House for Olympic champion

Arthur Russell 1908 Olympics
Arthur Russell 1908 Olympics

DID you know that Rugby had an Olympic champion the first time the games were held in London?

In 1908 Arthur Russell won the 3,200 metre steeplechase - and the town was so proud of him, they decided to buy him a house!

Although he came from Walsall, he worked for British Thomson Houston and ran for the BTH Harriers athletics club.

And after his gold-medal winning perfomance, a fund was set up to buy him a home in Rugby so he could live here permanently.

In the Olympic final, Russell, who was 22, beat fellow British athlete Arthur Robertson into silver and America’s John Eisele into bronze.

At the bell, all three were together, but half way through the last lap Robertson took the lead and Eisele was dropped with 220 yards to go.

Russell then passed Robertson at the water jump and held on to win by two yards.

Eisele did well to finish third as in training he had torn away a toe-nail and it was not certain he would compete.

Russell, who lived in Winfield Street at the time of the 1911 census, won the AAAs title from 1904 to 1906.

Coverage in the Rugby Advertiser on July 25, 1908 said a great number of BTH and Willans & Robinson employees and members of the athletics clubs travelled down to London to watch.

For a week prior to the race, he was based at Bartoun Gardens near the Shepherd’s Bush stadium, where he made himself fully acquainted with the finer points of the track, the hurdles and the water jump.

On the Friday he won his heat in 10 minutes 56, the fastest time of the day.

The report of the final, held on the Saturday, says: “Over the last two hurdles Russell and Robertson leapt together, and oh, the excitement! It was intense. ‘Robertson wins,’ shouted a thousand voices; and then, as if it had been one man, up from their seats jumped the 50,000 onlookers and with one tremendous yell proclaimed that the Champion Steeplechaser of the World was Arthur Russell of Rugby, who had won a grand race by five yards, his time being 10 mins 47 seconds.

“Thus ended the greatest race that Russell will probably ever have the chance of competing in.”

The stress of the win proved too much for Russell’s stand-in coach, Birmingham’s Ted Perry, who went to London to see him through the Olympics and afterwards he was reported to have taken to his bed ill.

He helped out because Russell’s usual trainer wasn’t able to travel to London and stay for the whole event.

Even though Russell came from Walsall he had a great reception on his return to Rugby.

The Advertiser report says: “Thousands of people turned out to honour the young athlete.

“By half past seven on Monday the crowd began to assemble near the station entrance and when he arrived, carried shoulder high from the platform, amid loud cheers and to the strains of ‘See the conquring hero comes’ there was quite a multitude, many standing on the bank opposite to get a good view of the proceedings.

“The route chosen for the procession was Murray Road, Church Street, Market Place, Sheep Street, School Street and down high Street to the Municipal buildings, where a smoking concert began at about 8.30.

“At the concert the champion rose to his feet amid loud applause.

“He thanked them one and all for the kind reception and said he had only done his duty in trying to get that honour to come to Rugby, especially as those competitions were only held once in four years and then in a different country.

“He supposed it would be 88 years before the competitions again took place in England and he feared he should then be too old to compete!”

At the concert Sam Robbins talked about the suggestion of setting up fund to present him with a small house, which would make him a permanent resident. Although he would like to move his family to Rugby, he could not afford to. His wife was still in Walsall looking after his mother who was in poor health. He had supported his mother through her widowhood and the expenses of his athletic training had also hindered him.

A committee chaired by the Reverend Albert Baillie with secretaries TN Martin and Sam Robbins was set up. Subscriptions were to be received at the Advertiser office and all those above 5s would be acknowledged in the newspaper.

Thank you to Peter Smith for providing the research for this feature.