A versatile exponent of England’s enterprise: the life of Oswald Groenings

Oswald Groenings was not one of the numerous British athletes who won medals at the 1908 London Olympics – nine gold, eight silver, two bronze – but he was also an exceptional gymnast and high diver, and his life was full of drama. He was eliminated in the Olympic semi-finals of both the 110 metres hurdles and 400 metres hurdles, in which only the winners went through to the final. He also had the unenviable distinction of fighting for Britain in one war and being interned as an alien in another. His athletics career might well have prospered further had it not been interrupted by business visits to Argentina, India and Russia.
His father, Franz Groenings, was born in Germany but emigrated to England and set up business as a music teacher in Middlesbrough, which might at first seem to be an odd choice of destination, but there was reasoning behind his decision. When the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, visited the town in 1862 he declared, “This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise, is an infant, but if an infant, an infant Hercules”. Middlesbrough, which had been a hamlet of 29 people in the 1820s, was truly in the tumultuous forefront of the Industrial Revolution, with a population that had swelled to 7,600 by 1851, to 19,000 by 1861 and to 40,000 by 1871.
Iron ore had been discovered in the nearby Cleveland Hills in 1850 by a local entrepreneur, John Vaughan, and his business partner in the exploitation of it was Henry Bolckow, who was German-born and had come to England at the age of 19, taking British nationality in 1841. He became Mayor of Middlesbrough in 1853 and the town’s first Member of Parliament in 1868, and he had a keen interest in music, providing financial support for a brass band and a philharmonic society. Franz Groenings arrived in Middlesbrough in 1863 and soon became director of both. There was a highly significant German influence on music in England, beginning with Handel in the 18th Century, and sustained by Mendelssohn, who spent much of his time in the 1830s and 1840s in London. German composers, and therefore German music teachers, were held in high regard in the drawing-rooms of Victorian England.
Groenings established his Cleveland Academy of Music, Modern Languages and Dancing in Middlesbrough in 1871, also setting up other premises for the tuning and repair of pianos and harmoniums, and expanding to own music shops in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Stockton-on-Tees and Redcar. He established a renowned reputation as a teacher and conductor, known throughout North Yorkshire, and he conducted the choir at the funeral of Henry Bolckow in 1878. Maybe, though, Groenings had over-reached himself, because the following year his business went into liquidation, and all his stock and other assets were sold off by auction. The fault may not have been entirely his own because iron-making was suffering a crisis of excessive production during that decade and many local foundries had closed down. Music lessons might well have been among the immediate economies made by local society.
A first son, also named Franz, had been born to Groenings and his English wife, Elizabeth (née Birkbeck), in 1878, and a second son, named Oswald Jacob, was born on 20 May 1880. Mrs Groenings could perhaps have been related (and perhaps a daughter) to Henry Birkbeck, the town’s most prominent banker. Whether or not financial help came from wealthy relatives, Franz Groenings seems to have taken the collapse of his business in his stride because by 1881 he was already advertising his services again as a music teacher. Within two years he was appointed musical director at the Princess Theatre, in Glasgow, and when he and his family departed from their home he was presented with £50 by “a number of inhabitants of Middlesbrough”, as the local newspaper, the “Daily Gazette”, enigmatically reported. In terms of 2018 income this would be worth £36,360. A third son was born to Mr and Mrs Groenings in Glasgow in 1884 and later a daughter.
Franz Groenings Senior moved on to similar appointments at the Blackpool Winter Gardens in 1892 and then to the Globe Theatre, in London, in 1895, and to the elegant and socially distinctive West Pier at Brighton in 1898. His two elder sons clearly had a musical upbringing because Groenings conducted a performance in Brighton of “The Drum Polka” by the French composer, Louis-Antoine Jullien, featuring both Franz Junior and Oswald as percussionists. .
Franz Groenings Senior was a prolific writer to the press, mainly about matters concerned with musical performing rights, and he seems to have been something of a controversial character, also being involved in a number of court cases. One of his numerous activities was acting as a judge at brass-band contests, and one of the frequent references to this in the media is to be found in a syndicated gossip column published by various provincial newspapers and entitled “Notes by a Lady”. The unnamed authoress compliments Groenings on the fact that he could apparently play 14 different instruments but adds – in what could be interpreted as a distinctly waspish manner – that as a judge “he notes down every single mistake, and so accurately does he accomplish this that even the players themselves are dumbfounded at his powers”. The death of Franz Groenings was reported in October 1902.
Oswald Groenings had been sent to Quintin School, which was the secondary school attached to the Regent Street Polytechnic, in London, founded in 1866 by Quintin Hogg, grandfather of the 20th Century politician. The school owned a 27-acre sports-field at Merton Park, Wimbledon, and there was plenty of cricket, football, swimming, gymnastics and drill for the pupils under the supervision of Colour Sergeant Henry Elliott, formerly of the Scots Guards, to whom Groenings would later give credit for his grounding in sport and general fitness. Groenings was appointed vice-captain of the cricket 1st XI and won the high jump at the annual sports day, which was probably his only experience of athletics from his early teens onwards. His first notable sporting achievements outside his school curriculum were as a gymnast, in which his speciality was the horizontal bars, and he became one of the leading members of the Polytechnic gymnastics club
Volunteering for war service and then back in London by 1901
By 1899 he had left school and was playing cricket for the Old Quintinians, capably enough to open the batting, but he then joined the Civic Imperial Volunteers, comprising members of law firms and financial institutions, artists, writers and “gentlemen of private means”, to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. One of his comrades-in-arms was Erskine Childers, author of the renowned espionage novel, “The Riddle of the Sands”. The probable date of Groenings’s departure for South Africa is known because in the “Polytechnic Magazine” of 29 March 1900 the secretary of the gymnastics club, Charles T. Peard, reported, “Our friend and leader, Oswald Groenings; was down last week in uniform and expected to be off to the front on Saturday next”. .
The Boer War ended in 1902, but Oswald Groenings had returned to London by 1901 to begin building what would be a highly successful career as a stockbroker in the wheat and grain trade. His first achievements of sporting note were as much in diving as in athletics, and already by 1902 he was giving displays alongside one of the very best exponents in the land. Gordon Melville Clark, of the famed Highgate club, who was to win the national “plain diving” title in 1904-05-06 and took part in the 1906 Olympics, placing 5th. Another even more skilful diver alongside Groenings was Hjalmar Johansson, who was Swedish and spent some time in London. Johansson competed in the Olympics of 1906-08-12, winning gold in 1908 and silver at the age of 38 in 1912.
If Oswald Groenings needed any example to follow as regards sporting versatility, Johansson was the perfect model. Who else can claim to have competed in two different Olympic sports on the same day, as Johansson did in 1906? He swam in the heats of the 100 metres freestyle and took part in the standing long jump, in which he placed 19th of 30 competitors.
Singled out for special notice, Groenings was described by the Polytechnic Harriers secretary; H.W. Farrell, as being “our latest recruit” and was to demonstrate his own brand of all-round athletic ability from 1902 onwards. Over the next seven years at the AAA Championships, he achieved the following placings: 1902 – 5th= high jump, 4th long jump; 1906 – 2nd 120 yards hurdles, 2nd high jump, 4th long jump (all on the same day); 1907 – 1st 120 yards hurdles, 3rd long jump: 1908 – 2nd 120 yards hurdles, 3rd= high jump: 1909 – 4th high jump. He was the first-placed Englishman on three occasions in both the hurdles and the high jump. His absence during 1903-04-05 is explained by a note in the “Polytechnic Magazine” that he had departed on 15 June 1903 for a prolonged stay in Buenos Aires on business. In a later reference in the “Sporting Life” it was said that he “established several jumping records while in South America”.
Meeting up with nationally known athletes.
At Polytechnic Harriers in 1902 he had immediately met up with athletes of national repute, of whom the most notable were Leonard Tremeer, known familiarly as “Jimmy”, and Bill Sturgess. Tremeer placed 2nd in the AAA 220 yards in three successive years, 1902-03-04, and he would be a AAA finalist at 100, 220 or 440 yards on 10 occasions between 1896 and 1906, though eventually transferring his attentions to the 440 yards hurdles, as would Groenings. Sturgess was one of the most prolific race-walkers of his generation, winning eight AAA titles from 1895 to 1902. Groenings was an immediate success as an athlete, beating Tremeer in the long jump at the Inter-Polytechnic Championships in June. This innovative meeting was contested by teams from the Polytechnics of Regent Street, St Bride’s and Borough (now South Bank University), in London, and by Northampton Polytechnic.
Groenings came to the 120 yards hurdles at a vital time in the development of the event. From its primitive beginnings when competitors simply jumped the hurdles in any manner they fancied, a more efficient use began to be made of the leading leg, and this style was revolutionised in the late 1880s by Arthur Croome, of Oxford University, who was one of those effortless Victorian all-rounders who was equally adept at athletics, cricket, golf and ice-skating. He introduced the straight-leg lead by which the athlete cleared the hurdle more efficiently, and this technique – so ably further demonstrated by the USA’s Olympic champion, Alvin Kraenzlein, in winning the AAA title in 1900 and 1901 – was in widespread use by 1906. Evens so, the leading British high hurdler among Groenings’s contemporaries, Kenneth Powell, stubbornly persisted with the “bent leg” style. He reduced the British record to 15 3/5 in 1907 and was another all-rounder, competing in both the high hurdles and the tennis tournament at the 1908 Olympics, though not on the same day!.
Perceptively, the new secretary of Polytechnic Harriers. F.W.F. Arnaud, noted that “judges in the know all say that Groenings undoubtedly has the makings of a future champion”. Arnaud would not have made such a statement lightly, as by profession he was a prominent member of the Society of Public Analysts, responsible for investigating adulterated foodstuffs, and a respected author of learned articles on the subject. At the 1903 Inter-Polytechnic meeting Groenings lived up to Arnaud’s expectations by winning the high jump at 5ft 6in (1.68m), the long jump at 21ft 4in (6.50m) and the 120 yards hurdles, beating Tremeer, in 16 4/5sec. Returning to his roots in the North of England, Groenings also competed with success at the Liverpool Scottish sports and the Blackburn Infirmary sports on the eve of his departure to South America – having taken the opportunity to make a farewell visit to his family, perhaps?
He did not arrive back in England until March 1906, and there was presumably no question of his attempting to qualify for the 10th anniversary Athens Olympic, which began on 25 April, and at which there were British medal successes for Ireland’s Con Leahy, winning the high jump, and Peter O’Connor, 2nd in the long jump. In future years the “Athletic News” and “Sporting Life” publications were to consider it of sufficient public interest to report whenever Groenings left the country, as when he went to India in March of 1909 and then to St Petersburg in June of that year, thus missing part of the athletics season, though back in time for the AAA Championships. Even in 1910, at the end of his competitive career, and in 1913, long after his retirement, his further visits to India were reported in detail, to the extent that in the latter year it was noted that he was returning from Bombay to London on the P & O steamship, “Morea”
It was a pity that Groenings did not have more opportunity to progress in what may well have been his best event, the 440 yards hurdles, which was not brought into the AAA Championships until 1914. Within four months of being back in England in 1906, he was beaten only by inches at 120 yards hurdles by the Scotsman, Robert Stronach, for the AAA title. Futhermore, Groenings might well have won this race, except that the long jump, in which he had set a personal best of 21ft 11¼in (6.68m) in 4th place, had finished only a few minutes previously “The Times” enthused about “a grand race, less than half-a-yard covering the three”. The 3rd place was taken by Eric Hussey, of Oxford University. In 1905 Stronach had become only the second Briton to beat 16 seconds (see “Track Stats”, December 2014 and February 2018).
Two successes against the French, and then a AAA title
A week after the AAA Championships Groenings had his first taste of international competition when the Stade Français club, of Paris, sent a team to meet Polytechnic Harriers in a seven-event match at the Quintin Hogg Recreation Ground, at Chiswick, The visitors won by five events to two, and Groenings was the only home victor, in the high jump and long jump, and was 2nd at 120 yards hurdles to Michel Choisel, the French national champion at both 110 and 400 metres hurdles. Groenings had also joined the other major English club, London AC, and competed regularly at their meetings.
Groenings won the 1907 AAA high hurdles title by the huge margin of seven yards from Alfred Healey, who had taken the silver medal at the 1906 Athens Olympics. Healey was originally from Horncastle, in Lincolnshire, and was a member of the Alnwick Harriers club in Northumberland. During 1907 he won Northern titles at 100 yards, 220 yards, 120 yards hurdles and the long jump at various venues. Presumably the long jump at that year’s AAA Championships had again preceded the high hurdles final, and Groenings’s 3rd-place jump had been 21ft 8in (6.60m). He was remarkably consistent over the years in the 21ft-plus range, and this must have been an era in which the quality of runways varied enormously and were rarely ideal! He was never quite in the front rank in the high jump and long jump but saved his career best performances for the big occasion of the AAA Championships – 5-10¼ (1.78) for equal 5th in 1902 and his 21-11¼ (6.68) for 4th in 1906.
Groenings then made something of a speciality of an event which – like so many others – is now long since defunct. This was the 300 yards hurdles in which a British “record” of 38 4/5 had been set by an Irishman, Dr Thomas Donovan, who was a member of Alexandra AC, in Crewe, in 1896. Groenings had improved this to 38 1/5 on his debut in the event at the Essex county championships at Chelmsford on 20 July 1907 and then on 28 September had very narrowly beaten Leslie Burton, of Broughton Harriers, in 36 3/5. This was extravagantly claimed by the British press as a “World record”, but there’s no evidence that any other country – particularly the USA – had any interest in the event.
Nevertheless, it was a performance of real merit, and it must have been an intensely exciting race to watch. It took place on grass at the Stamford Bridge Stadium, in London, and had been specially arranged by the organisers of London AC’s annual autumn meeting. The build-up was almost akin to a boxing contest because the “Sporting Life” listed the vital dimensions of the two contestants: Groenings 6ft 0½ (1.84m) tall, weighing 12 stone (76kg); Burton 5ft 9½in (1.76m), 11st 6lb (72kg). “Burton was perhaps a trifle speedier in the running”, said the “Sporting Life” correspondent, “but there was little difference between them when they came into the straight. At the last hurdle they rose together, but Groenings was over first and getting the better of the run-in won by barely half-a-yard”.
Those Essex championships at which Groenings had set the first of his 300 yards hurdles records were one of the county’s social high spots of the summer. The meeting was held in the delightful setting of the spacious grounds of the Bishop of Colchester’s residence in Chelmsford, and the attendance of VIPs – all scrupulously named in the opening paragraph of the report in the “Essex Newsman” – was of the highest order. Lord O’Hagan was the meeting president and was joined by, among many others, Lord Blyth, Sir Daniel and Lady Gooch, Sir Fortescue and Lady Flannery, the Mayors and Mayoresses of Chelmsford, Harwich, Maldon, Saffron Waldon and West Ham and, inexplicably, a Baron von Reiffenstein.
Lavish praise from the local press, and then a 440 hurdles challenge
The prizes were sumptuous, worth up to 10 guineas (£974.90 in 2018 values), and when the correspondent for the “Chelmsford Chronicle” finally got round after a lengthy preamble to summarising the athletics results he described Groenings as “undoubtedly the prettiest and fastest hurdle jumper England has ever seen”. It was not clear as to how much knowledge the writer had of hurdling outside the circulation area of his newspaper, and nor was it readily justifiable, perhaps, for the “Essex Newsman” reporter to describe the prepared stretch of the Bishop’s lawns as being “one of the best and fastest grass tracks in the country”. Then, as now, more than a century later, hyperbole was an over-used journalistic device.
On the strength of his Chelmsford performance at this intermediate distance, Groenings was matched against John Densham, of South London Harriers, in what was, in effect, a record-breaking attempt at 440 yards hurdles at the Kennington Oval cricket ground, in London, on 7 September, which attracted 8,000 spectators despite the alternative attractions of cycle-racing at Crystal Palace and League football. There were four Division I matches in London that day, with a crowd of more than 25,000 at Chelsea v Sheffield United, 12,000 at Leyton v Millwall, 7000 at Queen’s Park Rangers v New Brompton, and thousands more at Woolwich Arsenal v Bristol City.
Densham had plenty of speed and stamina, having previously placed 3rd at both 440 and 880 yards at the AAA Championships, and he won the race in 57 4/5, to equal the record set on 13 June 1896 at Crewe by the local doctor, Thomas Donovan. According to the “Sporting Life”, “Groenings had drawn clear at the last hurdle and looked all over the winner but collapsed; however, 10 yards from home and Densham easily got by”. This rather gives the impression that Groenings had fallen, but the “Morning Post” was adamant that Densham “won by a yard” This would give Groenings an estimated time of 58sec, and if this sounds unimpressive it needs to be pointed out that in those days – and through to the 1930s – hurdles were solid structures of an inverted T-shape, and an athlete needed to clear them with plenty of inches to spare to avoid seriously damaging himself or, at the very least, his chances of victory.
Groenings had been ill early in 1908 and was not originally on the selectors’ short list for the London Olympic Games, but he ran a 440 yards hurdles in 59sec, winning from scratch in a handicap event, at the London AC meeting at Stamford Bridge on 27 June. Then at the AAA Championships he was beaten at 120 yards hurdles by only half-a-yard by the 1906 Olympic bronze-medalist, Vincent Duncker, who was of dual German/South African nationality. Duncker did not run in the Olympics – maybe injured or unwell.
Groenings was thus chosen not only for both Olympic hurdles events but also for the high jump and long jump – and, to be frank, it wasn’t that difficult to catch the selectors’ eyes. Nations were allowed up to 12 competitors in each event, and there were 11 Britons among the 23 entrants at 110 metres hurdles, but the 400 metres hurdles was so unfamiliar that only 15 were entered altogether, of which seven were British. In addition to Groenings there were two others in this event who were from the North of England – Leslie Burton and his younger brother, Geoffrey, who are listed as having been born in Heswall and Barnston respectively, which are a town and a village situated within two miles of each other on the Wirral peninsular. Groenings, incidentally, was not the only son of German parentage in the Great Britain athletics team at those Games: Emil Voigt, of Manchester AC, was to win gold in the five miles event.
The first-round heats of the Olympic 400 hurdles were farcical as there were 12 of them in all and so only four had more than one participant! Despite this, Densham was eliminated, and in the semi-finals, where again only the winners qualified for the final, Groenings and Geoffrey Burton went out. Leslie Burton reached the final but failed to finish as Charles Bacon and Harry Hillman, of the USA, were 1st and 2nd a long way ahead of the last surviving Briton, who even so set a British record of 57.0. He was Groenings’s Polytechnic clubmate, “Jimmy” Tremeer. Groenings was 4th in his 110 metres hurdles semi-final three days later. Leslie Burton’s daughter, Elaine, would be a leading sprinter in the 1920s and later became a Member of Parliament and was made a life peer.
Ticklish work in which one slip means disaster
The 1909 AAA 120 yards hurdles was won by Alfred Healey from Powell and Duncker in the absence of Groenings, who had returned from India just the previous month and competed only in the high jump. A regular columnist for “Athletic News”, who used the pseudonym, “Strephon”, had written at great length at the beginning of June about what he described as the poor state of British hurdling, but he did so with a witty turn of phrase. “Another golden rule in hurdling is to mind one’s own business”, he had advised. “It should be no concern what is going on to left or right – whether rivals are ahead or on their heads. The hurdler is employed in ticklish work wherein one slip will spell disaster”.
Groenings finished his athletics career in 1910 with his customary 21ft-plus long jump – actually 21ft 5in (6.52m) to win in an inter-club match against Herne Hill Harriers on 23 July. He was then elected to the Polytechnic Harriers committee, officiating at club fixtures, and honoured with life membership. Groenings, Tremeer and the Burton brothers were valiant pioneers of the 440 yards hurdles in Britain long before Lord Burghley came on the scene and famously won Olympic gold in 1928.
Also in 1910 Groenings married in London Ethel Kathleen Bourchier, who was the only daughter of Major A.C.F. Bourchier, of the Indian Army, and it can be presumed that the couple had met on Groenings’s visit the previous year to India. They had a daughter, Jean, born in 1912, but were forcibly separated soon after, as Groenings spent the years of World War I interned in a prisoners’ camp at Ruhleben, some 16 kilometres (10 miles) east of Berlin. What isn’t clear is how he came to be in Germany, though the logical explanation is that he was luckless enough to be there on business or a family visit when war was declared.
He had plenty of interesting company during his enforced stay in his late father’s native land because most of the 5000 or so sharing his discomfort were British; and some were of eminent sporting renown. Steve Bloomer, one of England’s most famous footballers, having scored 23 goals in 28 international appearances, had been locked up alongside Groenings, and as Bloomer had played for Middlesbrough, among other clubs, they would presumably have had plenty to chat about. Bloomer had been coaching at a German club when war broke out, and the same fate befell another former Middlesbrough and England footballer, Fred Pentland, who was preparing the German national amateur team for the intended 1916 Olympics in Berlin.
Ruhleben had been a horse-trotting venue before the war, and conditions were appallingly primitive for the first internee arrivals, but by 1916 the camp was virtually self-governing and the prisoners were receiving financial support from the UK Government – though they had to pay back their weekly allowance when the war ended! All manner of activities were organised by the prisoners themselves, including football (association and rugby), cricket, golf and tennis, and Groenings seemed philosophical enough about his fate, sending greetings by mail back to his friends in England.. Another of his fellow captives was Harry Edward, the British Guiana-born sprinter, who would win Olympic bronze medals at 100 and 200 metres for Great Britain in 1920.
There was an unwelcome sequel for Groenings after his release which was no doubt connected with his prolonged and reluctant absence. In 1918 he was divorced from his wife, who later emigrated to Canada and died there only 10 years later. Oswald Groenings lived to the age of 85, dying on 24 September 1965. When his mother, Elizabeth, who had reverted to her maiden name of Birkbeck, had died in Plymouth in 1934 probate had been granted to him, giving his address as London Wall, in the city of London, and to his sister, Olga Birkbeck, who was a successful stage actress who had played “Rosalind” in a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” on Broadway in 1927, and who also lived in Plymouth.
Oswald Groenigs subsequently married again and changed his surname to Birkbeck at some time in the 1930s; maybe following his mother’s death. He was by no means alone in distancing himself from his German ancestry, if that was, indeed, his intention. The Royal Family had altered their house title from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor in 1917.
Footnote: The marvelously informative “Polytechnic Magazine” archives are held by the University of Westminster and can be accessed at www.polymags.westminster.ac.uk/archives; There is a detailed description of the Ruhleben internment camp to be found at www.centenarynews.com. Many thanks, also, to Peter Lovesey for additional information. ..
Bob Phillips

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