Today (June 14) in London History – the “Cowboy Olympics”

The “Cowboys Olympic Games” opened in London on June 14th, 1924. This Today in London History podcast takes us back there.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Want a bit of fun? Try this on a couple of friends today. Say to them, “ok, one and all, we’re in London exactly 98 years ago today. What’s the must-see attraction? Where do we go? What do we do? Any of you get this right dinner’s on me tonight for everybody. None of you gets it you lot club together and buy me dinner. Deal?”

And here’s the thing, you’re going to win this one. Free dinner coming up for you. Your mates are going to be picking up your tab tonight.

And look, even if one of your pals cheats and sneaks a crafty look at Google and pipes up, “go to the British Empire Exhibition” that’s not good enough, it’s not on the money – doesn’t get them home.

The correct answer – which they’ll never guess, never get – is: “we’re going to the Rodeo.”

Yes, London hosted a Rodeo in June 1924. It opened today, June 14th.

Recognise it? You should. It’s a red thread running through this podcast series – London’s insatiable appetite for spectacle, for the new and unusual. The novel.

The great cham, Dr Johnson, nailed it with his obiter dictum, ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’

And even closer to the mark, his less well known pronouncement, “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.”

Personal note here. For fifty years now I’ve said the same thing, in, admittedly, a much more pedestrian manner. I’ve had a lifetime of saying, “this place is so stimulating – you never get bored in London.”

Anyway, yes, London had a rodeo.

And did it ever cause a stir. It was billed as “the Cowboys’ Olympic Games – the first Interntional Rodeo. The British press was at pains to get the public up to speed with this strange, weird concoction out of the new world. It taught Brits the correct pronunciation of the word rodeo. Explained that it was a Mexican word meaning a round-up of cattle on open ranges and from those round-ups these “cowboy contests” originated. One newspaper said, “it cannot too strongly be emphasized that this Rodeo will not be a mere exhibition event but a genuine competition. It said, “the competitors are not paid performers but sportsmen and sportswomen who pay entrance fees and their own travelling and living expenses. Their only chance of making money is to win some of the big prizes but they care even more for the honour of winning the international championship titles.”

And the serious whetting of appetites with its discussion “the amazing quality of the horsemanship that is required.”

Part and parcel of that whetting of Londoners’ appetites was introducing some of the magnificently named principals who were coming to London. Cowboys like Buffalo Brady and Tex Austin and Doc Thorne and Pinky Gist and Captain Tom Hickman of the Texas Rangers and cowgirls Prairie Rose and Ruth Roach. And the equally brilliantly named horse flesh: Tar Baby and Cul de Sac and Crazy Jane. And it wasn’t just the names… Brits had to be got up to speed with the events and cowboy parlance generally: steer wrestling and bronco-riding and lassoing and bull-dogging and chuck-waggon races and bucking and stiff-legged style and walking-beaming (god knows what that was) and pitch and sun-fish and fence-post.

Footnote time: a sun-fisher in cowboy parlance is a bucking horse that twists its body in the air so that sunlight falls on its belly.  

The buzz will have been terrific. The way the British press handled the story was a master class in how to set the table. Readers learned that a special steam ship had been chartered to carry the contestants across the Atlantic. 130 of them, including 20 cowgirls. And with them 230 ponies, one of them a little Spanish mustang born on the Mexican border, a present for the Prince of Wales. A token of the cowboys’ admiration for the Prince’s sporting personality. 

Certain national prejudices got an airing. Americans weren’t slow to take exception to reports that some Englishmen were troubled by the thought of those delicate beasts, steers, being handled roughly. The American counter to that wasn’t long in coming: the New York – which of course was of course quoted by the British press – said Brits should look nearer to home and consider the amenities of fox-hunting. As the saying goes, questions were asked in parliament. Member of Parliament Lady Terrington said she’d been told that steer wrestlers bit the lips of the animals and thrust their thumbs into the animals’ eyes to bring them to the ground.” You can imagine how those remarks fired the imagination of a people whose ancestors liked nothing more than a good public execution – to say nothing of bear-baiting. 

In the event, there was a London bronco that couldn’t be busted. The River Thames. The cowboys’ first event – scheduled to be held a few days before the Rodeo – was a swim on horseback across the Thames just below Kew Bridge. The bronk named Thames wasn’t having it. It was in a swollen state and the cowboys and their mounts thought better of taking the plunge. 

Cometh the day, cometh the hour, good and bad news. Sad news.

The good. Well, the rodeo was a huge success at the gate. 120,000 people were in attendance. As an American – an American who as a kid went to rodeos – I was completely enamoured of the British press’s write-ups of the events. Here’s an example.

“There was also competition in riding steers which had all the tricks of a bronk for effecting a dismount. Many were the cowboys deposited on the greensward in a trice, while the bull, influenced by a lively imagination, continued to buck his way to the exit.”

And the sad, bad news. Well, Lady Terrington, the MP who’d raised the cruelty to animals question in parliament, proved to be prescient.

The newspaper account I’m looking at right now is a three headline job:

Wembley Rodeo

followed by Trials of Skill & Strength

followed by Public Indignation.

The story opens:

A regrettable incident marked the opening day’s performance of the Rodeo, at Wembley on Saturday. In the evening, a young black steer was roped, thrown, and tied, but when it was released it moved out of the arena on three legs, one of the fore legs dangling loosely. The leg was broken and the animal had to be shot. For the first time at either performance, protests were heard from the massed spectators. They took the form of prolonged “booing” which was afterwards several times renewed when animals were roughly jerked to the ground.”

Booing in June 1924 and booing in June 2022. The one in sympathy for the poor wounded creature the other wanting to wound the critter, wanting it to be seen off.  Anyway, on that mixed bag of a parting shot, nothing else to say but, enjoy the dinner your friends will have to stump up for.

As for a Today in London recommendation, oh I’d say, why not go on a Wembley Stadium Tour. It’s the new stadium of course but it’ll pay testament to the long history of the stadium. Right back to the 1920s and the Empire Exhibition.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. 

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: whether you’re an employer or a consumer, you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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