Researching our sports stars of the past

Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) 1930 wallpaper

Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) 1930 wallpaper

Our series of posts on the history of University sport continues with Mathilde Renauld’s engaging report on her Club 21 placement investigating historical alumni and staff who took part in the early Commonwealth Games, and the painstaking, challenging and enjoyable research process involved.


University Archives' Thurso Street repository

University Archives’ Thurso Street repository

Amongst all the research that goes on at Archives Services, I have been digging my way through a field in which the history of the University of Glasgow embraces international sports history. As we all are aware, the twentieth edition of the Commonwealth Games is fast approaching and is getting the whole of Glasgow excited. More specifically, the University of Glasgow wishes to celebrate its numerous past students who have had the honour of representing Scotland, since the very first games in Hamilton, Canada in 1930.

My task found itself at the root of this project, for, scavenging through the centenary records of Glasgow University Athletics Club (GUSA), and using other, more recent material, I was to make a record of all of those who have attended the University of Glasgow and competed for Team Scotland, or helped as team staff along the years.
My priority was to gather the names of all of those who represented and staffed Scotland, regardless of their University background, so I could later skim it down. Not a small task, for the final list of names exceeded two thousand! I concocted it using various sources, but vastly with the help of the Commonwealth Games Scotland website’s Team Scotland section which has published all known names of competitors. As you might imagine, the further back in time we go, the fewer the records, which has sometimes been an issue in my project.

Next was the crucial part, that is checking who attended the University of Glasgow, even if just for a day, and who did not. Here I had the chance of handling the books and archival records myself, bypassing any need for requests, which was altogether rather thrilling for someone like me!

Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) 1966 wallpaper

Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) 1966 wallpaper

That was more than two thousand people to individually check manually using the various matriculation and graduation records held by Archives Services. Fortunately, the Alumni Office was able to relieve a good portion of it, and left me the fun part! Indeed, I was from then on to specifically focus on the Games of 1966 and before. Not only did this mean rummaging through the many early twentieth century records I could put my hands on in the Archives’ repository, it also means cross-checking competitors who were nearly unknown to me. This was made more challenging for little care was taken in the 1930s and later to record names correctly.
To tell the truth about the process, in an afternoon, I managed to identify half a dozen alumni athletes, and perhaps four times that number of ‘maybes’, due to name problems. Go and identify a Mr. J. Henderson in a series of books in which all previous University of Glasgow graduates are recorded! That’s plenty of people, and plenty of ‘J. Hendersons’. Of course you would suspect that they will have competed at the Games while in their twenties, and therefore would have graduated shortly before or after the date of the event. Life in the Archives is however not always that simple!

It might sound like a tedious task – without a lie, after having checked out about thirty names on my list without any success, it really wasn’t fun. Yet, when my first alumni athlete popped up between the lines, with a name as distinct as badminton player Robert Scrymgeour McCoig, I couldn’t have been happier. I guess you just have to endure challenges in order to appreciate the good times!
The ‘maybe’s’ then had to be cross-checked through the database of University Blues (the highest sports distinction) which not every athlete would have received. Those who were neither ‘maybes’ nor ‘likelys’ were transferred onto yet another list, in order for me to later check whether they actually may have been at University, but simply did not graduate. Of course, the same thing was done for the staff members. The big difference however was that I knew the profession of most of them, and could therefore expect a doctor to have graduated with an MB, which narrowed the possibilities down when ten names were the same but only one had studied medicine!

Robin Murdoch, Gilmorehill Globe (later the Glasgow Guardian), 6 March 1933, p. 4

Robin Murdoch, Gilmorehill Globe (later the Glasgow Guardian), 6 March 1933, p. 4

The final list of University alumni who represented Scotland between 1930 and 1966 came to just under thirty, quite a way down from the original two thousand! But that is the great beauty of researching in archives – you will never know what you will end with and only time and effort will tell.

I then undertook the fascinating task of writing biographies of these athletes. Some of them have become anonymous along the years, and gathering enough readable information is tough; yet some have pursued an excellent sporting career, or even became politicians, which of course, facilitates the biography for the information is overflowing in such cases!
I got to know these people personally, which was touching. Through the archives of the Glasgow Guardian, I got to trace, month by month, the development of some of these great peoples’ sporting careers – such as sprinter and rugby player Robin Murdoch, whose victories as well as injuries I was allowed to follow.

Joseph McGhee at the 1948 Scottish Universities' Cross Country Championships, The History of Glasgow University Hares and Hounds: 1921-1996, p. 2

Joseph McGhee at the 1948 Scottish Universities’ Cross Country Championships, The History of Glasgow University Hares and Hounds: 1921-1996, p. 2

My research was also aided by looking up obituaries; and such texts are so personal and emotional that it felt really connecting, but out of place. The University Hares and Hounds’ Club history has been very useful, especially in the case of marathon runner Joseph (Joe) McGhee, for whom they hold numerous records. I also used previously carried out research in order to gather all the information in one place for myself to create the profile of each athlete as best as possible, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing.

All along this project, whenever I had my nose in those ever-so-long lists of people who graduated from the University of Glasgow, I kept having a little thought which went along the lines of: ‘will someone be researching my name in sixty years, doing just what I am doing right now?’ But of course not, everything is now digital. I also had always at the back of my mind how important the job I was undertaking was: if I was to miss someone out, their achievements might not be properly recognised later this year. The responsibility of this project, as well as its longevity – for I am sure my final list of University alumni who represented Scotland will be used again – as well as the biographies, made everything seem to important and worthwhile.


Mathilde’s biographies of students and staff who participated in the earliest Games will be added to the University Story website shortly.

The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) wallpapers can be downloaded from their Facebook page.

Categories: Archive Services

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply


  1. It’s Games time! « University of Glasgow Library

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: