The story of the first Lord of the London Olympic Rings
Monday, 04 June 2012
When London organised the Olympic Games for the first time in 1908 they had less than two years to get ready. So they needed a man of the calibre of Lord Coe to head the Organising Committee. They found one in William Henry Grenfell (pictured below), later Lord Desborough of Taplow.
He was a talented runner, not as brilliant as Coe, but certainly good enough to represent Oxford University over three miles in the 1876 match against Cambridge at Lillie Bridge in West London. He was elected President of the university's Athletics Club, but it was on the water that he shone as a sportsman and had the rare distinction of also being elected President of the Oxford University Boat Club. He rowed in the fabled 1877 boat race which finished as a dead heat and later crossed the Channel in an eight.
He dominated punting competitions on the Thames to the extent that the championship medal bore his likeness. The river was close to his heart and he served on the Thames Conservancy Board for over 30 years. He showed he was at home in the water too. He twice swam across the base of Niagara Falls. Legend has it he accomplished the feat a second time in a snow storm. He was asked what his wife Ethel, known to all as "Ettie", thought of his accomplishment.
"She pretended to be terribly angry with me and demanded to know why I had tried to make her a widow," he replied.
It was perhaps just as well that he had already climbed the Matterhorn by three different routes.
Like Coe, Desborough went into politics. He was appointed High Steward for the Borough of Maidenhead and served at Westminster as a Liberal MP for Salisbury. He resigned his seat in a disagreement over Gladstone's Home Rule for Ireland. Later, he returned to the house as a Tory member for South Buckinghamshire.
He served two terms as Mayor of Maidenhead. On his election some 4,000 locals turned out to greet him in what the local paper reported as: "A magnificent procession, unique in the history of Maidenhead." He wore the chain of office in 1897, the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.
"No previous Mayor has been so energetic, no mayor in the history of Maidenhead had placed more dignity upon its corporation" said reports at the time.
He galvanised the locals into subscribing for a town clock. It was eventually unveiled by his wife and can still be seen today. He also put in train the provision for electric light to the town.
He lived at nearby Taplow Court which was the stage for regular intellectual gathering known as "The Souls". Among the guests was Arthur Balfour, a future Prime Minister.
When the British Olympic Association (BOA) was formed in 1905, Desborough became its first chairman. He had plenty of experience in leading sporting governing bodies to say nothing of the local clubs he supported near his home. At one time or another he was President of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, the Amateur Fencing Association and even the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club), which was fitting as he had played at Lord's as a schoolboy with Harrow in 1873 and 1874. He was also a steward at Henley Royal Regatta (pictured above, third right) and led the Thames Conservancy Board.
He was also President of the Royal Life Saving Society and many felt he was a lifesaver for the Olympic Games. In 1906, Rome the designated host city for 1908, was forced to withdraw after the eruption of Vesuvius.
At the time, Desborough was leading a British fencing team (pictured above, second right) to the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens - a tenth anniversary celebration of the modern Olympic movement. Although already 50, he was still very competitive on the piste.
"Lord Desborough was at the top of his game with the epee" wrote his team mate, Sir Theodore Cook.
It was as well that he was at the top of his game in another matter, for while in Greece, Desborough was asked if London would be prepared to step in and organise the Games in 1908. As Desborough's party returned to England on Lord Howard de Walden's boat The Branwen, they discussed the proposition.
"His own sheer force of personality and prestige enabled Lord Desborough to carry out a task which no-one else would have attempted" wrote Cook, who was to join him on the Organising Committee of the London Games.
Desborough certainly had the ear of those who mattered in British sport and before the year was out he announced that London would stage the Games of the IV Olympiad.
"I should not have felt justified in making the announcement were it not for the fact that I have received assurances of support – and it will be no exaggeration to call it enthusiastic support – from nearly everyone of those great associations which control the various branches of sport in the United Kingdom" he wrote in November 1906.
By now an IOC (International Olympic Committee) member, he became chairman of an influential Organising Committee and negotiated a favourable deal with the organisers of the Franco Britannic Exhibition, due to take place at Shepherd's Bush in the summer of 1908. They agreed to build the Stadium (pictured above) to the specifications of, and at no cost to, the Organising Committee. This they did in return for a generous proportion of the gate receipts, but it should be said that these were a real unknown quantity. There was no great rush for tickets at the 1908 Games.
Desborough himself helped lay the first stanchion as construction of what became known as "The Great Stadium" began. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. The running track was itself surrounded by a cycling track and in the infield, there was a swimming pool.
He used his influence with the newspaper magnates of the day to encourage donations from the great and good to cover the running costs of the Games.
"We felt that in the country which may almost be called the motherland of athletics and sport, every effort should be made to make the games worthy of the occasion and of the place where they were held," he said.
He singled out the strongman and physical culture expert Eugen Sandow for special praise. He donated £1,500 to help the Games.
As a steward of Henley Royal Regatta, Desborough made sure that the timing of the Olympics did not clash. There was a sound practical reason for this. Regatta officials and equipment were needed to stage the Olympic event.
National Skating Association official and London 1908 Organising Committee member William Hayes Fisher (later as Lord Downham, a chairman of the BOA) was in no doubt about Desborough's contribution.
"To my mind he rose like a Homeric hero, much like Ajax. "
The 1908 Olympic Games began in April, but the main events were not until July and these came at the Great - and free - Stadium itself. There was a grand parade of teams, and Desborough himself invited King Edward VII to perform the opening.
A few controversies did no harm at all in the publicity stakes. When American 400 metres runner John Carpenter was disqualified for impeding British runner Wyndham Halswelle, his team mates withdrew in protest at what they saw as a blatant home town decision (race pictured above, followed by image taken after the race was stopped). A war of words followed in the press and Desborough's committee felt the need to respond to the criticism by publishing a pamphlet.
There was also a dramatic finish to the marathon. The Italian Dorando Pietri (pictured below, right) staggered into the Stadium exhausted, fell a number of times and was helped to his feet by officials. He was, of course, disqualified, but the British loved a plucky loser. The official report of the Games recalled the "The sympathy felt by every spectator" for Dorando as he "desperately fought against overwhelming physical exhaustion".
The Italian received a cup from Queen Alexandra (pictured below), joined for the presentation ceremonies by Lady Desborough. The picture of Dorando approaching the line remains one of the great images in Olympic history. Such events really put the Olympic Games on the map.
When on the last day of October, the Games finally came to an end, there was no grand Closing Ceremony, but Lord Desborough was euphoric at the farewell banquet held in Holborn.
"Whatever nationality we may belong to, we can all say tonight that both the Summer and the Autumn Games of 1908 have been a success. I will also say that we were able to extend to that great body of athletes a hospitality which will show them that we are not unmindful of the way we have been treated when we have gone abroad," he announced to a chorus of cheers from the gathering before leading the singing of Auld Lang Syne.
When finally, Desborough stood down from the IOC and as Chairman of the BOA, Baron Pierre de Coubertin wrote "I beg to convey our deepest regret and our best thanks for the great services you have rendered to the Olympic cause. It was ever so pleasant for all of us to have you attend at our annual meetings."
Within a few years, Desborough was hit by family tragedy. His sons Julian and Billy were among the millions who perished in World War One. His personal loss makes his words, written at the time of the 1908 Games, seem all the more poignant. "These young men are also representative of the generation into whose hands, the destinies of most of the nations of the world are passing at this moment, and we may hope that their meeting thus periodically, the enthusiasm which they share may have a beneficent effect hereafter on the cause of international peace."
When the time came to unveil Maidenhead's war memorial, he was the obvious choice. He had already been given the Freedom of the Borough.
His other son Ivo was killed in a motor accident in 1926.
Perhaps understandably, Desborough was less active in public life after that, but he served as President of the AAAs (Amateur Athletic Associations) in 1930, their Golden Jubilee year. At the outbreak of war he left Taplow for Hertfordshire. Though he intended to return it never came to pass. He died shortly before the end of the war. He was nearly 90-years-old.
A few months later it became clear that the Olympics would return to London in 1948, this time with another peer of the realm, Lord Burghley, in charge.
Philip Barker, one of the world's most renowned sports historians, is the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley. To order a copy click here.