Held in Athens, Greece, the 1896 games were the first modern Summer Olympic Games and this year marks 125 years of British athletes taking part in the sporting event.
The opening ceremony of the first modern Olympic Games took place on 6 April 1896 in Athens in front of 60,000 spectators. Although the ancient Olympics can trace its history back to the first recorded games in 776 BC, the modern incarnation was instituted in the late 19th century. Lasting until 15 April, official records claim 241 athletes from 14 countries competed in 43 events. The London-based newspaper The Graphic published a sketch of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, refurbished especially and used for the opening ceremony on 6 April.
Great Britain sent 10 athletes to the games, seven of whom finished in medal-winning positions, two being gold. Women however were not permitted to compete until the 1900 Olympic Games held in Paris. It was also ruled by the International Olympic Committee that only amateur athletes could take part, except in fencing.
We delved into our collections to learn more about some of the British medallists from the 1896 games. It should be noted that contrary to today’s gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third place respectively, in 1896 the awards were much different: first place received a silver medal, while second place was awarded a bronze/copper medal. The International Olympic Committee subsequently standardised the results in line with today’s gold, silver and bronze standings, which we have used for the purposes of this piece.
Not only did we encounter an interesting sketch of the Marathon, almost 25 miles in distance, but also won by Greek athlete Spyridon Louis, we learned a little more about the British athletes and their domestic lives.
Frederick Keeping (1867-1950)
An employee of the British Embassy in Athens in 1896, Frederick Keeping, or Fred as he went by, came second in the 12-hour cycling race, which by today’s criteria would have earned him a silver medal.
Fred was born in Pennington, Hampshire in 1867 and in 1881 was working as an errand boy, perhaps carrying out his duties on a bicycle. Fred ventured to Greece via London, seeking work as a footman in the capital where he married his spouse Charlotte in 1895.
Their time in Greece was relatively short and following the 1896 games, Fred and his family returned to England to the familiar surroundings of Milford, near Pennington. The following year The Hampshire Advertiser reported that Fred pleaded guilty to riding his bicycle witho
ut having his lamps lit during the correct period of time, having ridden from London back to Hampshire. Finishing second in a gruelling 12-hour Olympic cycling race was not enough to protect Fred against a one shilling fine for essentially riding without lights!
Fred’s passion for cycling and bicycles evidently went beyond the track as in 1901 he was employed as a cycle manufacturer in Milford. The census indicates that Fred’s son Frank was born in Athens around 1896-1897, perhaps following the 1896 games.
Sporting talent ran in the family. Fred’s son Alexander “Mike” Keeping was a professional footballer playing for Southampton and Fulham and later managed Real Madrid in Spain. Mike was recorded as a professional footballer in the 1939 England and Wales Register, although football had been suspended three weeks previously owing to the outbreak of the Second World War. Fred died in Hampshire in 1950.
Continuing with cyclists, according to the Team GB website, little is known of British athlete Edward Battel who finished third in the cycling road race, earning the equivalent of a bronze medal by today’s standards. Even Edward’s name is not certain. Interpreting records and deciphering handwriting are some of the greatest challenges faced by family historians’ but perhaps those eagle-eyed among you may uncover the details about Edward’s life before and after the 1896 games using historical documents.
Launceston Elliot (1874-1930)
Launceston Elliot was born in British India in 1874, spent his early years in Australia and moved to England during his childhood. Described as Britain’s first Olympic champion, he won gold and silver in the one and two-handed weightlifting categories respectively at the 1896 games. A news report in The Times in April 1896 contains an update on the games and notes that Launceston was victorious in the one-handed lift, lifting 71 kilograms.
Launceston also competed in other events at the 1896games but did not replicate the success he attained in weightlifting. He did however become a well-known public figure and continued to compete in British competitions, setting new records, and competed at the 1900 games in Paris. The Scottish newspaper The Courier and Argus for example described Launceston as ‘a perfect specimen of muscular mankind’ and an ‘” all-round” strong man’.
Evidently in demand, in an October 1902 edition of The Manchester Guardian, an advert for Cadbury’s Cocoa contains a quote from ‘A Famous Athlete (Mr Launceston Elliot, the weight-lifter)’, indicating the opportunities that arose out of his feats of strength and his achievements at the 1896 games.
In 1911 Launceston was living with his widowed mother, along with his wife and three children in Mottingham, Kent and was recorded as a ‘farmer’. The family later settled in Australia where Launceston continued to work as a farmer. Launceston died in Melbourne in 1930 and his impressive headstone in Fawkner Memorial Park, Victoria contains the Team GB logo and Launceston’s accolade of ‘FIRST BRITISH OLYMPIC CHAMPION.’
Grantley Goulding (1874-1947)
Gloucestershire-born Grantley Goulding won silver in the 100m hurdles at the 1896 games. Here the London-based Daily News reported on the heats leading up to the 100m hurdles final. Grantley, of Gloucestershire Athletic Club, won the first heat while Thomas Curtis of the United States won the second: the latter eventually beat Grantley in the final.
Grantley was baptised in the Gloucestershire parish of Corse in 1874, shortly after his birth. In 1881 seven-year-old Grantley was recorded in his father’s household; the latter was a farmer of 680 acres, employing 15 men, five women and five boys.
Grantley served in South Africa as a Trooper (the equivalent of a Private) with the 1st Imperial Light Horse during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Grantley’s entry in the medal rolls for the conflict indicate that he was entitled to the South Africa Medal with the clasps ‘Relief of Mafeking’, ‘Transvaal’, ‘Elandslaagte’ and ‘Defence of Ladysmith’. The latter clasp was awarded to the garrison of Ladysmith, which included around 13,500 troops, who were besieged between November 1899 and February 1900. Grantley was discharged in October 1900 and died in South Africa in 1947.