Not a headline we expect to see this summer. However, it did happen in the first London Olympics of 1908 when Gilbert Laws helmed Dormy to win a gold medal in sailing’s six metre class.
As the designer of Dormy, Laws’ intimate knowledge of the boat must have proved advantageous in its racing. Tom McMeekin, the boat’s owner, had nominated him as its helmsman and they were joined by third crew member, Charles Crichton.
Gilbert Umfreville Laws was born in Tynemouth on 6th January, 1870. The 1871 census records him living on Luis Hill Terrace, Tynemouth with father, George, a ship broker; mother, Veti, who had been born in Bohemia; and older siblings, Cuthbert and Kate. The family employed two domestic staff and had a distinguished name.
By age 21, Gilbert was boarding with his sister in Lambeth, South London and working as a shipping clerk. Two years later in 1893, he moved to Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex and started the Burnham Boat Building Company. The venture proved a great success and was soon established as one of the country’s leading boatbuilding and design firms. Laws was a member of the Royal Burnham Yacht Club when he represented Great Britain in the fourth Olympiad.
The 1908 Olympics had originally been scheduled to take place in Rome. Economic difficulties and the cost of reconstruction work in the Naples region following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906 meant that the Italian government couldn’t afford the Games. They were relocated to London.
Although the Games’ main events took place at the purpose-built White City Stadium, most of the sailing was held at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club at Ryde on the Isle of Wight.
There were five teams in the six metre event – two from Great Britain and one each from Belgium, France and Sweden. The event was contested over three races on consecutive days in late July. In each race, the teams completed two circuits of a six mile course in the Solent. Winds were light each day although they increased towards the end of each race to create some intense competition.
The first race produced a Great Britain one-two – Dormy finishing nearly two minutes ahead of second boat, Sibindi. The next race was closer. Dormy edged out the French by only a matter of seconds.
With final placings decided by the number of wins and the crew of Dormy having won the first two races, the gold medal was theirs. Third place behind the Belgians and French in the final race was academic. Belgium took silver; France bronze and the other British boat finished a narrow fourth.
Having won Olympic gold, Laws went on to serve in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the Mediterranean during The Great War. He was discharged with ill health and died from illness in December 1918, aged 48, at Ryde on the Isle of Wight – the site of his Olympic victory.
by David Tickner © 2012
David Tickner is an English teacher in the independent sector and an aspiring writer. He has a fascination with all sports and a particular love for Gillingham FC! David and his family have lived in Tynemouth for the past five years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.