Sadly, Marshall failed to qualify from his 100m heat, nor did he make the final of the 800 metres, his only other event. Together with his younger brother Fred he also entered the Olympic tennis, but didn’t show up. However, the fact that he took part at all marks him down in history as a sporting pioneer.
Although born in Greece, Marshall had a strong Scottish heritage on his mother’s side and went to school at Edinburgh Institution, which is now Stewart's Melville College. In his four years there he showed his pace as a member of the school rugby team which lost just once in 1891/92.
On 6 April 1896, the first day of the first Olympic Games, 19-year-old George was one of five runners who lined up in the second heat of the 100 metres, including another Briton, the famous weightlifter Launceston Elliot. The American Tom Curtis won the race in 12.2 seconds, followed by Alexandros Chalkokondylis of Greece, just ahead of Elliot in third, but only the first two qualified for the final. George was fifth and last in an unrecorded time.
Left: the athletics on 6 April (the original is in the UK Parliament Archive); right: the tennis on 8 April.
Although his brother was universally known as Fred, it was actually a contraction of his middle name as his full name was James Alfred Marshall. Two years younger than George, he also went to Edinburgh Institution.
George probably travelled to Athens from Patras by train, but his was not the shortest journey of the British entrants as at least three others were also based in Greece: Sidney Merlin (shooting), son of the British Consul in Piraeus who worked for the Ionian Bank in Athens, and Fred Keeping and Frederick Battell (both cycling) who worked at the British Embassy in Athens.
The latter is something of a mystery and it is possible his name was translated wrongly into Greek. At least he has a name, unlike Merlin's fellow Brit in the shooting whose name is recorded as 'Machonet' or 'Mokchoinet', and who has never been identified; perhaps he is another Scot, if his name starts with 'Mac'. It is remarkable how little is known about some athletes at the first Games.
The only other British entrant with Scottish heritage was Launceston Elliot, who took gold in the weightlifting one-handed lift to become Britain's first Olympic champion. He was distantly related to the Earl of Minto but Elliot's immediate family had lived overseas for generations and he had never even visited Scotland (he first came here a few years later, after he turned professional).
There was a third brother called Colin, born in 1881 and too young for the Olympics but he was also active in local sport. In January 1899 all three Marshall brothers played in the first football match ever staged in Patras (and one of the first in Greece), when the local club Panachaiki – still going strong – met and defeated the crew of the British ship HMS Boxer.
What happened to George after the Olympics is something of a mystery. He worked for a bank in Athens and later lived with his brother Colin in Alexandria, Egypt. George was still alive in the 1940s, but did not marry and seems to have lost touch with the family. Currently, his fate is unknown, not even which country he died in.
Colin, who was an officer in WW1 with the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps, for which he was made an OBE, was later secretary of the Royal Yacht Club of Egypt. He married a Greek girl in the 1940s and returned to Greece where he died in 1964.
Fred, on the other hand, spent his final years with younger sister Mary in Northern Ireland, and died there in 1951. It is thanks to Mary's descendants, Stephen Corkey and Frances Thompson, that I have been able to put some of this story together – in fact Frances remembers, as a girl, meeting Fred, which must represent a unique living connection to the first Olympic Games.
I am also grateful to the Olympic historian Hilary Evans for alerting me in the first place to the Marshall connection to Scotland.
The Marshall brothers, Olympic pioneers
George Herbert Marshall, born 2 October 1876 in Patras, Greece. Date of death unknown.
James Alfred 'Fred' Marshall, born 13 April 1878 in Patras, Greece. Died 16 April 1951 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.