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Early British Olympians discovered in the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
21 May 2012
Oxford University Press (OUP)
The new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—published on Thursday 24 May 2012—discovers the life stories of pioneering British Olympians, as well as the Londoners behind some well-known aspects of metropolitan life.
Among the 40 Olympians and sporting figures now added are:
- dance teacher, Maureen Gardner (1928-1974), who won silver in the sprint hurdles at the 1948 London Olympics. Her race ended in a photo-finish and was described as ‘as good a second place as was ever perhaps recorded in athletics’.
- Spitfire ace Don Finlay (1909-1970), an Olympic medallist in 1932 and 1936, who took the Olympic oath on behalf of the competitors at the 1948 London Games, when he again competed aged thirty-nine.
- Jack London (1905-1966) whose silver in the 100m at Amsterdam (1928) made him Britain’s first black Olympic medallist.
- Met police sergeant Harry Mallin (1892-1969), who won boxing gold at Antwerp (1920) and Paris (1924)—the first man successfully to defend an Olympic boxing title at any weight, a record which stood until 1956.
- long-distance runner Violet Piercy (b.1889?) who in 1926 was hailed as the first woman to run a timed marathon (between Windsor and London).
New London lives include:
- Henry Croft (1861-1930), council road-sweeper and founder of the Pearly tradition of kings and queens
- George Scorey (1882-1965), the policeman on the ‘white horse’ at the 1923 Wembley Cup Final.
- Jane Cakebread (1827/8-1898), a celebrated criminal who made 277 appearances before magistrates; at her death she was described as ‘one of the most famous figures in the metropolis’
- Performer Ella Shields (1879-1952), best-known as ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’, and Ruth Belville (1854-1943), the ‘Greenwich time lady’, who for 60 years carried the correct time to customers across London.
The Olympic competitors now added to the Oxford DNB took part in Games held between the 1890s and 1940s, including those in London in 1908 and 1948. Many now emerge from the record books to receive a biography for the first time. Many also reveal the differences in training, coaching, competition, and celebrity—as experienced by today’s Olympic athletes and those of a century ago.
- In 1948 the Oxford dance teacher Maureen Gardner (1928-74) won Olympic silver in the women’s 80 metres sprint hurdles. Her race ended in a photo-finish with Gardner and the favourite both timed at 11.2 seconds. The Times later described her achievement as ‘as good a second place as was ever perhaps recorded in athletics’. As a child, Gardner had been prevented from becoming a ballet dancer after contracting pneumonia; she was encouraged to take up athletics as a way of regaining her strength. In the run-up to the 1948 Games, Gardner continued to teach ballet and travelled to the Olympic stadium on the day of the final by London Underground. On her return to Oxford she married her coach Geoff Dyson (1914-1981, also now added to the ODNB), and continued her athletics career for a brief period after the birth of her first child.
- The Olympic appearances of Donald Osborne [Don] Finlay (1909-70), a serving RAF officer, were divided by the Second World War. In 1932 (at Los Angeles) he won a bronze in the 110 metres hurdles, followed by silver in 1936 at Berlin. Here he captained the British team which gave the ‘eyes right’, rather than the Nazi salute, when parading past Hitler, and were met with silence from the crowd. During the war Finlay flew a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain, during which he was shot down; he was later involved in the Burma campaign and ended the war as the RAF’s commander in Thailand. At the age of 39 Finlay also participated in the 1948 London Games when he took the oath on behalf of the competitors. In 1966 Finlay was badly injured in a car accident, which left him paralysed from the waist down.
- Britons who set lasting Olympic records include the schoolmaster Guy Butler (1899-1981), a 400m specialist whose British tally of four track medals (gold, silver, and two bronze won at Antwerp, 1920 and Paris, 1924) was unequalled until Seb Coe’s achievement in the 1980s. Butler was also the first British track and field athlete to compete in three Olympics, quitting competitive athletics after Amsterdam in 1928. He later described how he had suffered from insomnia before big races, reflecting that ‘the misery which I suffered from nerves robbed athletics of any real pleasure’.
- Another long-time record holder was the policeman and boxer, Harry Mallin (1892-1969), who won the middleweight Olympic title in 1920 (Antwerp) and 1924 (Paris), the latter in highly controversial circumstances which led to ring-side scuffles. Mallin became the first man successfully to defend an Olympic boxing title at any weight—a record that stood until 1956. Having injured his hand in Paris, he retired from competitive boxing, undefeated in some 350 amateur bouts. Mallin remains Britain's only boxer to have won two Olympic gold medals. There’s also Malcolm Nokes (1897-1986), the British flagbearer at Amsterdam (1928), whose bronze in the hammer throwing at Paris (1924) was the last British throwing medal until 1984. Nokes went on to have a successful career as a research chemist and worked for 10 years in Iran at the Institute of Nuclear Science, Tehran.
New biographies also highlight the differences in training facilities, equipment, and preparation as experienced by early Olympians and their modern-day counterparts. Most early 20th-century British Olympians combined competition with full-time employment.
- Swimmer Jennie Fletcher (1890-1968), who won Britain’s first individual Olympic swimming medal (at Stockholm in 1912), was for the rest of the year a cutter and machinist in a Leicester clothes factory. She trained at the city’s Vestry baths in the little time she had free from work. The Stockholm games were the first to feature women’s swimming, a full medal competition having been withdrawn at London in 1908 following concerns over the appropriateness of women performing in front of male spectators. From 1912, male and female swimmers competed in knitted one-piece costumes.
- The gymnast Arthur Whitford (1908-1996)—who competed in the British team at Amsterdam (1928), and coached British gymnasts in post-war Olympic competitions—was also a Swansea shoe shop owner, while the rower William Duthie Kinnear (1880-1974) who won the Olympic sculling title at Stockholm (1912) was a commercial traveller for Debenhams. When preparing for the Olympics, Kinnear’s corrective to overtraining was his favoured drink, Black Velvet.
- Centre-forward Stanley Shoveller (1881-1959)—double gold-medallist of Britain’s winning men’s hockey teams in 1908 (London) and 1920 (Antwerp)—was also a City stockbroker. By contrast, Bill Applegarth (1890-1958), gold medallist in the British 4x100m relay team at Stockholm (1912), was a London post office clerk. The outbreak of war in 1914 deprived Applegarth of the chance for individual Olympic titles.
- Three pioneering athletes—Eileen Hiscock (1909-1958), Nellie Halstead (1910-1991), and Violet Webb (1915-1999)—were among the five-woman team that set out from Waterloo station on 13 July 1932 to travel to the Los Angeles Olympics. They sailed for five days from Southampton to Quebec and then journeyed a further 3000 miles by train, before arriving in Los Angeles on 25 July. There, in the 4x100m, they won Britain’s first women’s athletics Olympic medal.
- Others gained prominence in sports that have since become popular Olympic events. Though today little known, in the 1920s Violet Piercy (b.1889?) was a celebrated and pioneering long-distance runner. In 1926 she was hailed as the first woman to run a timed marathon (between Windsor and London). It is now thought the distance covered was closer to 20 miles. Piercy, who later undertook further long-distance challenges, stated: ‘I did it because I wanted to show the Americans what we can do, and to prove that Englishwoman are some good after all.’
- Also added are two Victorian ‘Olympics’ promoters: gymnasium proprietor John Hulley (1832-1875) who established the Liverpool ‘Olympic festivals’ in the 1860s (the Lancashire equivalent of William Penny Brookes’s Wenlock games), and the Cheltenham headmaster Robert de Courcy Laffan (1853-1927), promoter of the Olympic ideal, who became a member of de Coubertin’s International Olympic Committee to re-establish the Games in 1896, and was later a founding member of the British Olympic Committee.
Many of the 40 London lives now added to the Oxford DNB are now being told for the first time—from Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst (fl.1385-1410), to ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’.
- The image of a policeman on a white horse, edging back the crowds from the Wembley pitch in 1923, remains one of the best-known in English football history. Until recently, little was known of George Scorey (1882-1965), the officer whose actions were recorded that day. Scorey joined the army in 1898, and served in the South Africa War and throughout the First World War. In 1919 he joined the mounted branch of the Metropolitan Police and was issued with horse ‘no. 62’, a 7-year old grey named ‘Billy’ with whom he made his famous Wembley appearance. On that day Scorey was held in reserve, but called into action as huge crowds swelled Wembley Stadium, then hosting its first FA Cup Final. Scorey was one of 10 mounted officers who pushed the crowds back, allowing the game to begin at 4pm. From the outset Scorey emerged as the day’s key figure, distinguished by his actions and also by his grey mount, Billy, who appeared white in newsreel footage and newspaper photographs. After 1923 Scorey kept a low profile, refusing invitations to appear in public. He described his actions as ‘routine procedure’ in ‘unusual conditions’, and (not being a fan of the game) declined complimentary tickets to each subsequent Wembley finals.
- Jane Cakebread (1827/8-1898), inebriate and serial offender, whose alcoholism made her one of London’s most celebrated Victorian working-class criminals, as well as a subject of medical study. A one-time servant, by the 1880s Cakebread was locked in a cycle of arrest and imprisonment for drunkenness. Her 277 appearances before a police court are thought to be a record, enlivened by her colourful abuse of modern policing and the poor manners of modern officers. Cakebread’s celebrity brought her to the attention of social reformers and psychologists. Her case was used to argue in favour of allowing courts to send alcoholics for treatment rather than to prison, leading in the Inebriates Act of 1898. Cakebread died in December 1898 and was buried at Chingford following a ceremony attended by just one mourner. Despite this, the Illustrated Police News described her as ‘one of the most famous figures in the metropolis’.
- We tend to think of pearly kings and queens as an age-old part of London life. In fact, the tradition dates only to the 1870s and to one man in particular: a St Pancras road-sweeper, Henry Croft (1861-1930) who was born and died in the local workhouse. Croft was also the ‘Original King of the Pearlies’ having popularized pearly dress as a way of gaining attention at fund-raising events. By 1911 each London borough had its own pearly royal family. Croft—as king of Somers Town—made regular appearances at the Horse of the Year Show, where he met Edward VII. In a lifetime of collecting Croft is said to have raised as much as £5000. His funeral in 1930 was described as ‘one of the largest that London has seen for many years’, and comprised a procession of 400 Pearlies and Irish pipers, captured by Pathé news. His grave was marked by a life-size statue to ‘the original Pearly King of the world’, which is now in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster.
- Other Londoners added to the Oxford DNB on 24 May 2012 include:
- cross-dressing music-hall singer Ella Shields (1879-1952) created the role of ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ in 1915. Shields was born Ella Buscher in Baltimore, USA, and first performed at Mile End in 1910. The role of Burlington Bertie was initially created by Shields’s husband for a male comic who declined the part; Shields, who had first performed in male dress in 1910, took on the role and achieved a great success as a cross-dressing social climber who, though an impoverished resident of Bow, apes West End manners. In the coming years Shields combined professional success with a scandalous divorce and the slump in music-hall, followed by post-war interest in nostalgia shows. The ODNB’s new edition also includes Islington-born songwriter, Hubert Gregg (1914-2004), best-known for his wartime number, ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ (1944): ‘It took me 20 minutes to write before supper one night. It’s only got sixteen bars but people seem to like it.’
- For 60 years the Victorian ‘time-keeper’ Ruth Belville (1854-1943) carried a chronometer (set weekly at Greenwich) to London businesses to enable them to keep the correct time. At the height of her business, Belville supplied 200 London clock and instrument makers with the time, though her success faltered with the introduction, from the 1920s, of electronic time signals and the Speaking Clock. Belville’s death, in 1943, was marked by the press headline ‘Human T.I.M. found dead’.
- the Californian-born curator Dennis Severs (1948-1999) created a period house at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields—home to the fictional Jervis family who were said to have ‘lived’ in the house between the early 18th and 20th century. Severs began by taking people on horse-drawn carriage tours of west London (‘See something different graciously’). In 1979 he acquired a Spitalfields townhouse which he began converting—room by room— into his ‘famous time machine’, while living as his forebears would have done with minimal running water and candle-light. Severs gave atmospheric tours at which guests were required to enter fully into the Jervis’s world: those who did not were forcibly ejected. His headstone bears, in Latin, 18 Folgate Street’s motto: ‘You either see it or you don’t’.
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The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped all walks of British life from the Romans to the 21st century. The dictionary is updated three times a year with new biographies.