Harry Mount

A sporting life

Lessons for this year from the grand panjandrum of the 1908 London Olympics

A sporting life
24th July 1908: Dorando Pietri of Italy, on the verge of collapse, is helped across the finish line in the Marathon event of the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He was subsequently disqualified and the title was given to John Hayes of the USA. (Photo by
Text settings

If you wanted a little more excitement in this year’s Olympic marathon, you could do worse than imitate the race in 1908 — the first time the Games were held in ­London.

Competitors, running from Windsor Castle to Shepherd’s Bush in the boiling heat,  were given hot and cold Oxo, rice pudding and milk, but no water. Still, there was free eau de cologne and champagne — that’s what did for the South African leading at the halfway mark. He suffered stomach cramps after a glass of champagne, surrendering the lead to a plucky little Italian confectioner, Dorando Pietri. Just short of the finishing line, Pietri collapsed. In the most dramatic image of the Games, he was helped over the finishing line by officials, only to be disqualified after an American protest.

The Games were an odd mix of quaint amateurishness and bad blood between the Americans and the British. In the tug-of-war, the Americans were incensed that they had to wear normal shoes, while a British team of Liverpool policemen wore their regulation heavy boots. When the police won, the Americans lodged a formal protest, refusing a rematch in their stockinged feet. 

In the 400m, the Americans were outraged that their winner was disqualified for elbowing our man, Lieutenant Wyndham Halswelle. Even the opening ceremony was marred when the organisers forgot to include an American flag among those decorating the stadium. In revenge, the American athletes refused to dip the Stars and Stripes before Edward VII. And it wasn’t just the British the Americans took against — they even tried to block the track for their own man, John Taylor, the first black American to win Olympic gold.

Still, we shouldn’t be too hard on the man who arranged the Games, Lord Desborough — as a new exhibition at his French Gothic pile, Taplow Court, high above the Thames, shows.

Desborough (a distant cousin of mine) arranged the London games at lightning-quick speed. They should have been held in Rome, but a Vesuvius eruption in 1906 meant they were cancelled. Desborough,  who’d won an Olympic épée silver, aged 50, at the 1906 Athens Games, was given two years to arrange the London Games, with no government money, no funding and no stadium. Only after he contacted newspaper editors did a national campaign to fund the Games begin. Within weeks, £10,000 had arrived at newspaper offices and at Desborough’s house in Queen Street, Mayfair. The stadium was finished in 16 months.

Many of the standards at this summer’s Olympics were first laid down by Desborough’s committee at the 1908 Games: among them the idea of national teams, preliminary heats, amateur status, the 50-metre swimming pool, the marathon length and the introduction of an opening ceremony.

For Desborough, the Olympics were the culmination of a sporting life as one of the great Victorian action men — the high summer before the slaughter of the first world war wiped out half his family and eclipsed those golden Edwardian years for good.

Born in 1855, Desborough had been Liberal MP for Salisbury, switching to the Conservatives over Irish home rule. He made it as far as private secretary to Sir William Harcourt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1885. But politics wasn’t really his thing — sport was. President of the Oxford University Athletic Club and Boat Club, he climbed the Matterhorn three times, was Thames Punting Champion for three years in a row and stroked an eight from Dover to Calais:  the crew each took a jam jar for bailing out water. When he wasn’t competing, he was exploring. In 1888, after swimming across the pool at the bottom of Niagara Falls, he went hunting in the Rockies, where he got lost for two days — he read the complete works of Milton by the light of a candle on a stick. After university, he became the Telegraph’s war correspondent in the Sudan. Confronted at one stage by a squad of discontented tribal warriors, he outpaced them in his tennis shoes, armed only with an umbrella.

As if all this derring-do wasn’t enough,  along with the inheritance of 3,000 acres of Buckinghamshire, and a pile of loot picked up by his ancestors in Cornish copper mines,  Desborough married a cracker, Ethel Fane, known as Ettie. Heiress to the earls of ­Westmorland, Ettie was the witty, minxy hostess at the heart of the Souls, the drawing-room elite of England; among them were the Conservative prime minister, Arthur Balfour, another PM’s wife, Margot Asquith, and George Curzon, Viceroy of India. Yeats, Chesterton and Kipling were all guests — Winston Churchill was twice dunked in the Thames at Taplow. Oscar Wilde dedicated a fairytale to Ettie. 

The life began to flood out of the Souls in 1914, and the Desboroughs were cruelly singled out by the fates. First came the death of their eldest son, Julian Grenfell DSO — a pro-war poet, you might call him. In his best-known poem, ‘Into Battle’, written in April 1915 near Ypres, he writes, ‘He is dead who will not fight; and who dies fighting has increase.’ A fortnight later, Grenfell was wounded by a shell, dying soon after. The next day, the Times published ‘Into Battle’, and he became one of the war’s prominent casualties — Maurice Baring wrote him a sonnet; Henry James lavishly praised Grenfell’s ‘ringing and stinging’ verses. Two months later, Julian’s brother, Billy, was killed at Hooge. The last brother, Ivo, was killed in a 1926 car crash. 

Willie Desborough lived on, a broken man, dying in 1945 at 89. Still, the sporting gene ran strong — my granny remembers him in old age, casting a mournful fly across Taplow’s Norman baronial hall while Ettie’s guests chattered away in the dining room next door. The joyous summer days when he brought the Olympics to Shepherd’s Bush were a long way behind him. 

How England Made the English by Harry Mount is published by Viking.