Updated 18 February 2010: The campaign to save the historic Herne Hill Velodrome is making progress. On 14 February 2011, British Cycling reported that the Herne Hill Velodrome Trust had achieved charitable status and that a framework agreement had been reached on a long-term lease which should pave the way for re-surfacing of the track.
William Penny Brookes was born, lived, worked and eventually died at 7 Wilmore Street in the tranquil Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock. It is surprising how a man who spent so much of his life in such a small, if beautiful, patch of rural England played such a major part in the creation of the modern Olympic Movement.
Born on 13 August 1809, Brookes followed his father into the medical profession training in London, Padua and Paris. On his father’s death in 1831, he returned to Much Wenlock to take over the practice and become a leading figure in the local community.
In 1841, Brookes established the town’s Agricultural Reading Society as an early lending library. This gave birth to a number of ‘classes’ promoting the arts and sciences. Convinced of the importance of physical exercise Brookes set up the Wenlock Olympian Class in 1850 under the umbrella of the Reading Society with the objective of holding an annual games to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially the working classes.”
Including a mix of classic athletic events and traditional country sports, the first games were held in October 1850. Open to all-comers, the second Games in 1851 were already attracting competitors from Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
When Evangelis Zappas staged the Athens Olympian Games – restricted to Greek nationals – for the first time in 1859, a £10 donation from Brookes on behalf of the Wenlock Olympian Committee resulted in the Wenlcok Prize being awarded for the ‘Sevenfold’ race.
By 1860, the Olympian Class flew its nest in the Agricultural Reading Society to become the Wenlock Olympian Society that exists to this day. It was also in this year that Brookes launched a new initiative: the Shropshire Olympian Games. Conceived as a biannual event, the staging of the Shropshire Games would be taken on by a different town within the county every two years – a model later adopted by the Olympics.
In 1865, Brookes extended his horizons further when, in collaboration with John Hulley of Liverpool and Ernst Ravenstein of the German Gymnasium in London, he was instrumental in establishing the National Olympic Association. This “union for different Olympian, Athletic, Gymnastic, Boating, Swimming, Cricket and other similar societies” staged its first festival at Crystal Palace over three days in 1866. (The fourth National Olympian Games were held in Much Wenlock in 1874.)
The success of the event, which attracted 10,000 spectators, promoted the formation of the Amateur Athletic Club by a group of ex-public school athletes determined to preserve sport for ‘amateurs and gentlemen’. Despite the efforts of the AAC, which later became the Amateur Athletic Association, athletics remained open to what Brookes described as ‘every grade of man’.
A sustained campaign to see physical education included in the school curriculum led to the first contact, in 1889, between Brookes and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Congress on Physical Education. At Brookes’ invitation de Coubertin arrived by train to attend the Much Wenlock Games on Linden Field on 22 October 1890. That evening, he was guest of honour at a dinner hosted by the Wenlock Olympian Society at the Raven Hotel in Barrow Street. It was during this visit that Brookes shared his dream of reviving an international Olympic Games in Athens – an idea that de Coubertin acknowledged in an article in La Review Athletique on his return to France.
Unfortunately, Brookes died at home in Wilmore Street on 10 December 1885 just four months before his dream was realised with the staging of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens. In an obituary for Brookes, de Coubertin wrote:
“If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr William Penny Brooks.”
Brookes is buried just across the road from his home in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church. On visiting the grave in 1994, Juan Antonio Saramanch, the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Samaranch said,
“I came to pay tribute and homage to Dr Brookes who really was the founder of the Modern Olympic Games.”
Much Wenlock’s Museum and Visitor Information Centre on the corner of High Street and Wilmore Street displays a collection of documents and artefacts associated with Brookes and the Much Wenlock Olympian Games. It is also the starting point for the Oympian Trial which takes visitors to all the major landmarks linked to the town’s Olympic connection.
The German Gymnasium, originally known as Die Turnhalle, is believed to have been the first purpose built gymnasium in Britain.
Designed by Edward Gruning (1837-1908), it was completed in 1865 as the home for the German Gymnastics Society. Founded by the German-born cartographer and geographer Ernst Ravenstein in 1861, the German Gymnastics Society was ground-breaking: it was one of the first clubs to hold classes for women.
Alongside William Penny Brookes of the Wenlock Olympian Societyand John Hulley of the Liverpool Gymnasium, Ernst Ravensteinwas a member of the triumvirate that masterminded the creation of the National Olympian Association in 1865. The Gymnasium hosted the indoor events of the inaugural National Olympian Games in 1866.
The building stands between St Pancras and Kings Cross stations in London. As part of the large scale redevelopment of this area, part of the Grade II listed building had to be demolished to accommodate the re-routing of St Pancras Road. Behind the new facade, many original features remain including the arched roof beams made of laminated timber and the hooks which suspended ropes and gymnastic equipment from the beams.
Today, the German Gymnasium is the marketing suite for the Kings Cross Central redevelopment project and contains a fascinating scale model of the plans for the area. The ground floor is accessible to the public during office hours.
From the adjacent St Pancras Station, Javelin trains will run a high-speed shuttle service from central London to Olympic Park in Stratford for the 2012 Olympic Games.
The London Marathon is now established as one of the world’s premiere elite marathons. It is also probably the biggest mass-participation sporting events on the planet as well as one of the most successful charitable fund-raising events.
Today’s London Marathon course starts in Blackheath, heads east through Charlton and Woolwich before turning west and passing the Cutty Sark in Greenwich at around 6½ miles. Crossing the River Thames at Tower Bridge, the course heads east as it passes half-way and loops around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf before heading west again along The Highway and the Embankment to Parliament Square, Birdcage Walk to the finish in front of Buckingham Palace. The event has transformed many of London’s iconic landmarks into sporting landmarks.
The finish has changed most over London’s near three-decades of city marathon history. The first London Marathon, held on 29 March 1981, finished on Constitution Hill between Green Park and Buckingham Palace. From 1982 until 1993 the race finished on Westminster Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background. But in 1994 repair work to the bridge meant the finish line was moved to The Mall where it has been ever since.
Elsewhere, alterations have been surprisingly few. In 2005 a cobbled area near the Tower of London – around 22 miles – was eliminated to the relief of elite and fun runners alike. The direction taken by runners around the Isle of Dogs between 14 and 21 miles switched from clockwise to anti-clockwise the same year.
In 2012, London’s third Olympic and first Paralympic Marathons will draw on the elite marathon expertise of the London Marathon organisers. They will be hoping that they will be able to stage races as dramatic as the first two London Olympic Marathons: in both, the gold medal slipped from the grasp of the leading athlete between entering the stadium and reaching the finishing line.
London’s first Olympic Marathon in 1908 was also historically significant in defining the 26 mile 385 yards / 41.195 km distance that is now the standard.
The race started on the East Terrace of Windsor Castle from where the 55 competitors ran through Windsor town centre and across the Thames to Eton and then on to Slough. The course then continued on to Uxbridge, Ickneham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Wembley, Harlesden, Willesden and Old Oak Common before crossing Wormwood Scrubs to reach the Anglo-French Exhibition Grounds and the White City Stadium. Traveling along the route today, it is clear that today’s sprawling London suburbs were still very distinct villages in 1908, and much of the course would have had a distinctly rural feel.
The White City Stadium was the first stadium ever to be built specifically as the principal venue of an Olympic Games. It had a capacity of 150,000 or which 68,000 were seated but only 17,000 were protected from the elements. Incorporating a 1/3 mile running track, 660 yard banked cycle track and swimming pool, the Stadium was built by the organisers of the Anglo-French Exhibition in just 10 months. In later life, White City was also a soccer World Cup venue, hosting the Uruguay v France match in the 1966 tournament. The Stadium was demolished in 1985 and the site is now occupied by the BBC.
From Windsor to the stadium, the proposed 1908 course measured approximately 26 miles. On entering the stadium through entrance “QQ RR SS” in the south west corner, it was decided that the runners should turn left to run 385 yards around the track to the finish line immediately below the Royal Box.
Race day was 24 July. The Games’ official report describes how the “close, warm, and muggy atmosphere of that summer afternoon, when the sun was deceptively strong and there was very little air,” was to have a profound impact on a race which started started at a brisk pace: the first mile was completed in just 5 minutes and 1 second.
With a dozen British entries, it was home athletes who made the early running. Jack Price led the South African Charles Hefferon by 200 yards at half way – in Ruislip. Frederick Lord, another Briton, in third place was “laboured in his action” just ahead of the Italian Dorando Pietri.
Hefferon took the lead at 15 miles and attempted to make a decisive break. Pietri closed on Hefferon in Old Oak Common Lane and passed the South African as they approached Wormwood Scrubs. However, Pietri’s push was too much and he was almost unconscious when he reached the track, turning right instead of left in his confusion before collapsing.
In describing what rapidly became elevated to the status of legend, the official report says,
“As it was impossible to leave him there, for it looked as if he might die in the very presence of the Queen and that enormous crowd, the doctors and attendants rushed to his assistance. When he was slightly resuscitated the excitement of his compatriots was so intense that the officials did not put him on an ambulance and send him out, as they would no doubt have done under less agitating circumstances. The first fall and the first assistance rendered had, if it had been only realised, disqualified the Italian for the prize.”
Eventually, Pietri struggled to his feet and staggered to the tape in a time of 2 hours 54 minutes 46.4 seconds. Shortly afterwards, the American Johnny Hayes reached the finish without assistance in 2 hours 55 minutes 18.4 seconds. An official objection from the US team was eventually upheld and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
Hefferon had hung on for silver and Joseph Forshaw, another American, took bronze. Queen Alexandra, who had witnessed the drama from the Royal Box, presented Pietri with a gold cup.
The events of London 1908 captured the public imagination, established the marathon as the ultimate sporting challenge and paved the way for a flurry of races between the leading protagonists over the now official distance which could be considered the forebears of modern city marathons.
Excluding the disqualified Pietri, only 27 of the 55 athletes finished the 1908 marathon. Given the sultry conditions, perhaps the instructions to competitors contributed to the high attrition: “Every competitor must wear complete clothing from the shoulder to the knees (i.e. jersey sleeved to the elbows and loose drawers with slips). Any competitor will be excluded from taking part in the race unless properly attired.”
Other aspects of the race would not be unfamiliar to modern marathon runners. As “official caterer” the Oxo Company provided refreshments. Rather than mineral water or energy drinks, 1908 athletes were offered an “Oxo Athlete’s Flask containing Oxo for immediate use” while hot or cold Oxo or Oxo and Soda were distributed at feeding stations along the route. Rice pudding, raisins, bananas, soda and milk. and stimulants were also available “in cases of collapse” while “eau de Cologne and sponges can be had for use of competitors from the Oxo representatives…”
When the Olympics were resurrected after World War 2, the 1948 Games were centred on the Empire Stadium, Wembley. For the marathon, the organisers devised an out-and-back route that took runners north from Wembley in order to avoid the many roads that were still bomb-damaged in inner London. The course also climbed more than 300 feet as it progressed from Middlesex into Hertfordshire.
The Marathon Race on the final afternoon of the track and field events – a warm, humid and windy day – was curiously reminiscent of the Pietri race forty years earlier.
Around six miles, Etienne Gailly, a 25-year old Belgian who had escaped from occupation during the war, eventually reached Britain and joined Belgrave Harriers, moved to the front of the field of forty-one. At 15 km. he had a lead of 14 seconds and extended this to half a minute by 20 km. At 30 km. Gailly was 53 seconds ahead of the Argentinian Delfo Cabrera but five kilometres later Choi Yoon-chil of Korea had moved into a 28-second lead over Cabrera, with Gailly another three seconds behind. Choi dropped out with injury around 38 km. With 5,000 metres to go, Cabrera was leading, just five seconds ahead of Gailly.
It was Gailly who entered the Stadium first “exhausted and hardly able to drag one foot after the other” yet needing to complete a little over a lap of the track to secure the Olympic title. Within a few seconds, Cabrera entered the stadium and had no difficulty in overhauling the “practically insensible” Belgian to snatch the gold in a time of 2 hours 34 minutes 51.6 seconds. Welshman Tom Richards was the third to enter the Stadium and he too had little difficulty passing Gaily taking the silver in 2 hours 35 minutes 7.6 seconds. The gallant Gaily held on to finish third in 2 hours 35 minutes 33.6 seconds, just over half a minute ahead of the South African Johannes Coleman, who had finished sixth in the 1936 Berlin Games. In one of the closest Olympic Marathon finishes of all time, the first four athletes were running their final laps of the stadium at the same time.
This week’s tragic earthquake in Haiti appears to have prompted a tweet from London 2012 linking to a web page that reminds us that the 1908 Games came to London at short notice after Italy withdrew Rome as host city following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Missing from LOCOG’s list of innovations that first appeared at London 1908 was the fact that these Games heralded the Olympic Winter Games by including ice skating for the first time.
Through the goodwill and assistance of the Duchess of Bedford the rink at Prince’s Skating Club was specially opened on October 9 for the practice of competitors. This rink, at which the competitions were held, measures 200 feet by 52 feet (62 x 16m.). A substantial period for practice was thus assured.
Competition opened on Wednesday October 28 with Compulsory Figures – the Ladies in the morning and Gentlemen in the afternoon. A Special Figure Competition was held on the morning of Thursday October 29 with Ladies and Gentlemen’s Free Skating and Pairs competitions in the afternoon.
Pre-dating the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix by 16 years, London 1908 presented Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow (1877-1949) with his only opportunity to skate for an Olympic medal. Salchow dominated figure skating in the first decade of the 20th Century winning ten world championships (1901-5, 1907-11 ) and nine European titles. He was successful in adding the London Olympic Gold to his trophy cabinet. Today, Salchow is one of the most frequently used words amongst ice skating commentators. The jump he invented involves taking off while going backwards from the back inside edge of one blade and landing on the back outside edge of the other blade. It also comes in double and triple versions depending on the number of full rotations completed in the air.
In winning the Special Figure Competition, N. Panin, also known as Nikolai Alexandrovich Kolomenkin, (1871-1956) became Russia’s first ever Olympic Gold medalist.
The Prince’s Skating Club opened as an exclusive private members club on 7 November 1896 and became home of the Prince’s Ice Hockey Club by the end of the year. The rink hosted the first Oxford vs Cambridge Varsity Ice Hockey match in 1900.
In 1902, the London Canadians became the second ice hockey club to be based at Prince’s. Over the winter of 1903-4, both clubs participated with four others in Europe’s first ice hockey league. The Canadians ended the season as champions with Prince’s runners-up.
A Prince’s vs Paris match at the rink in 1908 was the first in Britain held under the rules of the recently formed International Ice Hockey Federation. The first England v Scotland match was hosted in 1910. The British Ice Hockey Association was established at a meeting at the club in 1914. The BIHA remained the governing body for British ice hockey until 1999 when Ice Hockey UK took over the role.
Prince’s closed in the summer of 1917 and the building was later demolished.
One of the speakers at the Rowing History Forum at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley on 31 October 2009 was John Beresford, son of multiple Olympic rowing medalist Jack Beresford (and grandson of 1912 Olympic eights Silver medalist Julius Beresford. )
Jack is one of Britain’s most successful Olympic oarsmen. Like Steve Redgrave, Beresford won medals at five consecutive Games: Antwerp 1920, single sculls, Silver; Paris 1924, single sculls, Gold; Amsterdam 1928, eight, Silver; Los Angeles 1932, coxless four, Gold; Berlin 1936, double scull, Gold.
He continued competing after Berlin. In 1939, he dead-heated in the final of the Centenary Double Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta against an Italian crew. Its not inconceivable that Beresford could have medaled again had the 1940 Olympics not been abandoned after the outbreak of the Second World War.
At the Rowing History Forum, John Beresford revealed that his father was the first British sportsman to be commemorated with a “Blue Plaque”. John himself unveiled the plaque at his father’s former home, Belfairs, at 19 Grove Park Gardens in Chiswick on 16 August 2005.
As an oarsman, for many years I’ve been aware of the claim that the Doggett’s Coat & Badge is the oldest, continuously-contested, sporting event still contested in the world today.
Thomas Doggett (c1640 – 1721) was an Irish-born comic actor who trod the boards at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Later, he became involved in managing the theatre before moving on to the Theatre Royal Haymarket around the time of its opening in 1720.
During years of commuting by river from his home in Chelsea to Westminster, Doggett developed an interest in the skills of the watermen who had been providing the most efficient means of moving passengers and goods around London for several centuries. (London’s watermen have been regulated since an Act of Parliament passed in 1555 that created the Company of Watermen.)
In 1715, to commemorate the first anniversary of the accession of George I and the House of Hanover, Doggett organised a race for young London watermen who had recently completed their apprenticeships. The race, for a prize of a scarlet 18th century waterman’s coat with a silver badge on the arm and white breeches, was staged on 1 August. The start was at the White Swan near London Bridge with the finishing line at the Old Swan, near Cadogan Steps in Chelsea – a distance of four miles seven furlongs.
Swan Pier near London Bridge, close to the site of the White Swan Inn
The race became an annual event – organised by Doggett himself until his death in 1721. (He is burried in St John’s churchyard, Eltham High Street.)
In his will, Doggett instructed his executors to endow the race in perpetuity. Perhaps shrewdly, the executors offered an endowment of £300 to encourage the Company of Fishmongers to take over the staging of the race.
Initially raced against the tide on August 1st, the rules have subsequently been modified so that now the contestants row with the strongest tide. Now managed by the Company of Watermen, today the race is staged on a date in July determined by the time of high tide. The 296th race took place on 10 July 2009. Sadly, the race achieved no detectable media coverage apart from a posting – since disappeared – on the Thames Rowing Club website. Is this lack of interest a throw-back to the historic resistance to professionalism of a rowing establishment dominated for so long by the public schools and universities? Or just another example of the challenge the so-called “minority sports” face when trying to compete against football for column inches?
These barriers are breaking down. Watermen are no longer prohibited from competing in domestic rowing events. Indeed, Mark Hunter, winner of an Olympic Gold medal in the lightweight doubles in Beijing and silver medalist at London 2012, is himself a qualified waterman and freeman of the Thames. He was elected as a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta in 2013.
In 2000, as an apprentice, Mark competed in, and won, the Millennium Coat and Badge race for double sculls made up of a freeman sculling with an apprentice. Sadly, circumstances conspired to prevent Mark from racing in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge – he was too old by the time he passed his final exams. Mark’s younger brother, and fellow member of Leander Club – a one-time bastion of archetypal English amateurism – did win the Coat & Badge in 2006.