Tag Archives: London

London 1908: the First Winter Olympic Programme

This weekend, winter sports fans will have their eyes glued on Sochi in Russia, where the 22nd Winter Olympics are due to begin. The Winter version of the Olympic franchise do not have the same global appeal as their Summer counterparts, as the twin constraints of geography and costs keep  many nations out: compared to the 204 teams that competed at London 2012, the most recent Summer Olympics, the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver attracted 82 nations. Still, the Winter Olympics have grown in appeal and scope over the eighty years of their official history, and they provide spectacle and drama in equal measure on the ice and on the slopes. The fact that this year’s Olympics have already attracted so much controversy, due to Russia’s human rights record, the Games’ environmental impact, and the country’s draconian treatment of homosexuals, is a sign of how big the Winter Games getting – they are now (rightly) as political contested as the Summer Olympics.

I’ve written about the Sochi LGBT debate for the Free Word Centre, although I am fascinated to see how it pans out now that the Games are on us and many people have made their sentiments clear: Barrack Obama’s decision to send Billie Jean King as one of his representatives is my favourite piece of provocation so far. What I want to do here is to think more historically about the prehistory of the Winter Olympics, particularly the series of sports that were held as part of the 1908 London Olympics under the name of the Olympic Winter Games of the Olympic Winter Programme.


Poster for the 1924 Winter Sports at Chamonix

The official version has Chamonix 1924 as the first Winter Olympics, although it is well to remember, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) themselves point out,  that this appellation was granted only retrospectively: at the time, these sports that attracted competitors from 16 nations to the French Alps were simply held in conjunction with that year’s Paris Olympics. The 1928 Games at St Moritz were really the first to be organised under IOC auspices – and, of course, it is only from this period that we should refer to the other Olympics as the Summer Olympics: it’s anachronistic to apply this term to any Olympics before 1924. But Chamonix was not the first time that Olympic organisers had experimented with winter sports. Ice hockey featured in the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp (Canada won, of course), as did figure skating, in which five nations competed across singles events for men and women and a mixed pairs event. But it is to London in 1908 that we really need to look for the start of this prehistory.


The 1908 Olympics started on 27 April, with the opening matches in the racquets tournament at Queen’s Club. Events were then spread across May and June, with the main two weeks of stadium-based events running at the Great Stadium in the Franco-British Exhibition grounds from 13-25 July. Sailing and motorboating took place in July and August, and then there was a break until 19 October. It was on this day that the Winter programme was launched. The idea had developed during the British Olympic Council’s planning for the Games. Their minutes of 20 December 1906, for example, record the discussion of ‘the possibility of holding Olympic Skating Competitions in the winter of 1907-08’, and the planning for what they soon referred to as the ‘Winter Sports’ and the ‘Winter Games’ carried on as the Games approached, with the dates being set at the Council’s meeting on 15 November 1907: ‘The Winter Games were definitely appointed to commence on Monday, October 19, 1908’, and a Winter Games Committee was subsequently set up to plan the events. Figure and sped skating were both discussed, with the former kept and the latter dropped, and the Committee decided to hold the team sports played in Britain in winter as part of this experimental programme. Football, hockey, lacrosse, and rugby thus found themselves as part of the first Winter Games.


Great Britain’s football team at the 1908 Olympic Games

The Winter Programme started at the Stadium on 19 October, as planned, with Denmark beating France B 9-0 in the football. Over the next two weeks, the team sports all took place. Great Britain won the football, beating Denmark 2-0 in the final watched by just 8,000 people. The hockey was also won by Great Britain, though this was a tournament in which England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales entered separate teams, all under the name of Great Britain, with France and Germany making up the numbers. The final saw England beat Ireland 8-1 in front of 5,000 people. The lacrosse tournament had an even lower profile: with only two teams involved, Canada and Great Britain, there was only one match, with Canada taking gold medal after a 14-10 victory. The rugby was similarly low-key, a two-team tournament between the touring Australian side and the British county champions, Cornwall, although the record books have to show this as Great Britain. Australia won 32-3. As well as these team sports, the Winter Programme involved boxing, a one-day tournament for five weight classes at the Northampton Institute in Clerkenwell.


Madge and Edgar Syers

It is what happened at Prince’s Skating Club, Knightsbridge, however, that makes this Winter Programme of the 1908 Olympics so significant. For here, on 28 and 29 October, the figure skating took place, the first time in Olympic history that an ice-based sport had featured. Prince’s Club was a private members establishment which had been running since 1896. For the Olympics, it hosted four competitions: Individual events for Gentlemen and Ladies; a Special Figures event for Gentlemen; and Pairs Skating. The last of these was pioneering, not just for it being an ice-based sport, but as the first time that the Olympics had included a mixed-sex aesthetic sport. Inevitably, the competition was rather small: this was an expensive niche sport at the time, and only 21 competitors from 6 nations took part. However, this included leading figures in the sport, such as the Swede Ulrich Salchow (whose name we will hear a lot from Sochi as skaters attempt their double and triple Salchows), world champion every year  bar one between 1901 and 1911, and Madge Syers of Britain, whose entry in the 1902 men’s world championships had forced the International Skating Union to create a separate event for women. Over the two days of competition, the four gold medals went to Sweden, Russia, Germany, and Great Britain, Syers winning the Ladies’ event and also winning bronze with her husband Edgar in the Pairs. The skating events attracted a great deal of press attention, with pictorial features in many of the dailies and large technical coverage in The Field, and the Olympics certainly helped to popularise skating in Britain.


Ulrich Salchow

It is impossible to claim that what happened in London in October 1908 was the first Winter Olympics. That phrase has no currency until the 1920s, when separate events, under the IOC’s auspices and featuring only alpine and ice-based sports, were first held. However, this Winter Programme was a crucial moment in Olympic history, not least for bringing ice into the equation. As historians, we should look back at this moment in the prehistory of Sochi 2014 for a reminder that the Olympics have always been experimental, and that the programme has never fossilised.


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Played in London

The English Heritage sports project Played in Britain is staging an exhibition and a series of talks around the theme of Played in London at The Gallery in Farringdon throughout May 2012. It starts on 3 May with Simon Inglis, acclaimed author and creator of the Played in Britain series, talking about London’s sporting heritage. Then each Thursday evening, Simon will be in conversation with a range of authors and practitioners. I’m the guest for 10 May, talking about London’s Olympic heritage, with subsequent weeks including Olympic Stadium architect Rod Sheard, swimming pool architect Keith Ashton, swimming pool historian Ian Gordon, and pub games historians Arthur Taylor and Patrick Chaplin. It looks set to be a highly informative, entertaining, and innovative series.

For full details, see the Played in Britain website.

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London Parks and Gardens Trust

Last night, I gave a talk for the London Parks and Gardens Trust at the delightful Garden Museum in Lambeth. The well-attended talk was on London’s Parks and London’s Olympic Games. I used the Olympic park at Stratford as my starting point, and then went back to look at the ways in which London’s past Olympic and Olympian games had used London’s parks and open spaces. From Baron de Berenger’s Olympic Festival at Cremorne Gardens in 1832 and the National Olympian Association’s first National Olympian Games at Crystal Palace in 1866, I moved on to White City and Wormwood Scrubs in 1908, and Richmond Park in 1948, before ending with the mixed legacy that 2012 is creating: on the one hand, it is creating new parks and gardens; but on the other, it is having an impact on Hackney Marshes and Greenwich Park. The talk was followed with some lively discussion. I’d like to thank Katy Myers of the London Parks and Gardens Trust for organising the evening.

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The Accidental Sports Tourist

My first trip to London this year was not supposed to have anything to do with the Olympics, but it ended up as one of those walks where echoes of Olympics past and future kept on popping up.

I went with my family to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, and then on a self-guided walk around Marylebone and then down Regent Street to Charing Cross, looking for sites related to the Holmes stories, and for the places where Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, lived and worked. It was a great trip – all of my family are fans of the Victorian sleuth, and the walk brought things to life for everyone.

And yet, in London’s third Olympic year, we kept on coming across sporting artefacts and links. These were obvious for 2012: it’s hard to move anywhere in London at the moment  without seeing advertisements for the Games, or the logo adorning delivery vans and posters on the Underground. And in Trafalgar Square, towards the end of our walk, we had a good look at the 2012 clock, counting down to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on one side and the Olympic Games on the other. Like the other visitors, I queued up to have my picture taken by the clock, a modern Olympic site in the heart of tourist London. We also walked, unintentionally, along a tiny part of the 2012 Olympic Marathon route.

The historic links were perhaps less obvious. For me, they were echoes and resonances rather than bold and branded statements like the 2012 clock, and they chimed perfectly with the approach to city walking advocated by Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory: “Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself.”

There was Conan Doyle himself, the man whose life and fiction we were trailing, who was a big supporter of the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He reported on them for the Daily Mail, and while his alleged appearance on the track next to the Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri has been disproved by Peter Lovesey, he was certainly one of the journalists responsible for creating the myths of that great race. Then, on Regent Street, we walked past the University of Westminster’s elegant building and its memorial plaque to Quintin Hogg. Hogg was a Victorian promoter of muscular Christianty, and the Regent Street Polytechnic which he founded, the predecessor of the current University of Westminster, had sport and exercice at its heart. The Polytechnic’s sports clubs were to provide countless Olympians. Hogg himself practiced what he preached, playing football for the Wanderers, Old Etoinians, and Scotland.

Sports tourism is about so much more than commercial stadium tours, impressive and interesting as they can be. It can also be accidental, when, like Sinclair and in the spirit of the flaneuer, we walk the city and notice incidental features that can tell us alternative and half-hidden stories about the city’s past.


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Olympic History event for Anton Junior School, Andover

In January, I’m running a couple of events on London’s Olympic history for the children at Anton Junior School in Andover, Hampshire. We’ll explore the history of the 1908 and 1948 Olympic Games, comparing costs, venues, sports, and the countries involved between these Games and 2012, and there’ll be a special word on Andover’s brief moment of Olympic glory, when the 1948 torch relay went through the town on its way from Wembley to Torquay. Then I’ll set up a creative writing project for the Year 5 and 6 children, getting them to write stories based on moments from Olympic history. Anton Junior School has already done a great deal of work on the Olympic Games, with an innovative scheme of work for Key Stage 1 and 2, and I’m looking forward to working with the dynamic teaching team in developing this work.

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Olympic History lecture at for FIFA Master students at De Montfort University

On Wednesday 15 December, I’m taking part in a special event for FIFA Master students at De Montfort University, Leicester. I’m giving a talk on London’s previous Olympic Games, those of 1908 and 1948, and making comparisons and contrasts with the 2012 Olympic Games through such themes as venues, sports, and legacies. Other speakers at the event, which is designed to give the students a multi-angled view of the 2012 Olympic Games, will be Dennis Oswald, Head of the IOC’s Coordination Committee for the 2012 Olympics, and Jonathan Edwards, British Olympian and member of the Executive Board of LOCOG.

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Polytechnic Magazines go on-line

Vic D’Arcy (left) of the Polytechnic Harriers winning the 4 x 100 metres relay for Great Britain at the 1912 Olympic Games

The University of Westminster has just launched a wonderful new resource for historians, and any historian of sport in London, or of the links between sport and education, should check it out immediately.

It’s a digitised run of the Polytechnic Magazine from 1879 to 1960. The Regent Street Polytechnic ran a range of sports clubs, including the famous Polytechnic Harriers athletics club which, among other things, organised the 1908 London Olympic Marathon and provided numerous Olympians, including sprinters Willie Applegarth and Vic D’Arcy (Stockholm 1912), Jack London (Amsterdam 1928), and McDonald Bailey (Helsinki 1952), and middle distance runner Albert Hill (Antwerp 1920). The Polytechnic Magazine carried stories and results on all of the institution’s sports clubs, for both men and women, and it provides many fascinating insights on the sporting life of London and it suburbs. You can browse copies and search by theme to get full pdfs of magazines and articles.

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Memorials and Minute Books

The RFU's commemorative plaque on the wall of the Texas Embassy, Cockspur Street

It was fitting that last week, in the run up to the Rugby Union World Cup final in New Zealand, I found myself thinking about the sport’s early days.

On Wednesday, I was at the University of Westminster’s fantastic archive for some biographical research I’m doing on members of the Polytechnic Harriers – I’ll blog about that in the future. On my way back to Waterloo, I walked past a plaque on the wall of the Texas Embassy, a restaurant near Trafalgar Square. The plaque – easily missed on this busy road – commemorates the founding meeting of the Rugby Football Union, which took place at the Pall Mall Restaurant in January 1871.

The restaurant is long gone, demolished in the 1920s, but the site is still important. It was here that representatives of 21 football clubs who wanted to play their football in the Rugby School style met to form their own association. These clubs, including Guy’s Hospital, Blackheath, Civil Service, Mohicans, and the Wimbledon Hornets, had fallen out with the Football Association, formed in 1863, over their preference for the Rugby game. At the Pall Mall Restaurant, they established a new collective body, which they called the Rugby Football Union, and they started work on a set of laws for all clubs wishing to play the Rugby way. The plaque thus commemorates the birth of a governing body, one which helped to make the Rugby code popular throughout Britain and the Empire. It is far more meaningful as a marker of origins than the fairy tale statue of William Webb Ellis at Rugby School itself.

The next day, I used a document from the early days of the RFU in my sports history class at the University of Southampton. Trojans, Southampton’s foremost Rugby Union club, have preserved the minute book from their foundation in 1874, and have put extracts from it their website. My students and I explored this evocative manuscript for the light it could shed on the sport. For a start, the word ‘Rugby’ was not used anywhere in the  minutes from their first meeting at the Antelope Hotel. The founding members knew what they meant by ‘football’, and didn’t need to write it down. Next, the text captures the Victorian middle class concern for rules and protocols, with their clear instructions on subscriptions, election methods (complete with the black balling of undesirables), committee structures and quorums. Most intriguing, though, was the new club’s Bye Law 7: “That no Bye Law or Law of the game shall be altered, rescinded or adding to [sic], without the consent of at least two-thirds of those present at a General Meeting.” Here is a club reserving the right to change the laws of the game, albeit through proper constitutional channels.

The Pall Mall plaque tells the story of a bureaucratic birth. The Trojans’ minute book adds to the story by giving us a feel for how clubs emerged from the grassroots in towns and cities across the country, and how the game was still fluid in its early years. Taken together, these two artefacts remind us that no sport is ever born fully-formed. Evolution and experimentation carry on, even after the creation of a governing body.



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