2024 is set to be very significant in the world of sport. The XXXIII Olympiad takes place in Paris while in the men’s game the highly anticipated European Football Championship kicks off in June. To mark both events this blog looks at the varied sporting heritage represented in our collections.
THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
There is no getting away from the fact that since the post-war era football has maintained a somewhat unique grip on the national psyche. After Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 General Election, some political commentators placed a proportion of the blame on England exiting the World Cup. The quarter-final defeat a week before going to the polls, supposedly causing the electorate to question whether change was required on the pitch and in 10 Downing Street.
From his Personal Papers it’s not clear if Patrick Hannon MP ever used his allegiance to Aston Villa to woo voters in his Birmingham Moseley constituency. Though during a long-standing tenure as local MP I’m sure they were aware of his abiding passion for the ‘Villans’. As Club President he had the privilege of hosting a ceremonial black-tie evening at the city’s Grand Hotel to celebrate Villa’s epic 1957 FA Cup victory over Manchester United.
RAIN AND SHINE
Sporting clubs of all sizes need a historian of sorts to help preserve for posterity its glory days. For the Lords and Commons Cricket Team (LCC) Eric Bullus MP and Lord Orr-Ewing took on the mantle. Their chronicles detailed the LCC’s beginnings in the late 19th Century at Westminster’s Vincent Square Pavilion, bringing to life players such as Sir Rowland Blades and the indomitable Lord Harris who put on the pads past his seventieth birthday.
Bullus & Orr-Ewing appeared for the LCC as part of a ‘golden generation’ that emerged in the sixties including future Cabinet Minister Tom King. From the staff pool, estate policeman Brian Mustill pitted his bowling against the likes of the West Indian Wanderers. The wearing of the squad blazer adorned with a blue portcullis badge was compulsory for any overseas trips. This mainly consisted of an annual match with the Dutch Parliament at the Hague.
PLAYING A ROUND
Picture the scene, a sunny day at Mitcham’s Prince’s Golf Club as Andrew Bonar Law, leading light of the Conservative Unionists contested the 1907 Parliamentary Handicap with Lords Clerk Mr H P St John. Battling through six preliminary rounds the momentum was with the Scotsman and, despite a lower seeding, he triumphed, playing as The Times reported, ‘a fairly good line’. Twelve months on he unsuccessfully defended his title as he was eliminated early doors.
Contemporary Lloyd George treated a round of golf as the perfect setting for a little gossip, even leasing out a property on Surrey’s Waltham Heath Course from press mogul George Riddell. The Times wrote that at a prizegiving in his native Wales he regaled the audience with a story of how once in the South of France he thought he’d hit a drive into nearby bushes only to discover he'd achieved a ‘hole in one’.
Tradition permitted that the Victorian Parliament adjourn so members could attend the biggest date on the Horse Racing calendar, June’s Epsom Derby. It’s reputation as a raucous affair was famously depicted by artist William Powell Firth. The Grand National matched Derby Day for popularity, however by the mid-20th Century questions regarding animal welfare were being raised in the House. Brighton MP, Howard Johnson noted that in 1954 four horses died from a field of twenty-nine.
Safety concerns were fundamental to Baroness Summerskill’s 1962 Boxing Bill that sought to prohibit various aspects of the sport. On a hiding to nothing with the proposed legislation she joked ‘can anyone talk of the "noble art" without having his tongue in his cheek’. Ex-amateur boxer turned politician Manny Shinwell would have certainly disagreed with these sentiments. He caused a major chamber commotion back in 1938 by crossing the floor to punch adversary Commander Bower.
SPIRIT OF THE GAMES
Did you know at the 1896 Athens Olympics first-place winners received a silver medal supplemented by an olive leaved crown? This information was gleaned from the records of former Lords Clerk William Leveson-Gower whose diplomat father was in attendance. The spirit of the games never diminished still evident in 2012 when London staged the Olympics. The Act of Parliament rubber-stamping the project was essential to the framework assembled for large-scale transport, advertising, and trade requirements.
Ice skating mania hit the United Kingdom in the aftermath of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean winning gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. A huge television audience of 24 million viewers watched the figure skaters triumph performing to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. A congratulatory Commons Early Day Motion was soon tabled but party politics reared its head as a Labour MP added an amendment lambasting Nottingham’s Conservative controlled council for not financially supporting the pair.
The ‘special relationship’ existing between Britain and the United States blossomed in the fifties under the nautical banner of the House of Commons Yacht Club sponsored Alfred Bossom Cup. Bossom, a much-travelled Anglo-American MP, oversaw the New World v Old World competition held in the Isle of Wight. Ably assisted on administrative duties by fellow sea-loving MPs Reginald Bennett and Patricia Hornsby-Smith who was recognised as one of the most competent sailors within the ranks.
Of course, the social element of sailing weekends was of paramount importance and the Commons Yacht Club did not let the side down organising a traditional ‘Greasy Pole’ contest and informal dinner dances. In the House of Lords its own yachting fraternity was famed for its sophisticated cocktail party fundraisers, imperative for purchasing items like the Rose Bowl Challenge Cup. VIP guests occasionally included esteemed patrons HRH Duke of Edinburgh and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.
Don’t ever underestimate the diplomatic power of ping-pong. At the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan a chance encounter involving the American champion Glenn Cowan and his Chinese counterpart Zhuang Zedong led to an unexpected invitation for the American contingent to visit China. This thawing of Cold War tensions inspired Dick Leonard MP to suggest that the Palace of Westminster should install a table allowing its Parliamentarians to let off a bit of steam.
As ideas go it weren’t a bad shout as in that year the Commons was dealing with increasingly fraught legislative issues ranging from industrial relations to European Community membership. Leader of the House, Willie Whitelaw gave his question a gentle rebuff choosing to ignore an additional caveat that the activity may be used to entertain foreign delegations. Leonard’s time in Parliament was brief as he returned to journalism becoming an expert in predicting electoral trends.
They say sport and politics shouldn’t mix yet in certain instances they can’t be separated.