As Olympic year progresses, Llanelli should be proud of the fact that much of what millions worldwide will be watching this summer was devised by a local man. John Graham Chambers, born at Llanelly House on 12 February 1843, was principally responsible for the modern laws of no fewer than three of the most prominent Olympic sports: athletics, boxing and rowing. In a brief but remarkable career, Chambers also staged the FA Cup final. Yet he remains largely forgotten in his home town, although LCH currently has proposals to erect a blue plaque to him at Llanelly House.
John was the eldest surviving son of William Chambers junior, founder of the Llanelli Pottery, and his wife Joanna. William's father had inherited Llanelly House and the rest of the Stepney estate in 1827 thanks to the complex will of Sir John Stepney, who died in 1811. A sporting gene evidently ran in the family: John's brother Charles Campbell Chambers played rugby for Swansea and cricket for Glamorgan, later becoming the first President of the Welsh Rugby Union in 1881. In 1855 the Chambers family left Llanelli for Hafod in Cardiganshire, after which John went to Eton and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. At school and then at college he developed a flair both for participating in and organising sporting events. He twice rowed for Cambridge, won the prestigious Colquhoun sculls, and started the first inter-university athletics championships, devising modern rules for the various competitions. After leaving college he started the Amateur Athletic Club, which was based on cricket's MCC and which later developed into the Amateur Athletic Association. Chambers, who was now working as a sports journalist in London, helped the club to buy a ground at Lillie Bridge, and in 1873 he staged the FA Cup final there (Wanderers beat Oxford University 2-0 in front of a crowd of 3,000). He also began competitions for billiards, cycling and wrestling.
In 1867 Chambers drew up modern rules for boxing, although these took the name of his university friend the Marquess of Queensberry, who donated the prizes. By coincidence I was recently seated next to Queensberry's biographer at a dinner, and she was happy to confirm that the rules were in fact entirely the doing of Chambers, not the noble lord. The size of the ring, boxing gloves, three-minute rounds and the count of ten were all of Chambers' devising, and as a result, he has been awarded a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In the 1870s he was also responsible for the development of new rules for rowing, and instituted the Thames Regatta. By now he was involved in a bitter dispute with the newly-formed London Athletic Club, one that centred on the definition of the word 'amateur'. Chambers initially supported a broad definition and was happy to allow the likes of bar workers and cart drivers to take part in the AAC championships, but for rowing he favoured a socially exclusive definition that excluded the working classes.
Chambers led a remarkably active and varied life. As well as becoming editor of the sporting journal Land and Water, he coached the Cambridge boat race crew to four straight victories, became the champion walker of England and rowed alongside Captain Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel. He married Mary Rigby in 1881. But his hectic lifestyle took its toll: he died suddenly on 4 March 1883, aged only forty, and was buried at Brompton cemetery.
Nevertheless, Chambers' life was not the one he might have expected during his early years in Llanelli. The terms of Sir John Stepney's will meant that his family were unable to retain the estate centred on Llanelly House, which reverted instead to the Cowell-Stepneys. In 1871 John's father was in desperate financial straits and had to sell Hafod, which ended John's prospects of becoming a landed gentleman and forced him to earn a living as a journalist. He also died thirteen years before Baron de Coubertin instituted the modern Olympic Games. It is possible that if John had lived, he would have become a prominent figure in the Olympic movement. As it is, though, all those who watch athletics, rowing and above all boxing this summer will be unconsciously witnessing the legacy of a Llanelli man.
Llanelli-born Dr David Davies is an award-winning historian, author, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and member of the LCH advisory panel. He is writing books on the Stepney family and the naval history of Wales. His website is www.jddavies.com.