Philip Barker

Next week, the Queen’s Baton is set to visit London as part of celebrations for her Platinum Jubilee.

It will travel to Battersea Power Station, the Tower of London and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in a return to the city where it began its journey last October.

London had been the first English city to hold what eventually became known as the Commonwealth Games.

The year was 1934, and although there was no Baton Relay, King George V sent his greetings to the participating athletes.

Some of them also attended a reception at St James' Palace which was hosted by the Prince of Wales.

In a parallel with Birmingham 2022, the 1934 Games were originally earmarked for South Africa.

In April 1930, the Rand Daily Mail reported "it is South Africa’s intention to apply for the next Empire tournament".

Team manager James Doig, an Olympic athlete himself, attended a meeting during the first Games in Hamilton, Ontario, when Johannesburg was given the green light.

"This is a great compliment that has been paid to South Africa," Doig said, as he returned home.

"It is now the duty of this country to be worthy of the responsibility that has been thrust upon it.

"There is no reason why South Africa should not make a great success of the Games in 1934."

The early 1930s were a time of great financial hardship in the world and the South Africans were struggling to raise the money to send athletes to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, let alone stage an event themselves. 

"We have more or less the option to hold the Games but in view of the position of the country, so far as we can see in 1934 it will be really impractical," Albert A.V Lindbergh, a prominent South African official, warned in April 1931.

A much more serious problem loomed when newspapers reported that "the South African Association decided to uphold the colour bar and in view of the conditions existing in the Union, will not permit athletes from countries such as India and West Indies to participate, even at the risk of appearing discourteous".

This prompted an instant reaction when the "League of Coloured Peoples" met at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street in London.

They resolved "to draw the attention of the British Olympic Association and other kindred associations in the Empire to the ruling of the South African Olympic Association".

Now, the idea of London hosting the Games was raised at the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) and again by the new British Empire Games Federation (BEGF).

Eventually, in February 1933, London was confirmed as the new host city with little more than a year to make formal preparations.

As with Birmingham 2022, plans included a new aquatics centre.

This was designed by Sir Owen Williams, who had been the main engineer for Wembley Stadium. 

After the war, Sir Owen Williams worked on the development of a motorway system and Birmingham's Gravelly Hill interchange, better known as "Spaghetti Junction".

This swimming arena was to be known as the "Empire Pool".

Work began in October 1933 at a cost of £150,000 ($187,327/€177,352)

Workers add finishing touches to the swimming pool at Wembley before the Games  ©Getty Images
Workers add finishing touches to the swimming pool at Wembley before the Games ©Getty Images

"All our preparations are now in full swing," Games secretary Evan Hunter announced at the turn of the year.

By July 1934, work on the pool was complete.

The Duke of Gloucester watched a display of synchronised diving at the official opening.

"This wonderful arena cannot fail to enhance Great Britain’s sporting prestige throughout the world," the Duke insisted.

"It was a triumph for British brains and workmanship that on the site of an old lake, there should have been erected in nine months, a building of such unique design."

Reports noted that the water would be "periodically tested by expert bacteriologists".

It proved an impressive legacy from the 1934 Games for it was used at both the 1948 and 2012 Olympics and remains a venue for concerts and other events.

Members of the South African team about to brave the waters of the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park whilst training for the Games  ©Getty Images
Members of the South African team about to brave the waters of the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park whilst training for the Games ©Getty Images

"I have received very promising reports from overseas countries regarding their probable strength at the Games," Hunter said.

In 1934, competitors from 16 nations and territories announced their readiness but women took part only  in athletics and aquatics.

When the 72 teams compete in Birmingham this July, there will be more medal events for women than men.

Eighty-eight years ago, Bermudan swimmer Lilian Taylor was not allowed to travel because there was no available chaperone, but her brothers Roy, Eric and Leslie did compete.

"She was all set to go and had had her swim uniform made up and everything," Lilian’s niece Sandra Taylor Rouja told Bermuda’s Royal Gazette newspaper years later.

"She was devastated, it was the disappointment of her life."

Trinidadian runner Mannie Albert Dookie had won the three miles at the 1933 national championship, prompting calls for him to compete in London.

Lionel Hannington of the Trinidad Guardian sponsored his passage and he sailed on the Coronado, a ship owned by banana importers Elders and Fyffes.

He ran barefoot and in the mile, but was forced to retire in the three and six miles.

Meanwhile, India also sent competitors for the first time, coached by Methodist Missionary Ted Mumby. 

They arrived in London a full month before the Games for acclimatisation.

The South Africans swimmers were keen to prepare well and headed to the Serpentine lake in London’s Hyde Park.

They included 14 year old backstroke swimmer Molly Ryde, the youngest competitor in the Games, and 1930 diving gold medallist Oonagh Whitsitt.

"Smoking steadies the nerves and you need plenty of nerves taking headers off the top board," Whitsitt told reporters.

A total of 55,000 watched the Opening Ceremony at the White City Stadium in West London. 

The message on the scoreboard read "For the Honour of our Empire and the Glory of Sport".

The Earl of Lonsdale and Sir James Leigh-Wood represented the Games Federation on the dais as a Union Flag was carried in front of the competitors by England captain Robert "Bonzo" Howland, 1930 shot put silver medallist and a Cambridge University don.

Canada, the 1930 hosts, were the first team to march in.  

They wore maroon blazers and were managed by "Bobby" Robinson, who had done so much to ensure the Games were established.

The massed bands of His Majesty’s Brigade of Guards played "Light of Foot". 

British Guiana’s flag was carried by Phil Edwards, an Olympic medallist for Canada in 1932.

India wore "Cambridge blue" turbans and blazers.

Newfoundland competed for the last time as a separate team and paraded in white uniforms.

Jack Lovelock, studying at Oxford University, carried New Zealand’s flag and was destined to win their only gold medal of the Games in the men's mile.

England led by Godfrey Rampling, entered last as the host nation.

"Please express to the nine hundred athletes and officials assembled in London, my sincere thanks for the loyal assurances contained in their message. I am glad to welcome representatives from so many parts of the Empire," a telegram from the King said.

When Deputy Lord Mayor Sir George Truscott spoke, his words were greeted with "faint ironical clapping".

Then, Howland stepped up to the dais to deliver the athletes' oath.

"We declare that we are loyal subjects of His Majesty the King, Emperor, and will take part in the British Empire Games in the spirit of true sportsmanship, recognising the rules which govern them and desirous of participating in them for the honour of our Empire and the Glory of Sport," Howland said.

Shortly afterwards, the sport began.

The Times newspaper described "the transition from ceremonial to sport as miraculously quick".

The first event was supposed to be a 440 yards hurdles heat but two competitors withdrew, so it became a straight final won by Scotland’s Frank Ritchie Hunter.

Gladys Nunn of England won the women’s javelin, then, two days later, she added the 880 yards after leading all the way.

The men’s triple jump went to Australia’s Jack Metcalfe, the pre-competition favourite.

Edwards won gold for British Guiana in the men’s 880 yards after leading from the first bend and was never headed.

The marathon was the finale of the athletics competition.

Organisers announced that "in the interests of spectators", it would start and finish at the stadium and was broadcast by the BBC.

Their commentator Harold Abrahams was billed as "speaking from the White City Stadium", and described how Canada's Harold Webster won gold.

Temple Bowls Club near Denmark Hill in South London staged part of the competition in 1934, the pavilion is still in use today ©ITG
Temple Bowls Club near Denmark Hill in South London staged part of the competition in 1934, the pavilion is still in use today ©ITG

Bowls, a popular Games sport, took place in nearby Paddington and at Temple Bowls Club in South London.

Robert Sprot won the singles, the first Scotsman to win gold in bowls.  

Twelve kilometres away at Wembley, swimming and diving was under way.

The indoor sports arena built in 1934 close to Wembley Stadium is still in use today ©Getty Images
The indoor sports arena built in 1934 close to Wembley Stadium is still in use today ©Getty Images

Canada's Phyllis Dewar was the most-successful performer.

She won both 110 yards freestyle and 440 yards freestyle and also returned home with two gold medals from relays.

Australia’s Noel Ryan was the most successful male swimmer in individual events with victory in 440 yards and 1500 yards freestyle. 

Later in the week, the pool was covered over for boxing.

England won six of the eight available golds.

Amongst those who won bronze was the South African light heavyweight Robey Leibbrandt. 

Many years later, Leibbrandt was arrested as a Nazi spy.

Wembley was also the setting for wrestling where Rashid Anwar won India's first medal, a welterweight bronze.

Cycling was held at Fallowfield in Manchester, where teams cycled around the track to Sir Edward Elgar’s "Land of Hope and Glory". 

In a programme supplemented by invitational races, the 1000m time trial went to Australia’s reigning Olympic champion "Dunc" Gray, who as reported the Manchester Guardian, seemed to be "travelling more rapidly than any of his rivals".

Teddy Higgins from the Manchester Wheelers gave local fans a gold medal to cheer.

The velodrome at Manchester no longer exists, but Fallowfield had a connection with a future Games.

The University accommodation there was used as the Games Village in 2002.