Henry Thomas "Harry" Blackstaffe, 1868-1951
It has long been held that the great long distance walker, Tommy Green, was Belgrave’s first and, to date, only Olympic gold medallist, when he triumphed in the 50 kilometre event back in 1932 in Los Angeles. While Tommy, without a shadow of a doubt, was the first athlete from the Club to win the highest award in our sport we have also had as a member a man who won a gold medal back in the 1908 London Olympics and was our President from 1909 to 1912 – H.T. Blackstaffe – born in Islington on 28 July 1868 and by trade a butcher.
The Official Report of the 1908 Games shows that H.T. Blackstaffe was a member of Vesta Rowing Club, Putney and weighed 11 stone 3 lbs when he competed in the Sculler's Race at Henley. He was forty years old.
Above: The 1908 Olympic final of the Sculls event at Henley and H.T. Blackstaffe - on the right of picture - takes the gold medal.
Above: Harry Blackstaffe - the first ever Belgravian who was an Olympic Champion.
Right: A memento for a sports fan? "Yours Sincerely H. T. Blackstaffe" - Harry is on the right of the picture.
The 1908 Olympic Games were due to take place in Rome but two years earlier the Italian government asked to be relieved of the responsibility after incurring considerable expense due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. So, at short notice, London agreed to take over and the ARA asked the Henley Stewards to organise the Olympic Regatta.
The Royal Regatta course of one mile and 550 yards was extended to one-and-a-half miles (2,414m) by moving the start, which was on the Buckinghamshire side of Temple Island, downstream by 270 yards, and the finish upstream by 60 yards. The enclosures remained much as they had been for the Royal Regatta, but an extra stand was erected close to where the Fawley stand is nowadays.
The racing took place over four days from July 28th to 31st with seven countries taking part; Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary and Norway.
The race reports make amusing reading as in his first heat Blackstaffe, wearing crimson and black, beat a Canadian who ran into the piles twice, and upset on the second occasion. The sporting Blackstaffe waited for him the first time but eventually sculled home alone. The next day, when a great race was expected, his German opponent had some trouble with his boat and failed to finish. So to the final on July 31st against home opposition in the form of the outstanding twenty year-old Alexander McCulloch (Winchester and University College, Oxford) of Leander Rowing Club; it was a very close race until the closing few yards when Blackstaffe went ahead in a “vigorous style”. It was subsequently described as the finest race of all the rowing events at the Games. The official report lists the winner's achievements from 1897 and he was clearly, even at the age of 40, a remarkable sculler.
We have no idea when Harry Blackstaffe joined Belgrave Harriers as the early minute books are missing but he was very involved in 1909 when he helped to fund the hire of a boxing instructor. He officiated at the club in various capacities over the years, until at least 1927.
In the days when Club races were major events in the athletic calendar one of the events never to be missed by a Belgravian was the 7 miles cross country championship, first held in 1901. The year 1910 saw an added incentive to become champion when Harry presented the ‘Blackstaffe Shield’ to be held by the first man home. The race was held annually until the 1990s when fashions had changed and the attractions of myriad road races had resulted in the ‘Blackstaffe’ field becoming severely diminished.
H.T. Blackstaffe had wide athletic interests as he was also a member of South London Harriers, representing them in the National Cross Country Championships and, possibly, a member of Blackheath Harriers. Links between the rowing and athletics fraternities were very close in those days.
Harry was also a Vice President of Walton Rowing Club and was ‘Mine Host’ at The Ship Hotel in Shepperton where that club’s annual dinners were held. We are led to believe that (as at 2008), Harry’s blades from his 1908 Olympic final were still to be found hanging from the Vesta Rowing Club’s bar ceiling. After his Olympic victory Blackstaffe was made a Freeman of the City of London and senior Life Vice-President of the Amateur Rowing Association.
The success achieved by Harry was particularly gratifying to him as earlier in his career he had, as a butcher, experienced great difficulty in having his entry accepted for Henley.
Harry passed away at the age of 83 on 22 August 1951 at West Wickham.
From The Official Report of
The Olympic Games of 1908
HEAT VII.—4.4 P.M., JULY 30.
Bucks.—H. T. BLACKSTAFFE, United Kingdom ; beat
Berks.—B. VON GAZA, Germany.
Times :—Halfway, 4.46 ; Finish, 10.14.
It had been fully expected that von Gaza would give the English amateur champion a great race, but something seemed to go wrong with the German, and he stopped at the Rectory. Though Blackstaffe led slightly at the start, the boats were dead level up the island, and Gaza was leading by about a quarter of a length when he suddenly went over to the Bucks bushes. Blackstaffe spurted out of the way at once and went a length ahead. Gaza looked round in surprise, and saw the Englishman was increasing his lead. As far as could be ascertained, there had been some misadventure with von Gaza’s stretcher. The pace had been very hot for the first half-mile, and perhaps his extra exertions had weakened it. He stopped sculling, and Blackstaffe went on alone.
FINAL.—2.30 P.M., JULY 31.
Berks.—H. T. BLACKSTAFFE, United Kingdom; beat
Bucks.—A. MCCULLOCH, United Kingdom.
Times :—Halfway, 4.37 ; Finish, 9.26.
This was a magnificent race the whole way, and produced as fast a time as has ever been done over the course in a sculling-boat. It was impossible to pick the winner at any time up to the last fifty yards. Blackstaffe started at 35, a more rapid rate than his opponent, who, however, went away from him so fast that he was a length and a half ahead in less than a quarter of a mile. Then the Vesta man spurted and began to go up very quickly, McCulloch appearing to take matters rather too easily. Blackstaffe never stopped improving until the gap was closed, and at halfway was about a quarter of a length ahead. He never went back. McCulloch then sculled a splendid race, but could never quite catch his man again, for Blackstaffe answered every spurt, and raced home in very vigorous style, winning by a length and a quarter in exceptionally fine time.
Blackstaffe’s career as a sculler has been remarkable. His most conspicuous successes are the winning of the London Cup in 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1903, 1904, 1905, and 1908 ; the Championship of the Netherlands in 1899 ; the International Open Sculls at Amsterdam in 1908 ; the Wingfields (Amateur Championship of the Thames) in 1897, 1901, 1903, 1906, and 1908 ; the Diamonds in 1906 ; and finally, at the age of forty years, the International Sculling Championship at the Olympic Regatta of 1908.
Records of the Walton Rowing Club.
The Henley Standard.
SR/Olympic Sports [http://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/athletes/bl/harry-blackstaffe-1.html]
The Fourth Olympiad being the Official Report The Olympic Games of 1908.