1840s Sydney’s Flying Pieman

The Flying Pieman - William Francis King. National Portrait Gallery

Meat pies were common fare in the Australian colonies, sold on the streets by piemen who pierced a hole in the crust with their thumbs to top up the contents with “gravy”. But one of these piemen became famous for something other than his pies. William Francis King made history with his extreme feats of “pedestrianism” – walking long distances in amazingly short times, earning him the title of the “Flying Pieman”.

King was not Sydney’s first Flying Pieman. The title was previously given to Nathaniel McCulloch, a notorious character who was frequently mentioned in the press of the day. McCulloch, who died in 1839, was often before the courts as a result of “riotous and disorderly conduct”. On one occasion, he attempted to cut his own throat.

After McCulloch’s demise, the title was applied to William King. King emigrated from England in 1829, holding positions as a schoolmaster, tutor and barman at Sydney’s Hope & Anchor. He then progressed to making and selling meat pies, plying his trade around Hyde Park and Circular Quay. King earned the Flying Pieman moniker by selling pies to passengers as they boarded the Parramatta steamer then, after running 18 miles to Parramatta with the unsold pies, offering them to the same passengers as they disembarked.

King became much better known for his walking exploits than for his pies. In October 1848, the press reported that:

William Francis King, “the Ladies’ Walking Flying Pieman,” has just accomplished the unparalleled feat of walking one hundred and ninety-two miles in forty-six hours and a half, without resting for a single minute throughout that time.

The feat was performed at the Maitland racecourse, where he completed two hundred and six laps of the track, attracting crowds of on-lookers. The last lap became a parade, with a band and banner-bearers, but King reportedly put on a burst of speed and those following were forced to run.

He completed many other extraordinary walks, including out-pacing the mail coach from Sydney to Windsor. Another feat involved the Flying Pieman carrying a 32lb dog from Campbelltown to Sydney in nine hours. At the end of each walk, King launched into extravagant speeches. He became more eccentric with age and in 1860 was charged with ‘being of unsound mind.’

He died in the Liverpool Benevolent Asylum, an institution that provided shelter to aged, infirm and destitute men, in 1873.

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