History rewritten as wrestler Louis Bruce was revealed as Britain’s first black Olympian | Olympic Games

A feat of detective work – plus the chance discovery of dozens of well-preserved documents at a wrestling club in Wigan – has revealed a remarkable secret that is rewriting more than 100 years of British Olympic history, the Guardian can reveal.

Sprinter Harry Edward, who won two bronze medals at the Antwerp Games in 1920, has long been considered Britain’s first black Olympian. But now a team of researchers has found that Edward’s achievement was beaten by 12 years by a long-forgotten black wrestler named Louis Bruce, who reached the second round of the 1908 Olympics in London.

Bruce, born in Edinburgh in December 1875, is already known to transport historians as one of the first black tram drivers in Britain. Last year it was celebrated by the London Transport Museum and appeared on its Black History hit chart. So far, however, his sporting claim to fame has been ignored.

This will change with the British Olympic Association recognizing the importance of results. Scott Field, director of communications at the BOA, told the Guardian: “This is a fascinating new body of research and we are delighted to hear the story of Louis Bruce as the first reported black British Olympian. The diversity of British Olympians should be celebrated and we are incredibly proud of that. »

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This discovery also makes Bruce the fourth known black athlete to compete in the Olympics. Only Constantin Henriquez, who played rugby for France in 1900, American hurdler George Poage in 1904, and American 400m runner John Baxter Taylor Jr, who first ran in 1908 on July 21, two days before Bruce wrestled in the 73 kg catch-as. -catch-can catching division, competed before him.

The seeds of history were sown last year when Canadian researchers Connor Mah and Rob Gilmore, who contribute to the website Olympia.org, the most comprehensive database on the Olympics, began cleaning up the records London 1908 athletes officials.

The first hurdle they faced was that the full names of many contestants were not on official records. In Bruce’s case, there was a further complication as he was misidentified in some history books as “Lawrence Bruce”.

“A major problem we had was that many official Olympic reports, as well as newspaper coverage, rarely used more than a first initial and surname for athletes,” said Gilmore, who worked at the Archives. provinces of New Brunswick for nearly 40 years. “It also seemed almost a hard and fast rule in sports journalism at the time, especially with amateur athletics.”

(Clockwise from left) Louis Bruce’s entry form for the 1908 Olympics; in London tram service; a report of Bruce in action at the 1913 Tramways Boxing Championship; the action of the light-heavyweight wrestling final in 1908; Bruce’s medal for his participation in the Olympic Games. Composite: undefined/Getty, London Transport Museum

However, during their research, Mah began to wonder if Bruce had been misnamed and also noticed in census records that a Louis Bruce was in Hammersmith around the same time as the London Games of 1908. Meanwhile, Gilmore found a wrestling advertisement in the newspaper archives a year later for a fight featuring Ernest Nixson and a “Darkey” Bruce, along with several press clippings describing him as “colored” , which further piqued their interest.

But the breakthrough came when it was suggested to Mah that the Snake Pit wrestling club in Wigan had a collection of old wrestling documents and memorabilia, which had been passed from person to person over the years and could be worth worth exploring. It turned out to be a eureka moment.

When Mah contacted the club, he discovered that it had a set of 1908 Olympic wrestling documents, including entry forms and lists, which included the full names and addresses of the 53 British wrestlers in the competition. This allowed him and Gilmore to establish that L Bruce’s first name was Louis, not Lawrence. And, shortly afterwards, that his address, 76 Princes Road in Teddington, was the same as that of tram driver Louis Bruce listed in the 1911 UK census.

Mah said: “All we knew about him before we started our research was that a ‘Lawrence Bruce’ was affiliated with the Hammersmith Amateur Wrestling Club and competed in the heavyweight division of the Olympics. of 1908, defeating Alfred Banbrook in the first round, but losing his next fight to Ernest Nixson.

“During the few months of excavation we were able to make significant progress, but it was the Snake Pit club’s set of documents that provided the breakthrough. Especially since they provided the full names of each competitor, in their original handwriting and the address of each competitor.

“The person there sent pictures of all the documents they had via WhatsApp after vaguely describing what I was looking for. I had no idea they had everything – it was a huge fluke.

This was far from the end of the story. The pair were later aided by sports historian Andy Mitchell, who uncovered further details about Bruce’s extraordinary life, including his birth certificate and a photograph of Bruce on a 1906 streetcar, no doubt confirming that he was black.

Pictured, Bruce – who obtained his tram driving license in 1900 and was later promoted to inspector, a notable achievement for the time – stands alongside the mayor of Kingston upon Thames, Henry Charles Minnitt, as he ceremoniously takes control of the first London United Tramways electric tram to cross the Kingston Bridge over the River Thames as part of a new route to Tolworth and Surbiton.

In addition to his usual duties, Bruce was the personal driver of the company’s managing director, Sir James Clifton Robinson, who had a private tram at his house to get to work.

In 2021, Transport for London and Black Cultural Archives celebrated Bruce’s achievements, calling him “one of London’s first black tram conductors” – although they also took the wrong first name, calling him Lewis and no Louis. “Unfortunately, little is known of Lewis’s history,” they wrote.

Louis Bruce got his streetcar license in 1900 and was later promoted to inspector.
Louis Bruce got his streetcar license in 1900 and was later promoted to inspector. Photography: London Transport Museum

Since then, researchers have uncovered much more about Bruce’s life, including the fact that he performed frequently in shows as a dancer, ragtime singer, and comedian at social events and streetcar concerts.

During this period he married Ethel Elizabeth Dunn in September 1911, and the couple later had a son, Dennis. Bruce may have worked on the trams until 1922, but in the 1930s he owned a newsagent in Epsom Road, Sutton.

Meanwhile, Bruce’s sporting achievements continued after the 1908 Olympics. In January 1913, a report noted that “the well-known colored boxer” Inspector Bruce had won the London United heavyweight title Trams, while a year later he also took victory in a one-mile walk handicap race at Griffin Park.

Olympic historian and statistician Hilary Evans, who helped with the research, said Bruce’s story was very significant: “Nowadays it’s very unusual to find a seam of material that hasn’t been scrutinized. by historians.

Bruce died, aged 82, in 1958 with an estate valued at £5,897. A mystery remains. His birth certificate states that Louis Bruce McAvoy Mortimore Doney was born in Edinburgh to Jane Elizabeth Doney, who would have been white. However, her father is not named.

Curiously, Doney was a widow who had six daughters in Plymouth before giving birth to Bruce in Scotland – yet she was back in the South West and remarried at the time of the 1881 census. Bruce then grew up in Plympton , Plymouth, with his grandmother and two aunts.

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On his marriage certificate, Bruce listed his father as a doctor named William King Bruce, but researchers have yet to find him.

“The only thing missing, which is frustrating, is the identity of his father,” says Mitchell. “This discovery will partly explain why a 33-year-old widow from Plymouth with six daughters ended up having an illegitimate child in Edinburgh.”

It all adds up to a remarkable story, adding to the rich tapestry of British achievement since the start of the modern Games in 1896. Next month, at the Beijing Winter Games, 50 athletes from the British team will attempt to write their own chapters of Olympic history. Now, finally, Bruce’s story is also being heard.

Robert J. King