What treasures I’m finding in my study purge. My bed is now littered with old copies of Artonview, the magazine of the National Gallery of Australia, which I leaf through in that twice-a-day liminal state between awake-and-asleep and asleep-and-awake.
A beautifully written and idiosyncratically conceived article, The story of Australian print making, by Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, had an intriguing image of the Flying Pieman, with an even more intriguing story hinting at his walking exploits.
This of course was irresistible to a woman who collects walkers for her pantheon of ambulants, so I went investigating. I discovered a man called William Francis King, once a school teacher, who after, so the story goes, an unsuccessful love affair, earned a living betting on his own walking prowess.
His walks always involved more than walking. He might carry a goat or a dog weighing over thirty kilos hoiked over his shoulder. Or he might challenge himself to walk 192 miles in 48 hours, round and round the Maitland racecourse: he finished this marathon in 46.5 hours. On another occasion he “ran a mile, walked a mile, wheeled a barrow a half-mile, dragged a horse carriage with a 89-kilogram lady half a mile, walked half a mile backwards and leapt over 50 stones set 91 centimetres apart”: this took him less than 90 minutes.
He was unmissable, sporting a flamboyant moustache and wearing “white stockings, crimson knee breeches, a blue jacket and a top hat bedecked with coloured streamers”, none of which show up in the subdued colours of the print.
However, his story is not a parable lauding the benefits of walking, at least not à la William Francis King. Gradually people realised it was foolish to bet against him, his income dried up, he became corpulent, he wandered the streets of Sydney selling pies (hence his nickname) and offering unsolicited rambling proclamations, a parody of his glory days. He died in the Liverpool asylum.
The stories about the Flying Pieman have something of the flavour of the tall tale, a favourite Australian yarn-spinning genre, typified in stories about Crooked Mick and the Speewah, a mythical outback station where dust storms are so thick rabbits dig burrows in them and trees so tall they have hinged tops to let the sun through. However, King’s legendary exploits are reported in respectable newspapers such as The Maitland Mercury, and he has earned a place in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, where he is tagged #pedestrianist and #street character.