When Morpeth had its very own Olympics

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.

BIG crowds will be cheering on world-class athletes when the Olympic Games come to London next year.

But did you know that people used to come in their thousands to Morpeth to do the same for its version of the competition over many years.

The Morpeth Olympics 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.

Its success has seen a whole chapter devoted to it in a new book published by English Heritage about Britain’s Olympic heritage, which will be on sale in September.

And there was plenty of information for author Martin Polley to work with thanks to a man who took part in the Morpeth Olympics’ 80-yard sprint between 1935 and 1937.

After retiring as a police officer, Fred Moffatt wrote a series of local history books and the event was included in two of his books – Turnpike Road to Tartan Track (the history of professional running in the North East) and Sporting Cavalcade: 100 Years of Sport in Morpeth.

The Loansdean resident said: “The games started in 1873 and it soon became very popular.

“Morpeth was a good place to have the event as it had a railway station and the A1 ran through the town. It is estimated that 9,000 people travelled to Morpeth for the Olympics in 1905.

“There was a buzz in the town when the event came around each year on the August Bank Holiday and it became one of the biggest annual sporting occasions in the UK along with the Powderhall meeting in Scotland and events in Sheffield and Pontypridd.

“It was very well advertised and I have the only two large publicity posters left in existence.”

The professional event was known as The Morpeth Wrestling and Athletic Games until it was changed to the Morpeth Olympic Games in about 1890 and it was originated by wrestler Edmund Dobson, a local engineer.

Although athletics became the primary sport on the day, wrestling was still an important part of the games and, as well as the grappling action, there was also some colourful displays of handworked embroidery on the tights of the wrestlers to admire.

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.

Nine Morpeth men won the big one between 1874 and 1900, but it became a lot harder as its popularity grew and runners from all over Britain and countries such as the USA and Australia came to Morpeth to take part.

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.

Mr Moffatt said: “The best years of the Morpeth Olympics were between 1920 and 1939.

“Mount Haggs was a good location and top professional runners regularly took part. Men from what was then the Morpeth Asylum prepared the field and installed the fencing.

“There were also quoits and brass band contests to add to the athletics and wrestling.

“I used to watch my brother Ernie competing and I remember feeling very excited before I ran in the 80-yard sprint.

“The event attracted a lot of betting and there was a bookmakers’ corner.

“It did carry on after the Second World War but it didn’t have the same impact, mainly because there weren’t as many young people taking part in the athletics.”

The games moved back to Grange House Field after the war 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.

Mr Moffatt, now aged 91, put together some commemoration handicaps on Morpeth Common in the 1980s as part of a Morpeth Family Fun and Fitness Day.

“I think it’s unlikely there will be any more commemoration handicaps because now there’s no real difference between amateur and professional athletes,” he added.

“But there has been a lot of interest in my sporting books and Turnpike Road to Tartan Track has been sold in many countries around the world.

“About six years ago, I received a phone call from a professor in Germany who was fascinated by the Morpeth Olympics and he sent over a student so I could take him to the venues where it was held.”

Both books are available at a number of Northumberland’s main libraries.