An Olympic Connection

Perhaps the most visited gravestone in the grounds of Old Town Church is that of Harold Wilson but in this Olympic year it might be appropriate to pay homage to Ralph Harold Yandell, who occupies a plot in the same area as the former Prime Minister.

Born on March 29, 1892, Yandell was a native of Bristol, where he worked for many years at the Bristol Aeroplane Company until his retirement in 1957.

 

While there is nothing out of the ordinary in this, what most people will not know is that he also had the distinction of competing for Great Britain at the 1920 Olympics Games as part of the men’s gymnastics team - only men were allowed to compete in the four gymnastic events contested by 250 competitors from 11 countries.

 

Budapest was initially selected to host the games but as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been a German ally in the First World War, the event was transferred to Antwerp to honour the people of the city after the suffering they endured during the hostilities.

These games were significant in that they were the first in which the Olympic Oath was voiced, the first in which doves were released to symbolize peace and the first in which the Olympic Flag was flown.

The games also featured a week of winter sports - the first Winter Olympics were staged in 1924 - and in a unique moment in Olympic history, the final two races in the 12-foot dinghy event were held in the Netherlands. The fact the only two competitors were Dutch might have had something to do with this decision.

Yandell’s involvement in gymnastics came about through the Broad Plain Lads' Club, an organisation still running today although it underwent a name change in January 2009. It is now called The Broad Plain Working With Young People Group after Bristol City Council threatened to remove funding if it did not show that girls were also welcome.

 

Dennis Stinchcombe, the club’s leader at the time, described the council standpoint as “PC bureaucracy gone mad”. One can only wonder what Ralph and his chums would think about that if they were here today.

The British Gymnasts took part in the Men’s Team event where they finished in fifth place. The Italians took home the gold medal while silver and bronze went to Belgium and France respectively - but our boys didn’t return home completely empty handed.

Each competitor was awarded a trophy and a framed print as a memento of their achievement and these artefacts, along with many others have been carefully looked after by Ralph’s daughter, Jean Thomas, who moved to the islands in July 1944. Ralph came to live on Scilly shortly after his retirement.

“I remember going to watch him train on Saturday mornings,” Jean recalls. “He wasn’t a tall man but he was very broad-shouldered”.Asked if she ever wanted to follow in his footsteps she replied, “My school didn’t have a football team, never mind gymnastics! And they didn’t think of girls doing anything like that in those days."

 

Jean lives in Normandy House, which she ran as a hotel between 1969 and 1990 with her husband John. She invited me into her sitting room, which used to be the resident’s bar, to admire memorabilia and newspaper cuttings of her Olympian father’s gymnastic career which included the original Olympic souvenir programme.

Sadly, his many medals have been lost over the years but it is impossible to take away the honour and prestige of competing for your country at the Olympic Games. It really is the stuff of dreams.

So if you find yourself walking through the churchyard looking for Harold Wilson’s grave, be sure to spend a few extra minutes to seek out Ralph Harold Yandell.

First published in issue 52 of Scilly Now & Then

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