- 16th January 1902
, North China
- Parents Revd & Mrs James Dunlop Liddell
, missionaries with the London Mission Society
- older brother Robert, sister Jenny and younger brother Ernest.
- Wife Florence Mackenzie and children Patricia, Heather and Maureen.
From the age of 6 to the age of 18 Liddell was educated at Eltham College in Blackheath, London with his brother Rob, while his parents and sister returned to China. Eltham College was and is a boarding school for the children of missionaries. Liddell only saw his parents a few times during his entire time at the school, when they were on furlough, on which occasions the family mainly stayed together in Edinburgh.
In 1920, Liddell went to Edinburgh University to read Pure Science, where he began to take up sport really seriously. He ran in the 100 yards and the 220 yards for the University and later for Scotland. He was also at this time a keen rugby player, again playing for both the university and international side, playing in seven internationals in 1922. When it came to the crunch, though, running was his main sport and before graduating he was aiming to run in the 100 metres in the Paris Olympics. However, it was at this time that his family's religious influence became apparent, when he switched to running the 400 metre competition upon learning that he would have to run on a Sunday - the Sabbath - if he remained as a sprint runner. He continued to refuse to break the Sabbath throughout his sporting career. Obviously the change in events didn't matter much, since at the Olympics he went on to win not only a gold medal for the 400 metres, with a time of 47.6 seconds, but also a bronze medal for the 200 metres, with a time of 21.9 seconds.
After the Olympics and his graduation he returned to North China where he took up the family trade as a missionary from 1925 to 1943 - first at his birthplace of Tianjin and later in Siaochang. In 1932 he was ordained as a minister on his first trip back to Britain, and upon his return to the East he married Florence Mackenzie, who was also from a missionary background, this time Canadian. They had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen.
During the 1930s in China there was a war raging, as Japanese imperial forces attempted repeatedly to invade China with the aim of creating a great East Asian state, under Japanese rule. Thus Liddell's work was potentially very dangerous and in 1937 when he was sent to Siaochang he crossed Japanese army lines for the first time. The danger increased as the Second World War got into its stride, with the British Government pretty sensibly telling all British nationals to leave the country. Liddell allowed his family to return to Canada, but stayed on in the country himself until he was captured in 1943 and interned in Weishien Camp until his death on 21st February, 1945.
At the camp both his religious and his sporting sides were on display. He was very popular in the camp, particularly with the Chinese children. The camp's Labour Committee made him a science teacher, working without any equipment, but managing nevertheless to inspire the children, some of whom would go on to make great scientific achievements in the postwar era. He also spent time organising sports for the children in the camp, organising races between the children of Tianjin and the children of Chefoo. He was dedicated in this as in everything else even, according to legend, tearing up his own bedsheets in order to fix broken sticks for hockey matches he organised. At this time too some have said that he finally left behind his vow not to work on a Sunday, organising sports in order to keep the children out of trouble ('trouble' involving beatings which could potentially be fatal for the undernourished and increasingly worn down 'inmates'). On Sundays he was certainly involved as a Sunday school teacher, involved in attempts with other inmates to keep up the religious life in the camp on whatever small scale they could.
On a personal note, my grandfather was in the same camp with Liddell, where he (my grandfather) met the lady who was to be his wife. They got engaged in the camp, and Liddell was to be their best man, dying only shortly before the wedding was due to take place. My grandfather and many others still have fond memories of him, as they had all been missionaries before being captured. Liddell was unbeatable to the end; even as he lay dying in the camp hospital he asked a nurse to call out to the Sunday school's makeshift marching band to play Finlandia for him, which he would have known as the hymn 'Be Still, My Soul'.
Liddell's sporting achievements and strong religious beliefs have now been immortalised in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where he was played by actor Ian Charleson. Several documentaries have also been made about his life on the back of this work.
Also had help for writing the 'camp' section of this in remembering stuff my Grandfather told me :-)