Tracking down Jack
In Black History Month, Angela Cobbinah remembers Jack London, the remarkable Olympian whose story was unearthed on a TV programme
17 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah
Jack London at the AAA championships in Stamford Bridge in 1929. Photo: University of Westminster records and archives
HE made history as the first black man to win an Olympic medal for Britain after competing in the 1928 Amsterdam Games but until a chance item on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow last month Jack London’s amazing achievement had been all but forgotten.
Among the finds presented on the show was the silver medal London received after coming second in the 100m. It had been brought in by his great niece alongside his bronze for the 4x100m relay and a certificate noting him as a latter day member of Team GB.
“When I saw it I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Cassius Campbell, a fan of the popular Sunday evening programme. “I consider myself to be pretty well informed but I had never heard of the guy, which I thought was a real shame.”
He has now joined forces with Black History Walks of London to find out more about the forgotten sports hero, with a view to having a plaque erected at his former residence in Marylebone.
“While we are celebrating the achievements of our athletes at the recent World Athletics Championships, we should not forget those that have gone before them,” he said.
Born in 1905 in Guyana, Jack Edward London lived in Marylebone Street, a stone’s throw away from Regent Street Polytechnic, which he joined as a member of the Polytechnic Harriers, at the time one of Britain’s most successful athletics clubs.
Despite a lack of formal training, London quickly revealed his prowess and began to receive coaching at the Harriers’ Chiswick ground from the legendary Sam Mussabini, the man credited with the success of Harold Abrahams and several other Olympians, and later from Albert Hill, himself an Olympic gold medalist.
After excelling in the sprints and high jump, he was made track captain in 1922. Thereafter, successive editions of The Polytechnic Magazine, held in the archives of the University of Westminster, regularly sang his praises.
“Jack is not only a champion but as clean a sportsman as ever entered the Club,” said one entry, while another announced that he had been awarded the SA Mussabini Memorial Medal for the best individual performance of 1928. “As everybody knows, or should know, [he] secured second place in the 100 metres at the Olympic Games at Amsterdam, but the award was made in view of his equalling the Olympic record of 10 secs in the second heat of the semi-final,” it said.
On receiving another trophy that year at the Harriers’ annual banquet, London is indirectly quoted as saying that “as he had done his best to cover the ground in the shortest possible time in order to win the honour, so it would be with his speech”.
London travelled to England as an infant with his parents. His father was a teacher and church minister who had come here to train as a doctor. In one version of events, London returned to Guyana with his father on completion of his medical studies and made his way back to the UK as a teenager in 1920, having attended Guyana’s prestigious Queen’s College.
His days as an elite athlete were cut short by injury and he retired from the track in 1930. Incredibly, he had other talents to his name and as a pianist was an original member of the cast of Noel Coward’s musical Cavalcade at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1931. He also appeared alongside the comedian Will Hay in the film Old Bones of the River in 1938.
He married twice, both times at Marylebone Register Office. In 1948 he co-wrote a coaching manual titled How to Win on Track and Field but ended his days working at St Pancras Hospital as a porter. He died suddenly of a stroke in 1966.
In a moving obituary in The Polytechnic Magazine, the Harriers’ honorary secretary, A Glen Haig, regretted that London had lost contact with the club, even though he lived “within almost shouting distance of the Poly”, only turning up at a reunion two years previously when he appeared “pathetically pleased to be remembered”. He added: “A man of great charm, shy and diffident, he would have been welcome at all times among us”.
His time in the spotlight again, albeit for just under two minutes, came in the unlikely setting of the grounds of Lancashire’s stately Lytham Hall, where the September 29 edition of Antiques Roadshow, was filmed. After hearing the back story to the London family heirlooms, expert John Foster reckoned they were worth between £3-4,000.
Describing her great uncle as “a very colourful man, a ladies man, who played piano for the stars”, the unnamed relative said she had no intention of selling the medals but planned to pass them on to her son.
“I really want to get in touch with this lady,” said Cassius, a counsellor living in Kentish Town.
“She can fill in all the gaps and help ensure that Jack London gets the recognition that he deserves.”
Black History Month
• Books Join Lorna Holder discussing her new book, Style in my DNA, documenting 70 years of Caribbean influence on British fashion. 2.30-4.30, Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Road, NW3 3HA. For more info call Tuareg Productions on 020 7692 2711. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Music Celebrate Windrush with Pegasus Opera in an evening featuring Britain’s leading black classical singers performing opera and musical theatre, ending with some audience participation, so bring your best voice. 7pm. Brixton Library, Brixton Oval, SW2 1JQ, tel 020 7926 1058 for more details. Free
• Film Screening of Loving (2016), the moving story of the Lovings, a couple whose arrest for interracial marriage in 1960s Virginia began a legal battle that would end at the Supreme Court. 2-4pm, Highgate Library, 1 Shepherds Hill, N6 5QJ. Free but book on 020 8489 4560. Adults only
• Film Screening of documentary exploring the remarkable life of Edwardian composer Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, presented by director Len Brown. Professor Chi-chi Nwanoku (Royal College of Music) will be part of a roundtable discussion chaired by Professor Matthew Jones (LSE). 6.30-8pm, Old Theatre, Old Building, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, WC2A 2AE. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Books For parents and teachers. Meet Kandace Chimbiri, the author of Story of the Windrush, and hear how best to utilise it in the classroom or home. 7-9pm, New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road, N4 3EN. Tickets £4 78 via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Books An intimate evening with poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who uses his own unique style to express his experiences of growing up in Britain in the Windrush era. 7-9pm, New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road, N4 3EN. Tickets £16 31 via www.eventbrite.co.uk Includes refreshments
• Film Screening of Belle, Amma Asante’s award-winning film about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave who grew up in Kenwood House and helped change the laws on slavery. 6-8pm, Wood Green Library, 187-197A High Road, Wood Green, N22 6XD. Suitable for ages 12+. Free