UPDATE – THURSDAY, MARCH 9 2023; THE PIEMAN’S GRAND JETE!
Just imagine the Flying Pieman (William Francis King) as the ‘star’ of a ballet. This almost came to be. In 1942 artist Roderick Shaw prepared 21 watercolours for a proposed ballet to be called; ”The Flying Pieman – A Ballet Impression of Old Sydney‘. It was an entry in a competition, with the storyline by Shaw’s wife Frances and music by Nancy Salas (1910-1990). The ballet was never performed, but recently the Shaws’ daughter Christine donated the watercolours to the Library of NSW. Here is the image for scene 2. I love the glimpse of the harbour ….and the sandstone obelisk on the left, starting point for Pieman King’s record setting walk to Parramatta.
The images were taken from the Autumn 2023 edition of Open Book, the Library’s sumptuous quarterly magazine.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone took up the challenge of bringing the ballet to the stage? King certainly had the discipline and athleticism of a dancer.
WILLIAM FRANCIS KING – HIS STORY
In the early days of the colony, pies were hawked around the streets of Sydney. They were sold from portable charcoal braziers to the call of ‘Hot pies! Hot pies ….pork, beef, steak and kidney!’
One of those early pie sellers has entered the realms of Australian folklore. He was William Francis King, born in London in March 1807. His father was paymaster at the Treasury in Whitehall and it was intended that William, his eldest son, should go into the church. However, young William was a gifted runner; more interested in athletics than theology. Like many young men judged to be failures by their families, he was packed off to New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney when he was 22. William became schoolmaster at Sutton Forest, a position arranged through a family friend, but was soon yearning for the city. Eventually he drifted back to town and was employed as a barman at the Hope & Anchor pub in Sussex Street. By 1842 he had left the hotel to become an itinerant pieman.
William came to public attention when undertook an epic journey on foot. During a period of prolonged wet weather he completed an incredible 1,634 mile walk in 39 days.
Contemporary images show him dressed in a rather bizarre costume; striped breeches, a long blue jacket and a top hat decorated with streamers. He began to combine athletic feats with pie selling, earning the nickname of The Flying Pieman. He would sell his produce to passengers on the Parramatta ferry before it left the wharf in Sydney then walk to Parramatta, arriving in time to sell more pies as the passengers disembarked.
He once walked from the obelisk in Macquarie Place to Parramatta and back in six hours – a distance of thirty two miles. On another occasion he raced the coach from Windsor to Sydney, beating it by seven minutes.
Sometimes The Flying Pieman would increase the challenge of his epic walks by carrying a domestic animal on his shoulders. The burden of a full grown goat did not prevent him walking one and a half miles in 12 minutes, but he did slightly over-reach himself with a 70lb dog. He claimed he could carry it from Campbelltown to Sydney, a distance of 33 miles, between the hours of midnight and 9.00am, failing by just 20 minutes. The only other chink in his armour was when he complained of sore ankles after walking 60 miles in just over 12 hours – at the age of forty one.
The Flying Pieman earned extra money by placing wagers on his athletic ability, which by now included jumping and running. However, it was his pedestrian challenges that continued to capture the imagination of spectators. At the Fitzroy Hotel in West Maitland in October 1847 he wagered he could walk 1,000 quarter miles in 1,000 quarter hours. The distance was measured out, and at one end of the track King mounted a coffin on bricks to symbolize his ‘death or glory’ approach to the task. He ate as he walked, fortified by boiled eggs eaten from a tray suspended around his neck. Hot tea was provided by a man accompanying him with a teapot.
The Maitland Mercury reported; ‘At 157 miles (36 hours) he seemed to be stiff about the thighs but this was a reoccurrence an old malady; unconnected with the task in hand.‘ Needless to say, William won the bet. He completed the last section at a cracking eight miles an hour, forcing an admiring crowd and a celebratory brass band to break into a run to keep up. At the finish line the Mercury noted; ‘On first ceasing to walk quickly it was with some difficulty he balanced himself, but having had some tea and a wash, he gradually recovered a good deal. and at length was making speeches to the crowd assembled round the stand.’
Our hero was willing to repeat the performance virtually straight away, but apparently no-one would take him on. At Dungog the following year he wagered he could complete 500 half miles in 500 half hours. By then he had grown rather fat (on a diet of pies, no doubt) but he still won. He then ventured north to Queensland, beating the mail coach from Brisbane to Ispwich by an hour while carrying a 100 pound carriage pole as a handicap. Locals were delighted, as a piece published in the Courier Mail in September 1848 showed;
There is a fine line between eccentricity and metal illness, which William may have crossed in 1859, when he published his own will. He left his estate to an imaginary wife, albeit only if the ‘dear treasure’ complied with his extraordinary list of legacies! The rambling testament appeared in Bells Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer on November 12. Here is an extract;
Eleanora Ann Howell was a young woman from Parramatta, who 51 year old William must have worshiped from afar. She was 25 when the ‘will’ was published. I wonder what she thought of it? Sadly, she died seven months later, which must have broken his heart. To add to his woes, four days after her death he was charged with vagrancy, and spent time in Darlinghurst gaol.
Writing about the Flying Pieman in 1952, the Sydney bookseller and publisher James Tyrrell noted; ‘…….today he could have raised the six-starred flag high and often at the Olympic Games.’
As he grew older William became too frail to complete his extraordinary walks. His his once flamboyant costume became increasingly shabby. He was eventually an object of derision and pity, rather than of admiration.
On 12 August 1874 his life came to a lonely end in the Liverpool asylum for elderly men.
Ironically for such a remarkable athlete, he died of paralysis. He was buried as a pauper in Liverpool’s Catholic cemetery (now Pioneer’s Park). His exploits as the Flying Pieman are virtually forgotten, but perhaps we have unconsciously kept his memory alive through the great Aussie tradition of enjoying meat pies at major sporting events.
MORE ON THE PIEMAN FROM THE MUSEUM OF SYDNEY.
FOR ANOTHER STORY ABOUT OLD SYDNEY YOU MIGHT ENJOY, CLICK HERE
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