In 1924, eight curlers travelled to Chamonix, France, to represent Great Britain in what was to become the first Olympic Winter Games. This photo was published in the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1924-1925. It is credited to Aug Couttet, Chamonix, and captioned 'British Curlers Marching Past Saluting Base' and is from the opening ceremonies on January 25, 1924. The eight members of the Great British curling team - these days we would call them the GB 'squad' - are those in the foreground. The curlers paraded with brooms 'at a slope', with curling stone handles hung around their necks on tartan ribbon. Colonel Robertson-Aikman is out in front with the seven others behind, in two ranks.
In the many years I've been associated with the sport of curling I've seen the formation of the International Curling Federation (now the World Curling Federation), curling as a demonstration sport at Calgary in the Winter Olympics of 1988, its eventual reinstatement as a full Olympic sport in 1998, Rhona Martin and her GB team's success at Ogden at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the continuing spread of the sport worldwide since then, not forgetting the development of wheelchair curling and its introduction into the Winter Paralympics. How massive has Olympic curling become! Soon the sport will take centre stage in Sochi, Russia, when the first rounds of the 2014 Olympic competition begin on Monday, February 10. But curling's Olympic story began in Chamonix, back in 1924.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation 'out there' about the first Olympic curling competition, and the British victory in 1924. I've tried to set out here all the facts about the competition and the competitors, as best as I have been able to uncover. I want to ensure that the four members of the winning team are well remembered. This post is the first of three. The second part is here. And the third, here.
The names of the eight members of the GB curling squad, shown in the photograph above, were (L-R) William Brown, Laurence Jackson, Thomas B Murray, William K Jackson, John McLeod, Robin Welsh, Major D G Astley and Colonel John T S Robertson-Aikman. The photo was taken on the day of the opening ceremonies, Friday, January 25, 1924.
You can see that round the neck of each of each player are two handles, plus stone bolts and washers!
For the opening celebrations, representatives from participating nations paraded from the town to the skating rink behind the municipal band. The French Under-Secretary of State for Physical Education, Gaston Vidal, proclaimed the Games open. Camille Mandrillon took the Olympic Oath on behalf of the athletes. Mandrillon was a member of the French team in military patrol, a forerunner of biathlon.
The GB curlers had been selected by a specially convened committee of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, in response to an invitation from the organisers, to send a rink of four curlers, with an equal number of reserves, to represent Great Britain. The emphasis is mine, as there has been some confusion on why both Britain and Sweden have eight names, and France has six, in official sources and records. Only these three countries participated in the curling competition, which, in 1924, was contested only by men.
What the players are wearing in the above photo is what they wore on the ice during the matches. Apparently, ties were de rigueur as were bunnets, and all wore plus fours. Willie and Laurence had white jumpers under their jackets, whereas Tom Murray sported a (presumably) colourful patterned jumper. Jackets had a union flag patch on the left arm. Shoes look to be normal outdoor shoes of the time, presumably with rubber soles.
The four reserves were Colonel John T S Robertson-Aikman (who was named the squad's 'Captain'), John McLeod, William Brown, and Major D G Astley.
Some content in the French Official Report is completely wrong. Laurence Jackson's name does not appear at all. W K Jackson is listed as a 'non-participant', as is an 'R Cousin'. This is probably the representative member for Edinburgh Ice Rink, Robert Cousin, who was on the Council of Management of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1924. Although listed as a non-participant, there is no evidence that Cousin was ever a member of the GB squad, or that he ever went to Chamonix. Unfortunately Laurence Jackson's omission has not been recognised by some, notably the website (here) of the Sportscotland Institute of Sport, the organisation which supports our current Olympic hopefuls. This lists the eight names which appear in the French Official Report, ie including Cousin but omitting Laurence Jackson, on the web page which lists all British Olympic Winter Games medallists.
Although the 'Semaine Internationale des Sports d'Hiver' (International Winter Sports Week - which actually went on for eleven days) was not called officially the ‘Olympic Winter Games’ at the time, it was organised under the patronage of the IOC, and included many of the ceremonial aspects of the Olympic Games. Following the success of the event, the IOC decided, during their 1925 Congress in Prague, to hold similar winter events every four years, which would be known as Olympic Winter Games. The Chamonix International Winter Sports Week was then retrospectively recognised as the first Olympic Winter Games. The reason why the Chamonix event was not called officially the first Olympic Winter Games at the time was political. The Scandinavian countries already had their own successful Nordic Games, held usually in Sweden. Representatives from these countries felt that the new 'Olympic Winter Games' would detract from the importance of the Nordic Games. Athletes from Norway, Finland, and Sweden did take part in the 1924 Winter Sports Week, and it has been suggested that the French organisers were able to encourage them to do so, partly by not calling the event, the 'Olympics'. That said, newspaper reports from Chamonix at the time all refer to the 'Olympics' in one way or another. As it turned out, the Olympic Winter Games were to continue, but the Nordic Games did not, being held for the last time in 1926.
The International Olympic Committee's Olympic Study Centre has an extensive archive collection. There is an overview of what these archives contain about the early Olympic Winter Games online here. The following information is from this source. The Chamonix Winter Games were held from January 25 to February 5, 1924, and attracted 258 participants (247 men and 11 women) representing 16 different countries. The programme consisted of six different sports (16 separate events): skating (figure and speed skating), skiing (cross-country skiing, nordic combined, ski jumping), military patrol (a forerunner of the modern biathlon), ice hockey, curling and bobsleigh. The host city Chamonix had to construct an ice rink, a ski jump, a bobsleigh run and a curling rink.
Details of all the GB participants at the Chamonix Games can be found in Fairlie's BOA Report. Great Britain competed in ladies' figure skating, men's figure skating, pairs figure skating, ice hockey, and bobsleigh, as well as curling.
Roger Frison-Roche was the Secretary of the Chamonix Winter Sports Committee. Fifty years later his reminiscences about the event were recorded in a transcript of a speech which you can read here. It is fascinating to learn of the problems which the organisers encountered. First of all there was a huge snowfall. Then, with everything ready a week before the event, a thaw set in, and the main ice rink was 'transformed into a lake'! The majority of the competitors at Chamonix were skaters and they were unable to train. The curling rink was the first ice area to be 'reconstructed' and was used by figure skaters, speed skaters and hockey players before the main ice surface was ready. This limited the time available for the curlers to practise.
The Rink of the Mont Blanc Olympic Stadium during the tournament.) Fairlie's BOA Report says, "Two rinks, side by side, could be accommodated, but only one was used." This photo seems to contradict this as it certainly shows two sheets in use. Indeed, a number of photos in the French Official Report do seem to show curling activity taking place over more than one sheet. A photo in the Spaarnestad collection in the Netherlands National Archives (here) clearly shows two rinks in play, and is captioned 'Winter Olympics Chamonix 1924. View of the Curling field'. It is dated January 27, the day before the first official match, so may show practice sessions underway.
The first official match of the curling competition was held on Monday, January 28, 1924, at 10:00. Sweden beat France, 18-10. GB's Colonel Robertson-Aikman was the umpire.
At 10.00 the following day, Tuesday, January 29, 1924, Great Britain played Sweden and won 38-7. France's Henri Cournollet was the umpire.
On Wednesday, January 30, 1924, at 10:00, GB played France, winning 46-4. Sweden's Erik Severin officiated.
Games were of eighteen ends and one has to assume that the full eighteen were played, given the size of the scores. Back in 1924, there was no offering the handshakes early to concede.
Although several websites, including Wikipedia (here), suggest that there was a 'silver medal playoff' to decide the medallists. This is best considered as an urban legend, with no basis in truth. I'll return to this topic later.
Here is the front of one of the gold medals which were awarded at Chamonix. It shows a winter sports athlete, with open arms. He is holding a pair of skates and a pair of skis. The background shows the Alps with Mont Blanc. The tender for the design had been won by engraver Raoul Benard. 2,000 copies were made in the workshops of the Paris mint.
In 1924, there were no podium presentations. The awards were made at the closing ceremony, according to Fairlie's BOA Report. However, in the Royal Club Annual for 1924-25 there is a report entitled 'World's Curling Champions. British Team's Success at Olympic Games'. This says, "When it became known that Great Britain had won the World's Curling Championship, the Union Jack was run to the top of the mast, and while competitors and spectators stood to attention with heads uncovered, the military band played 'God Save The King'."
There's a pic of the gold, silver and bronze medals together online here, although I note that the silver medal shown is described as a replica!
Medal winners also received a diploma. This photo is a generic image taken from the French Official Report. The real thing is in colour. The diplomas won by Willie Jackson and Laurence Jackson were framed and now belong to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club's Charitable Trust. Willie Jackson's is illustrated on page 97 of The Joy of Curling: A Celebration by Ed Lukovich, Eigil Ramsfjell and Bud Somerville, this book published in 1990.
What of the medals won by the GB curlers? Robin Welsh's medal is known to be safely in the care of his grandson. The two won by Willie Jackson and Lawrence Jackson were purchased in 2008 by the Royal Club's Charitable Trust, see here. Has Tom Murray's medal survived? I don't know. [Added later. Yes it has! Derek Whitehouse has pointed me in the direction of an article which appeared in a local paper, the Lanark Gazette of Thursday, March 7, 2002, which has a photo of Tom Murray's grandson with the medal. And I can now confirm, as of November, 2013, that the medal is safely in the care of his great granddaughters.]
Did the four reserves also receive medals? I wish to suggest that the reserves did not get medals, as they did not play in either game. Until quite recently it was not policy to award medals to alternates at international curling events, unless they had taken to the ice for at least part of a game. I have found two other pieces of information which support the view that only the four members of the Jackson team got medals. Robin Welsh, son of the Robin Welsh who played in Chamonix, writes in his book Beginner's Guide to Curling, published in 1969, "The British Curling deputation at the Games, led by Colonel Robertson-Aikman, were as proud of the medals and diplomas won as the four Scots who had won them." The final sentence of the report in the 1924-24 Annual says, "The British players received gold medals and diplomas, which they very highly prize." Again, it's my emphasis in both cases. These two bits of evidence suggest to me that only the four curlers who played in the two matches were presented with gold medals. Should gold medals and diplomas belonging to Robertson-Aikman, Astley, McLeod or Brown ever turn up, then my assumption will be proved wrong!
Other memorabilia from the event is shown in a Curling History Blog post about Willie Jackson, here. This contains images of Jackson's official identity card, and a competitor's badge which probably belonged to Robin Welsh.
The GB curling team had been selected by a committee of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. After the Games, the process came in for criticism at the Royal Club AGM in 1924, held on Wednesday, July 23, in the Station Hotel, Perth. Member William Henderson, from Lawton, complained that regular club members had had 'no proper opportunity to take part'. It was explained to the meeting that the Royal Club 'were left in the position of having to decide within two or three days whether to send a team and whom to send'. But there had been time to appoint a selection committee. In the Chair during these discussions at the AGM was John McLeod, who had been one of the reserves in Chamonix. He concluded, "We sent out our premier team, and they justified their being sent." McLeod also stated that when the selection of a team was being made, they had been told that seven or eight countries were going to be represented in the curling competition, including the USA and Canada.
Sir Robert Lockhart (representative of the Raith and Abbotshall Club), who had been a member of the selection committee, explained further, "I wish to say we took the very greatest care and did everything in our power to secure and elect the best representative curlers to represent Great Britain in France on the first occasion on which there had been an Olympic contest in curling."
More about the selection process can be found in the correspondence columns of The Courier, Thursday, August 21, 1924, in response to continued criticisms in that paper by William Henderson. Sir Robert Lockhart wrote, "We were asked to send one rink of four players and four reserves. After carefully considering the situation from every point of view, the Committee came to the conclusion that, while it was probable that the ice would be keen, it was possible, as the matches would be played on open ice, that there would be a good deal of sweeping to do, and that it was therefore necessary to send a comparatively young and athletic team."
Also at the AGM, a member asked if the Royal Club had defrayed the expenses of the GB team. It was explained that none of the cost of sending the team to Chamonix had come from Royal Club funds. Part of the costs came from the British Olympic Association, and part from the curlers themselves.
This is a studio photo of the GB team. L-R: Willie Jackson (skip), Tom Murray (2nd), Laurence Jackson (lead) and Robin Welsh (3rd). It is from the Annual for 1924-1925. It is credited to C H Banu. I have not found any photo showing the teams being presented with their medals and diplomas. Such a photo may never have been taken.
What more can be said about these GB team members, the first curling Olympic curling gold medallists? Firstly, all four were Scottish. The skip's full name was William Kilgour Jackson - he was known as 'Willie' Jackson. He was born March 14, 1871, in Lamington, South Lanarkshire, and so would have been 52 years old at Chamonix. He was head of the family business, which he established in 1900, farming and dealing in cattle and sheep from a base in Symington. Willie Jackson was the outstanding Scottish curler of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a top performing skip with the Scottish team which played against the visiting Canadians in 1921. He was a Vice-president of the Royal Club in the 1922-23 season and again in 1931-32. Then in 1933-34 he served as the Club's President. He died in Symington in January 1955. His obituary, in the Royal Club's Annual for 1955-56, said, "He was indeed a master of the game, whether in direction or in performance," and, "Willie Jackson was a most lovable personality, always willing to help with encouragement and advice and always ready to have a crack about his favourite game."
Robin Welsh was born in October 20, 1869, in Edinburgh and died October 21, 1934, in a nursing home in that city, aged 65. He was the son of a farmer at Liberton and educated at George Watson's. He played club rugby for the Watsonian club and represented Scotland in the three internationals held in 1895. He also represented Scotland at tennis in 1914. In 1920 Welsh entered Edinburgh City Council and was soon elected a magistrate. He was one of Scotland's outstanding curlers and as skip he won the Linlithgow Trophy, the Swan Trophy, the Rink Medal, and the World's Championship, which was played in Edinburgh. Welsh, who threw third stones at Chamonix, was 54 years old then. He became Vice-president of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1924-25, the season following the Chamonix Games. He was a director of the Edinburgh Ice Rink Ltd, and secretary of the Edinburgh Ice Rink Curling and Skating Club. An extensive obituary, written by A Gordon Mitchell, can be found in the Annual for 1934-35. Welsh's son, also named Robin who was just fifteen when his father died, was to become secretary of the Royal Club and the International Curling Federation, and edited the Scottish Curler magazine from 1954 to 1998.
Thomas Blackwood Murray was born October 3, 1877, in Biggar, South Lanarkshire. He was second player at Chamonix when he was 46 years of age. He died June 3, 1944, aged 66. Tom Murray came from a farming background and began curling at his local Biggar Curling Club at the end of the nineteenth century. He was one of the most prominent Scottish curlers of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a member of the teams which toured Canada in 1911-12, and again in 1922-23. He played with Willie Jackson in many competitions. Murray is better known these days by his initials 'T B', as the T B Murray Trophy, which he presented to encourage junior curling at the Haymarket Rink, is the trophy that is presented to the winners of the Scottish Junior Men's Championship. He served as President of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1936-37. His obituary can be found in the Royal Club Annual for 1944-45 which notes that he was a gifted after dinner speaker. He is described as 'silver-tongued' Tom Murray.
Laurence Jackson was the skip's son. He was born September 16, 1900 in Carnwath, South Lanarkshire. He was the youngest member of the British squad, by some way. He was 23 when playing at Chamonix. He had considerable curling experience though, and had played with his father and Tom Murray in the Strathcona Cup matches against the Canadians in 1921. There is just a hint out there that perhaps he was not the first choice for selection, as he is not in the last of eight names that appears in the French Official Report. Which is odd. However, there is no doubt that he did play as lead on the GB team in both championship matches. After Chamonix he went on to have a long curling career, continuing to play in his father's rink as third with his brother Elliot and Johnnie Plenderleith as lead, and when Willie Jackson retired he skipped his own rinks post WW2 to many important victories. He died on July 27, 1984, aged 83, in Biggar. His obituary can be found in the September 1984 issue of the Scottish Curler, where he is described as 'the best shotmaker in Scottish curling in the immediate pre-war period'. He was President of the Edinburgh Ice Rink Curling Club in 1950-51.
Had the GB team played together before Chamonix 1924? Perhaps not, although the four would have known each other well. Tom Murray had been Willie Jackson's third player in many competitions, and when Edinburgh Ice Rink Ltd, the holding company that owned and operated Haymarket Ice Rink, decided to put up a trophy in 1922 for annual competition, grandly named the 'World's Curling Championship', the first winning names to be engraved on the trophy included those of Willie Jackson and Tom Murray. Jackson, father and son, with Tom Murray, had played in four test matches for the Strathcona Cup during the Canadians' visit in 1921, winning three of these matches. That was the same record as Robin Welsh who also skipped in four test matches. Willie Jackson skipped one of the teams in the Royal Club's Tour to Canada and the USA in January and February 1923, the season before Chamonix, and was also the Vice-captain. Tom Murray was his third player. All the details of this Tour are in a book The Scottish Curlers in Canada and the USA: A Record of their Tour in 1922-23, by Major M H Marshall who was the honorary secretary of the tour team. The records show that Jackson and Murray were the 'outstanding players on the visiting team', winning 43 and drawing two of 61 games.
Murray moved down to be second player in Chamonix to make room in the team for Robin Welsh, also a successful skip against the Canadians in 1921. But Tom Murray was a good skip in his own right. The Annual of 1922-23 has a photo of Tom Murray with his team which had won the Directors Trophy at the Haymarket Rink in 1922. Laurence Jackson was a member of that team.
John McLeod, Bridge of Weir, had been a member of the Scottish team in Canada in 1912-13, and was also a test match skip against Canada, winning two of four matches, in 1921. In the 1919-20 season a Scottish team had visited Sweden, and this was captained by John McLeod. McLeod died in 1937 and his obituary in the 1937-38 Annual notes he 'was one of the most skilful curlers in Scotland'. John McLeod was the Royal Club's Vice-president in the 1923-24 season in which the Chamonix games took place. There's much more about McLeod later in this story!
William Brown stands the tallest of the curlers in the group photo, shown above, from Fairlie's BOA Report. That photo misrepresents Brown's actual height, as the group were standing on an uneven surface. He was not a giant, as the photo appears to show! There's another photo of Brown in the Royal Club Annual for 1927-28, which shows that in the 1926-27 season he had been a member of Willie Jackson's rink, at lead, in at least two competitions. Prior to the 1924 Games, he had been a member of both Symington CC (of which Jackson was President) and Biggar CC (of which Murray was President). Brown then was well known to the GB team, and perhaps was selected as a reserve because of his abilities to play front end should the need arise. Unfortunately, Pierre Richard in his book Curling... Ou Le Jeu De Galets: Son histoire au Quebec (1807-1980), published in 2007, makes the incorrect assumption that GB's William Brown is the same person who was a member of the Royal Montreal CC and skipped the Quebec side in 1932 when curling was a demonstration event at Lake Placid. They are two different curlers. Indeed, the Canadian William Brown, who was originally from Sanquhar, is recorded in Major M H Marshall's book as playing against some of the tourists at the Thistle Club in Montreal during the 1922-23 tour.
Colonel John T S Robertson-Aikman was the the senior member of the GB Squad. He had been a Royal Club Vice-president in 1895-96, and would be elected as the Club's President in the season which followed the Chamonix Games. He had captained the Scottish team which had visited Canada in 1912-13, had been Scottish team captain when the Canadians came to Scotland in 1921, and was persuaded to be captain again when the Scots toured Canada and the USA in 1922-23. On that tour, Robertson-Aikman skipped one of the teams, the 'Captain's Rink', so he was an accomplished player. His team had, at second, Major D G Astley! So these two reserves of the GB squad knew each other well. The latter played 58 games in total as a second player during the Canadian tour. This was his second time as a member of a Tour team. When he was Captain D G Astley, he had been the 'reserve member' on the 1912-13 tour.
I have emphasized the 'tour connections' here. Any curler who has experienced the intensity and stamina required (both on and off the ice) in these international forays to Canada and the USA, or to Sweden, will realise that a few days in France would have been coped with easily! One could say that the GB squad was 'battle-hardened'!
In 1924 Robertson-Aikman and Astley were both members of Hamilton CC, the club of which the former was President for many years. Astley though is only mentioned in that club's listings in the Royal Club Annuals of 1922-23, 1923-24 and 1924-25 as an 'occasional member' (as opposed to a 'regular member') and his name disappears from the records completely in the season following the Chamonix Games. He was not a player with a championship winning record as some of the others, but he was an experienced player, as his tour record shows. He would have been 55 years of age in Chamonix.
Astley was English! He was born in Norfolk, and lived near Norwich, far from any curling club in England at the time. He seems to have learned his curling as a member of the St Moritz CC in Switzerland. He is listed as a member of that club, as Captain D G Astley, from 1909 to 1912, and again in 1914. I haven't discovered why there is a connection with the Hamilton CC, but I suspect this may have just have been because of his friendship with Colonel Robertson-Aikman. He would have had to have been a member of a curling club affiliated to the Royal Club to have been able to tour Canada in 1922-23, and indeed to play in Chamonix. I set out to find out more about him. Astley's home in 1923 was Little Plumstead Hall, Norwich, which later became a hospital.
Astley seems to have been a keen sailor, racing a Broads One Design called Dotterel and a Yare and Bure One Design called Painted Lady on the Norfolk Broads in the 1920s. He was Chairman of the Red Poll Cattle Society for many years. But he was more than just a Norfolk farmer, see here!
Delaval Graham L'Estrange Astley was born on December 7, 1868. His birth is registered in Aylsham Parish in Norfolk. He died at home at Wroxham Cottage on May 17, 1951, at age 82. He gained the rank of Lieutenant in the service of the Welsh Regiment and the rank of Major in the service of the North Somerset Yeomanry. He was to hold the office of Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk. He was invested as a Companion, Order of the Bath, in 1941.
Why have I sought out information about Major Astley? These days his name has become the most well known of the GB squad, more so than the Jacksons, Murray and Welsh. Just put the name into any search engine to see why he has achieved notoriety! You will find that he is recorded as having played for both the GB team and for Sweden, and so is unique in Olympic history as having won both gold and silver medals for different countries at the same competition. I will return to all this later, as it's simply not true!
There is one further image which I'd like to include here. It's rather fun! It's an artist's colour sketch showing the GB curlers in action, and reminds me that though we tend to think of Chamonix 1924 in just black and white, from the photographs of the time, the real situation would have been much more colourful! It appears on a Tanzanian stamp, issued in 1997, one of a set of sports' stamps issued by that country in the run up to the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, when curling was to be included in the programme as a full medal sport.
I like the interpretation of the colourful argyle pattern hose the two sweepers are wearing with their plus-fours. However the information on the right which overprints the image is rather fanciful! It says, "First Olympic Winter Games - 1924 Curling is introduced; England and Scotland play. No winner announced." Now that's a good story!
The story continues in Part 2, below.
The sources of all the images above are as indicated. I will be pleased to receive comments and corrections if I've made mistakes. And thanks to Derek Whitehouse for remembering, and keeping safe, the newspaper article about Tom Murray's medal!