‘A Pageant to be Proud of’: The opening ceremony of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Cardiff Arms Park, 18 July 1958

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Cardiff Arms Park has hosted many events that have attracted a wide and enthusiastic audience but few have rivalled the evening of 18 July 1958 when John Brockway read out the following message in front of over 34,000 people:

We declare that we will take part in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games of 1958 in the spirit of true sportsmanship, recognising the rules which govern them and desirous of participating in them for the honour of our Commonwealth and Empire and for the Glory of Sport.

The event was the opening ceremony of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games and John Brockway was the captain of the Welsh team. The ceremony was broadcast across the globe and the story of that evening is told through records held at Glamorgan Archives, including a copy of the official programme for the opening ceremony.

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The Sixth Empire and Commonwealth Games was a major event with 36 teams and over 1400 competitors and officials, almost double the numbers hosted by Vancouver in 1954.  To cater for the opening ceremony significant work had been undertaken at the Arms Park, with improvements to the South Stand at a cost of £65,000 to bring the seating accommodation up to 15,000 and the total capacity to 60,000 for rugby matches. To cater for athletics, the surrounding greyhound track has been converted to a six lane cinder running track. In addition, sections of the hallowed Arms Park turf had been removed to provide for the field events. Stewarding was undertaken by 300 volunteers marshalled by Mr Wyndham Richards, Chairman of Cardiff Athletic Club. However, the key factor in the reduced capacity that night was the determination that the majority of the crowd of 34,000 would be seated. It is interesting to note that, 60 years ago, views on the future of the stadium were remarkably akin to the approach used many years later in the design for the Millennium (now Principality) Stadium:

The Cardiff Arms Park Committee has further plans for development and this may eventually produce a total accommodation of 75,000. I doubt whether it would be possible to increase the total beyond this figure. Yet the seating arrangements for the Games may well be adopted in future years for International rugby since more people want to sit at big matches than stand.

The opening ceremony may not have been the spectacle that is now associated with major events such as the Olympic Games, but it would have still been quite a display. It began at 5.30 with the arrival of the guest of honour, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was greeted by the band and drums of the Welsh Guards followed by a 21 gun salute from Sophia Gardens. The 36 teams then paraded around the stadium, led by Canada as the most recent hosts of the Games with Wales, as the current hosts, taking up the rear.  The Welsh team of 114 athletes contained many well-known names. John Brockway was an experienced and celebrated athlete who had represented Great Britain as a swimmer at three Olympic Games and had won a silver and gold medal for Wales at the Empire Games held in Auckland and Vancouver respectively. Alongside him that day marched many well-known faces, including athletes John Merriman, Jean Whitehead and Ron Jones and boxer Howard Winstone.

Each team paraded in their national colours, with the Australian team described in the newspapers the next day as resembling a …green crocodile and the Welsh team likened to …a flame in crimson and white. Alongside teams from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the Home Nations there were much smaller contingents, including North Borneo, Sierra Leone and Dominica. The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Thomas Augustine Robinson carrying the flag for Bahamas as the sole representative from his country. In fact Tom Robinson was greeted with cheers whenever he appeared during the week and, in particular, when he won the Gold Medal in the 220 yards sprint.

The crowd then greeted the arrival of the athlete carrying the Queen’s message. The first leg of the baton relay from Buckingham Palace to Cardiff had been undertaken by Roger Bannister. In all, the baton had travelled over 600 miles in four days carried by 664 athletes and children. The identity of the Welsh athlete who would run the final leg had been kept a closely guarded secret. There was an enormous cheer, therefore, when Ken Jones entered the stadium. Perhaps best known as an outstanding rugby wing for the British Lions, Wales and Newport, Ken Jones was also a talented athlete who had won medals in the sprint relay at the 1948 Olympic Games and 1954 European Games. In recognition of his achievements he had been named as the first Welsh Sportsman of the Year in 1955.

After completing a circuit of the track Ken Jones presented the silver baton to the Duke of Edinburgh, who read out the Queen’s message. This was followed by the release of carrier pigeons carrying the message to all parts of Wales. John Brockway, as captain of the Welsh Team, then took centre stage to take the Oath on behalf of all the competitors.

At that point the teams left the stadium to be replaced by entertainment provided by a 500 strong choir of massed voices representing Wales as the ‘Land of Song’. Their performance concluded with Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to be followed by a display of marching by the Welsh Guards. The ceremony concluded with the singing of the Welsh and British national anthems.

Many years later The Telegraph newspaper published an interesting account of Ken Jones’ experience of the opening ceremony. It claimed that the runner bringing the baton to the stadium was late. To meet the agreed timetable Ken was handed a replacement baton and told to set off. In the confusion and blinded by the sun he set off the wrong way around the stadium track and mistook the uniformed Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan for the Duke of Edinburgh, who was wearing a suit. Slightly irked by this the Duke remarked ‘Where have you been? You’re late’. On the conclusion of the ceremony a similarly irked Ken retired to the pub.

There is no way of knowing whether this is true. If it is, it certainly did not dampen the enthusiasm of those at the Arms Park and those listening and watching across the world. The next day the newspapers reported that Ken Jones had been …cheered to the skies… and the ceremony had been a triumph with an estimated 40,000 cramming into the stadium, well in excess of the official capacity. Not even reports of the famous English athlete, Gordon Pirie, being disciplined and excluded from the march past for arriving at the Arms Park late and without his team uniform could detract from the evening. As the Daily Mirror reported, every man and woman in the Stadium …must have been bursting with pride… for …it was a pageant to be proud of.

A copy of the official programme for the opening ceremony of the Sixth British Empire and Commonwealth Games held on 18 July 1958 at Cardiff Arms Park is held at Glamorgan Archives (ref.: D832/5).

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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