Tracking down Jack

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 Antique’s Roadshow last month Jack London’s amazing achievement had been all but forgotten.

Jack London at the AAA championships in Stamford Bridge in 1929

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, London.

“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.

Jack London remembered in the Antiques Roadshow

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 backstory 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.”

This article appeared in the Camden Review on October 17 2019


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