In the contemporary age of international sport, the idea of global travel is commonplace and part of the job of a professional athlete. In the early years of the Commonwealth Games (then the British Empire Games), international travel was the reserve of the societal elite, and would have been a unique, exciting and daunting experience for most of the athletes involved. With trips to places such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, athletes could expect to be away travelling and competing for weeks on end, which had consequences for their work and family lives.
Following the London British Empire Games in 1934, the decision of where to host the third games in 1938 came down to two potential cities: Toronto, Canada and Sydney, Australia. The Canadians, who had rekindled the idea of the Games, were keen to maintain the momentum the new multisport event had gained following successful Games in Hamilton (1930) and London (1934). The Australians, whose relationship with the Empire had become increasingly strained, were eager to host the Games in order to showcase their vibrant new urban developments and promote the country as a new destination for migrants and tourists.
The Canadian case was founded on the Games coinciding with the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the Canadian National Exhibition. They would also build a new stadium on the waterfront and had the belief that they were the ‘natural’ home of the Games. According to the Canadians, Australia was too remote and too far to travel for most nations of the Commonwealth. As this excerpt from the bid letter from the Secretary of Canadian Amateur Athletics Association demonstrates:
I am certain that it would be the wish of the Board to hold the Games in a part of the Empire where they have not been previously held if this be at all possible, but I feel – and I am sure the Board will agree with me in this – that the Games should be held only in Dominions to which the other parts of the Empire could send reasonably representative teams both in quality and number, as without this the Games would lose much of their Imperial value.
Conversely, Canada, according to the Australians, had already hosted the Games and was therefore not yet due to host it again. The main incentive to have the Games in Sydney would be to coincide with 150th anniversary of the Foundation of Sydney taking place at the same time. Their bid letter announced the Governor of New South Wales had guaranteed travel bursaries for visiting nations which was broken down in to proposed payments to individual participating nations:
- Venue: Sydney, 1.3million population
- Dates: January 1938
- Events: Athletics, Swimming/Diving, Cycling, Boxing and Wrestling, Sculling, Bowls.
Financial Assistance: Steamer passages only:
- England 15 persons @ £100 £1500
- Scotland 6 persons £600
- Wales 3 persons £300
- N. Ireland 2 persons £200
- Canada 15 persons @ £80 £1200
- S. Africa 10 persons @ £100 £1000
- New Zealand 10 persons @ £20 £200
- India 3 persons @ £40 £120
- Bermuda, British Guiana, Trinidad, Hong Kong, Fiji, Jamaica, Rhodesia, Newfoundland £380 in total.
- Local Australians 50 @ £10 £500
- Total £6000
In their letter to Evan Hunter, Secretary of BEGF, the Australian James Eve proclaimed:
You, Sir, having recently visited Australia, know full well the facilities we have at our disposal, our climatic conditions and the organising ability of our administrators, and we sincerely trust that no obstacle will be placed in the way to endanger our application.
Whether it was the climate, the Australian passion for sport or the security of travel funds, in October 1935 the Scottish National Sports Federation confirmed to the Scottish media that Sydney would host the third British Empire Games in January 1938, and that the Scottish team would receive £600 Australian currency (£480 Sterling) to cover some of their costs.
The Federation let it be known their preference was Canada, and further concluded they would need twice the amount being offered by the Australians to cover the expenses of sending a team of ten plus an administrator to Australia. An appeals fund was set up and it soon became apparent raising £500 would not be easy. In November 1936, Evan Hunter, Secretary of the British Empire Games Association gave the Scottish Secretary George Ferguson the ‘tip’ to provisionally book their births on the ship for Australia. Provisional reservations were made of four four-berth cabins on the “Ormonde” sailing from London on 4th December 1937. A special return fair £64 10’ (usually £77) also gave return passage on the “Statheden” from Sydney on 18th February 1938. The total travel costs were expected to be £75 per athlete.
The Federation had employed a fundraiser for this specific purpose, and in the minutes of the Annual Report the lines of where amateurism in the Games movement began and ended were justified:
There are many of us willing and able to do our best for the furtherance of the Empire Games movement in the form of giving our time and thought to the organization of Scotland’s part in the scheme yet it would be most unfair to ask anyone to undertake the task of raising funds without suitable remuneration.
The limits on cost also posed questions for how many competitors, and who, to send. The quality of competitors and their chances of medals were paramount. Ferguson was clear in his mind about the limits of the Scottish team:
In my view there is little likelihood of our being able to send eleven first-class competitors and accordingly we can consider ourselves in a satisfactory financial position to send all competitors who have any likelihood of reasonable success.
The whole trip would take four months and athletes needed early warning of their inclusion to make necessary arrangements.
Membership of the Scottish team was decided by ballot among the Federation board and after considerable debate the final team was decided as follows:
- H. M. Cameron Boxing
- A. Dugeon Wrestler
- W. Francis Swimmer (Team Captain)
- D. McNab Robertson Marathon
- J. C. Stothard Half-mile, quarter mile and mile.
- T. Ward Wrestler
- J. Watson Boxer
- D. Young Discus and weight putt
- Miss Margot Hamilton Swimmer
- Miss M. McDowall Athlete, 100 and 220 yards
One outstanding issue related to the team was the ‘safety’ of the female competitors. As the minutes of 10 August 1937 reveal: “The selection of the two ladies was provisional on suitable arrangements being made to chaperone them throughout.” Initially, the wife of the manager of the Western Baths in Glasgow, Mrs Campbell, offered to travel to Sydney at her own expense. In the end, the role of female chaperone resided with the wife of the Scotland Team Manager Colonel Kenneth Whitton. Whitton, a retired Headmaster and originally from Dingwall, was secretary of the Scottish Amateur Wrestling Association. Whitton’s first task was to deal with an errant Edinburgh journalist Magnus Williamson who published the Scottish team in the Evening Dispatch before receiving the formal list from the SNSF, much to the annoyance of the editor of their rival local paper the Edinburgh Evening News. Williamson was black-balled from any future news briefing.
All the British teams travelled together on board the Ormonde and were under the supervision of the Sir James Leigh Wood (seen here in the Pathe newsreel), Commandant in Chief of the Teams” on board. The following Pathe Newsreel ‘Australia Bound shows the farewell to the teams from the quayside at London docks. The Scottish Team uniform was agreed with supplier J. C. Smith of Edinburgh and was as follows:
To be supplied by the Federation
- Blazer and cricket cap in royal blue (beret for girls)
- Blue hat bands to be taken by the Team Manager and suitable straw or other hats to be purchased by him in Australia.
- Blue training suits, blue vests with Thistle badges in the centre.
To be supplied by the competitor
- White trousers and skirts.
- Men brown shoes. Girls white shoes.
- Running shorts, swimming costume, running shoes, boxing and wrestling boots.
The formality of dinner at sea also required male competitors to bring Dinner Jackets and women to wear formal evening dress. The team were given a rousing send off at a dinner party held at the Liberal Club in Edinburgh, but their journey hit problems early on when the train to London arrived two hours late and they only just managed to board the liner at Tilbury. In the mad rush across London from Euston to St Pancras a bag containing the boxers equipment – including punchball and gloves – was left behind. As Whitton later recalled:
If Scotland’s Empire Games hopes left Edinburgh in high spirits it can be truthfully said that their entry into and departing from London were somewhat subdued.
The Scots joined the rest of the British contingent on route to the S.S. Ormonde, which was characterized by Whitton as “one of the homeliest and smallest of the Orient liners”. The passage through the Bay of Biscay was rough, and competitors were confined to their quarters for three days. Training on the liner mainly consisted of simple exercises under the supervision of the English boxing trainer and physical training instructor Joe Wilby. Efforts were made to keep the leisurely life the non-athlete passengers as normal as possible, but for one hour a day the athletes were allowed to use the deck to jog and sprint to maintain their fitness. For the most part competitors were kept out of direct sunshine, but young swimmer Margot Hamilton succumbed to sunstroke during the trip from Colombo to Freemantle. In Sydney the humidity was extremely high, and was followed by a plague of mosquitos with many of the Scottish team suffering from numerous severe bites. As Whitton later noted:
As a team we had not the best of luck before the Games. Graham and Miss McDowall suffered from strained leg muscles, Robertson from a poisoned finger, Watson a cut eye, Ward from boils, Miss Hamilton a foot injury, while Cameron and I suffered most from mosquito bites. But we were all in a fairly reasonable state of fitness when actual competition started.
The team itself performed poorly, either due to the heat and conditions, or because they were simply outclassed. Sprinter Peggy McDowall qualified for the semi-finals in both the 100 and 220 yards, but came last in both heats. Her lack of experience in international athletics had arguably gone against her, prior to the Games she had never competed outside of Scotland. Marathon runner Donald Robertson just missed out on a medal and came fourth, later revealing he suffered from insomnia after the race. “It takes twenty four hours from the time the race finishes for my body and thoughts to become normal again”, he confessed.
There disappointments too for boxers, wrestlers and swimmers, but Scotland did manage a few medals to cheer the team. Glaswegian policeman, David Young won silver in the discuss, William Francis won silver in the 110 yards backstroke and Margot Hamilton won bronze in the Women’s 110 yards backstroke. Boxer Jimmy Watson was arguably hard done by in the final of the Featherweight final, losing on points to a Ceylonese boxer. “How he lost on points”, Whitton reflected, “amazed more than his supporters”.
Scottish press reports had suggested the Scottish team had been treated poorly by their hosts. Whitton’s account begged to differ and his report tried to set the record straight. Male participants were accommodated in barracks at the Royal Agricultural Ground, while the two female competitors and their chaperone stayed at the Kirketon Hotel, some distance from the Empire Village and swimming pool where they would compete. The male quarters were noisy, and made sleep difficult, but the food and services were exceptional according to the Scottish team manager and the team were inundated with requests to visit different parts of Australia.
Pay no attention to stories of wild scenes at Empire Village once the Games were over. The finish of all these big athletic gatherings is usually the occasion of hilarity on the part of the competitors. Damage was done to the cardboard wall partitions, but these were due to be stripped when the village came to be dismantled.
Some things never change!
NB Colonel Kenneth Whitton Team Managers cap features in our new exhibition, Hosts and Champions: Scotland in the Commonwealth Games currently running as part of the Art Collection at the University of Stirling. From 24 July – 3 August the exhibition we be part of Festival 2014 at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow.