The Remarkable Wiltshires - Another Look

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A favourite piece of my own writing is the article about Catherine Wiltshire and her husband Joseph, professional long-distance pedestrians and theatrical performers in the 1870s. I found it a fascinating story, untold before. You can read that article on my portfolio page.

When I was doing that research I was worried that I could not find any photographs of the Wiltshires. The article needed one badly and luckily I tracked down the great 1876 image below in a London newspaper. It was drawn from a photograph of Catherine in her performing attire, around the time she completed a 100-mile walk in 24 hours, around and around the inside of the City Hall Theatre in Auckland’s Queen Street. It was her greatest pedestrian performance, and very likely the first time a woman had achieved a 24-hour hundred miler.

Mrs W 2

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 22 July 1876, p. 416

But I could not find a photo of Joseph, whose sporting exploits were rather remarkable as well. His particular specialty was the 1000-miles-in-a-1000-hours walk, strictly one mile every hour, no more no less, around and around a small enclosure, for a paying audience. It was a classic event in early nineteenth-century pedestrianism.

I’m still hoping more photographs of the Wiltshires will turn up, and here is one that just has. (Showing it is the main reason for this short blog.) It was provided to me by Rachael McDouall, a great-great-granddaughter of Joseph and Catherine. (Another great-great-granddaughter, from a different line, is New Zealand Labour Party MP Jacinda Ardern.)

Joseph and Kate c 1890

Joseph and Catherine (Kate) Wiltshire, ca 1890s (Private collection)

The photograph was probably taken in the 1890s, when they were living in either Marton or Palmerston North. Joseph was making a living partly as an agent and billsticker for visiting theatrical shows and Catherine (or Kate, as she was often known) as a nurse and midwife. Around this time, Rachael notes, she was also a signatory to the 1893 women’s suffrage petition. Both of them still look impressively slim and fit.

The photograph prodded me into thinking a little more about the Wiltshire’s place in New Zealand sports history – something only touched on it the original article. Their story has been completely ignored and forgotten in sports history up to now, although they are not alone in that. In regard to athletics, history writing has been almost entirely about amateur athletes, ignoring the rich and varied stories of professional foot-racing and field events that thrived before World War I.

In fact, it was only in the 1920s that professional athletics finally succumbed to the growth of amateurism. That was partly due to better organisation, the appeal of the new Olympics and other international competition, and the importance placed on amateur sporting codes by the military administration during World War I and by education authorities afterwards. More generally the appeal of amateurism fits in with a reinvigorated cultural conservatism within middle-class New Zealand – part of what Jamie Belich has convincingly described as a time of “recolonization, dominionism and the Great Tightening.” Unsettled by change, the movers and shakers of the Empire’s respectable classes were keen to reassert their adherence to English upper-class values – and few things were more respectably Anglocentric than the ideology of amateurism.

There was certainly no room for someone like Catherine Wiltshire in early amateur sport, as a working-class professional or as a woman. There was little place for females in professional athletics either, of course. But amateur sport was particularly proscriptive. A woman’s place was limited to that of demure side-line spectator. When, many years later, in the 1920s, women began agitating for the right to compete in athletic meetings they met strong resistance from administrators. Most famously they quoted a report from the local branch of the British Medical Association, that women were “neither physically or psychologically adapted to sustained strenuous muscular exertion.” How Catherine would have scoffed at that.

Soon afterwards women were finally allowed to compete in sprinting and various field events, but it was many decades before they could participate in the same distance events as men, and it was only this year, 2016, that the International Athletic Federation approved 50-kilometre walk races for women, previously limited to men only. Up to then the longest women’s race walk had been the 20 kilometres. The longer event was the one that would have most suited a modern-day Catherine Wiltshire. But I can still imagine her doing very well for New Zealand in the 20-kilometre race walk at Rio.

Wiltshire adverts

The Wiltshires mainly promoted their performances by extensive pasting up of posters in the towns they visited. This was always supplemented by brief newspaper advertisements, like these one here; promoting their shows in Napier and Auckland, and a wager matchup between Catherine and an Auckland pedestrian. She lost, still weary from her 24-hour 100-miler a few days earlier. She challenged Mahon to a rematch, for one hundred pounds this time, but he declined.



  • On 08 Jan 2017 Lianne says:
    Fabulous! My husband is a great grandson from another side of the family (his mum was their granddaughter). We have been eagerly following your findings.
  • On 03 Nov 2017 Glynis Sayle says:
    This is exciting,reading, I am a great great granddaughter, cousin of Rachael. I can see a family resemblance in Catherine.

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