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Gold doesn’t tarnish

Susan Snell, Archivist and Records Manager for the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, reveals connections between the Craft and the Olympics

The London 2012 organisers revealed in 2011 that they received applications for more than 20 million tickets from 1.8 million people for the Olympic Games – more than three times the 6.6 million tickets available to UK sports fans. Compared with this mad scramble for tickets, attendances at the first London Games were low according to The Times on 18 July 1908. Expensive ticket prices, ranging from five shillings to a Guinea (£45 to £60 in today’s money) were blamed for poor sales. 

Thankfully, visits by the Royal Family boosted gate returns to the 1908 Games, with over 20,000 people attending the White City Stadium, constructed by the entrepreneur and Freemason, Imre Kiralfy. The connections do not stop there. A keen sportsman and Freemason, Lord Desborough fenced at the unofficial Athens Games of 1906 and served as a member of the International Olympic Committee until 1913. Desborough was initiated in Apollo University Lodge, No. 357, Oxford, on 23 February 1875, the same day as Oscar Wilde.

THE GAMES BEGIN

The 500 British athletes at the opening of the Olympic Games wore caps and blazer badges manufactured by the masonic regalia company, George Kenning & Son. Britons achieved sporting success in real tennis (jeu de paume), athletics, swimming, boxing, tug of war and cycling, with several masonic participants, including Richard Wheldon Barnett of St Alban’s Lodge, No. 29, London, who represented Great Britain in the rifle, military pistol class competition.

This was just the beginning of the 1908 success stories. A Great Britain team won the gold medal in the Olympic football competition, with Vivian John Woodward, an amateur player at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs, scoring the second of two goals. Woodward, from Clacton, Essex, worked as an architect with his father and later designed the Antwerp stadium for the 1920 Olympics. Four years after his Olympic triumph, he was initiated in Kent Lodge No. 15, London.

Sir John Edward Kynaston Studd carried the British team flag and most track and field events were organised by the Regent Street Polytechnic, founded by Quintin Hogg. Studd became honorary secretary of the Polytechnic from 1885 and after Hogg’s death, president. Many sportsmen, including Studd, joined Polytechnic Lodge, No. 2847, after it was consecrated in 1901.

Studd and others formed Athlon Lodge, No. 4674, in 1924, the year Harold Abrahams won an Olympic gold medal in the 100 metres, as featured in the film Chariots Of Fire, beating an American, Charley Paddock, and another British athlete, the New Zealand-born Freemason, Sir Arthur Espie Porritt. Bronze medal winner Porritt, who later served as Governor-General of New Zealand, became a consultant surgeon and then chairman at the Royal Masonic Hospital from 1974 to 1982. Athlon Lodge member Abrahams and Porritt dined together on 7 July at 7pm every year to celebrate the anniversary of their double medal success in 1924, until the former died in 1978.

BRITISH SPORTING SUCCESS

With the 1908 Games encouraging participation in competitive sports, Britons excelled at subsequent Olympic competitions. The Thames-based rower, Jack Beresford, won a silver medal in the single sculls at the 1920 Olympics and then won medals for rowing at each of the four subsequent Games. He carried the British flag at the opening and closing ceremonies of the controversial 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he won a gold medal in the double sculls. He was initiated as a Freemason in Argonauts Lodge, No. 2243, London, in 1944.

Forty years after its first visit to UK shores, the Olympics came to London again. Ernest James Henry ‘Billy’ Holt, who was initiated in Black Horse of Lombard Street Lodge, No. 4155, in 1922, served as director of organisation for the 1948 London Games. Holt, Master of Athlon Lodge in 1938, had coached the long-distance athlete, Gordon Pirie.

Cycling Freemasons, Gordon ‘Tiny’ Thomas, formerly of Lodge of Equity, No. 6119, Yorkshire West Riding, won a silver medal in the team road race and Tommy Godwin, formerly of Lodge of St Oswald, No. 5094, Worcestershire, won bronzes in the 1km time trial and in the team pursuit. Godwin coached the British cycling squad at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and will be an Olympic torchbearer in Solihull in July, aged 91. This blend of local and national interests, where Olympic and masonic aspirations combine, points to a time when members and non-members can enjoy the pleasure of a game well played, and a race well run.

 Sport by all
The Paralympic Games, which began at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948 also have masonic ties. Professor Guttman, director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the hospital, encouraged WW2 veterans to play sport for rehabilitation. The Middlesex Masonic Sports Association has supported Paralympians, including Tracy Lewis, basketball, and Anthony Peddle, weightlifting, at the 1992 Barcelona Games, while the Grand Charity contributes to WheelPower (formerly the British Wheelchair Sports Foundation).
Game, Set and Lodge: Freemasons and Sport exhibition at the Library and Museum on Great Queen Street runs from 2 July-21 December 2012