Our own ‘Lord Sebastian Coe’ of the 1908 London Olympics

PUBLISHED: 17:23 13 August 2012

William Grenfell, Lord Desborough

William Grenfell, Lord Desborough


DOUBLE Olympic gold winner Laura Trott has helped Great Britain to its best medal haul since 1908 – another Games that was intrinsically linked to Welwyn Hatfield.

The first time the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ was held in London, 104 years ago, it was partly thanks to an aristocratic family rooted in the area.

For William Grenfell, then Lord Desborough, who wed Panshanger Estate heiress Ethel Anne Priscilla Fane, niece of Countess Cowper, proved to be an early 20th century Seb Coe.

A sportsman, statesman and politician, the charismatic Lord Desborough had all the attributes of 2012 mastermind Lord Coe, and was a driving force of the 1908 Games.

Originally born at Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, the aristcrat went on to occupy the once vast Panshanger Estate in 1913 following his marriage to Ethel, or ‘Ettie’ as those close to her knew her.

He lived to the age of 90 and died in 1945 at Panshanger, which at its 19th century height included some 662 acres in Digswell, Tewin, Welwyn, Datchworth and Hatfield.

Lord Desborough was instrumental in getting the White City stadium built to Olympic specifications at no cost to the 1908 organisers.

A feat he managed because the Franco-British Exhibition was already planned for the site.

In return for a proportion of the gate receipts, exhibition organisers provided the then state-of-the-art stadium at a cost of approximately £80,000.

His drive led to appeals for additional funds through the newspapers to enable the British Olympic Committee to maintain the British reputation for hospitality, in an early example of the volunteering which has characterised London 2012.

Social functions were arranged to which all competitors and officials were to be invited, including a series of banquets and a ball.

On the importance of staging a standout Olympiad, Lord Desborough said: “As this country is the cradle of athletic sports, it is absolutely essential that the Olympic Games are carried out in a manner worthy of a great nation.”

William and Ettie had three sons and two daughters.

Their eldest son, the poet Julian Grenfell, and their second son, William ‘Billy’ Grenfell were both killed in action during World War One.

Their third son, Ivo, died in 1926 following a car accident.

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