The 1908 Olympic Games – Part I

The View from Ballymaclinton

The Post Office in the Irish village of Ballymaclinton, built in west London for the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition. In total, 10 acres were laid out to resemble what the sponsors (M’Clinton’s Soap) considered an Irish idyl. In addition to the P&T Office, it included several thatched cottages, a round tower; replicas of an Ogham Stone, the Donaghmore High Cross, and the Blarney Stone. There was a village shop, a forge, a laundry, a restaurant, a sanatorium, and a village hall. 150 “genuine colleens” at work – making lace, embroidering, and weaving carpets – provided added interest to visitors to the Exhibition.

21 July 2021

By Greg Denieffe

In Part I of his 1908 Olympic Regatta trilogy, Greg Denieffe sends a missive from Ballymaclinton.

The first time London played host to Baron De Coubertin’s Olympic brainchild was in 1908. But it could have been all so different if Rome had fulfilled its obligation to host the Games. The Italian capital was awarded the Games in 1904, but Mount Vesuvius had other ideas, and its eruption in April 1906 caused funds originally earmarked for the Olympics to be diverted to finance the clean-up around Naples; shortly after, Rome withdrew as the host city. In truth, the Italian authorities were fortunate to have a legitimate excuse to withdraw, because they were well behind in their preparations.

A gouache painting depicting the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. As there were no fiddles available, people continued to row.

Luckily, London stepped in at short notice and hosted the Games alongside the already scheduled Franco-British Exhibition. When the British Olympic Association was founded in 1905, they selected William Henry Grenfell as its first Chairman. Grenfell, later Lord Desborough, was a sporting polymath with rowing blood in his veins. When Rome fell from grace in 1906, Desborough was instrumental, along with George Wimpey, in rebuilding the Olympic dream. London had two years to organise the Games; it was more than enough, even if the stadium did not quite reach the splendour of its original design.

The Games began on 27 April 1908 and lasted six months until 31 October, when the figure skating took place. The first day of action in The Great Stadium, AKA ‘White City Stadium’, in west London, was 13 July and continued until the 25th. Before any Olympic competition took place in the stadium, it hosted several events and opening ceremonies.

The stadium was officially inaugurated on 14 May by the Prince and Princess of Wales when they opened the Franco-British Exhibition. There was an opening ceremony, followed by a parade, sporting demonstrations and some athletic competitions. The weather was appalling.

There was a second opening on 26 May, a royal and presidential one, when King Edward VII and President Fallières made an official visit to the Exhibition.

In the build-up to the Olympic competition, the stadium hosted the Amateur Athletic Association Trials on 30 May, the Amateur Swimming Association Trials on 6 June and a Grand Sports Carnival on 11 July.

From a rowing point of view, and certainly from a HTBS point of view, the most interesting of these events was the one of 26 May, when the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) hosted a parade and a display to entertain the King and the President. The following month, the Polytechnic Magazine announced that an interesting series of postcards portraying the events at the stadium was available at their bookstall.

Postcard Number 1 in the series ‘The Royal “Poly” Display. Stadium. May 1908’. The University of Westminster Archive description reads: “Photograph of the Parade held during the Royal Polytechnic Display at the White City Stadium, on the 26th May 1908. Visible in the image is a pugilist (boxer) in the ring on the field at the right. The banner being carried by women athletes says, ‘Lady Gymnasts’.” Picture: sportingheritage.org.uk and courtesy of University of Westminster Archives.
Postcard Number 8 in the series ‘The Royal “Poly” Display. Stadium. May 1908’. The archive description reads:Photograph of rowers carrying a canoe and led by four oarsmen marching past the royal party, lady gymnasts on the field. The image was taken during the Royal Polytechnic Display held on the 26th at the White City Stadium May 1908.” Picture courtesy of University of Westminster Archives.

The ‘canoe’ mentioned in the archive description is an eight-oared racing boat with riggers attached and is being carried by several pairs of oarsmen. At the front of the boat, four men carry oars with a further four on the extreme left.

The June 1908 edition (Vol. XLVIII. – No.4) of Polytechnic Magazine credited various pictures to ‘Parks’ and devoted several pages to both the parade and the athletic events that followed. An extract:

The polytechnic were [sic] responsible for the programme, and it was worthy of the occasion […] The pièce de resistance was the athletic pageant and procession of over 1,000 athletes, and those who figured in it had a much more enjoyable experience than a fortnight ago, when the rain fell pitilessly and ceaselessly. It is true that the sun was not shining, and its absence retracted from the brilliance of the spectacle, but not from its peculiar interest. It was an imposing sight to gaze upon. It showed the tremendous resources of the Polytechnic and the readiness of its members to respond to any special demands made upon them. On the other hand, what an opportunity!  It was a chance, perhaps of a lifetime, to take part in a march-past before the King and Queen and the President of the French Republic. And right well they marched. They were marshalled and arranged in an irreproachable manner by Mr Robert Mitchell, the director of education at the Polytechnic, and each section was preceded by its flag. The procession was headed by the following old Eton Blues: J. E. K. Studd (cricket), V. R. Hoare (cricket and football) and A. Arbuthnot (rowing), who take an active part in the work of the Polytechnic. The various sections in the order in which they marched past were the women gymnasts, men gymnasts, runners, footballers, cricketers, boxers, swimmers, rowers, hockey players, lawn tennis players, Old Quintinians A.C., Technical School A.C., Engineering School A.C., Architectural School A.C., Secondary School A.C., and cyclists.

A Pronounced Success.

The march-past was a pronounced success and the interest aroused by the half-hundred girls a fortnight ago was emphatically re-awakened yesterday. Another feature which considerably enhanced the picturesqueness of the tout ensemble was that the different sections exhibited the paraphernalia associated with the particular sport they represented, rowers carrying raised oars, which were preceded by a couple of eights boats. After the different sections passed the Royal box, they marched on to the arena where they gave an athletic tableaux and display.

So, not just one boat but two making their way around the Olympic Stadium; surely a sight never witnessed before or since.  

The history of rowing at the Polytechnic is the political history of rowing in England from c.1875 to the 1950s. There was a rowing section in the Hanover United Athletic Club (the Poly was originally based in Hanover Street) and by 1889, it was formerly known as the Polytechnic Rowing Club. The man credited with founding the institution, Quintin Hogg, was a wealthy philanthropist who invested copious amounts of money in education and in rowing. The club hired boats from various boathouses and because the Polytechnic was open to artisans, mechanics, and labourers, it could not affiliate to the ARA, or race at Henley Royal Regatta. Its only option was to join the NARA, which it did on its foundation in 1890.

Quintin Hogg bought several boats for the club and paid to have a boathouse built for them in Chiswick. In order to circumvent the strict definition of ‘amateur’ enforced by the ARA and HRR, the Polytechnic R.C. formed a subsidiary club called Polytechnic Boat Club which was only open to those members that could satisfy the stricter ARA definition. PBC affiliated to the ARA in June 1907 and shortly after, was requested to change its name to avoid confusion with its parent, PRC. In October 1907, the ‘Boat Club’ formally changed its name to Quintin Boat Club in honour of Quintin Hogg who had died in 1903. At this stage, I should admit that in 2002, I raced in a composite crew of Putney Town/Quintin/Milton Keynes at Carlow Regatta. I feel I have skin in the game; after all, that was an international trip with at least one artisan, photographer Anthony Cake of Putney Town, one leftie who swapped the green of Carlow for the green of Milton Keynes, and three others who all knew where the bar was. Hogg would have approved of the make-up of the crew but probably have frowned on our post-race indulgences.

Action in The Great Stadium began on 13 Jul 1908 preceded by the athletes parading behind their national flags and the official opening of the Games. The UK flag was carried by John Edward Kynaston Studd, a cricketer. This remarkably English take on Olympism is matched in the Official Report of the Games where the UK is referred to as England and UK competitors referred to as English, as in this passage about the Opening Ceremony:

The English contingents were led by an Oxford Blue, a Cambridge Blue, and a former member of the Eton Eight. The whole body of athletes was aligned in front of the Royal Box, and after the International Olympic Committee, the British Olympic Council, and the Comité d’Honneur had formed up just beneath it, Lord Desborough stepped forward and requested His Majesty to open the Fourth Olympiad. The King then said: “I declare the Olympic Games of London open.”

How wonderful to see the word ‘Olympiad’ used correctly. Current TV commentators, please take note.

The ‘English’ team, led by Oxbridge Blues and Old Etonians, parade before the Opening Ceremony in The Great Stadium on 13 July 1908. The Stadium could hold 90,000 people, and the Official Report of the Games estimated ‘some 40,000 spectators’ were present. This was the first official Olympic Games to feature a parade of nations. One was held before the opening of the Intercalated Games of 1906 when none other than William Henry Grenfell carried the UK flag.
Hart Street, H-on-T, decorated for the 1908 Olympic Regatta.

The rowing section of the Games took place in Henley-on-Thames over the last four days of July. The HRR course was extended in both directions, and races took place over a distance of 1½ miles, just over 2,400 meters. The town enjoyed the attention and hosted an Olympic Regatta Fête between 24 July and 1 August. The streets were decorated with bunting, flags, floral displays, and interestingly, Olympic Regatta Posters.

The 1908 Olympic Games Poster.

For nearly a century, it was believed that the design of the official poster of the 1908 Olympic Games had been lost. The advertising of the Games was the responsibility of the organisers of the Franco-British Exhibition, and neither the IOC nor the BOA had a copy of the winning design. The cover of the sixpenny programme for events in The Great Stadium usually filling the gap when an image was needed, or when Olympic posters were under discussion. Then, in 2006, the British Museum discovered a folder in their archives with the correct image on the cover. A picture postcard of the main entrance to the Exhibition confirmed its use as a poster. Bob Wilcock, author of The 1908 Olympic Games, the Great Stadium and the Marathon – A Pictorial Record (2008), is responsible for spotting the poster in situ and linking the two discoveries. You can read a short article by Wilcock about the discoveries here.

Duke Street, H-on-T, winner of the ‘Olympic Flag Fest’. Note the poster on the right announcing the “International Regatta”. Can this be considered an unofficial ‘Olympic Poster’?
The top half of the poster reads: HENLEY ON THAMES – OLYMPIC WEEK – JULY 24 TO 31, 1908 – BERKS, BUCKS CREWS WELCOME  COMPETITORS – INTERNATIONAL – REGATTA – JULY 28, 29 & 30* (*Note: the regatta began on the 28 July and ran over four days, ending on 31 July.)
The Franco-British Exhibition ran between 14 May to 31 October, and as far as I know, it did not include randan skiff racing on the Tideway.

Part II will look at the Olympic prizes on offer for rowing at the 1908 Olympics and will also include my rant on revisionist medal allocation. Part III will seek to put faces on the crews that raced for them.

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