McGill's first Olympian

by Bob Barney

Percy Nobbs’ remarkable architectural career has been well documented—his leadership in developing McGill’s nascent School of Architecture as its second director, his prominent role in the design and building of such landmark structures as the McGill Union Building (now the McCord Museum), the Pulp and Paper Research Institute and Percival Molson Stadium, and his lengthy career in private practice in Montreal.

Less well known is the fact that Nobbs was McGill’s first Olympian and that his Olympic appearance took place more than a century ago in the very same city that has again assembled the athletes of the world for the planet’s pre-eminent sporting event – London.

An avid amateur fencer of note in the Montreal area during the years just prior to the London Games of the IVth Olympiad in 1908, the 32-year-old Nobbs earned the right to represent Canada in his specialties, épée and foil fencing, by competing successfully in elimination trials held in Toronto at the Central YMCA on the evening of April 3, 1908. The affair was noted by Toronto newspapers as “the greatest fencing meet ever held in Canada.”

Nobbs sailed to England on June 14 aboard the R.M.S. Tasmania. He fenced in the individual épée and exhibition foils competitions. Fencing épée at the Franco-British Exposition Fencing Grounds on July 18, Nobbs tied for sixth in his pool, registering zero wins, four losses, and two draws. As team manager John Howard Crocker related in his final report of the Olympic team’s fortunes in London: “. . . in the épée competition we had a worthy representative in the person of Professor Percy E. Nobbs. He was unfortunate enough to draw in a pool with the champion of Italy, Sweden, England, and France. The épée competition was keen and of the finest type. Professor Nobbs showed a form worthy of any nation and the Canadians who had the pleasure of seeing Pool No. 5 on Thursday morning had a rare treat.”

Foil fencing, at the time considered by the Amateur Fencing Association of Great Britain as more of an art form than a sport, was organized as an exhibition event. On the evening of July 23 at Prince’s Galleries in Piccadilly, Nobbs fenced against W. P. Gate of South Africa. Of Nobb’s foil performance, Crocker had this to say: “Professor Nobbs was placed against the representative of South Africa and was easily the best from every point of view.” Also competing in Nobbs’ foil pool (Pool 2) was the first woman to take part in Olympic fencing, Miss Millicent Hall, England’s champion ladies foil fencer.

A few years before his Olympic adventure, Nobbs outlined the reasons behind his passion for fencing in the pages of McGill University Magazine. “In all its aspects,” he wrote, “as mere exercise, recreation, applied mechanics, gymnastic for the mind, and school of manners, as a training in co-ordination of action, self-control, deception, strategy and sportsmanship, this science, art and sport is too good a thing to drop from our civilization, even if we do not duel.”

Nobbs was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame as a builder in 1961.

Bob Barney is an emeritus professor of kinesiology at Western University and his research interests include the history of the modern Olympic Games.