With the start of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this weekend, it is worth remembering Liverpool’s pivotal role in the Olympic movement. The two main protagonists were Charles Melly (an ancestor of George Melly), a wealthy philanthropist, and John Hulley. Charles Melly attended Rugby school at the same time as Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Like Hughes, Hulley was a firm believer in sporting competition and in the idea of Muscular Christianity. John Hulley was born in Liverpool in 1832, attending Liverpool Collegiate and later training under Louis Huguenin, a famous French gymnast living in Liverpool.
Melly and Hulley joined forces to form Liverpool Athletic Club in 1861 and, in 1862, held the first Grand Olympic Festival on the Parade Ground at Mount Vernon. Over 10000 turned up to watch a programme including running, walking, high jump, boxing, wrestling, fencing and gymnastics – a list of events that were very similar to those at the first Modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896.
Further Olympic Festivals were held, with increasing popularity and Melly and Hulley raised the funds to open Liverpool Gymnasium on Myrtle Street (photographed above c.1870). Following its opening on November 6th 1865, the first meeting of the National Olympics Association was held there, with Hulley on the committee. The NOA defined Olympism long before the foundation of the International Olympic Committee – and its ideas were to have a profound influence on a young Pierre de Coubertin.
Hulley was buried at Smithdown Road cemetery. As a result of the work of a group of enthusiasts (including Ray Physick – author of Played in Liverpool), Hulley’s damaged gravestone bearing the motto mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) was repaired and rededicated in June 2009. Thanks to their efforts, the huge, global impact of both Hulley and Melly can be more fully recognised.
For a more detailed account of both Melly and Hully, there are a number of helpful sites including:
www.johnhulley-olympics.co.uk or www.johnhulleymemorialfund.co.uk