Wearside Echoes: Stepping out for charity

LONG TREK: George Cox (left) with George Heath (centre). Walk secretary Kenneth Spur is pictured on the right.
LONG TREK: George Cox (left) with George Heath (centre). Walk secretary Kenneth Spur is pictured on the right.
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FORMER England cricketer Ian Botham may be famed for his charity treks – but even he might think twice before following in the footsteps of two Wearside pensioners.

“In his first walk in 1985 Beefy Botham walked from John O’ Groats to Land’s End,” said local historian Alan Brett, author of new book Sunderland At Work And Play.

“But, a half century earlier, George Cox and George Heath embarked on a 2,000-mile hike – covering twice the distance of Botham – despite their combined ages adding up to 135.”

Tipton-born George Cox had been a competitive walker for much of his 69 years – often combining his keep-fit talents with helping local charities.

Indeed, in the year before his 1933 marathon hike, George stepped out on a fund-raising drive for Sunderland Hospitals – walking 77 miles in just 24-hours.

“George Heath, at 66 the junior partner of the walking team, was a veteran of the Boer War and First World War,” said Alan.

“He was also an all-round sportsman, having won competitions in walking, swimming, shooting, cycling, track and cross-country running.”

The two Georges set off on their march from the Town Hall in Fawcett Street on October 9, 1933. The Mayor of Sunderland, Edward Brown, joined a large crowd to wave them off.

“They were accompanied by their walk secretary Kenneth Spur, of Belle Vue Road in Sunderland, and an official booklet was produced detailing their hike,” said Alan.

“It was to take them to the most northern part of Britain, at John O’ Groats, then to Land’s End. After all that, the men then walked back home to Sunderland.”

Several firms stepped forward with sponsorship for the charity walk, with the main provider being Bovril. “Get Stronger on the Strength of Bovril” became the catchphrase of the trek.

Mr TM Hall, of Barratt’s Shoes, provided “scientifically-fitted shoes” for the walkers, and other patrons included health food shop owner Joseph Pollock, of Waterloo Place.

“By the end of the first day they travelled 30 miles and reached Morpeth,” said Alan. “They went on to average 25 miles a day during the walk, each carrying a 20lb pack on their back.

“At the end of each day’s walking they sought sleeping accommodation, having made no prior booking reservations.”

Everything went according to plan until they were returning from John O’ Groats – when they had to spend an unscheduled week back in Sunderland after hitting financial difficulties.

The two pensioners were soon, however, back on the road and, on January 26, 1934, a crowd of 3,000 people gathered in Fawcett Street to officially welcome the two Georges home.

“The new Mayor of Sunderland, Edward William Ditchburn, greeted the men as they arrived at the point of their departure three months earlier,” said Alan.

“They completed 2,037 miles in 109 days, with their longest march being 49 miles from Truro to Launceston in Cornwall – which included four extra miles due to a wrong turning.”

It was reported that the veteran walkers had set a new world record for their age and the mayor told the pals: “I think you are both a credit to Sunderland.”

* Details taken from the book Sunderland At Work And Play by Alan Brett, published by Black Cat Publications at £9.99. Look out for another story from the book next week.