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Oxford's True Olympians

Annette Cunningham and Shaunna Latchman look at the Olympian prowess of famous Oxonians

"Despite not being born within earshot of Christ Church’s Tom Tower, car manufacturer and philanthropist William Morris is someone Oxford is happy to claim as its own"

When we say someone is "Olympian", it isn't just a definition of their physical prowess - It can also refer to their manner and bearing, intelligence and intellect, commitment and dedication, and nowhere is this description more apt than when applied to some of Oxford's more famous progeny. During a month then in which the world's finest athletes will compete at the 31st Olympiad in Brazil, Annette Cunningham and Shaunna Latchman take an alternative look at some of Oxford's greatest "Olympians"...

Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister (1929 – present)

There’s something magical about being the first person in the world to achieve something - it doesn’t matter how many other people do it afterwards, or even if they have the damn audacity to do it with more panache. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon and Roger Bannister was the first person to break the four minute mile – and that is set in stone.

The fact that the shoes Sir Roger wore on 6 May 1954, when he ran that first ‘magical mile’ in less than 4 minutes (3 minutes 59.4 seconds to be exact) at the city’s Iffley Road track, fetched  £266,500 at auction bears testimony to the greatness of his feat (no pun intended). Apparently, it was Bannister’s performance in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, when he finished in fourth place but managed to set a new British record in the 1500 metres race, that strengthened his resolve to be the first 4-minute miler. Bannister was still a medical student when he smashed the record, and during the race he was aided by two pacemakers: Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher took the initial lead, with Chataway taking over when he tired. With only 200 yards to the finish, Bannister used a final burst of energy to overtake Chataway to sprint to the line in record time.

Pandemonium broke out among the 3,000 spectators when the announcement was read out – nobody hearing the exact time because of the enormous roar resulting after the miraculous words ‘the time was three minutes …’ were uttered. Bannister went on to become a distinguished neurologist and Master of Oxford’s Pembroke College before retiring in 1993. Allegedly, he is prouder of his contribution to academic medicine through his research into the nervous system than of his athletic prowess.

He held the record for only 46 days, losing it to Australian John Landy who ran the mile in 3 minutes 57.9 seconds (the current record by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, achieved in 1999, is 3 minutes 43.13 seconds). However, it will always be Sir Roger who put Oxford on the map for doing it first.

Felicia Skene (1821–1899)

Victorian novelist Felicia Skene sounds like someone we’d all love to have a drink with. After spending much of her early life travelling through Europe (without a single inflatable neck pillow in sight or air mile earnt) she returned to England, and through a social circle, met with the Revd. Thomas Chamberlain of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford and his pious cousin Marion Hughes. Between them they convinced her to move to Oxford, where she organised teams of nurses to look after the victims of smallpox and cholera in 1849 and 1854.

After these outbreaks she turned her attention to the plight of the women held in Oxford prison, and believed that prisons should be places where people had the opportunity to reform and felt there was benefit in offering prisoners individual counselling. She became the first woman in England to be given official permission to be a regular visitor in a public prison, and as well as meeting prisoners inside the prison walls she also greeted them at the gates to freedom when they were released at 6am, providing them with food and employment opportunities.

The conditions she witnessed in prison visits encouraged her to write to campaign for the reform of women’s penitentiaries. Her 1865 pamphlet, "Penitentiaries and Reformatories" described the hideous conditions and humiliations they endured and condemned the traditional attitude to ‘fallen women’, blaming society for allowing their plight. Felicia was also known for encouraging former inmates to marry and for providing the wedding breakfast – which allegedly always included an ample supply of gin.

As well as her writing (Hidden Depths was a particularly notable success) and prison visits, she also kept an open house for the destitute, befriended undergraduates, and took a keen interest in St Edward’s School, helping with correspondence and sick boys. She was regarded as a local saint by Oxford people, although it’s likely she was unaware of how highly she was regarded, remarking in later life: ‘I am like the Martyrs’ Memorial: everyone knows me and no-one is interested in me.’

William Richard Morris Lord Nuffield (1877 - 1963)

Despite not being born within earshot of Christ Church’s Tom Tower, car manufacturer and philanthropist William Morris is someone Oxford is happy to claim as its own - and after moving to Headington Quarry from Worcester with his family at the age of three, he rarely strayed from the county. He left his first job as a bicycle seller in St Giles’ following a disagreement about a pay rise, borrowed some capital and set himself up repairing and making bikes from his parents’ house at 16 James Street – an occupation which might still see him gainfully employed in the city today.

Business flourished and in the late 1890s he also started building motorbikes from his new shop at 48 High Street, and became interested in car mechanics. Around this time, Morris was persuaded to become a partner in an automobile company but went bankrupt after a year, but at this point he was only just getting started. In 1908, he sold his bike business and began to sell and repair motorcars at his new Morris Garage in Longwall, the site where he built his first Morris Oxford Light car. The Oxford Light became renowned for being light on the pocket and reliable to run, and Morris was turning out 100 cars a month from a new site in Cowley. When war broke out in 1914, he used his skills to manufacture hand grenades.

Following the war, Morris returned to car production and began to dominate the British industry. He was recognised for his services to the car industry by receiving a baronetcy, which was elevated to a peerage in 1938 and he became Viscount Nuffield, taking the name of the village he lived in. Morris also became renowned for spending money – but not on himself. He became a public benefactor, donating to numerous projects to improve community facilities where his workers lived, and he is chiefly remembered for his enormous donations to the University of Oxford and to the city hospitals. The name Nuffield lives on though some of the institutions that resulted from his generosity, including the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and Nuffield College, and through his cars, the name Morris is inextricably linked to the city.

Alice Liddell (1852 -1934)

Having more than one other sibling can often make it feel like a struggle to be seen or heard, yet even with nine other brothers and sisters, Alice Liddell was the inspiration of the timeless children’s book Alice in Wonderland. Born in Westminster, Alice moved with her family to Oxford at the age of three following her father’s appointment as Dean of Christ Church. A year later, whilst playing in the Deanery garden with her sisters Lorina and Edith, the young Alice found herself in the company of Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It wasn’t long before Dean Liddell and Dodgson bonded over their mutual appreciation of photography, and Dodgson was encouraged to capture images of the Liddell family, especially Alice.

Far from the iconic, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl we have grown up with, Alice was a small girl with a blunt dark bob and big brown eyes. Nevertheless, Dodgson was taken with her and her sisters and started taking boat rides along the Thames with the family, exploring the Natural History Museum from time to time.

It was on one of the boat rides that Dodgson conjured up the story of Alice getting lost in a fascinating underground land with quirky characters that either helped or hindered her on her journey. Like any young girl would be, Alice was mesmerised by the tales of her make-believe life, and begged Dodgson to record the story so she could have it to read whenever she pleased. Using the museums very own Dodo and incorporating various aspects of Oxford and the people he encountered, two years later, he gifted her the first illustrated manuscript as a Christmas gift in 1864.

John Betjeman  (1906-1984)

If Betjeman had been told that he would one day be a “National Treasure” or appointed CBE, he would have struggled to believe it. Born into a family with a Germanic surname in the First World War, Betjeman felt the cold cut of snobbery and judgement from a very early age. He was insecure about his family’s social standing, and was a quiet child.

Moving to Oxford in 1917 seemed to do wonders for the young boy. Attending The Dragon School in North Oxford, he used his free time to cycle around the city exploring churches and small villages, which seems to have sparked his love for “Victorian neo-Gothic” architecture.

 It was at this time that he began reciting poetry and acting in plays. Studying at the School of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College under the watchful eye of C.S. Lewis sounds far more glamorous than it actually was for Betjeman - entering the University of Oxford was a struggle, as he failed the mathematics portion of the exams, and once he was accepted as a “non-scholarship student” he allowed himself to be seduced by the daily distractions that are ever present to those at university. Lewis was not amused by Betjeman’s lack of interest in his studies, and Betjeman felt he was “uninspired” as a tutor. Eventually, Betjeman left University without a degree, but soon found himself a job at The Architectural Review with the help of his Oxford friends. Upon leaving this post to be a freelance journalist and write poetry, Betjeman went on to sell over two and a quarter million copies of his Collected Poems.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632 - 1723)

"Architecture aims at eternity” - the words of the greatest British architect of all time, Christopher Wren. A zealous student, Wren attended Wadham College where he studied Latin and the works of Aristotle, yet by the time he graduated with a master’s degree his focus was firmly on astronomy, physics, and anatomy.

Wren’s reputation for ingenuity soon spread and he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657. During this time, friends, fellow scientists, mathematicians and astronomers attended his free lectures and would sit for hours after discussing their theories, with no idea that these very meetings would eventually create the body we now know as the Royal Society. Four years later, Wren took up the same post at Oxford University, and it is said that his study of physics and engineering was what drew him to architecture. His first opportunity to exhibit his talent was presented in 1664, when he was commissioned to design the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and again in 1665, when he designed a chapel for Pembroke College in Cambridge.

At this point in his life, Wren felt that he had found his calling and stepped away from teaching to focus purely on architecture, turning his attention to a crumbling St Paul’s Cathedral. Even though the first two concepts were rejected by Parliament, when the Great Fire of London consumed the city, the disaster presented Wren with a great opportunity to design 52 churches alongside the cathedral.

Wren was appointed Surveyor of the Royal Works in 1669, which gave him control of all government buildings in the country, and was knighted in 1673. He was responsible for numerous historical structures including the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Trinity College Library in Cambridge and Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford to name a few. Laid to rest at St Paul’s, his tombstone aptly reads: “If you seek his memorial, look about you”.

Icolyn Smith (1932 – present)

Icolyn Smith’s story is one of courage, love and determination. Originally from Jamaica, Smith was raised cooking healthy meals using the produce from the family’s farm, and with a large family of 12, she was in the kitchen at the age of six. Moving to England was both a challenge and a necessity: with the crime rate in Kingston rising, Smith and her husband Eric decided to make the move in a hope that they would be able to provide a better life for their four children.

Eric moved to Oxford in 1960 and Icolyn joined him five years later. From the sudden drop in temperature to the cultural differences, Smith faced many trials, yet her only focus was to work as hard as possible for her children - she managed to get a job working in the canteen at the British Leyland car factory in Cowley while her husband worked at the Atomic Energy Establishment in Harwell.

Once they had found their feet, their children joined them in their new home, which was open to all as Smith often welcomed her children’s friends who were experiencing their own difficulties. Working as a nurse for some time at Cowley Road Hospital and then taking on two more jobs when her husband died in 1975, she was the strength of her family and later, her community.

One evening, Icolyn saw a young man scavenging for food in the bins, and deeply saddened by this, she felt that there must be something that she could do. Approaching her family and local church, The Church of God of Prophesy, she made them aware that she wanted to provide support for those in need by opening a soup kitchen. Luckily, the manager of the Asian Cultural Centre, Jawaid Malik, was able to help, providing the space on Wednesdays at a reduced rate, and soon after her Bishop offered a contribution and a donation of £1,500 was made by Tyndal House. The church members and local butchers, Aldens, all rallied together to offer their support and the Soup Kitchen was opened in September 1989, feeding nine men on the first day and 60 people in the second week. 

In 1998 Smith was made an MBE for services to disadvantaged people and in 2012 she received £11,500 funding through the Channel 4 programme The Secret Millionaire. Affectionately known as ‘Ma Smith’, she is loved across Oxford for her giving nature and motherly approach.


- Annette Cunningham & Shaunna Latchman


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