Harry Sewell, Olympic Athlete

By Ian Sewell

This article was published in the December 2019 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

Henry ‘Harry’ Sewell (1882–1953) was a British athlete who competed in the 3,200 metres steeplechase at the 1908 Olympics.
The Games hit problems before they even started. They was scheduled to be held in Rome, however in April Vesuvius erupted causing massive damage in Naples. Funds that had been earmarked for the Games had to be redirected to rebuild the city and a new venue had to be found. London, which had originally bid for the Games, was chosen and the Olympics were held at White City along at the same time the Anglo-Franco Exhibition. Unimaginable now, but the Exhibition was considered the more important event.
The White City Stadium was built quickly and held 68,000, however unlike London 2012, it was never near filled to capacity. The running track had a pool for swimming and diving and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics in the middle.
A total of 22 nations took part comprising 1,971 men and 37 women. There were 110 events in 24 sporting disciplines, including duelling with wax bullets, tandem cycling and the tug of war which was won by the Metropolitan Police team!
At the Opening Ceremony when, because Finland was at the time part of the Russian Empire, its athletes were expected to march under the Russian Flag. However the athletes refused to march or take part in the ceremony. The Swedes also refused to march since someone had omitted to hang their flag over the stadium. The American flag bearer refused to dip his flag to King Edward VII
The problems continued even when the events were taking place. At that time events were judged according to the host country’s standards rather than an Olympic standard. In the 400m race the American runner was judged, according to British standards, to have ‘interfered with’ the British runner and disqualified. The race was rerun without the offending athlete but two fellow American runners refused to run.
In the marathon the Italian runner entered the stadium in the lead but collapsed with exhaustion four times and each time was helped to get up by the umpires crossing the finishing line in first position and initially being awarded declared the winner. The other runners obviously complained and he was disqualified, although as he had finished the course he was awarded a gilded cup the next day.
It was after these Games that international standards for sports were introduced.
The steeplechase at that time was more popular in Britain than in the rest of the world, but had been run in both the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. In 1908 there were six heats with Harry winning the last one and going forward to the final. Unusually for nowadays, most of the heats had only four runners and one had only two. Out of the 24 athletes nine did not finish and one was disqualified. In the final Harry finished fourth and was one of the four British athletes in the final six.

The water jump in the 1908 Olympic Steeplechase during a race

The water jump in the 1908 Olympic Steeplechase during a race

Harry Sewell was a member of Derby and County Athletic and Cycling Club (now Derby Athletic Club) and was their first member to take place in the Olympics. He became Club Captain and later President
During the early part of the century he had become known as one of the best all round runners, in Britain, competing in events from 100 metres to ten miles.
Harry Sewell was born 8 on October 1882 at 15 Regent Street, Ilkeston, a town almost equally distant between Nottingham and Derby. He was the second of three children to survive childhood of William and Hannah Moon who were married 9 August 1879 both aged 19. William was a needle maker. He was born Henry but was called Harry from an early age, for example in the 1891 census where he 9 years.
He married Ada Elizabeth Stir land on the 15 September 1910 and was by trade a building inspector. They had two children Kathleen, born 1911 and Margaret,born 1913.
When war broke out like many, he enlisted in the new army being formed, signing up on 24 November 1915 and was posted to the army reserve on the following day. On 3 January 1917 he was mobilised to the Sherwood Foresters then transferred the Royal Engineers, Road Construction Company and three weeks later he embarked for France. He was demobilised 25th April 1919 a Colour Sargent Major reflecting his age and responsibilities.
He was elected Town Councillor in 1932 and he died aged 70 at Kirk Hallam, Derbyshire in 1953.