Who would have thought that the exciting, colourful and internationally renowned Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton Relay actually started its life in Wales?
Signifying a visual celebration of the unity and diversity of all the Commonwealth nations, and highlighting sport’s ability to join people of all races, this much-anticipated event has now become a familiar and popular prelude to the Games’ grand opening.
Having begun as the Empire Games in 1930, the Commonwealth Games has always been proud to follow the Olympic ideal of friendship, solidarity and fair play, and endeavours to promote good relations between the Commonwealth countries.
The British Empire and Commonwealth Games, as they were known in 1958 when held in Cardiff between 18 and 26 July, were the first to stage the Queen’s Baton Relay, intended to symbolise peace and harmony through sports participation.
In a fitting tribute to the capital city’s success as host, the Cardiff baton will form part of this year’s ceremony when the 2014 Glasgow equivalent arrives in Wales on 24 May to begin its seven-day journey around the country.
Although its origins remain unclear, it is believed that the idea for a Commonwealth baton relay was conceived during the late 1950s by the Games Organising Committee. Appointed as the event’s Honorary Organiser was retired Royal Navy officer, Commander Bill Collins, who had previously coordinated the London Olympic Torch Relay in 1948. For the Cardiff relay Collins was ably assisted by a team of local organisers, selected by athletic associations from all counties through which the running route passed.
The 1958 silver-gilt and enamel baton was designed by Cardiff jeweller and former soldier, Colonel Roy Crouch, Chairman of the Games’ Medals Committee. Measuring 40cm in length and 4cm in diameter, it was decorated with Welsh national symbols, namely a red dragon, daffodils and leeks, along with crowns representing the royal connection. ‘VI British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Wales 1958’ was inscribed on the hollow tubular baton, which was manufactured by Turner and Simpson, silversmiths, of Birmingham.
The first baton relay
On 14 July 1958, the baton relay set off from the forecourt of London’s Buckingham Palace, the residence of Queen Elizabeth, Head of the Commonwealth, before travelling through several English counties and all thirteen Welsh on its journey to Cardiff. Unfortunately, owing to illness, the Queen was unable to hand her message to the opening runners, namely Dr Roger Bannister, the first sub-four-minute miler, escorted by fellow 1954 Games champions Chris Chataway and Peter Driver. Her place was taken by the relay organiser, Commander Collins, who placed the message inside the baton; a cap on one end being secured by a spring catch, thus avoiding the need for a key. In order to prevent damaging the baton en route, the message was transferred to a metal replica version following the relay’s second stage, which, for security reasons, was fitted with a lock. The ceremonial silver baton then resumed its duties on the final changeover, carried, message safely inside, by the last runner.
A total of 664 athletes, including 32 schoolboys, were involved in the relay, which covered more than 600 miles over almost four days. According to The Story of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games by Clive Williams (2008):
One runner from each club, service unit and school in each county was given a stage to run. The seniors ran two-mile legs while the juniors ran a mile. The run continued day and night, seniors being used in dense traffic conditions and, where possible from midnight to 6.00am. In the north the message passed through Llangollen, Wrexham, Flint, Llandudno and Caernarfon before heading south down the west coast through Dolgellau, Aberystwyth, Cardigan and Haverfordwest. To satisfy the needs of the more heavily populated south the relay wound around the coast from Carmarthen, Llanelli, Swansea and Bridgend before it covered the valleys of the south through Aberdare, Brynmawr, Abergavenny, and Newport then on to Cardiff.
An official car followed directly behind the runner throughout to protect him from unofficial cycle or motor car escorts, to light the road at night, and to enable the section organisers to keep the time-table correct. Speeds varied as necessary from 6.5 to 7.5 minutes to the mile, thus ensuring that there was no idea of a race and to allow spectators to be shown the baton at take-over points.
The opening ceremony
Following a trumpet fanfare and six-gun salute, on Friday 18 July at 6.33pm, the final leg runner entered the Arms Park stadium to complete the relay. This athlete’s identity was a closely guarded secret and rapturous applause rang out from the 40,000 or so spectators when he was revealed as former Wales rugby player and Olympic silver sprint relay medallist, 36-year-old Ken Jones of Newport. Donning a red vest complete with Welsh badge and white shorts, Jones appeared in the competitors’ entrance before running once around the cinder track, holding the baton aloft. He then stopped in front of the Duke of Edinburgh, the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, and handed him the baton accompanied by the light-hearted remark of ‘Nice pass Ken’ by a member of the crowd, in recognition of Jones’s prestigious rugby career. The Duke proceeded to read the Queen’s message to the excited crowd:
To all athletes assembled at Cardiff for the 6th British Empire and Commonwealth Games I send a warm welcome and my very best wishes. I am delighted that so many Commonwealth countries have sent teams to Wales for these Games. The number is larger than ever and more than three times as great as for the first meeting at Hamilton in 1930. This is welcome proof of the increasing value which is being placed today on physical strength and skill as an essential factor in the development of the whole man, healthy in mind and body. It also gives the greatest personal pleasure to know that so many members of the Commonwealth family are meeting in friendly rivalry and competition. I hope that many lasting friendships will grow from this great meeting of athletes and spectators, and that you will all go home with a better understanding of the value of our Commonwealth of nations. I am greatly looking forward to being with you at the end of next week.
The much-anticipated Games were then officially opened, as Cardiff welcomed 35 nations and 1,122 athletes to compete in the sports of athletics, boxing, cycling, fencing, bowls, rowing, swimming and diving, weightlifting and wrestling. In addition to the use of Cardiff Arms Park for the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics events, other venues included Cardiff’s Wales Empire pool, built especially to host the swimming, Sophia Gardens for the boxing bouts, Maindy Stadium the cycling and Llyn Padarn, Llanberis the rowing. Wales’s sole gold medal was won by bantamweight boxer Howard Winstone, although the home nation did also collect three silvers and seven bronze.
The closing ceremony and beyond
Following a Games widely considered an outstanding success, the closing ceremony on 26 July proved to be an historic occasion. Although continued illness prevented the Queen from attending in person, a recorded message was played to the crowd in which she announced: ‘I intend to create my son Charles, Prince of Wales today. When he is grown up, I will present him to you at Caernarfon.’
Despite being the smallest ever host nation, Wales’s superbly organised sporting spectacle did the country proud and was recognised at the time as a magnificent occasion which celebrated the cream of athletic strength and stamina on a global stage.
On the culmination of the 1958 Games the Queen’s relay baton was offered by the Organising Committee to the National Museum of Wales, at the wish of Queen Elizabeth. It has been housed in the Art Department ever since, along with the accompanying royal message, and represents an enduring visual testament to an unforgettable and momentous festival of sport.