New chapter for town’s own Olympic Games

Fred Moffatt holding up a large poster advertising the Morpeth Olympics of 1928.
Fred Moffatt holding up a large poster advertising the Morpeth Olympics of 1928.

MORPETH’S very own Olympic Games has been featured in a new book about the success of such events across the country.

Written by one of Britain’s leading sports historians, Martin Polley, The British Olympics tells the fascinating story of the UK’s relationship with the Olympics throughout history.

The Games originated in ancient Greece nearly 3,000 years ago and were reborn in Athens in 1896, but the first recorded ‘Olympic Games’ in Britain actually took place in 1612 in a field outside Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire.

And the Morpeth Olympics, which was one of the top events in the UK sporting calendar – particularly in its best years between the First and Second World Wars with runners from all over the globe coming to the town – has a whole chapter devoted to it in the book.

The professional event, which started in 1873, was known as The Morpeth Wrestling and Athletic Games until it was changed to the Morpeth Olympic Games in about 1890.

Races took place under the handicap system, where the slower runners had a headstart over the faster athletes, with the intention of always having a close finish.

There were a range of sprints over different distances and 130 yards (later changed to 110 yards) was the main event. Pole vault and high jump competitions also took place.

After starting at Brewery Field, where Olympia Gardens now stands, the games moved to Grange House Field – now home to Morpeth Rugby Club – in 1896.

When it fully resumed in 1920 following a gap because of the First World War, the venue changed again to the Morpeth Cricket Club ground in Stobhill.

For the first time in the new century, a Morpeth runner won the big sprint when Matty Graham broke the tape. This was the first year that the main prize had been set at £100.

Soon after, the event moved to another venue, the Mount Haggs Field, and it had its golden years. The games moved back to Grange House Field after World War Two and in 1948 Raymond Surtees became the other Morpeth man to win the main sprint in the 20th century.

Dwindling entries and spectators meant the end was in sight for the event, also known as Morpeth Sports, and the last one was held in 1958.

The main source of Mr Polley’s information came from two local history books, Turnpike Road to Tartan Track (The History of Professional Running in the North East) and Sporting Cavalcade: 100 Years of Sport in Morpeth, written by Loansdean resident Fred Moffatt.

The British Olympics, published by English Heritage in softback, is priced £17.99.

For more information about the book, visit www.playedinbritain.co.uk