EJ Cotton - Football Pilgrim
Updated: May 21, 2019
The story of Elmer Jonathan Cotton, a gentleman footballer from England, who played for Bohemian FC from 1905 to 1908 and was part of a pioneering football tour to the United States of America in 1909 and designed the modern rugby football boot.
The First Bohemian in America
The honour of being the first Bohemian FC player to play the dribbling or soccer game in the United States goes to an Englishman. Elmer Jonathan Cotton was born in June 1881 in Bermondsey, Surrey, to Isabella Alice Beddoe, aged 31, and William Cotton, a Navy Captain aged 40 in June 1881. In the 1901 census his profession is listed as a commercial clerk. It is likely, that it was this career that led him to Dublin sometime around 1905, since he seems to have no Irish family connections. Most of Elmer’s footballing career was to be with Bohemian FC, playing sporadically from 1905 to at least 1908.
Cotton made his Bohemians league-debut, scoring in a 2-1 defeat to Belfast Celtic on Saturday, October 9th 1905 in the Irish League at Dalymount Park. The Irish Independent reported that: ‘Cotton, who is said to have assisted Woolwich Arsenal a couple of seasons ago, appeared as a Bohemian inside left forward for the first time, and his debut was a promising one. He was a footballer beside a speed merchant, but naturally suffered by his strangeness. He caught on’. Cotton was a regular name on the score sheet – especially away from Dalymount, scoring against Derry Celtic and Glentoran.
On April 30th, 1906 Cotton played in a prestigious friendly against English 1905 FA Cup winners, Aston Villa FC, at Dalymount Park, Cotton was again on the losing side (1-4).
A Leinster Man
In 1908, Cotton represented the Leinster XI in an inter-provincial match versus Ulster XI. His teammates that day included Irish Internationals, Val Harris and Bill Lacey then of Shelbourne FC and a future Bohemian FC manager. Cotton played in all rounds of the Irish Cup that year, being dropped in favour of Slemin for the semi-final against Belfast Celtic, although part of the travelling party (with 800 Bohs supporters in tow, amongst the estimated 7,000 present).
The following year, 1909, he was to be found playing in the United States for the second tour of The Pilgrims, a selection of soccer amateur invitees, including Cotton. ‘E.J. Cotton first found fame while with the Dublin Bohemians, a crack amateur club which won the Irish Cup. He is now a member of the Nunhead FC. He is always a most dangerous forward, believing in shooting at every possible opportunity. He is also a cricketer of no mean skill, having assisted Surrey’s second eleven.’
USA Tour: The Pilgrims
The importance of these tours by amateur English teams was not lost on soccer administrators in the USA, the Irish-American manager of the tour, Thomas Cahill put it: ‘Not until the visit of the Pilgrims, and the great publicity given to them by the press throughout the
country did it attract more than ordinary attention, but the brilliant exhibitions given by that clever aggregation of English sportsmen gave the game its first real boom in America.’ His teammates were all amateurs but with extensive soccer-playing experience. Thomas Fitchie (forward) was a Scottish international and listed his occupation as ‘traveller’, though he was known to be sports outfitter. Fitchie had played in Dublin in 1899 as part of the visiting London Wanderers team. Gordon Hoare (goalkeeper) listed his occupation as ‘sculptor’ and was already an English amateur international. (He would go on score two goals in the 1912 Olympic Final for Great Britain in their 4-2 win over Denmark, with another Pilgrim, H.C. Littlewort also on the team). James Brown Sim was a Surgeon and had played with Queens Park of Glasgow.
The Pilgrim Gentlemen
AK Cambell was another English amateur international. His profession was listed as ‘tutor’. There were three clerks (including Cotton), three accountants, a home furnisher, a schoolmaster, a tutor and a sculptor on the 14-man playing panel for the tour. A second source, the Brooklyn Daily Edge newspaper, classifies Cotton as a ‘tobacco merchant’.
From a sporting perspective, on tour, the Pilgrims proved to be the best English touring side to visit America. They were an experienced team, the players representing Fulham, Glossop, Woolwich Arsenal, West Ham, Sheffield United, Darlington and Falkirk. They were not without confidence or arrogance: ‘Indeed, the Pilgrim’s Captain, Fred Milnes, was so confident of his team that he agreed to pay $100.00 per goal if any St. Louis player scored against the Pilgrims. The Pilgrim’s scoring record indicated that this was a safe bet since the team had already waltzed through much of the tour, scoring twenty-three goals and only conceding four’.
The Pilgrims won 16 of the 22 matches, with two defeats and four draws. They scored 123 goals and conceded 13. The total attendance was 40,406. If the preamble is to be believed, one writer saw the tour in educational and religious terms: “Like a missionary who ventures into the land of the heathen, with his Bible, so does the British footballer with commendable enterprise tour in foreign and colonial climes, teaching and popularising the great winter game of football.”The Pilgrims also made sporting history in Cincinnati, playing a game ‘under electric lights’.
Back in England
By 1911, Cotton was living at 18, Turl Street, Oxford and it is on this street that he founded the oldest sports-apparel shop (or ‘Athletic Outfitters’ as recorded on his marriage certificate) in the United Kingdom called Elmer Cotton. In 1913 he joined the United Grand Lodge of England Freemasons listing his occupation as ‘Tobacconist, Oxford’. Did he also own a tobacconist shop? The mystery is solved by the current owner, Judith Barrows: ‘When the shop first opened it was called Elmer Cotton & Pike, as part of the shop there was a tobacconist run by a Mr Pike. Oxford sports teams would gather in what is now the boot room after a game or match, lighting their cigars or cigarettes from a permanently-lit gas flame which hung from the ceiling’. It is also claimed that the first studded rugby boot was first designed in the basement of the shop at 18-19 Turl Street in Oxford.
The contacts and connections that Cotton must have made in his footballing career with the Pilgrims and Bohemian FC could not have been immaterial to his decision to enter the
commercial world of sports outfitting, in an era of rapid popularisation of sports in England, with a ready young university customer-base from the colleges of Oxford University right on his doorstep. He would have come across Spalding’s in the USA and their success as athletic outfitters through his exposure on tour across the USA and perhaps a germ of an idea was planted.
How and ever, there are no records of Cotton visiting Dublin or Dalymount again. His on-field touring and playing football away from his English home in Ireland and America make him a true sporting Gypsy and Pilgrim! His entrepreneurship in the commercial-side of sport continued until his death in 1962 and still lives today in the business that bears his name – Elmer Cotton.
When the Elmer Cotton shop closed in September 2018, it had been in existence for 107 years – making it the oldest sports outfitters in the United Kingdom. It is now an online retailer.