Walkers at Cowm Reservoir today may be intrigued to see a small, compact, free-standing piece of drystone alongside the reservoir path. On closer examination, they will see that this is a monument to the achievement of James ‘Treacle’ Sanderson, an awarding-winning Victorian athlete.

The James ‘Treacle’ Sanderson Monument

James was born at Cow Clough in 1837, now a collection of ruins above Cowm Reservoir.  Inheriting the nickname ‘treacle’ from his father, who had a fondness for treacle sandwiches, James went on to become one of the greatest runners in Britain. Perhaps oddly to our ears, he was known as The Great Pedestrian.

Taking up a profession that was not the most likely of occupations for a runner, he followed in his father’s footsteps to become a blacksmith, starting at the age of 13. By this time his mother had died, and he lived with his father and sister.

He came to public attention at age 18 when he won the 3 mile race on Lobden at the Whitworth Rush Bearing Festival. Aged 25, he was the fastest runner over one and a quarter to one and a half mile distances. The next year, he won a silver tankard at Sheffield.

In 1865, James ran a mile in 4 minutes 17 seconds at a Manchester race. This record compares favourably with attempts to break the 4-minute barrier, only achieved by Roger Bannister almost 90 years later. After devoting three years solely to running, James returned to blacksmithing but continued to win many trophies and purses, competing in exhibition races at the age of 40.

His main practice ground for running was over Ashworth Moor, or at the foot of Brown Wardle. He also trained at Cowm on the path where the monument now stands. The wall shows one of the running marks he made, the number ‘440’, upside down. He carved this by standing with his back against the wall, leaning over and carving the numbers between his legs. 440 is a quarter of a mile measured in yards. During his running career, he was advised by Dr James Eastwood Taylor, one of the family of famous Whitworth ‘doctors’ (and a rarity as he was actually medically qualified).

440 can be seen, inverted, towards the base of the monument

The 1881 census records that James was residing at Fold Head, with his wife Alice and eight children. For 60 years, he toiled as a blacksmith, dying in 1905. Both he and his wife, who outlasted him by 16 years, are buried at St Bartholomew’s Church.

In 2012, the Whitworth Tourism and Leisure Committee wanted to celebrate his achievements. Accordingly, they commissioned a piece of dry stone wall to be constructed, which contained the mark 440 that James made in the stones while training. In June of that year, the completed monument was unveiled by the mayor of Whitworth, councillor David Barnes.

Site visited by A. Bowden and A. Shepherd 2022


There is a car park at Cowm Reservoir with a parking charge. There are no toilet facilities, but there is sometimes a pop up cafe. The monument can be found on the path by heading in a northerly direction, counter-clockwise around the reservoir, not far from the car park.

On the same site

Cowm Reservoir and Deserted Valley

Watergrove Reservoir and Drowned Village

Greenbooth Reservoir and Drowned Village

Piethorne Reservoirs

Rochdale’s Lost Castle


Cowm: The Valley That Died, Joan Douglas Whitworth Historical Society. This book is still in print and available from the Whitworth Heritage Museum here

On site interpretation board at Cowm Reservoir