Tom Cook was one of the journeyman professionals of the running branch of pedestrianism in the 1840s. Other than his nickname, ‘Greenwich Cowboy’ and the tales of his races, little is known about him. There was a Thomas Cook from Norfolk who lived in East Greenwich in the 1851 census who would fall roughly in the right age group but his ‘trade’ was different, so it may well not be him. However, his name regularly appeared in the sporting pages of the 1840s and early 1850s with a career that seems to have started, although is not reported at the time, around 1839 and carried on until at least 1853.
Pedestrianism had developed in the 18th century – initially it seems as walking but one branch had evolved into professional running where the competitors offered challenges to one another over particular distances, sometimes with a handicap.
The amounts raced for were considerable – £20 in 1850, at current prices, this is worth in the region of £64,000, although much of the money would probably have been made by the wealthy backers of the pedestrians, rather than the athletes themselves.
The athletes themselves will have earned a fraction of the sums staked, and, without modern methods of training, shoes, clothing and physiotherapy it was probably a precarious occupation. The pedestrians all seemed to have nicknames.
The first that is heard of Cook was in early 1843 whether another runner, Maxwell, forfeited his initial stake to the ‘Greenwich Cowboy’, presumably being unable to run (1). The early reports were all notices of races rather than reports – he was meant to race Blackheath’s Gazeley over 10 miles from Dartford to Blackheath in April 1843 for 10 Sovereigns, but had to forfeit (2).
In June 1843 he had his first press report, a victory over Peter Murphy, over 10 miles from the (Old) Tiger’s Head at Lee, over a mile course on the main road – seemingly from Lee Green to around what is now Eltham Green along Eltham Road – winning comfortably. Oddly his opponent had two names, depending on the report ‘Temperance’s Romani’ (3) or ‘Manchester Pet’ (4).
During 1844 he was challenged, amongst others, by Richard Manks, the ‘Warwickshire Antelope’, over distances of 1 mile or more for 5 – 25 sovereigns in July 1844 (5). He beat Ned Wilde (Merrylegs) ‘with great ease’ for 10 sovereigns after being given a 40 seconds at the Rosemary Branch in Peckham (6). The Rosemary Branch was a pub, which stayed open until 1971, and, like the Tiger’s Head at Lee Green promoted a wide variety of sports – more on that in the blog another day.
1845 saw bigger stakes – beating James Openshaw of Bury for £25 over both 4 and 10 miles, presumably in the same race; (7) there was heavy betting on the race in front of a large crowd at the Rosemary Branch (8).
While his career continued, there are fewer reports, 1846 saw his first reported defeat – over 2 miles at Lee Green to James Byron – losing by nearly 100 yards (9). He was challenged over 2 miles by a Lewisham runner, ‘Pirrian’s Novice’, over a mile in 1848 (10) and beat a runner called Dawkins over 2 miles at Smitham Bottom in Purley in 1849 – being described as ‘the old boy’(11).
His career was probably on the wane though, defeats were much more common. He lost to Bull at the Rosemary Brach in 1850 for a massive £40 stake (12)
By the 1850s age seems to have been catching up with him, while he still had his backers for wagers of up to £40 there were a lot more defeats reported – losing twice to Thomas Birkhead, before beating him over 10 miles in Sheffield in late 1852 (13). Then losing to the ‘Warwickshire Antelope’ in Barking at Easter 1853 over 10 miles (14)
His last known race of what seems to have been a career spanning around 15 years was a failed attempt to run 20 miles in 2 hours in early August 1853 – he completed the first 5 miles in 28 minutes, but it appears he had gone off too quickly as while he was recorded at 59:07 for 10 miles he was slowing down and got into difficulties quite soon after and gave up during the 12th mile (15).
With the advantage of modern training methods and kit, only 81 British runners ran under 2 hours for 20 miles in 2014, and the time at 10 miles was only bettered by 350 in 2014.
As the identity of Cook is uncertain, we cannot be sure what happened to him after his athletic career was over. If, and it is a big ‘if’, he was the Thomas Cook from the 1851 census, he lived at 8 Enderby Cottages in East Greenwich and was listed as a ‘watchman.’ If it was him, he was having to take a second job to make ends meet as his career waned. That Cook was married to Jemima who was originally from Gravesend, just down the river in Kent. There is no record of either of them after 1851. According to the excellent Greenwich Peninsula History site, Enderby Cottages were at the end of Blackwall Lane, and had been built for rope makers at the Enderby Works; one of the other occupants of number 8 was indeed a ropemaker.
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, February 5, 1843; Issue 228.
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, April 9, 1843; Issue 237.
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, 11 June, 1843; Issue 246.
- The Morning Post (London, England), Saturday, June 10, 1843; pg. 5; Issue 22588, the picture of the Tiger’s Head is from the information board at Lee Green
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, July 14, 1844; Issue 303.
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, November 10, 1844; Issue 320
- Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, July 6, 1845; Issue 137.
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, July 6, 1845; Issue 354
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, January 18, 1846; Issue 382
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, March 12, 1848; Issue 494
- Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, November 25, 1849; Issue 366.
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, April 28, 1850; Issue 605, the other picture is not of Cook but is illustrative and is another 19th century pedestrian – source
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, January 2, 1853; Issue 745
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, April 3, 1853; Issue 758
- The Era (London, England), Sunday, August 7, 1853; Issue 776