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First Olympic medals won by British black athlete in 1928 race to glory at auction

Posted on 19/11/2019 in Press Coverage

The first Olympic medals won by a British black athlete in 1928 together with his sporting memorabilia sprinted to success at auction.

Bronze and silver medals won by Olympian Jack London, plus an Olympic commemorative medal which his proud uncle John Downham had gold plated ‘to create a full set’, went under the hammer at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers on November 19, 2019 – and smashed their estimate.

Internet bidders, a phone and room bidder locked horns in a tense finish. The memorabilia, which also included two relay batons used in the 4x4 100 metres in 1928 and the British Empire Games, sold to a private UK buyer for a hammer price of £8,000. The original estimate was £3,000-£5,000.

Jack scooped bronze in the 4x4 100 metres relay and silver in the 100 metres sprint in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Holland.

John Downham’s daughter, Christine Downham, a 60-year old retired pub licensee from Rossendale, Lancs, decided to sell Great Uncle Jack’s memorabilia after having it assessed by experts on TV’s Antiques Road Show. They said the collection was potentially worth £3,500.

Mrs Downham, a mother-of-one and grandmother, said: “We’re very proud of Great Uncle Jack’s achievements. We decided to sell because we want the memorabilia to be enjoyed. It’s just been stuck in a cupboard where no one can see it.

“The medals came to me after my dad passed away four years ago. He loved talking about Jack and decided to get one of his commemorative Olympic medals gold-plated to make it look like a full set. My dad and mum Sarah, who is 86 and still going strong, were well known Lancashire licensees. They used to run the Dun Horse pub in Blackburn.

“I never met Jack but my dad did. Apparently, he was quite a character and a bit of a ladies’ man. He was very talented. He was academic, brilliant at sport and very musical. He ended up on stage and in a film.

“After retiring from athletics, he became an entertainer and played piano for the stars. He was in the original cast of Noël Coward musical Cavalcade at London’s Theatre Royal in 1931. He also appeared in Will Hay’s Gainsborough Pictures comedy Old Bones of the River in 1938. He could do anything.”

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons, said: “What a fantastic result – Jack London has crossed the finish line in style yet again. We often talk about the rich diversity of our nation and Jack set a fine example. He embraced every opportunity that came his way and accomplished so much. He won glory for Britain in the field of sport and brought joy to millions as an entertainer.

“He was ground-breaking in more ways than one. As well as being the first black man to win Olympic medals for Britain, he was the first athlete to use starting blocks in the tournament.

“Sadly, he was only 61 when he died suddenly in 1966 from a subarachnoid haemorrhage. By that time, he was working as a porter at London’s St Pancras Hospital. His life was cut short all too soon but what a lot he crammed into it.”


Jack, full name John Edward London, was born in 1905 in British Guiana, now Guyana. He moved to London as a baby, had a spell back in British Guiana, then returned to London.

He studied at Regent Street Polytechnic, joined the Polytechnic Harriers and was trained by renowned coach Sam Mussabini - the man who helped athletes win 11 Olympic medals. Recipients included Harold Abrahams who clinched the Olympic 100 metres in 1924, a feat celebrated in film Chariots of Fire.

Jack was a whisker away from repeating that success in the 1928 Olympics. After equalling the Olympic 100 metres record of 10.6 seconds in the semi-final, he won the silver medal in the 100 metres final, behind Canadian Percy Williams.

In July 1929, he became the first British sprinter to win the Amateur Athletic Association’s 100 yards title since Harold Abrahams in 1924. He was also a leading British high jumper in this period. His athletic career was curtailed by a leg injury in 1930.

Jack, who married twice but had no children, also co-wrote a coaching manual in 1948, The Way to Win on Track and Field.

Jack London’s collection was sold on November 19 at Hansons, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire. To find out more, or to arrange a free sports memorabilia valuation, email David Wilson-Turner: [email protected].