The completion of the Samuel Butler Project will be celebrated in an exhibition at St John’s College on 11 May. In accompanying talks, Roger Robinson and Simon Heffer will explore contrasting aspects of the Victorian writer who attacked the hypocrisy of his society. The event is free and open to the public.

The project has brought Butler’s prodigious intellect sharply into focus.

Roger Robinson is a specialist in 19th-century literature. He’s also a distinguished long-distance runner who writes about running.  When he stands up to talk about the maverick polymath Samuel Butler (1835-1902) on Saturday 11 May, he will add another strand to what is already known about Butler as a writer, artist, photographer, composer and sheep farmer.  Robinson has discovered that Butler was also a talented runner – an ability he may have deliberately downplayed in an attempt to portray his schoolboy self as a miserable “mollycoddle”.

Best known for his fantastical novel Erewhon (nowhere spelt backwards – or almost), Butler was an iconoclast who defied his family’s wishes, attacked the establishment, and famously proposed that the Odyssey was written by a woman. The event at which Robinson will be speaking, along with the journalist and broadcaster Simon Heffer, celebrates the culmination of a two-year project to catalogue the Samuel Butler Collection held in the Old Library at St John’s College.  The project has brought Butler’s prodigious intellect sharply into focus and its online resource will help make the collection accessible to a new generation of scholars and other interested parties worldwide.

Butler rowed for his College while at Cambridge and was later an enthusiastic climber, but it took another runner to discover that he was also a star of field and track. In the late 1990s, acting on a hunch, Robinson flew from New Zealand, where he is Emeritus Professor of English at Victoria University, back to England where he grew up. Teaching Butler’s The Way of All Flesh to his students, he had been struck by a passage in which the hero Ernest Pontifex runs several miles across country to present a gift to a housemaid dismissed by his stern father. Ernest accomplished this with ease, according to the narrator, because at school he had joined in “an amusement” called “the Hounds”.

The Way of All Flesh is semi-autobiographical and Robinson became convinced that Butler must have been a runner as a young man. Butler attended Shrewsbury School, which Robinson found had a sporting society called the Hounds that organised games based on fox hunting in which boys played the part of foxes, hounds and horses.  Leafing through the “crackly old” exercise books that make up the archives of the Hounds, Robinson found evidence that in 1854 Butler was the Huntsman, or club captain – thus overturning the view that Butler later created of himself as “a young muff, a mollycoddle... a mere bag of bones with…  no strength or stamina whatever”.

For Robinson the discovery that Butler was an accomplished athlete adds to two important connections he already has with Butler. Both studied at Cambridge: Butler read classics at St John’s from 1854 to 1858; Robinson read English at Queens’ in the late 1950s, returning to take a PhD in the 1960s. Both went to live in New Zealand, Butler to start a sheep farm and Robinson to take up a post as a university lecturer.

Research by Robinson into the Shrewsbury School archives also shines a light on the early history of running clubs, revealing that the school hosted the earliest known cross country event in modern times, with records of an Annual Steeplechase taking place from 1834 and a track and field meet held in 1840. This trumps claims that Rugby School, the setting for the paper chase in Thomas Hughes best-selling novel Tom Brown’s School Days, was the definitive cradle of running.  It also spurred Robinson to run a series of former Hounds routes around the town of Shrewsbury, some of them now intersected by main roads and housing estates. He even pinpointed – and scrambled through - a treacherous ditch mentioned in the Hounds books.

Robinson’s presentation will follow a talk by Simon Heffer, who will share material from his forthcoming book, High Minds: The Victorian Pursuit of Perfection (Random House, 2013),  exploring Samuel Butler’s motivations and his role as a brilliant Victorian intellectual intent on provoking controversy.

Both talks will take place in the Divinity School, St John’s College, on Saturday 11 May, with Simon Heffer’s talk ‘Samuel Butler: Victorian Atheist and Controversialist’ at 2pm, and Roger Robinson’s talk ‘Young Sam Butler and the Origins of Modern Running: His Athletic and Illicit Exploits as a Fox and a Hound’ at 3.30pm. To reserve a seat and book free afternoon tea at 3pm, email the Butler Project Associate, Rebecca Watts, on

The talks accompany an exhibition of highlights from the Samuel Butler Collection, open in the Old Library at St John’s from 11am to 5pm. For details visit


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