Philip  Barker

One hundred years ago, newspapers reported the death at 67 of the first great sporting superstar.

His name was Dr William Gilbert Grace, known to all as “W.G”.

Throughout the 19th century he was every bit as famous as Usain Bolt, David Beckham and Michael Phelps are today. What makes his celebrity the more remarkable is that it was achieved at a time when there was no television, radio or social media.

He was first and foremost an outstanding cricketer but his considerable prowess as an athlete is now almost forgotten. This was displayed at the National Olympian Games in July 1866. These Games were an early Olympic style multi-sport event held in London.

That week, Grace had also been chosen for an England cricket XI to play against Surrey at Kennington Oval in South London. Grace was only 18-years-old at the time, but struck a phenomenal 224 not out. This was a remarkable achievement for one so young.

 Cricketer W.G Grace enjoyed a celebrity status similar to Usain Bolt or David Beckham
Cricketer W.G Grace enjoyed a celebrity status in the 19th century akin to Usain Bolt or David Beckham do now ©Getty Images/Allsport Hulton/Archive

“I know I travelled up to town the same morning and felt slightly nervous for the first over or two, everything after I have forgotten, except the shouting which followed at the end of the innings," he said.

The final day of the match coincided with the Olympian Games. The track and field competitions were held at Crystal Palace in South London.

“I remember Mr V.E Walker, the captain of the England team, was kind enough to let me off the last day to compete," said Grace.

Grace was already developing his reputation as an athlete. He had previously won the West of England Championships.

At Crystal Palace,  he took part in the 440 yards hurdles. Bell's Life Magazine reported that “Grace took the lead from the start”. He led by 30 yards at the half distance and eventually won by 20 yards. Over 20 flights of hurdles, Grace came home in 1min 10sec to win.

He also raced over the flat and finished fourth in the 100y and 176y.

On a busy day, he started well in the half-mile race but, no doubt tired after his exertions on both the cricket field and running track, dropped out before the end of the race.

Grace’s athleticism never reached such heights again. By the time the first Olympic Games of the modern era took place in Athens in 1896, he was 48-years-old and his time on the track had passed. Even so, he was still going strong as a cricketer. He had been able to hold his own on the playing field in adult company from the age of 14 and appeared at the world famous Lord’s Cricket Ground aged only 16.

“Mr W.G Grace promises to be a good bat, bowls very fairly,” noted Lillywhite’s Cricket annual.

Grace later became the first man to score a triple century in a single innings and also record 100 centuries in a career.

Such was his fame and popularity that the price of admission was often doubled when he played.

He also found time to qualify as a medical doctor.

The Grace Gates at Lord's, home to archery at London 2012, remain in tribute to the cricketer
The Grace Gates at Lord's, home to archery at London 2012, remain in tribute to the cricketer ©Getty Images

In his fifties, he was still enough of a draw to be the star attraction of a new cricket club he helped found at Crystal Palace. He was also a leading figure in establishing the game of lawn bowls.

In 1904, the International Olympic Committee met in London for the first time. A request was sent to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s to provide hospitality for “the St Louis Committee” - with St Louis the host city for the Olympics that year.

Typically for clubs of that nature, a sub-committee was set up to deal with the matter. The IOC duly visited Lord’s for the match between Middlesex and the South African touring team. The party which welcomed them included W.G Grace.

Two years later, Grace played in the same MCC team as E.B.Noel, winner of the very first gold medal, for racquets, at the London 1908 Olympic Games.

It is not recorded whether the good doctor attended any of the events at London 1908. He could surely have done so had he wished because the MCC made a point of rescheduling their own competitions in deference to the Olympics. 

He remained a towering presence right up to his death.

During the First World War, Grace suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after an air raid from a German airship over London. His loss was felt in many parts of the world and particularly in India where he had become famous simply through the power of the printed word.

The men who ran cricket resolved to mark his passing with a memorial. This had to wait until after the war. Then the distinguished architect Sir Herbert Baker was commissioned to design a special entrance to Lord’s Cricket Ground. This is now known as the Grace Gates and became familiar to members of the Olympic family during the 2012 archery competitions. Over a century before Grace had welcomed their predecessors to this very same spot.