Phiip Barker ©ITG

As Liverpool holds its breath and hopes to beat Birmingham for the nomination as England’s candidate for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, many will be aware of the city’s fabulous sporting heritage.

Nearby Aintree is the setting for the Grand National, which has become the most famous steeplechase in the world and could be the setting for archery in 2022 . The city’s two great football stadiums would also be central. Liverpool’s Anfield would be the stage for rugby sevens and Everton’s Goodison Park would be the boxing venue. 

Their new stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock would be the centre piece for athletics.

Yet there is one chapter in the city’s sporting history that remains largely forgotten. 

Liverpool once had its own "Olympic"’ Games. They took place in the 1860s and were open only to "amateur"‘competition. 

This was a theme which was considered important by the French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin when he set about reviving the international Olympic Games some 30 years later.

In fact, much of the athletics programme was later replicated in the Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, though metric measurements were used instead of the imperial distances employed in Liverpool.

Back in the mid-19th century, sporting events were often organised thanks to the efforts of public spirited local citizens.

One such was Charles Pierre Melly. He was the son of a cotton merchant had been educated at Rugby School, where sport was important.

Cotton merchant's son Charles Pierre Melly helped paid for early sports facilities in Liverpool ©Wikipedia
Cotton merchant's son Charles Pierre Melly helped paid for early sports facilities in Liverpool ©Wikipedia

Back in his home town, he bankrolled the provision of outdoor sports facilities. These resembled what would be known today as children’s playgrounds. Melly also funded the introduction another staple of local parks, the water fountain. These were of particular importance in an era when clean drinking water was not always universally available.

Across the city, another enthusiast was also at work. In the 1840s John Hulley had received instruction from the French gymnast Louis Huguenin . Suitably inspired, he began to run a gymnasium in a former billiard hall on Bold Street. He adopted a Latin motto, Mens Sana in Corpore Sano which translated as "healthy mind in a healthy body’".

Hulley became known as the "Gymnasiarch" and from time to time, he would dress in Arabic style.

In January 1862, the two men founded the Liverpool Athletic Club. Melly was President and Hulley became secretary. The new club had many army reservists amongst its membership.

Within six months, the pair had announced the first major sporting promotion. An advertisement in the Liverpool Daily Post proclaimed a "Grand Olympic Festival" to take place on June 14.

One newspaper considered "the programme was of a novel and attractive character".

The day’s proceedings began with a guard of honour provided by the bands of the Childwall Rifles and the Liverpool Artillery Volunteers.

Alderman Robert Hutchinson, the Mayor of Liverpool, lent his patronage to the event .

The prestigious Illustrated London News magazine reported that the grandstand was " profusely decorated with banners’". This was soon filled by "a large and fashionable body of spectators".

"The occupants of the stand were principally of the gentler sex, who were present in great numbers and evidently took a deep interest in the days proceedings."

Advance entrance to the grandstand was set at two shillings (10 pence). Those paying on the day were charged an additional sixpence (2 ½ pence).

The proceedings began at three o’clock in the afternoon and Melly soon announced the first winner - a Londoner called Edgar Athelstane Browne, who had contributed a written essay on physical education. The book was illustrated by his father, Hablot Knight Brown, better known as Charles Dickens’ illustrator Phiz. 

It included a picture of a hand swing or trapeze. The younger Brown wrote: "’It has the advantage of being adapted for the use of women. We commend to the ladies of England the plan of rising half-an-hour earlier than is their custom, and devoting the time thus gained to the trapeze and dumb-bells. Women are not meant for such severe exercise as men, but they are the better for some."

Large crowds watched the first Liverpool Olympic Festival in 1862 ©Wikipedia
Large crowds watched the first Liverpool Olympic Festival in 1862 ©Wikipedia

All through these events the band "added materially to the pleasure of the company by performing selections of popular music in capital style".

Although only amateur sportsmen were allowed to participate, entries had not been limited to Liverpool and members of the Manchester Athenaeum Club took part in gymnastics and fencing and returned home with 11 prizes between them.

A special medal was to be given to the champion individual performer. An advertisement in the local newspapers carried a description.

"The medal will be a beautiful specimen. It is in the form of a Maltese cross. In the centre is a figure of Hercules,surrounded by a white enamelled ribbon on which is inscribed the motto of the club.’"

The eventual winner was Alexander Fairweather of the Athenaeum Club.

Competition went on until half past nine in the evening. This was not a great surprise as many felt there were simply too many events. These included flat racing and a steeplechase in which the competitors wore jockey costume. There were competitions in "jumping"’ and "pole leaping", boxing, broadsword exercises, quoit throwing, wrestling and exercises with Indian clubs.

Most of the crowd seemed to have enjoyed proceedings and "hearty cheers were given for Mr Hulley, the indefatigable honorary secretary to whose exertions the success of the meeting was mainly attributable".

It was estimated that well over 7.000 watched the competitions.

By the next year it had increased to 15,000.

‘"I am heartily glad that increased attention is being given to the subject of physical education. I witnessed with considerable satisfaction, the athletic display of Mount Vernon," said the Reverend Nevison Lorraine in a sermon at Trinity Church, St Anne Street Liverpool.

The Liverpool Mercury newspaper asserted that, "There is no country in which manly exercises are so much in repute, and no town in the kingdom so well fitted to be the centre of the rapidly spreading movement as Liverpool."

The original grounds at Mount Vernon had been sold off by the time the 1864 Games were staged at the Zoological Gardens.

The grave of John Hulley in Toxteth, Liverpool  ©Ray Hulley
The grave of John Hulley in Toxteth, Liverpool ©Ray Hulley

The Games were also held in Llandudno in North Wales. The town authorities had taken notice of his prolific writing in on physical education and encouraged him to hold his event in the new town which was growing in importance as a seaside resort.

Hulley also made contact with Doctor William Penny Brookes and visited the "Olympian Games"’ organised by the Doctor in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock. In time he was elected an honorary member of the Wenlock society and presented with a special commemorative medal.

Hulley also travelled to London to watch the German Gymnastic Festival held at Crystal Palace. He also exchanged ideas with Ernst Ravenstein, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

The trio attended a meeting in Liverpool in November 1865. It was here that Brookes, Hulley and Ravenstein took on the organisation of an ambitious national multi-sport event which would become known as the National Olympian Games. This took place for the first time in 1866. Events were held in London at the King’s Cross gymnasium , Teddington Lock and Crystal Palace.

In the meantime, a new gymnasium at Myrtle Street had been opened by Lord Stanley. It was decorated with an ornamental stone front and on each side a statue of Atlas supporting the globe.

"Mr Hulley has visited all the principal gymnasia in Europe and it has been his ambition to make this the most perfect institution of its kind," said the Liverpool Mercury.

By the time he had reached his 40s, Hulley was suffering from ill health. Chronic chest problems compelled him to spend winters in the warmer climes of the Mediterranean. He was destined never to see the revival of the Olympic Games. He died in 1875 aged only 42.

Hulley’s gravestone in Toxteth was neglected for many years but it has been repaired at the prompting of historian Ray Hulley who spent a number of years researching the story.

After almost a century, the forgotten Liverpool Games have been also been restored to their rightful place in the heritage of the Olympic Movement.