Hammersmith celebrates its part in Olympic history

By Philip Barker
It is not often you get a full blooded tug of war in a local town hall, but this was all in the cause of celebrating London’s first Olympic Games 100 years ago.

Tug of war was one of the sports on the Olympic programme in 1908 and the City of London Police won gold, though not before the Americans accused them of cheating by wearing special shoes which gave greater grip. That was something that proved tricky on the highly polished floors of the Hammersmith town hall on Thursday night for the hearty fellows of Hammersmith and Fulham Rugby Club and the Metropolitan Police who were doing the pulling on this occasion.

The scene of the original contest had been the White City Stadium and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Mayor Andrew Johnson invited 300 guests to an entertaining evening to remember their Olympic Stadium.

Built at no cost to the Olympic organisers, thanks to a clever deal with the Franco-Britannic Exhibition on the same site, this then state-of-the-art stadium offered three key sports venues in one, with an en suite cycling track and swimming pool, and all for around £220,000, or about half the price of the 2012 Olympic logo.

The 1908 Games were recalled at the town hall with a mixture of film, photographs and sporting demonstrations. We even had a man in pantomime horse costume, complete with a stick on Edwardian moustache. He bobbed amongst the guests waving a polo mallet to remind them that the sport had been part of the games at the nearby Hurlingham Club.

Two women fencers gave a demonstration of their art. Fencing was on the Olympic programme then, but only for the men: in 1908 female competitors were few and far between (genteel field archery was allowed, for instance) at a time when women didn’t have the vote.

The first London Games had controversy aplenty, often because the organisers appointed British judges to all the events, to the annoyance of the previously all-conquering US team.

The Americans were already furious over a row involving the Stars and Stripes at the Opening Ceremony and they vented their anger in newspaper articles when one of their runners was disqualified from the 400 metres. Not for the first time would disputes be conducted on the back pages of the papers.

In the long term, it did the Games no harm at all. Few in Britain knew much about the Olympics before they came to London and that all changed, almost overnight.

To bring the tale of their borough up to date , Hammersmith brought out their local Olympians. middleweight boxing champion James DeGale and double sculls bronze medallists Matt Wells and Steve Rowbotham.

The SJA was well represented at the evening with Leo Mason, John Goodbody and London 2012’s Jayne Pearce among those present. Graham Morrison was part of the team which organised the event.

Guests were served canapés, part of the menu for the original closing banquet. There was no Closing Ceremony as we’d recognise it .

The only pity was that Hammersmith’s event could not have been staged earlier in the year to mark the start of the Games. After all, the first gold medal in 1908 was decided at Queen’s Club and it was a journalist who won it: Evan Baillie Noel, the Sporting Editor of The Times.

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form