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The Cruise of the Branwen

Sir Theodore Andrea Cook, The Cruise of the Branwen, Being a Short History of the Modern Revival of the Olympic Games, Together with an account of the Adventures of the English Fencing Team in Athens in MCMVI [1906], 1908.

The author:

Theodore Cook was born in Exmouth, Devon, in 1867 and was educated at King Alfred’s School, Wantage, Oxfordshire (1876-1881), Radley College, Oxfordshire, and Wadham College, Oxford.  At Radley he became Head of School and Captain of Football, and Boats. 

At Wadham College he rowed in the trial eights in 1887 and 1888, winning in both years, and he competed in the University Boat Race of 1889, rowing at No. 3, and weighing in at 12st 2lb. [77.1kg]; but they lost by three lengths against a more experienced Cambridge crew.  Rowing was to be one of his main sports and he later became involved in the organisation of the Henley Royal Regatta, and edited the Amateur Rowing Association's Handbook

His other main sport was Fencing and he started the Oxford University Fencing Club in 1891, and organised a flamboyant Assault at Arms at the Clarendon Rooms in February 1892 as their inaugural event.  He was non-playing captain of the British Fencing Team in Paris in 1903, and at the Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens 1906, and he served as the British Fencing Association's representative on the British Olympic Council; and it was through this position that he was asked to join the Organising Committee for the 1908 Olympic Games, and helped draft the rules for them.  Cook wrote the introduction to the 1908 Rules and claimed, perhaps rightly, that they were the first rules written specifically to govern international competition in sport.  He was a member of the IOC from 1909 to 1915. 

Theodore Cook was a professional journalist and art critic, but his writing on sport was extensive.  He wrote on rowing, fencing, boxing, horse racing, tobogganing, and ice sports, but he seems to have had no involvement in, or any particular interest in, the sport of Athletics.  He was correspondent for The Standard, Daily Express, St James's Gazette, and the Daily Telegraph (often writing as "An Old Blue"), and after the 1908 Olympic Games he became Editor for the highly influential sporting newspaper, The Field, that claimed to be written by gentlemen for gentlemen. 

The Field continued publication throughout World War I, as a deliberate effort to keep up national morale, but at a financial loss (because of the loss of advertising revenue), and it was thought that it was for this act of national selflessness that he was knighted in 1916 (even though he was not he owner). 

At the 1920 Olympic Games at Antwerp, he won the silver medal for Literature, with a Pindaric-type ode entitled "The Antwerp Olympic Games", which has been described as "sophisticated", "cryptic" and "an extremely sombre and angry work reflecting the scarcely finished 'Great War', the terrible traces of which were visible in the Olympic Stadium".

He died of a heart attack in 1928 at the age of 61.

Peter Radford / 2015

The place of Cook's "The Cruise of the Branwen" in the history of Athletics literature:

This book is essential reading if we are to have any understanding of the origins of the 1908 London Olympic Games. It is also essential to explain the existence of the 1906 Athens Intercalated Games, still accepted as a valid Olympic festival.

In these early years of the 20th century, the Olympic Games were not yet firmly rooted in the public mind as an international sports festival. The majority of the competitors in the inaugural 1896 Olympics had come from Greece; indeed, the ships in Piraeus harbour had been trawled for competitors to fill heats in the athletics events. Most competitors had left the 1900 Paris Olympics unaware that they had been in an Olympic Games; nothing that was inscribed upon their medals told them so. And the 1904 St. Louis Games had been little more than an American inter-club competition, with almost every athletics event won by American athletes.

What we therefore witness in these early years is a series of festivals over which de Coubertin and his IOC had very little control, and which, at that point, represented only around 10% of the nations who are now members of the Olympic movement. And the Games were still run by a well-heeled elite; and featured few competitors from the working classes.

At this point, the contribution of de Coubertin and his IOC colleagues to the growth of the Olympic movement was, to say the least, modest. The Baron had played only a minor role in their organisation in Athens in 1896, was ignored by his countrymen in 1900, and had not even attended the 1904 festival.

From the outset, the Greeks had felt that all future Olympics should be held in Greece. They therefore planned the 1906 Games on the basis of an indefinite four year cycle. Cook had no argument with this, observing that that the title “Olympic” did not denote Olympic status.

The eruption in 1906 of Vesuvius and the destruction of large areas of Naples forced the Italian government to focus its funds on the reconstruction of the city; and to withdraw from the 1908 Rome Olympic Games. Cook and his British Olympic committee colleagues in Athens immediately offered London as an alternative venue; without, I should imagine, much idea of how they would be funded.

The 1906 Games, though they were at a lower performance -level than those of St. Louis, were much more representative. Indeed, in 1904 all but one of the medals in athletics had been won by American athletes. Much of the reason for lower levels of performance lay in the nature of the Averoff Stadium, built on what the Greeks perceived to be Ancient Olympic lines, with 192.4 metre straights and tight curves. Cook observes that this wrecked the legs of our man Hawtrey, the gold medallist in the five miles race, which was, like all of the other track events, run clock-wise.

The narrow infield produced problems of a quite different nature during the javelin competition: “The competition nearly proved fatal for the runners in the five mile race”. Cook makes no mention of the discus competition, which must have made considerable demands on the agility of spectators.

Cook offers as an aside an insight into Napoleon’s experiments on the deployment of javelins as a weapon of war. He claims that a certain General Reffyre was assigned the task of estimating the value of adding the ancient Greek amentum (a loop attached to the grip) to the javelin. Although the General estimated a distance of around 80m (compared with 20m), the Emperor was not convinced.

By this time, European nations had begun to support their national teams. Great Britain’s 1906 expenses came to £200, but their main supporter was Greece, with a contribution of £80. In contrast, the Americans raised over $14k for their team, by public subscription. It was to be the same for British athletes two years later in London, the first occasion on which athletes competed as members of national teams, essentially as a means of guaranteeing their amateur status. “It must be remembered that in England the organisation of the Olympic Games is left without assistance of any sort or kind”, observes Cook.

But help was at hand. The Franco-British Exhibition suddenly stepped in, providing £50k to build a stadium capable of holding 70,000 spectators. This represented enlightened self-interest, because some of the spectators flocking to the Games would undoubtedly drift across to the eccentric Hungarian architect Kiralyi’s Exhibition. Kiraly had insisted that every exhibition-hall was white (thus the name White City) although, thankfully, he had not insisted that the stadium itself took that colour.

The White City featured a 500m track, 600m cycle track and 100m swimming pool, the first and last time that any sports festival featured a pool of such dimensions.

“In this definite improvement of the race, the quality of mutual respect…. will, it is hoped, be reflected in the latest gathering in 1908.” Cook’s optimism was misplaced, for the 1908 games were rancid with the odour of Anglo-American rivalry. This culminated in a 400m final in which there was only one competitor, the Scot Halswelle; with the other three American competitors refusing to take part. The 1908 London Games nevertheless provided a model for all future Olympic festivals, and set the modern Olympic movement on its way. There were to be no further Greek Intercalated Games, only IOC-sanctioned festivals which gradually grew in quality into the 20th century. In 1912 the Swedes were to hold in Stockholm an Olympics which were every bit as successful as the London Games.

“The Cruise of the Branwen” deals mainly with the travels of Cook and his friends in the British fencing team throughout the Aegean and the Mediterranean and should be read in tandem with the American James E. Sullivan’s 1906 Report*, which gives a rich and accurate account of the Intercalated Games. It marks the appearance of the Olympic Games as a major international sports festival, with the London Olympics of 1908.

Tom McNab / 2015

*Further Reading:
James E. Sullivan, The Olympic Games at Athens 1906, (Spalding's Athletic Library No. 273), New York: American Sports Publishing Co., 1906. 

"The Olympic Games at Athens 1906" may be viewed here.


The text:

Note:    Because of the unnumbered pages of photographs, and the early pages numbered with Roman numerals, there is a difference between the page numbers as they appear on the printed pages and those electronically generated by word-search.  For example, the page numbered 165 in the text is page 321 in word-search. The page numbers referred to here are those that appear on the printed pages. 

Privately printed in a limited edition, "for private circulation only", by Theodore Cook, just four days after the Official Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in London on 27 April 1908 by King Edward VII, Cook exploited the publicity, public interest, and royal approval of the 1908 Olympic Games to draw attention to his book of an earlier Olympic Games held in Athens in 1906. 

It was important for Cook to make a good impression with this book, and to get publicity for it, because it was the launching-pad for another planned publishing venture to be called, "The Olympic Games", to be published in October, "in the ordinary way"; i.e. as a commercial proposition rather than self-published.  So, he inserted on a blue paper page (unnumbered) at the start of the book, a note asking the readers to send him any corrections and additions, and he gave his home address in Chelsea for any such submissions.  In the event, "The Olympic Games" was duly published (by Constable), as promised, and timed to appear prior to the closing Ceremony of the London Olympic Games at the end of October, thus capturing (he hoped) as much public enthusiasm for the Olympic Games as possible.  Indeed, he was to go further, and in 1909 published (by Constable again), "International Sport: a Short History of the Olympic Movement from 1896 to the Present Day", and he also edited "The Fourth Olympiad, Being the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1908, Celebrated in London", published by The British Olympic Council in 1909.  So, "The Cruise of the Branwen" was the starting point of a considerable published output from Theodore Cook on the Olympic Games, all within a little over twelve months.  There is, however, much overlap and borrowing between the first three of these titles. 

The whole venture was all rather opportunistic though; Theodore Cook had no idea when he set out with his fencers to go the Olympic Games in Athens in 1906 that the opportunity would arise for him to be part of a bid to bring the 1908 Games to London. 

Much of this book is unrelated to Track & Field athletics, but it is included because of the insight it offers on the awarding of the 1908 Olympic Games to London, an event that was to have a profound and lasting effect not only on Track and Field athletics, but on the Olympic Movement too.

            Chapter I - with broad brush-strokes Cook moves from Ancient Greece to 1896, and outlines the events of 1906 that led to London being awarded the 1908 Olympic games.  He also gives a full listing of the officers and members of the British Olympic Council. 

            Chapter II - describes how the Olympic Movement might have failed without the efforts of Rev. RS de Courcy Laffan and Willy Grenfell (later Lord Desborough).  There is an introduction to the fencing team in 1906, but little of interest regarding track and field athletics.

            Chapter III - the aftermath of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius.

            Chapter IV - the journey from Italy to Greece.

            Chapter V - The Parthenon.  Includes a "Greek Ode" written by GS Robertson for the 1896 Olympic Games.

            Chapter VI - The Games at Athens.  Cook gives a partial list of the athletics programme (pp. 61-2), and a description of the opening ceremony (pp. 63-4), a description of Martin Sheridan in the Free-Style Discus (p. 67, and p. 71), and a discussion of Discobolus and Norman Gardiner's analysis of it (pp. 67-71), and a history of javelin throwing (pp. 72-5).

            Chapter VII - "The Wreath of Olive", contains some comments about the British runners (p. 76), the long jump (p. 80), and details of the Marathon and the hurdles (pp. 82-4, and pp. 91-94).  There is a list of winners (pp. 86-88) and an analysis of the track and its effect on the times of the running events (pp. 101-102); but this is otherwise all about the fencing competitions. 

            Chapter VIII - The Fencing Tournament.

            Chapter IX - Les Épées de Bronze.

            From this point, the book is largely a travelogue.

The book:

It was an expensively produced book with xviii introductory pages, and 166 numbered pages, and 38 photographic plates each mounted onto thick dark olive-coloured paper and each with a tissue paper guard containing the caption (these pages are unnumbered), plus 8 drawings within the text.  It was a beautiful object as well as an art book, with sporting and travel contents, and Theodore Cook was very proud of it.  Its contents were well printed on hand-made paper and had top edge gilt pages.


8vo, brick-coloured buckram binding, with gilt design and the title on the spine and front cover.  In the Royal Collection, however, there is a full leather copy, bound in red morocco.

Peter Radford /
October 2105

Bibliographic details:


The Cruise of the Branwen, Being a Short History of the Modern Revival of the Olympic Games, Together with an account of the Adventures of the English Fencing Team in Athens in MCMVI [1906],


Privately Published

Place of Publication:


Date of Publication:


Date(s) of Re-Publication:


BL Catalogue:

General Reference Collection 7917.bb.12.

"An Athletics Compendium" Reference:

C2 p. 69


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