FEW people can say that they have an Olympic gold medallist, century-scoring cricketer, scratch golfer, England football team captain or 147-finishing snooker player in the family – especially if all these feats are rolled into a single person.
But the Duchess of Northumberland has been speaking about one such man – her astonishing great-uncle, Max Woosnam – ahead of Alnwick hosting the visit of the Olympic Torch next June.
Woosnam, who was the brother of the Duchess’s grandmother, Gaye, is regarded as one of the greatest sportsmen ever produced by this country, having racked up an array of incredible achievements in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Born in Liverpool in 1892 into a wealthy family, Woosnam was a naturally-gifted athlete from boyhood. Educated at Winchester College, he was captain of the cricket and golf teams, but most remarkably made scores of 144 and 33 not out for a Public Schools XI while playing as a schoolboy against the famous MCC at Lord’s.
Enrolling at Cambridge University in 1911, he gained a quadruple Blue in football, cricket, tennis and golf, which was followed by active service in the First World War, where he fought at Gallipoli and in the trenches on the Western Front alongside war poet Siegfried Sassoon.
At the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, Woosnam took gold in the tennis doubles and a silver in the mixed doubles. Astonishingly, earlier that year he signed for Manchester City Football Club as a centre-half, from Chelsea, and went on to captain not only the club but the England side – despite remaining an ardent amateur throughout his career.
The following year he won the doubles title at Wimbledon, as well as captaining the British Davis Cup team. A keen snooker player, he is reported to have made a 147-break, and played golf off scratch.
And to cap off his sporting tally, Woosnam defeated silent screen star Charlie Chaplin in a table tennis match at his California mansion – using a butter knife instead of a bat.
Chaplin is reported to have taken the loss badly, resulting in Woosnam throwing him, fully-clothed, into his own swimming pool.
The Duchess said: “He was never really talked about that much when I was growing up.
“I knew I had this great-uncle who was an extraordinary sportsman, but it was only about 10 years ago that a friend was staying with us who, like Max, was educated at Winchester.
“I happened to mention Max and he said he couldn’t believe that he was my great-uncle, as he was one of the sporting heroes of Winchester.
“To learn that he was an Olympic gold-medallist was incredible, especially as Alnwick is hosting the Olympic Torch next June.
“It’s extraordinary to think this was a man who won an Olympic gold in tennis the same year he signed for Manchester City as a footballer. He was a remarkable man.”
For all his sporting genius, Woosnam never received a penny for it – he refused to turn professional, branding it ‘vulgar’ – and smoked all the way through his playing days.
He gave up the sporting life in the mid-1920s and he was later appointed to the board of ICI, dying in London in 1965 at 72.
Author Mick Collins, who wrote the book All Round Genius about Woosnam, said: “If Max Woosnam had never been born, someone would surely have invented him.”