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Eric Liddell (1902 - 1945)

Scottish athlete, rugby union international player, and missionary.

Eric Liddell

Eric Henry Liddell was born on 16th January 1902 in Tientsin (Tianjin), North China, the second son of Rev and Mrs James Dunlop Liddell who were missionaries with the London Mission Society.


Liddell was educated from 1908 to 1920 at Eltham College, Blackheath, a school for the sons of missionaries. He, with his older brother Rob, were left at their boarding school while their parents and sister, Jenny, returned to China.

During the boys’ time at Eltham College, their parents, sister and new brother Ernest came home on leave several times and were able to be together as a family - mainly living in Edinburgh.

Then, in 1920, Eric joined his brother Rob at the University of Edinburgh to study for a BSc in Pure Science.

Chariots of Fire

Athletics and rugby played a large part in Eric’s University life. He ran in the 100 yards and the 220 yards for the University and later for Scotland. He also played rugby for the University and in 1922 played in seven Scottish Internationals with A.L. Gracie.

As a result of having insufficient time for both running and rugby, he chose the former, aiming for the 100 metres in the Paris Olympics. When he learned that the heats were to be run on a Sunday - something he was not prepared to do - he switched to the 400 metre competition.

He won a gold medal for the 400 metres and a bronze medal for the 200 metres at the Paris Olympics. The story of this period in his life is famously told in the Academy Award-winning film, Chariots of Fire.


After the Olympics and his graduation in 1924, he returned to North China where he served as a missionary from 1925 until 1943, firstly in Tientsin (Tainjin) and later in Siaochang. During his first period of leave in 1932 he was ordained as a minister.

On his return to China, he married Florence Mackenzie (of Canadian missionary parentage) in Tientsin in 1934, and the couple had three daughters; Patricia, Heather and Maureen, who now all live in Canada.

Living in China in the 1930s was potentially very dangerous and in 1937 Eric was sent to Siaochang where he joined his brother Rob. He was now crossing the Japanese army lines. By 1941 life in China was becoming so dangerous that the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Florence and the children left for Canada.

Eric, however, stayed in Tientsin, eventually being interned in Weishien camp until his death in 1945.

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