This month’s instalment of my King’s Ginger adventures is a little late, but for a very good reason. I wanted to make it topical again, and since the only thing of any note worth mentioning (according to all news channels, sites and papers) is the Olympics, what better and more topical topic could there be? Because, as you probably know, the first London Olympics was held in 1908 and presided over by his very wonderful majesty, King Edward VII. So I went off on the trail of the other most important person to do with the event, William Grenfell, the First Baron Desborough – President of these historic Games of the IVth Olympiad (and all round marvellous chap). On my marks… set… go!
Lord Desborough was a sporty young man. According to Vanity Fair, he was President of Cambridge University Athletics Club and Boat Club when there, he’d climbed the Matterhorn, twice swum Niagara, rowed across the English Channel, done two expeditions to the Rockies and been three-time Punting Champion of the Thames by the time he was 35. Not to mention having got married, been Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, fighting correspondent to the Telegraph, an MP, Justice of the Peace for two counties and Deputy-Lieutenant of Tower Hamlets.
What a guy.
In 1906, Lord Desborough went to Athens for the Intercalated Olympic Games (held between the main Games) to compete in the fencing. As he passed through Italy, he saw first-hand the devastation wreaked by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Rome was meant to be the host nation for the 1908 Olympic games proper two years later, and it was clear that they wouldn’t be able to clean up the volcanic havoc in time. The Italians asked us if we would shoulder the burden. Lord Desborough and King Edward thought it over, and agreed, providing the British Sports association backed it. How could they not?
Lord D went on to win a silver medal for his fencing in Athens. He was 50 at the time.
Back home, he now had a rather mammoth task on which to focus. Two years to organise an Olympic Games with no money and nowhere to actually do it. By luck or design, though, a huge exhibition centre was being built in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, for the great Franco-British exhibition of 1908 – White City, as it was to be known (due to the colour of all the buildings). Imre Kiralfy, an amazing man who started out as a musician and folk-dancer and went on to be the greatest master of spectacle of his time, had designed White City for the exhibition, and, out of the goodness of his heart, offered to build a state-of-the-art stadium there for free. Well, in exchange for a cut of any Olympic profits (always a canny businessman that Kiralfy).
Building the stadium took ten months, and cost £85,000, but in the end there was an athletics track, cycling track, football pitch, 100m pool (none of this paltry 50m nonsense) and room for nearly 100,000 people, both sitting and standing. Unfortunately, with two weeks to go and athletes pouring in from across the globe, the money ran out.
Luckily, Lord Desborough, enterprising and popular chap that he was, appealed to the press and raised the last £10,000 in days.
King Edward opened the Stadium Games on July 13th 1908, in torrential rain. Some silly person had forgotten to hoist the American flag, which
caused consternation and the US flag bearer refused to dip the Stars and
Stripes to the King, the first of many such incidents of national
rivalry between our two nations. The Swedish flag had also been misplaced, but the Swedes simply chose not to take part in the ceremony. But there were a total of nearly two thousand athletes present from twenty-three nations, including fifty women. A shame then, that the horrendous weather (and sky-high ticket prices) meant poor attendance for the first week of the Games!
Things improved in the second week as the weather cleared up and prices went down, but the controversies and scandals continued. The ladies’ gymnastics caused a sensation thanks to the bare legs on display, and the Americans protested about a lot of things. They complained about the Tug of War team wearing boots, but refused to a re-run in stockinged feet. They also protested the disqualification of US athlete John Carpenter for jostling Brit Wyndham Halswelle in the 400m final by again refusing to participate in the re-run. But this simply meant that since Halswelle was the only non-American in the final, he ran alone around the track and crossed the finish line in automatic first.
The biggest King Edward story (and story generally) of the Games that year was the tale of Dorando Pietri and the Olympic Marathon. The Marathon used to be a round 25 miles, but, the King wanted the race to start at Windsor Castle, which put the finish line in the stadium (and directly in front of Bertie) at 26.2 miles. After the Americans’ refusal to dip their flag to the King, it was deemed important to restore the ‘importance of the monarchy’ in the whole shebang. This new distance became the official measurement forever more at the 1924 games. Anyway, the ill-fated Pietri was the most famous Italian runner of the time, and had countless long-distance wins under his belt. But, in typical English weather style, after the downpours of the previous week, the temperature had risen to unusually high levels, and, as Pietri entered the stadium to do the final lap; he collapsed. And collapsed again. And staggered the wrong way. Some officials helped the poor man up, and he passed the line in a still bloody impressive 2h 54min 46s (even more so given the lack of perfomance sportswear, energy gels and Powerade of the future – read on to find out what the athletes DID get). But the Americans spoiled it again by lodging a complaint, which was upheld and poor Dorando disqualified. So, second place Johnny Hayes was awarded the gold.
Queen Alexandra was so upset for Pietri that she gave him a special gilded silver cup (the King actually refused to attend the medal-giving), and he went on to be something of an international celebrity. So, all’s well that ends well (except for his sad and early end, which you can read about, as well as seeing the famous image of him competing in 1908 here).
All these shots come from Taplow Court’s Lord Desborough’s Sporting Legacy exhibition. It’s an amazing house, full of interesting memorabilia (not just sporting!), and comes highly recommended. Here are some more pictures, as captured by yours truly.
The most interesting piece of Edward memorabilia, though, is the visitor’s book, signed by the King himself!
Lord Desborough managed to respectfully deal with all the complaints during the 1908 Games, and despite the potential battering to it, his reputation as a national sporting hero remained completely unscathed. In short, he completely pulled the remarkable feat of hosting the Olympics with two years’ notice! Albeit with the help of thousands of unpaid volunteers and sponsorship. Much like the 2012 Games in fact! He was made Knight Commander of the Victorian Order (KCVO) shortly afterwards.
A couple more fun 1908 Olympics facts:
OXO was one of the main sponsors. During the marathon, competitors were given no water – only Oxo and champagne were available in the stadium. Poor, poor Dorado Pietro.
Miss Gwendoline Eastlake-Smith was the first British gold medal winner of 1908, in the tennis singles.
Taplow Court was Lord Desborough’s home, I believe, until he died in 1945. I have to say, the house itself, and particularly the gardens, are absolutely gorgeous. Your token outfit photos will now follow!
Dress: River Island
Thanks to The King’s Ginger (do visit them!) for humouring my hairbrained ideas for articles, the free Lord Desborough exhibition is worth a trip to the countryside fo sho. I might’ve worn my Olympics pass for a bit as well. I’m proud of it, shh.
Until next time!