WHILE the Olympics may be just around the corner for London, it was a Northumberland town which was ahead of the game.
The heady days of the Morpeth Olympics will be recalled as part of a summer of sports-related events.
The programme has developed from the publication last September of English Heritage’s book Played in Tyne and Wear, in which Newcastle author Dr Lynn Pearson explored the sporting history and legacy of the area.
Local authorities in Tyne and Wear have joined English Heritage and Tyne Wear Archives and Museums in organising the line-up of events.
It will include a talk at 7pm at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead on Tuesday by university senior sports lecturer Dr Martin Polley, who will reveal his researches into the Morpeth Olympics, which began in 1873 and continued until 1958.
Dr Polley is devoting a chapter to the Morpeth games in his forthcoming book in the Played In series which examines the Olympics and Britain.
The Morpeth Olympics included running events, wrestling and boxing. In its heyday before the First World War and in the 1920s, it attracted crowds of 15,000 over two days of the August Bank Holiday – a time when the population of the town was only 30,000.
Olympic Hill and Olympic Terrace in today’s town are links to the games.
Simon Inglis, editor of the Played In series, said: “Morpeth had the nerve to call its games the Olympics, which to us seems a real cheek. But to them it was entirely innocent and gave the event an extra boost.
“In the 19th Century, the term Olympics was up for grabs. It is only in the last 50 years or so that the International Olympic Committee has stamped down on this.”
Dr Polley said: “At Morpeth, there were loads of competitors, heats and rounds.”
He said that the attendance for the wrestling at the Morpeth Olympics in 1948 was greater than that for the same sport in the London Olympics of the same year. The Morpeth event offered good prize money and worked closely with commercial interests in the town such as shops, pubs and other businesses.
Dr Polley said: “ The Morpeth Olympics were a template for what the Olympic Games have become, in terms of professional and commercial development.”
The Morpeth event was started by local wheelwright and wrestler Edmund Dobson.
It was first held at the Brewery Field, and then Grange House Field.
Mr Inglis said: “ This was a local community organising its own games in a field, not an athletics stadium, and it reflects the ingrained passion for running in the North East.
“It must have been well organised because it continued year after year with the prize money getting bigger.”
Mr Inglis said that it was no surprise that Played in Tyne and Wear had inspired so many spin-off events as sport in all its aspects had been, and still was, a part of many people’s lives.
“Until recently, academics and serious historians have not taken sport seriously and have been rather dismissive of it,” he said.
“But lots of people are historians of their own sporting interests, which are part of our heritage and historic environment.”
To see the full events programme please visit www.twmuseums.org.uk/ playedintyneandwear.
Bill Griffiths, senior manager at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for local people to learn about the weird and wonderful sporting history around them.”