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Image for the news item 'Sir Norman Whitley – Emma’s first Olympic medallist' on 10 Aug 2021
Images left - right: Emmanuel Hockey Club, 1902, Norman Whitley standing on the extreme right; title page of the Emma Lacrosse Club account book, 1904

The gold medal won by former Emma student Anna Kiesenhofer in the ‘Tokyo 2020’ Olympics cycling road race feels long overdue, for it is more than a century since an Emmanuel member took home an Olympic medal – our solitary medal, until now. The victor on that occasion was Norman Henry Pownall Whitley, who won a silver at the London Games of 1908. Whitley, who graduated in 1904 with a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages, played hockey for Emma in winter and cricket in summer, but the sport at which he really excelled was lacrosse. This fast-paced ball game, which originated in Canada and involves the wielding of a stick with a net on the end, has never been much-played anywhere in Britain, with the exception of the grammar schools of the north west of England, which were a hotbed of lacrosse. It was during his years at two of Manchester’s schools that Norman Whitley honed his skill at the sport.

There was no lacrosse club at Emma when Whitley matriculated, but there was a fledgling one by the time he left, no doubt the result of the success at university level achieved by both Whitley and George Page, who had come up to Emma in 1902, for both men won half-blues and Whitley captained the Cambridge team in the first Varsity lacrosse match ever played, in 1903 (the Light-Blues won 19-6). The Emmanuel Lacrosse Club was formed in 1904, probably in Lent Term, although a surviving account book shows that during its first three years the club was dormant. In 1907, however, it paid £5 to the Cambridge University Lacrosse Club, presumably for use of its facilities, and also spent £4.17.6 with Gray & Sons, a Cambridge firm that supplied bats and racquets for various sports. Similar outlays were made in the following two years, but at the end of Easter Term 1909 the club folded.

Norman Whitley continued to play lacrosse after graduating, captaining the All-England team, and he was selected for the British Olympic squad in 1908. The event only attracted two competing teams, the other being the hot favourites, Canada. The match was played on 24 October, an unseasonably cold day during which hail fell at one point, but despite this the official match report described the event as ‘the best exposition of lacrosse ever given in this country, and…the English side was by far the strongest ever put into the field’. Not all the goal-scorers are named in the report, so we do not know whether Whitley, who played at centre, was among them, but he is reported as having ‘got the best of the face’ in the third quarter. The final score was 14-10 to the Canadians, but the British team could feel proud of their performance, for ‘it was the finest effort our own players have yet made against any Canadian team’.  

Image: Olympic Lacrosse: Great Britain vs Canada, 1908 (the British team wore red jerseys, Canada white)

 

Whitley was called to the Bar in 1907 and practised in the Northern Circuit until 1914. During the First World War he fought with the Manchester Regiment and reportedly met his future wife, Florence Erskine, in romantic circumstances, being nursed by her after his wounding at Gallipoli in 1915. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916, and his promotion to captain in the same year was noted by Alistair Potter (Emma, 1901) in a letter to the Senior Tutor: ‘Young N.H.P. Whitley seems to be doing pretty well for himself. I noticed he recently got a staff appointment out here somewhere or in Salon or Mesop’. After the war Whitley entered the colonial legal service and went on to be a Judge and Chief Justice, his postings including Penang, Singapore, the Federated Malay States and Uganda.

In the New Year Honours of 1941 Whitley received a knighthood, and later in the same year he obtained a divorce from his wife. This had repercussions a decade later when his son Peter married Lady Mary Cambridge, a great-niece and god-daughter of Queen Mary, for the latter’s strict adherence to Court etiquette regarding divorcees prevented her from attending the wedding. The bride did, however, wear the splendid diamond and pearl bow brooch which was her wedding gift from Queen Mary. Sir Norman Whitley died at Cape Town in the spring of 1957, but his Olympic silver medal presumably remains a cherished family heirloom.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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