A look back at British boxing’s 1908 Olympic gold rush

As Great Britain secures its biggest ever haul of boxing medals at a post-war Olympics, Luke G. Williams re-examines the Games in which the country won every boxing gold medal on offer… the 1908 Olympics in London…

Great Britain is the third most successful nation in the long and proud history of boxing at the Olympics, but it is impossible that the country will ever match its greatest ever performance at the Games – namely in London in 1908 when they won a staggering 14 medals, five of them gold, meaning they won 14 of the 15 boxing medals on offer. (Whereas in Tokyo there are 13 boxing tournaments taking place – eight for men and five for women – in 1908 there were just five weight categories, all for men).

Dig deeper into the history books, however, and the British team’s feats in 1908 are not quite as amazing as they appear at first glance.

According to official records, of the 42 boxers who competed no less than 32 were British. Indeed, only four nations were represented in total, with seven fighters from France, two from Denmark and one from ‘Australasia’.
Apparently, several overseas competitors – including from Holland – withdrew late in the day. (Some contemporary reports provide slightly different figures for the number of competitors, so there is reason to believe the official records may not be entirely accurate).

The format of the Olympics and the boxing event in 1908 also show how much the Games have changed in the last century or so. If you feel the modern Games go on too long at 17 days then it’s good a thing you weren’t around in 1908 – when the Olympics lasted over six months – from April 27 to October 31.

Given the elongated nature of the competition as a whole, it is somewhat surprising that the entirety of the boxing tournament took place in the course of just one day – October 27 at the Northampton Institute in Clerkenwell, east London.

The first bout of a frantic day began at 11.25am and the final contest concluded around 10.20pm. Each fight was scheduled for three rounds, with the first two rounds lasting three minutes apiece and the final round a punishing four minutes.

There were some somewhat unusual rules in place which make the systems and procedures in Tokyo seem positively straightforward. If the judges made the fight a draw after three rounds then the referee could determine the winner, or alternatively order a decisive fourth round to be fought.
So far, so clear, I suppose.

But how about the rule relating to the several boxers who were fortunate enough to receive a bye? The rules stated that these boxers had to spar for the same length of time as a competitive bout against any opponent approved of by the judges and referee – presumably in a bid to make the fact these boxers were receiving a competitive ‘rest’ compared to their rivals less unfair.

It’s unclear from reports of the time if this bizarre rule was actually enforced.

According to official records, two boxers – Frederick Spiller of Britain and Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker of ‘Australasia’ ended up fighting four times on the day.

Fatigue was surely a factor in the duo losing their gold medal matches against Frederick Grace and Johnny Douglas respectively. Nevertheless, Baker still achieved the notable feat of being the only non-British medallist of the day.

His conqueror in the middleweight final, the aforementioned Douglas, is one of the most fascinating and versatile figures in British sporting history. As well as boxing his way to Olympic gold in 1908, the Stoke Newington born sportsman played for Essex County Cricket club from 1901 until 1928 and even played 23 test matches for England, captaining the team on 18 occasions, including a 4-1 Ashes series victory in 1911-12 in Australia.

Ironically enough, given the fact his exploits are largely forgotten today, when Douglas tragically drowned and died aged just 48 after a passenger ship sunk off the coast of Denmark one newspaper observed that his personality would “live forever”.

“A man of strong convictions, Johnny Douglas played every game he went in for with strong purpose,” observed The Scotsman in its obituary, noting that as a boxer he “had a fine style, standing well up and hitting with tremendous power”.

“His tragic death has removed a great personality from English manly sports,” the newspaper concluded.

Main image: Olympic gold medallist Johnny Douglas in 1908. Photo: Alamy/Press Association.