In the summer of 2022, Birmingham will be at the centre of the sporting world when it hosts the 22nd Commonwealth Games. For many, this represents England’s second city finally getting its chance to join those British cities who have recently hosted a multi-sport event. Following the disappointment of losing out to Barcelona in the bidding for the 1992 Olympic Games, and then being forced to watch on enviously as Manchester then Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games and London the Olympic Games, there was a belief that Birmingham might never get such an opportunity. Those making such a claim are perhaps unaware that Birmingham had previously hosted one of the pioneering Multi-Sport festivals; the 1867 National Olympian Games (NOA).
The NOA are today accepted as one of the forefathers of the Modern Olympic Games. The Association was formed on 7 November 1865 at the Mechanics Institution, Manchester, by a group which amongst others included Dr William Penny Brookes. Brookes was throughout his life an advocate of physical exercise and founder of the Wenlock Olympian Association in 1850, was a friend and inspiration to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Brookes importance and role was acknowledged by the Frenchmen in 1890, when he wrote; ‘‘The fact that the Olympic Games, which Modern Greece has been unable to restore, are being revived today is due not to a Hellene (a Greek), but to Dr W P Brookes’.
The NOA had many comparisons to the Much Wenlock Games, and were established ‘for the encouragement and reward of skill and strength in manly exercises, by the award of Medals or other Prizes, money excepted’. Professional athletes were to be ‘excluded’ and the desire was to encourage physical activity amongst the population, a legacy which the Olympic Games continued.
Less than a year after its formation, the NOA’s first games took place at Crystal Palace in 1866, with events in athletics, boxing, fencing, gymnastics, swimming and wrestling. These Games were a considerable success, with over 10,000 spectators in attendance and more than 200 athletes competing.
Following this success, a second Games were held in Birmingham between 25 and 27 June 1867. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Birmingham was a thriving industrial city, described by Edmund Burke as ‘the city of a thousand trades’. The accuracy of this statement is debatable, but there can be no doubt that it produced a wide diversity of products and provided 230 exhibitors at the 1851 Great Exhibition. The growth of the city ensured the founding of multiple sporting and leisure organisations, one of which was the Birmingham Athletic Club (BAC). Formed in 1866, one of the first major events the club organised were the 1867 NOA Games, held upon its grounds.
The Games begun with a procession from the home of the BAC at Bingley Hall in Gib Heath in the North-West of the city, to it’s athletic facilities; the ‘Birmingham Festival grounds’ on Portland Road, Edgbaston, a middle-class suburb with picturesque open spaces. At the beginning of the procession Penny-Brookes gave a speech in which he said he;
‘rejoiced that a National Association has been formed which, by diffusing useful information on this subject, and by the encouragement it will give to practice and competition in gymnastic and athletic exercises, will confer a great benefit on the country.’
He continued by complimenting the physical culture that was developing in Birmingham and pleaded for support across the social classes for further developments:
You have set a noble example, which I hope will be followed by all the large towns of the surrounding midland counties. I trust that henceforth men shows will become as popular as cattle shows, and that a great interest will be taken in the physical development of a human being as in that of a horse, a cow, a sheep, or a pig. I trust that, ere long, you will have a gymnasium that will rival those of London and Liverpool-a building worthy of its great object, viz, the bodily training of the nobles of God’s creatures upon earth; a building, handsome and appropriate in its design spacious in its accommodation, convenient in its internal arrangements a building, too, erected not by shares, but by donations. I trust, too, that it will be well supported by all classes in this neighbourhood, since all classes will benefit by it, directly or indirectly.
Much can be made of such a comment by Brookes, a figure who throughout his life desired to advance physical exercise and was concerned with the impact Industrial life was having upon the general population. Birmingham, through its industrialisation was certainly the type of place that Brookes was concerned about and potentially might explain why Birmingham was chosen as the location for the Games.
Following the parade and Brookes speech, the first events were in athletics, with contests for boys in the Under 14 and Under 17 Categories. The majority of winners were listed as coming from primarily ‘Birmingham’ or from the cities distinguished public school ‘King Edward’s’, although placings were achieved by boys from as far afield as Manchester, London and Norwich.
For men, the focus of the first day’s competition was ‘Tilting of the ring’. This event had become an integral part of the Wenlock Games and is described as being where “two small rings were suspended from a cross-bar, and at these the competitors rode at full gallop with pointed lances, the reward being his who could carry one of these rings away the most time out of a given number”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a Much Wenlock man; T.E. Jukes who won here after hitting the rings three times and took home the ‘substantial’ sum of £20.
The second day primarily featured athletic contests for men, with short and middle distance running events. The ‘Birmingham Journal’ described that the ‘sky was cloudless’ and amongst the spectators ‘there was a large attendance of ladies’. The stars of the day were M.E. Jobling of the Northumberland Cricket Club, who took the one-mile race and half-mile steeplechase, while John Duckworth of Athletic Club Haslingden, won the High Standing Leap, Hurdle race and 100-yard flat race.
Also, part of the days programme was a wrestling match between two members of the German Gymnastic Society of London. The ‘Birmingham Journal’, described it as “one of the most marvellous performances of the day”:
‘For nearly twenty minutes they tugged and bent, now separating for an instant, and watching each other like cats, to close in another fruitless attempt to gain the mastery. Lansbeger was repeatedly laid on his face, but a fall was never obtained by his opponent. It was announced amid cheers that the contest was a drawn one.’
The third and final day of competition featured contests in athletics, cricket, gymnastics and swimming. The gymnastics was described in the Birmingham Journal as an ‘exhibition of skill and science in gymnastic exercises’ by the members of the London German Gymnastic Society, who won every event. The cricket match featured teams from King Edwards’s Grammar School and Birmingham Gymnastic Club, with the schoolboys coming out on top by 3 runs. The final activity of the Games was swimming, held at the Kent Street Swimming Baths with races across 116, 290 and 870 yards, which were all won by members of the London German Gymnastic Society.
The Games concluded with an “Olympian Ball”, held in the Town Hall. The ‘Birmingham Journal’s final remarks upon the games as a ‘very successful festival, which has given a new impetus to the cultivation of manly and athletic accomplishments in the town.’
Following the successful completion of the Games, Manchester was chosen to host the third edition of the Games in 1868. Problems with the venue ensured that the 1868 Festival was moved to Wellington, Shropshire. Conflict with the Amateur Athletic Club prevented many top athletes from competing in these ‘Olympics’ and despite later attempts at revival, this spelled the beginning of the end for the NOA. The Birmingham Olympics are perhaps the most successful Games it hosted and the organisation should be remembered for its attempts to bring together a number of sports in organised competition, a pioneering event that have paved the way for the events organised by the IOC and Commonwealth Games Federation.
Article © Luke J Harris