Published July 2012
Britain’s Olympic Heritage
The british Olympic Games
1908 and 1948
This year will see Britain play host to the Olympic Games for the third time since the modern Olympics began in 1896. Each occasion has made its own contribution to our sporting heritage and this article will take a look at the legacy of the first two British Olympics.
The first recognisably modern Olympics to be granted to London were in 1906, with the Royal stipulation that on no account should public money be expended on it. The project was managed by the British Olympic Council, led by Lord Desborough. The games involved 2,023 athletes from 23 nations, competing in 109 events in 24 different sporting disciplines.
Empire Stadium (also known as Wembley Stadium)
© Crown copyright.NMR
London had already been gearing up for the Franco-British Exhibition which was to take place in 1908, supported jointly by the French and British governments. A site had already been selected, so the Olympic committee struck a bargain with the organisers to use the same site. The Exhibition was painted brilliant white which earned it the nickname: ‘White City’
The great stadium, which contained a running track, football pitch, cycling track and swimming pool, was served by White City Station (the current station is a later development in 1947). It was the venue for the archery, athletics, cycling (track), diving, field hockey, football, gymnastics (held outdoors), lacrosse, rugby union, swimming, tug of war, water polo (final) and Wrestling. The Stadium was demolished in 1985 and the site is now the BBC Media village.
© Mr Barry Akid
Polo events took place at the Hurlingham Club . The polo ground itself is now Hurlingham Park after it was sold to London County Council in 1951. The 1908 polo trophy is still held at the Hurlingham Club.
Figure skating took place at the Prince’s skating club, Knightsbridge. The club also saw the founding of the British Ice Hockey Association in 1914, but closed in 1917. The building is now demolished.
Northampton Institute (Now University College)
© Peter Fuller
The Boxing tournament took place in the Great Hall of the Northampton Institute, Clerkenwell (Now part of City University). The Institute’s swimming pool and gymnasium were also used for training.
Clay pigeon shooting took place near Wembley at the Uxendon shooting club, formerly Uxendon farm. An underground station was opened in 1908 at Preston Road primarily to serve the club. However, both club and station were demolished in 1932.
The marathon began at Windsor Park, chosen to give the race an historical flavour, and ended at the White City stadium. It was the first marathon to be staged in London and was 26 miles and 385 yards long. This measurement has set the distance for all future marathons.
Rifle, pistol and running deer shooting took place at Bisley rifle range. Travel from Bisley camp station to the National Rifle Association ranges was via the rifle range tramway, built in 1898. Bisley was also used for the 1948 Olympics shooting events, and the range is still in use today.
1948 - The Austerity Olympics
The 1948 Olympics were nicknamed the ‘Austerity Olympics’ because, being so soon after the end of World War Two, there was a shortage of supplies from food and clothing to housing and building materials. Under these conditions it is incredible that the 1948 games actually managed to make a small profit of £29,000.
London had originally been appointed in 1939 to host the 1944 Olympics. However, these were cancelled due to the Second World War. Lord Burghley was keen to reclaim the games for London and, in 1945, put London forward for the 1948 games. London beat five other cities in 1946 to become the host for the 1948 games. With such short time and limited resources with which to organise the event, the Olympics need to make use of existing venues.
Of the 25 buildings that were used, these are a selection from the records held on PastScape:
The Empire stadium at Wembley was the main athletics venue for the 1948 Olympics and was used for athletics, equestrianism, and the football and hockey finals. The original stadium was built in1923-1924 for the Empire exhibition and was to be demolished once it was finished with. However, the stadium was purchased and became known as the Wembley stadium. The Stadium was since rebuilt in 2002-2007.
Empire Pool, now Wembley Arena, was the location for the swimming, diving, water polo and boxing finals. The Arena was opened in 1934 for the Empire games with a pool and deck for ice skating. The ice skating and other activities proved more lucrative than the pool and it was covered over, but was briefly revived for the Olympics. The boxing took place on a platform placed over the pool.
© Mr Ian G Stokes ARPS
Craven Cottage, Fulham FC, was used for several football games during the Olympics. It was the 12th home of Fulham Football club, who took on the site in 1894. The original ‘cottage’ was built in 1780 but was destroyed by fire in 1888. The football grounds first stand was built looking like an orange box, earning it the nickname of the ‘rabbit hutch’. After complaints about safety in 1904 a new stadium and pavilion were built.
The following venues were also used for the 1948 Olympics and are all still extant:
• Griffin Park, Brentford football club. Football games.
• Finchley Lido. Water polo prelims.
• White Hart Lane. Football prelims.
• Arsenal Stadium, Highbury. Football games.
• Selhurst Park, White Horse Lane, Crystal Palace FC. Two football games.
• Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (Government House in the grounds of the Academy). Running part of the modern pentathlon.
• Goldstone ground, Brighton & Hove Albion FC. Football prelims.
• Fratton Park, Portsmouth FC. Football Prelims.
Government House, Sandhurst
© David R. Grounds LRPS
Torbay, Devon (Royal Torbay Yacht Club ) was the venue for the Olympic regatta which took place between 3rd and 12th August 1948. The event saw 75 boats take part, representing 25 nations. Torbay had its own opening ceremony and Olympic flame. The flame had been made possible by an additional torch relay between the Wembley stadium and Devon coast. The Royal Torbay Yacht Club held a cocktail party for participants and committee.
The Royal Torbay Yacht Club
© Mr Robert W Keniston
An athletes’ village, as such, was out of the question after the war, where many Britons were still homeless and building materials in short supply. So accommodation was found at two RAF stations and a former army camp in Richmond Park . A further 19 schools, colleges and nurses’ homes were also made available.
RAF Uxbridge had 1,600 male athletes billeted there, while female athletes were housed at RAF West Drayton. A further 1470 men were housed at Richmond park camp. The camp had originally been created for the East Surrey Regiment in 1938 and during the war had served as a convalescent centre for injured servicemen. In order to house the men, rooms had to be shared between 4 and 6 athletes. The camp provided amenities such as a bank, a shop and a laundry. The Swedish were even given ‘Scandinavian vapour baths’ (sauna), though this did not stop them from de-camping to a hotel. After the Olympics the park camp remained intact and was used to house refugees from the Suez crisis in 1956. The site was completely cleared in 1965.
Played in Britain - The British Olympics
Much of the content of this article has been informed by the book ‘The British Olympics’ by Martin Polley, part of the ‘Played in Britain’ series of books. This book explores the Olympic history in Britain, from the Cotswold ‘Olimpick’ games of 1612 to the modern games as we know them.