This postcard showing a young man on a mission, but giving only tantalising details of what that mission was, has been my latest research project. Five years after acquiring the card I have finally been able to piece together much of his story.
He is William Cleaver Browne. He was from Darlington and turns out to have been a phenomenal leg-stretcher. As a warm-up exercise, in 1913 and 1914 he walked 4,000 in America in just 3 months and 10 days, beginning in Providence, Rhode Island and ending in Winnipeg. This won him a £600 wager. Within a few days he began a second walk – a further 2,500 miles across Canada, from Winnipeg to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He claimed to be the first man to make the journey on foot in the winter.
The wager had been to prove that he could make the journey from Providence to Winnipeg on foot, starting with just one dollar in his pocket and earning his living along the way. The Western Times reported that several times he was ‘mobbed by crowds on American soil, who objected to the patriotic remarks which he made, was held up by tramps, and narrowly escaped arrest as a vagrant when, one time, he went broke’. It went on to say that on the road he wore out 11 pairs of shoes and carried with him a pack weighing 52 pounds and a rifle. On the knapsack was the caption “British Soldier. King’s Own Scottish Borderers”. He left Winnipeg for the second of his walks with just five cents in his pocket – a gift from Mayor Deacon, who presumable wanted to see him on his way as soon as possible.
William C Browne’s 25,000 mile walk
William soon returned to England and on 5 May 1914 he put his best foot forward and set off from Darlington to begin a 25,000 mile walk around the world. He aimed to complete this within 3 years. The Hull Daily Mail reported that he had made it to Hull on 7 July and was heading to Grimsby, but no sooner had he got into his stride than the First World War scuppered his plans, and he enlisted with the 6th Leicestershire Regiment.
Private Browne saw action on the Somme, where he was congratulated by the General commanding the 37th Division, for distinguishing himself. After being shot though the left hand on 25 September 1916 he returned to England as a patient at Beckett’s Park Military Hospital in Leeds. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field and was discharged from the army in January 1918, aged 25.
By 8 May 1919 he was ready to restart his epic 25,000 mile walk, though he had scaled back the plan to tour the world and would now contain his ambitions to notching up the miles within the British Isles. The Yorkshire Evening Post followed his progress. He was describing as wearing khaki, similar to that of the Colonials but minus all regimental buttons and adornments. He wore a broad Stetson hat with a red, white and blue band and carried everything in a valise and haversack. He also carried a small book to collect official stamps from police stations along his route, with which to verify his mileage. He raised funds to support himself by addressing audiences in music halls and picture houses and by selling postcards, of which mine must be one. He was also helped along the way by local branches of the Demobbed and Discharged Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Associations and Federation.
He walked an average of 23 miles per day, and up to 50 miles some days, but his route was far from straight forward. By the 3 July he had completed 1,200 miles, walking through Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Westmoorland, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and up to Glasgow. He had returned to Darlington while a Medical Board assessed his pension, during which time he said that he had walked most of the roads in County Durham while he waited for their verdict. Then he was off again, through Yorkshire to Fleetwood, then to Ireland where he covered 300 miles across four counties. Returning to England he crossed Lancashire and Yorkshire and came back to Darlington, headed next to Leicester and on to Warwick.
He reached London on 29 September, having clocked up 4,000 miles. His arrival coincided with a railway strike which was causing travel chaos across the capital, but not for our hero. The Sheffield Evening Telegraph reported that “Just when crowds of perspiring, cheerful and rather tired pedestrians were streaming along the streets of London on Saturday morning there stepped into the Press Association Office the one man in London probably who is capable of regarding the railway strike with absolute indifference and does not care a snap of the finger if the buses and trams also cease running”. The interviewer himself had just completed an eight mile walk in to the office, so he was full of admiration for our William.
Next he was off to Brighton and along the south coast. By 11 December he had returned north, arriving in Leeds and heading home to Darlington for his first week of rest, over Christmas and New Year.
“I don’t mind saying frankly that I am fed up with it”
In January he was on his travels again and had reached London for a second time on the 26th. Having clocked up 6,250 miles, a quarter of his target distance, it was reported that he looked “the picture of health and quite fresh”. He told a journalist, “I don’t mind saying frankly that I am fed up with it, but I intend to go on just for the sake of the persons who have been so good as to support me. I challenge any one in England to prove that they have ever seen me take a ride during my tour. If they do, they can have me arrested and charged with fraud”.
Maybe he was more tired than he wanted to admit. I can find no more reports of him on his solitary tramp. The trail goes cold until 17 October 1924 when he popped up in Preston, beginning an 8,000 mile walk, which was to be completed in ten months. He told reporters that he was undertaking the walk “for the sport of the thing”. He hoped to set up a new record, which suggests that he did not complete more than 8,000 miles of his earlier 25,000 mile challenge. The postcard is dated 17 October 1924 but to me it looks too sunny to be of Preston. I think he was reusing a photo from his walk in America 10 years earlier.
He covered 350 miles in a fortnight, through Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire during the 1924 election campaign, which saw Ramsey MacDonald become the first Labour Party Prime Minister. William had made it as far as Hull by 1 November. He then seems to have headed off into the sunset, bound for Lincoln. I have found nothing more of him.
Just to show that the waters of local history research rarely run smoothly, the second postcard, shown here, recently came up for sale. It gives a glimpse of William Cleaver Browne on one of his walks and almost reveals his face, though it has been partially covered by the seller. Having the won the auction I was excited to finally see a clear image of our hero but ironically his final journey was not to be completed – the card was lost in the post.
Have you come across a similar postcard of ‘Wm C Browne, Millitary Medallist, Darlington’ or do you have a family connection to a William Cleaver Browne? If you have any information about him then please do get in touch.