling their perambulators vigorously towards London”.

    This rising sense of derision did not dampen enthusiasm for those who saw a chance to make their own names through the wonder of the wheelbarrow. A race became a craze. The papers of the early months of 1887 are replete with stories of ever more bizarre attempts to emulate Gordon’s feat.

    First there was Ewing, the Ayrshire wheelbarrow man, dressed conspicuously in red clothes, drawing large crowds as he left Dalry Cross for London in January. Then the first female contender, Mrs M’Gowan of Perth, heading south not with a wheelbarrow but with a perambulator containing her eight-month-old baby, and looking to raise money in light of her husband’s unemployment.

    Aberdeen men Robert Jamieson and William Strewn were both looking to trundle barrows from there to John O’Groats in February, though Strewn was later reported to have been deceived by a destitute youth and deprived of his barrow, before finding it disbanded. Next, James Sprake, a one-armed man with a specially adapted barrow attached to him via a strap, was readying for a trip from Kirkcaldy to John O’Groats and then down to Land’s End. Not long after, John Graham, described in contemporary newspaper coverage as a “cripple”, arrived in Shoreditch from Newcastle, having wheeled a barrow the whole way.

    It wasn’t just one-way traffic from the north. On 11 February, The Sporting Life reported that George Hemmingway, a Billingsgate porter, was intending to travel from Peckham to Newcastle, wheeling a load weighing 28lbs. He was also said to have a sweet singing voice, and to be hoping to acquire vocal engagements on his way.

    By March, things were getting ridiculous (if they weren’t already). James Sanderson, a miner, left Shoreditch, heading north for Morpeth, with a wheelbarrow containing a miner’s tub weighing three hundredweight (336lbs). Then there was George Fazzi, a South Shields man, who decided that barrows were for stiffs, and instead proposed pushing a coffin mounted on tricycle wheels down the now well-trodden path. As an added twist, the coffin was the one that Fazzi himself intended to be buried in.

    In late March, the one-legged wheelbarrowman Robert Cooper set off from Crieff for Edinburgh, but sadly “caused little or no excitement, for the people of Crieff seem to have got tired of this wheelbarrow craze”. Disabled athletes seem to have been particularly attracted to the challenge: in June 1887, Michael Herriot travelled from Cramond Bridge to London and back in 28 days. He had only one arm, and an iron hook attached to his armless sleeve was used in place of the absent limb.

    Everyday vagrants?

    As the summer progressed, the wheelbarrow mania was dying down, and exponents of the art were finding limited patronage. Michael Herriot’s donation box was described as “not burdened regarding its weight”. There was a last hurrah, however. In October, Ewing of Dalry Cross, who you’ll recall was one of the first to pick up the barrow baton at the start of the year, was to be found at the top of Ben Nevis, along with two other men, all somehow having wrestled wheelbarrows to the summit.

    By my reckoning, there were upwards of 20 people on the roads during that heady spell of wheelbarrow mania. Many had disabilities, and all of them were competing to come up with ever-more elaborate ploys to grab attention from the crowd. Some of the participants were well received – several grand concerts were held in honour of Kirkcaldy wheelbarrow-man James Sprake, for instance; others found their efforts ill-rewarded.

    So what was this short-lived craze all about? Money was no doubt a driving force. Britain was in the thick of an economic depression, and 1886 and 1887 were years of particularly high unemployment. Most of the wheelbarrowists were clearly very hard-up, so this might have seemed like the only way they could support themselves – particularly for those whose disabilities already limited the types of employment they could take on.

    As we’ve heard, there was a healthy dose of cynicism about the whole enterprise, and perhaps the biggest challenge facing the contenders was to show themselves as deserving athletic entrepreneurs rather than everyday vagrants – a dilemma summed up by the Fife Herald in February 1887:

    “To our own verdant and unsophisticated fancy there is no difference between a tramp plus a wheelbarrow, and a tramp minus a wheelbarrow; except, perhaps, that one is slightly more of a nuisance than the other. The first one comes honestly, although he may have a lie in his mouth – he wants money and he asks it. The other makes a pretence of doing something which shall place him upon a higher level than the common beggar, and, in way, entitles him to the support of the public. But the instinct in both is the same – to get the maximum of hard cash with the minimum of hard work.”

    Despite the media saturation and backlash to the wheelbarrow-walking concept, James Gordon continued to be celebrated. He attributed his success to bathing his feet and joints every other day with whisky, but on his return, he was just as happy to bathe in (and profit from) his newfound celebrity. In March 1887, for example, he publicly praised Loy’s Liniment for helping with sprains, bruises, rheumatism and colds, presumably receiving some return from Loy’s for the endorsement.

    Media manipulation

    Gordon was generally feted in the papers as Britain’s original wheelbarrow man. But that wasn’t strictly accurate. There was another man, Bob Carlisle, who really deserved that epithet. Like Gordon, he was a Scotsman, and in 1879 he had captured a fair dash of media attention himself when he trundled his wheel- barrow from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back – an idea inspired by similar wheel- barrow-based challenges in the US. The papers were quick to forget though, and Carlisle – who lived an almost fantastical life combining careers as a clown, lion-tamer, sailor and endurance athlete – was unable to jog their memories because, in 1886, he was on board a ship in the South China Sea.

    Carlisle did try to write himself back into the story by penning letters to the papers and engaging in further bouts of endurance, but the damage was done and Gordon continued to be cited as the original wheelbarrowman.

    What both men had in common was the ability to manipulate the media to their advantage. They were active in writing to editors to advise them of their progress, and generally received favourable coverage as a result. So, although the newspapers might have been ramping up the stories, Gordon and Carlisle did their best to make sure they got attention. They would have been the influencers of their day.

    According to Edge Hill University’s Dr Bob Nicholson, an expert on Victorian newspapers, their strategies worked and journalists played the game: “The press briefly transformed men like Bob Carlisle, Sawdust Jack and James Gordon into national celebrities. As they trundled across the country, newspapers published regular updates on their progress, and readers were drawn into the drama. When a famous pedestrian wheeled his barrow into a new town, he didn’t arrive as a stranger, but as a hero.”

    A hero James Gordon may briefly have been, but there is a tragic and tawdry coda to the tale. Gordon was convicted of a crime in Dundee in August 1888. The charge? Theft of the wheels and axle of a wheelbarrow.

    David Musgrove is content director of HistoryExtra. This article first appeared in the March 2024 issue of BBC History Magazine

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