Philip Noel-Baker: The Race for Peace

The Olympic Games and the Nobel prizes were established only five years apart, either side of the dawn of the 20th century. Between them, they have shaped the world of sport, culture and science to a magnitude which is unrivalled in the rest of the world.

Since the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, there have been over 15,000 Olympic medals won, and since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, there have been 881 recipients of this most prestigious award. Both honours still stand as the peak of human achievement; recipients are recognised for their undeniable and unquestionable success in the most competitive and respected fields on the planet, which only occur when skill and talent are married with years of hard work and dedication.

Recipients like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr, Jesse Owens and Sir Steve Redgrave. Who’d have thought the two worlds would ever collide? As it turns out, they do.

A Derby MP for over thirty years between 1936 and 1950, Philip Noel-Baker was highly regarded both in his constituency and in Parliament. The 22nd July of this year marks the 40th anniversary of Philip Noel-Baker becoming a life peer of the House of Lords, the only person ever from the city of Derby. But the contribution that this man made to the local community, and the wider world, go widely unknown.

Born a Quaker in London in 1889, the sixth of seven children, he was educated in the UK at Bootham School in York until he attended Haverford College in America. He then went on to the University of Cambridge and it was here that Philip Baker thrived. An excellent athlete and leading intellectual he became the Cambridge Union Society president as well as president of the Cambridge University Athletic Club. After a glowing sports career at the university, Philip went to the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Despite a persistent foot injury, Philip made the final of the 1500m and as a result of his hindered movement, Philip selflessly dedicated his race to the pace-setting and positioning of country-man Albert Hill. Albert won gold whilst Philip finished sixth.

“He believed in excellence,” says Irene Noel-Baker, his granddaughter. “He saw sport as completely beautiful and good. He was a real team player; it wasn’t about winning for yourself. Winning for your team.”

“He saw sport as completely beautiful and good”

After The Great War forced a cancellation to the next Olympics, it wasn’t until 1920 when Philip would have the chance to prove on the biggest stage of them all the extent of his athletic prowess. Flag carrier and British team captain, Philip was injury free and won the silver medal in the 1500m race, behind Albert Hill who again took home the gold. 8 years after success at the Stockholm games evaded his grasp, Philip succeeded in showing the world that he was a truly elite athlete.

In 1914 the First World War dominated the world’s landscape and Philip Baker, a pacifist and Quaker, was to become embroiled in the dark misery of war. He did not fight in the war due to his strong pacifist beliefs, but he was involved in the founding of the Friends Ambulance Unit. Here, he was regularly embroiled at the source of the darkness that spread and poisoned the lives of millions for four years, driving onto the battlefield as bullets cracked overhead to rescue the fallen and the injured. He regularly risked his own life to give the wounded soldiers another chance at life, he brought people out immediately for medical attention, and his bold actions undoubtedly saved countless lives. It was this experience in WWI that set ablaze the burning bonfire within him for disarmament; it was a passion and a cause he would passionately campaign for until his dying days.

Whilst Philip was working for the newly-formed Friends Ambulance Unit, a woman called Irene Noel was working in hospitals for the Red Cross. A well-educated and intelligent woman, Irene was heir to the Greek estate of Achmetaga and was from a very respectable family. In her mid-30’s by the time of the war, she was looking for potential suitors, and whilst names like Winston Churchill were mentioned, it was Philip Baker who won her affections and ultimately, her heart.

“At Christmas 1914 Irene returned from the Front to England. She had entered into her diary ‘I wrote to Hilton Young and Philip Baker for the new year. I wonder what will happen.’ Philip Baker was the happy choice,” writes Barbro Noel-Baker author of An Isle of Greece – The Noels in Eubea and Philip’s daughter-in-law. “The daily confrontation with the question of life or death made their romance the more intense.”

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The engagement of Irene Noel and Philip Baker featured in The Daily Sketch

They were to be joined in matrimony, and by 1915 the couple featured in the prominent newspaper The Daily Sketch (right). Spoke of rather fondly, the two married and later had one son together, Francis. Francis would later follow in his father’s footsteps and forge a career in the murky waters of post-war British politics.

As the Great War drew to a gory conclusion, Philip was awarded the Medal for Military Valour in 1917 and the Croce di Guerra (an Italian medal for valour and bravery) in 1918 for his service. Afterwards, the couple tried to pick up their old lives. Philip returned to England where he would pursue a career in politics and Irene went to manage her Greek estate after the years of war had left it in much need of attention and was at slight risk of falling into a prolonged state of disrepair. As Achmetaga once again blossomed and Philip ascended through the political ranks the pair reunited in England.

Here, Philip’s deep passion for people and helping those in need had seen him obtain important roles in the history of 20th century Britain. He was elected as the Labour MP for Derby in 1936 when only three years later World War Two broke out. The non-violent pacifist then found himself embroiled in the workings of yet another horrific conflict, his experience on the front line and education placed him ideally to serve as the parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of War Transport for the duration of the war, he also served as an advisor to the Prime Minister during this time. Once D-Day had come and gone he became a member of the cabinet as Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations.

Philip Noel-Baker was MP until 1970 and his life’s work campaigning for multilateral nuclear disarmament earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959. Worldwide recognition for the gentleman who lived through two world wars and saw no value or worth in senseless killing and instead advocated the opening of borders and embracing of strangers as friends. He donated his Nobel medal to his old school in York, in the hope of inspiring another generation of peaceful intellectuals in an age of increasing adversity and turmoil.

Philip Noel-Baker is the only person in human history to be awarded a Nobel Prize and win an Olympic medal.

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Enter a Philip Noel-Baker’s 1959 Peace prize – donated to Bootham School in York

“He thought education was the best, the very best way to change things that need changing,” his granddaughter, Irene says. “He was always keen to encourage young people to contribute and would talk eagerly to young people looking for guidance, make incredibly inspiring speeches. Students would literally leap up onto the table to cheer him. He felt there was absolutely no excuse for academics to be obscure or dull. Knowledge existed to inspire and bring about change. With passion! Because life should never be dull.”

“Students would literally leap up onto the table to cheer him”

In his old constituency of Derby South, there was a school built in the 1960’s that adopted the name Noel-Baker Community School in memory of the great man. If you were to ever walk through the hall there was a bust of Philip as well a framed picture with two students, a friendly face that hid the toils of the last century and the remarkable life he had lived.

The motto of the school was and still is “Excellence in all things”, a sentiment that those who knew him would echo, however, the humility and modesty of the man would prevent him from ever saying something so self-promotional and egotistical.

In Philip Noel-Baker, the people have Derby have someone to be truly proud of. Olympic athlete, Nobel Prize winner, longtime Derby and Derby South MP and life peer in the House of Lords. A genuine person who lived his whole life serving others, striving to not only better himself, but to improve the life of the others that he shared this planet with through sport, education and passionate campaigning.


Featured image: Diane Griffiths/Flickr

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