A Tale of Two Olympics
London is the only city in the world that has hosted the Olympic Games three times. The first was in 1908, right here in White City during the spectacular Franco-British Exhibition. Historian Fern Riddell uncovers an event whose idealism was by turns disturbingly colonialist and strangely progressive.
COLLAGE - Anthony Gerace
At the weekends, when my flatmate was home, we’d walk past the high street shops and tube stations, up the slope to the glass covered concrete palace that is the Westfield Shopping Centre, in the heart of White City. Walking into Westfield always felt like walking into another world. It took you away from everyday life and into a modern-day cathedral, full of light. I have lost countless hours pressed up against the windows, ogling handbags I could never afford, finding the right jumper for winter layers, or eating whatever we were in the mood for from one of the numerous cafes and restaurants.
Today, it might be difficult to picture White City as it was just over a century ago, when farmland would have been where Westfield and Television Centre sit today. As the 20th century began, Shepherd’s Bush was home to a cricket club, stationers, and tea shops, but in 1908 it became the centre of the sporting world. London was to host the Olympic Games for the first time, and Shepherd’s Bush was about to be changed beyond all recognition. First held in 1896, the modern Olympic Games were the brainchild of Pierre de Coubertin, who wanted to create a universal sporting competition that was open to anyone, in the hope it would bring together citizens of all nations and foster a greater understanding between them.
Just like today, cities across the world competed to hold the games, but London’s original bid to host the Olympics had failed, and they had been awarded to Rome. However, as Rome’s preparations began, a sudden and violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906 brought destruction to Naples and killed over 100 people. The devastation left by the volcano required Italy to channel all of its funds into rebuilding the city and so, with less than two years to prepare, London suddenly found itself hosting the 1908 Olympic Games. But where in the city could accommodate this global sporting event, which they should already have been halfway through preparing for?
As luck would have it, there was already a development planned for Shepherd’s Bush. The Franco-British Exhibition wanted to build a ‘pleasure city’ on 143 acres of farmland that now lies underneath our modern concrete buildings, to celebrate the signing of the 1904 Entente Cordiale. This agreement brought together the two 'great empires’ of Britain and France, and set out their hopes for continued warmth between the two countries as their concern over the increasing power of Germany grew. To house the Exhibition, which was to showcase the best of British and French engineering, science, food, clothes, and culture, as well as displaying the different countries these empire nations believed belonged to them (drawn from across the globe), they were now to host the Olympic Games, and so a stadium was built. The underground station of Wood Lane was also designed, bringing spectators straight into the heart of the new development.
When it opened in 1908, 'The White City' was a feat of modern engineering and design. With over twenty main palaces, there were also a myriad of smaller buildings, set into three miles of main avenues, and thirty miles of smaller avenues and garden paths. At night, the White City was illuminated by “a million electric lights” presenting “a dazzling magnificent spectacle not easily forgotten.” Fronting the Congress Hall, one of the main buildings of the new development, and at the end of the Court of Honour, was a flight of crystal steps, over which water flowed at the rate of two and a half million gallons each day, and at night was lit by “countless multi-coloured electric lights, giving it a fairy-like appearance.” Every building was painted white, giving the place its name, and this new sparkling city was proclaimed an architectural triumph of the age.
When the Prince and Princess of Wales opened the Exhibition on May 14th, 1908, The Sphere reported the Prince’s hopes that both it and the Games would “encourage healthy rivalry, stimulate interchange of knowledge and ideas, strengthen brotherhood of nations, and in thus doing so, help on the work of civilisation and promote peace and prosperity throughout the world.” These ideas of brotherhood, a shared appreciation for different cultures and a belief that challenging one another was healthy feels somewhat distant in out modern age. We also struggle with how the Victorians displayed these different identities. To showcase all the different cultures of the empire, the exhibition had multiple villages throughout its complex. These displayed the everyday life of different peoples, from West Africa to Europe. ‘Native villages’ – the Irish, the Senegalese, the French – were supposed to give visitors the chance to experience the culture and the lives of all corners of the world first-hand, at a time before Google or travel documentaries. But for many in the Victorian world they were also confirmation of an inherent racial superiority in Western culture. When a similar exhibition was built in Chicago, USA, in 1893, the Chicago Tribune had declared, “What an opportunity was here afforded to the scientific mind to descend the spiral of evolution.”
The racism and colonialism on display here rightly horrifies us. Yet it existed alongside a genuine excitement and interest in different cultures. One visitor recorded: “So we might go on from Senegal to Ireland, from New Zealand to far Lapland, enjoying the vast panorama of the wealth of two empires and what a medley of tongues!... Italian, French, German, Cockney, Gaelic, Welsh, Irish. What a babel! Smart society women, sweet country maidens. Well-groomed men, side by side with rough colliers from the north, or bulky farmers from the south. The White City is indeed an epitome of modern times.” The beginnings are here, arguably, of a slow, faulty, but progressive push towards establishing a multicultural society.
Following the Olympics of 2012, Britain has become increasingly divisive, both within itself, and on the world stage. Rather than bringing us closer to our European allies, we are now set to drastically alter our historical relationships with them. In 1908, the White City, built to inspire and amaze every visitor, instead displayed a new outward-looking 20th-century global identity. It was built with the specific purpose to educate all those who visited it about the worlds beyond England.
One of the most eye-catching parts was the new Olympic stadium, which not only held the athletic events, but also a nightly firework display to entertain everyone who came to explore the Exhibition and see the games. Set back from the gardens surrounding the grand palaces, the stadium was 1000 feet long, and 593 feet wide, with reportedly ten miles of seats and standing room to accommodate between 130-150,000 spectators.
In a frenzy of over-reporting, newspapers earnestly recorded that 3,000 tons of steel, 572,345 rivets, 13,656 tons of concrete, and 858 massive piers of steel had been requisitioned to build the stadium. In addition to the grass lawn in its centre, there was a cycling track, a cinder running track, and a swimming tank where the high-diving competitions were to be held. Every inch of the stadium was pored over, every nut and bolt accounted for, and the engineering behind it was lauded for creating a running track “considered to be the finest ever built.” This was to be a palace of sporting prowess, where “every known international sport will be fought out.”
Unlike the 2012 London Olympics, where ticket prices reached a whopping £725 for the athletic finals, the White City Olympics were built on a belief that, just as competing in the games would be open to everyone, so should attending them. The Bolton Evening News reported that, “huge holiday parties from firms who employ hundreds and thousands of men and women are of almost daily occurrence,” while the majority of those attending were coming not from the City of London, but from the provinces. Multiple newspapers and magazines called for the various railway companies to do their best to make sure they were making cheap fares available, so that a day at the exhibition could be “placed at the disposal of even the poorest working man.” Rising to the occasion, the Brighton Railway Company – unfortunately now the beleaguered Southern Railway – placed advertisements announcing that they were “doing all in their power to enable the inhabitants of Bexhill and the neighbourhood to see the White City at Shepherd’s Bush,” by offering a special excursion timetable at a fare of four shillings.
An urgent and desperate desire to visit seemed to seize the entire country, and the railways and new tube stations made it possible to so in a day. This experience was suddenly accessible for so many from across the country in a way that would have been impossible at any other point in our previous history. It’s difficult to imagine a time when experiences were not at our fingertips, but for many visiting it would have been something none of their ancestors would have had the opportunity to experience. Writing of a recent visit, the Montgomeryshire Echo told its Welsh readers they could, “spend a day full of wonder, amazement, and delight. No place will serve your turn so well as the White City, the home of the Olympic Games, the solid reality of the Entente Cordiale.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of the exhibition was its commitment to showcasing women's experiences. Although female athletes were a minority at the games – 37 women to 1,971 men – the White City itself had an entire hall dedicated to women, the Palace of Women’s Work. It included a model ward of the London Hospital with patients, instruments and appliances, including x-rays, the ambulance carriage used by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, and the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, “written in the neat, clear, determined characters one would expect from that most enigmatic of geniuses.” It drew huge crowds, and a male journalist reported his visit in glowing terms, arguing that, “those who have decided very firmly in their own minds that woman’s sphere is in the home, get a very nasty set-back, for she seems to have invaded man’s domain, and proved herself his equal in skill, and labour. Carving sculpture, metal-work, painting, all claim a share of woman’s skill, and show her as quite capable of producing work of lasting worth.”
After her own visit to the Palace, Lady Violet Greville, the author of a number of books on women in sport, declared, “The White City is a dream of sparkling beauty,” and that, “everywhere woman’s influence is to be felt.” To Greville, in this modern fantastical world, built to showcase a possible future, “women reign always, and nowhere more calmly and more regally, than in the fairy land of White City.” As across London women marched in the hope of convincing the government to give them the vote, the Exhibition showcased just how important and influential they were, not only in the past but also to modern society – an ambitious vision now hidden under concrete and glass.
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