16 January 2012

1948 Olympics torch helps launch British Future

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One of the original 1948 Olympic torches will be on display at the launch of British Future this week, ahead of an exhibition this spring. Below the Museum of London’s Dr Cathy Ross talks about the importance of the torch as an historic icon.

“This is one of the Olympic torches from the 1948 London Olympics. It was given to the Museum by the 1948 Organising Committee along with some surplus medals which would otherwise be melted down:  ‘they are not souvenirs which we want to fall into the hands of people who can lay no claim to them’ explained the Committee.

It’s a real piece of 1948-style Britain: a functional and practical no-nonsense torch, designed  by British boffins (at the government’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research). Made of brushed aluminium, it was a ’special design, so it is the flame and not the torch which is passed from one man to the next’. The secret was apparently in the way it was fuelled by eight cakes of hexamine, delivered to the burner one by one through a cunning spring loaded mechanism. Ours is one of the basic torches, produced at the EMI factory in Hayes. There was also a  more luxurious stainless steel version which was used for the actual lighting of the flame in Wembley Stadium on 29 July 1948 by John Marks, a tall , blond, athletic doctor from St Mary‘s Hospital Paddington.

The shadow of World War 2 hung over the torch relay, as it did for all aspects of the games. Although  the relay had only been invented for the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, and was therefore tainted with Nazi associations, the symbolism must have seemed irresistible  for  post-war Europe. The 1,600 runners were ‘showing to the world that by their courage and endurance they could overcome all difficulties of the arduous route extending from one end of Europe to the other’. The reality was a little less heroic. Greece was still ravaged by civil war and of course the route studiously avoided Germany. There were upsets along the way and rumours that the flame had accidentally gone out when it reached British soil.

In 1948 the Olympic ideals fitted rather well into Britain’s sense of itself. The souvenir brochure carried a long article about the ancient Greek games and it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that this is really all about Britain. ‘The Greeks’ it pronounced, ’loved peace as much as we do.’ They were also, apparently, ‘an intensely practical people’ who had a ‘native Greek instinct for moderation’   and who also honoured ‘the trained man who was always ready to defend his country in an age when freedom was held at the price of constant vigilance’. Greeks also, of course, loved democracy and it is no accident that the Houses of Parliament should be so prominent in  the imagery of the 1948 games, thanks to a poster design by Walter Herz,  a Czech who had fled from fascism  in 1939.

Contemplating the changing nature of both British and English identities was much done in  the post-war years, perhaps most famously by George Orwell in his 1947 essay on The English People. There he points out that the stereotypically  English physique ’tall and lanky’, the type that John Marks personified, didn’t really accord with the reality: ‘the working classes as a rule are rather small with short limbs’. A more diverse understanding of the British was emerging.”

The torch will be on show in the Museum of London’s free ‘London and the Olympics’ display from spring 2012. www.museumoflondon.org.uk

Dr Cathy Ross is director of collections at the Museum of London.

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