Harry Edward: Britain’s first black Olympic hero

In 1920, runner Harry Edward sprinted his way to bronze at the Antwerp Games, but his exploits on the track were soon lost to history. As the 32nd Olympiad gets underway in Tokyo, Sonia Grant explores the extraordinary life and career of Britain’s first black Olympian

A man runs on an athletics track with a crowd behind him

The British and French sprinters and their trainers circled Belgian officials in protest, gesticulating angrily towards the man at the far end of the cinder track with the starting pistol in his hand – the marksman they were accusing of making a false start that had resulted in America’s Charley Paddock unfairly winning the race. The arguing continued for hours before the losers’ objections were finally overruled.

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The debacle was reported drily in The Athletic News: “HFV Edward… was left on his mark in the 100 metres final, owing to the misunderstanding of an order given by a marksman, and in the semi-final of the 200 metres pulled a muscle in the back of his thigh… he finished third in both races, but lost three yards at the start of the 100 and ran very lame in the 200 metres.” This was how Harry Edward became Britain’s first black Olympic medallist at the Antwerp Games in 1920.

The British Athletics Team of 1920 photographed in two rows
The British Athletics Team during the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp; Harry Edward sits front right. (Image by Getty Images)

Born in 1898 in Berlin, Harry Francis Vincent Edward had a comfortable upbringing. His German mother, Magdalene, was a pianist; his West Indian father, Vincent, a maître d’ at exclusive restaurants. He also had a sister, Irene, who was four years younger. Edward became enthralled by athletics as a teenager and joined the Verein für Volkssport-Teutonia team, where he quickly distinguished himself as a sprinting prodigy.

Several German sporting magazines seemed fixated on Edward’s ethnicity and reduced him to an epithet: “neger”. Nonetheless, competing against older, more experienced runners, Edward silenced naysayers with a blistering performance at the Olympic trials held in June 1914 in Berlin: he was narrowly beaten in a world-record final, guaranteeing selection for the German squad two years later. However, the outbreak of the First World War would halt such athletic ambitions with the cancellation of the 1916 Olympics.

Despite being German-born and with a German mother, Edward assumed the nationality of his father, as was customary at the time – the West Indies were then colonies of the British empire and Edward was, therefore, regarded as British. Consequently, he was classified as a potential alien combatant and monitored by special agents. Edward’s father avoided such scrutiny because he had been overseas working in a neutral country.

Edward was classified as a potential alien combatant and monitored by special agents

The situation changed drastically in October 1914 with a German communiqué. The ultimatum: 30,000 of Germany’s nationals in Britain, many of whom had been interned or had their properties and businesses vandalised, be granted safe passage home, or else there would be reprisals. It was ignored and, in retaliation, the German government proceeded to round up British subjects.

British nationals held at Ruhleben internment camp
British nationals were held at Ruhleben internment camp near Berlin. (Photo by The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Held by the Germans

Harry Edward remained at liberty for around six months but, as soon as he turned 17, the age of conscription in Germany, he was duly escorted under guard to Ruhleben, a civilian internment camp just outside Berlin. By the time he arrived at the camp, coined ‘Little Britain’, it was self-governed by British internees. Comprised of nearly 5,000 British men, of whom approximately 300 were men of colour, Edward was one of three Afro-German teenagers. He integrated well – unlike others, especially merchant seamen from Sierra Leone and Aden, who were housed in segregated barracks – and was mentioned in glowing terms in the camp’s monthly newsletter, In Ruhleben. Indeed, Edward spent the duration of his internment maintaining his training and shone at events such as the camp’s sporting Empire Day celebrations.

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When the Allies liberated Ruhleben in November 1918, Edward asked to be repatriated to England. Despite his captivity, civil servants made enquiries regarding the validity of his application for a British passport; the other teenage internees had received rejections on account of their illegitimacy. As Afro-Germans they were vulnerable; during the Second World War, one died under mysterious circumstances in an asylum and the other escaped Nazi Germany and fled to Liberia. Fortunately for him, Edward’s passport was eventually issued. However, leaving Germany meant separation from his family; his mother and sister remained. Although they would be reunited many years later, Edward would never see his father again; he died in 1926 while working in Hungary.

Life in postwar Germany was grim. Citizens faced starvation and when, for instance, locals heard that a work horse had dropped dead in the streets from exhaustion, crowds hurried to the scene, knowing that the animal would be butchered and hunger pangs alleviated.

Edward was more fortunate than many; he landed a job within weeks of arriving in England

In England, the euphoria of armistice was soon replaced by cold, harsh realities: poverty, rampant unemployment, and a housing crisis – from which even returning servicemen were not immune. Unrealistic promises were made by the government as Prime Minister David Lloyd George announced there would be “homes fit for heroes”, but only succeeded in increasing frustrations as the rate of slum clearances stalled: out of the social housing for 500,000 promised, only 213,000 were completed.

With widespread depravation, it was little wonder that the nation’s mood darkened. Money diverted for Britain’s participation in the Olympics only added to mounting pressures. The event was by no means the only cause, but race riots erupted in several port cities. In Luton, the town’s Peace Day celebrations descended into three days of rioting: protesters set fire to the town hall and dragged pianos into the streets to accompany the blaze. They sang and danced to renditions of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ as the town hall was reduced to a smouldering pile of ash.

Harry Edward was more fortunate than many: he landed a job within weeks of arriving in England, teaching French and German. He also resumed his passion for athletics by joining the Polytechnic Harriers. “England has found a new sprinter,” declared The Athletic News, adding, “Or did Germany find him for us?”

Three more black British athletes who represented Great Britain at the Olympics

Jack London

Born in Guyana in 1905 to a Geordie mother and black Guyanese medical student father, Jack London moved to the UK in 1921 where he trained with Harold Abrahams’ coach, Sam Mussabini. At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, London won silver in the 100 metres and bronze in the 4 × 100 metres relay.

Mcdonald Bailey

Born in 1920 in Trinidad, McDonald Bailey – the “black flash” – came to Britain to enlist in the RAF during World War II. He won bronze in the 100 metres at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. After athletics he had a short-lived rugby league career with the Greater Manchester-based Leigh Centurions.

Doris ‘Anita’ Neil

Born in 1950 to an African-American father and English mother, Anita Neil became Britain’s first black female Olympian at the 1969 Games in Mexico in the 100 metres and 4 × 100 metres relay. She also competed in the same events at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Four relay sprinters
Anita Neil (second from left) became Britain’s first black female Olympian at the 1969 Games in Mexico . (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Victory assured?

With the disappointment of Antwerp behind him, Edward became the ‘golden boy’ of the sport’s governing body, the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA), by convincingly clocking up record-beating performances. Indeed, apart from being somewhat injury prone, Edward dominated British sprinting. The sporting press was full of admiration, describing him as an “exceedingly nicely-spoken and [an] unassuming athlete”. Victory at the 1924 Olympics seemed to be assured.

“I took my preparation and training quite seriously. Almost every evening… I used to do calisthenic exercises… on Saturdays and on a least one evening per week I would spend two hours on the cinder track,” said Edward. His hard work paid off: he was selected as a member of the British Olympic Team.

English runner Harold Abrahams would be one of Edward’s main challengers. Both men had a point to prove – Edward sought to vindicate his loss at Antwerp and although Abrahams had been part of Team GB in 1920, he had been eliminated in the heats.

However, shockwaves reverberated throughout athletics at a headline no one had foreseen: “HFV Edward’s Exclusion from the International Team”. Inexplicably, given his status as Britain’s triple athletic champion, the AAA had made an agreement with its French counterpart that a qualifying pre-Olympic trial would be restricted to those of English and French birth, ruling out Edward.

Shockwaves reverberated throughout athletics at a headline no one had foreseen

The snub was devastating and irrevocable. Edward travelled to the US to compete at club level and, with his relationship with the AAA in tatters, he became an American citizen – forever ruling out representing Great Britain.

The summation of Harry Edward’s accomplishment in Athletics of Today was unforgiving: “That this big, coloured boy from the West Indies might have achieved an Olympic double is obvious.” In Edward’s absence, Harold Abrahams accomplished Olympic sprint glory as Britain’s first 100 metre gold medallist, a feat immortalised in the award-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Arguably, if fate had not conspired against him, it could so easily have been Harry Edward on the Olympic podium. Instead, his legacy languished in obscurity for a century, relegating him to an ‘also-ran’.

Sonia Grant is an independent historian, writer and author

Follow Team GB’s Olympic progress in Tokyo on BBC TV and radio from 23 July–8 August, as well as the Paralympics from 24 August–5 September

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This article was first published in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine