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A Period Of Success

In 1905 a team of swimmers were invited to Rhyl at the opening of a new bath.  The invitation had come because the bath had been built by the enterprise of a Walsall man, Mr. A. Huxley.  The inaugural gala was on a Bank Holiday weekend.  It started on Saturday, June 10th, and was extended to the following Monday and Tuesday.  The Walsall team of twenty displayed their ability on all three days.  The organisers were delighted and Rhyl’s newspaper said the speedy and graceful nature of the Walsall swimmers had not been seen in that part of Wales before. 

Another invited guest was Miss Pauleen Brown of Birmingham who was instructress at the Aston Manor Club.  Like Miss Bates of Moseley, who had been the first instructress of the Walsall Ladies, Miss Brown competently performed all the strokes of the day and knew a few crowd-pleasing tricks as well.  Her ‘show stopper’ was being tied into a canvas bag that was weighted at the bottom and then dropped into the water.  No doubt the water was murky enough to prevent the spectators seeing what she did to get out of the bag.

On February 3rd of that year the club presented certificates of merit to four men who were not members of the club, probably not even swimmers.  Just after midnight on July 15th the previous year, the ceiling of one of the pits in the Wood Farm Colliery had fallen in.  Quicksand and water flooded in, three men were drowned and the lives of another fifteen were in danger as the water in the passage they were working started to rise quickly.  Damming slowed the rise of the water but by the time it had been checked there was only about nine inches of air between water and ceiling.  The men had to be rescued before the air became unfit to breathe and Richard Radcliffe, a miner who had just managed to escape, went back along the narrow channel of air, with water up to his chin and no guarantee that it would not rise again, to reach the trapped men and lead them to safety.  For his bravery Richard Radcliffe received the Royal Humane Society’s bronze medal; he and three others who assisted in the operation were presented with the certificates.  The act of heroism was described on the certificate.  It was signed by Officers of the Walsall club and framed in fumed oak.  At the presentation ceremony John Bird said the club was glad to show its appreciation of the gallant conduct of the four; ‘The object of the Walsall Swimming Club was to teach swimming and life-saving, but it did not confine its activities to the club and was always ready and willing to pay tribute to such conduct’.

The club’s twenty-first anniversary was celebrated at the annual dinner at the Stork Hotel on 27th November, 1905.  Walsall Swimming Club was now a firmly established institution in the life of the town along with the Football, Cricket and Rugby Clubs.  In fact it could claim to have had a greater degree of success within its sport than the other clubs.  Membership had risen to 280, relations with the Parks and Baths Committee was good, and the Council no longer saw the baths as an establishment that needed to be profitable but more an investment in the health, fitness and safety of the people.

1905 was the year the polo team began a period of domination in the Birmingham League. 

The first home match of the season was against Aston, the champions of the previous year, and Walsall won 1-0, a notable victory that was accomplished without having Teddy Gilbert in the team.  After this splendid start the team went through the season undefeated but three drawn matches meant Aston retained the championship by just one point.  However, there was some consolation for the second team finished top of Division 2.  In the Staffordshire Cup the club again met Burslem in the final and took revenge after last year’s defeat by winning 3-2.  This ended a run of seven successive wins by Burslem in this competition.  There was an early exit from the Midlands Cup at the hands of Leicester, but the final of this competition was held at Tower Street in September.  Aston beat Leicester 5-4, ending an astonishing run of thirteen wins by Leicester.  It seemed the balance of power was beginning to change.

Three Walsall players; Britton, Campbell and Gilbert were selected to play for Staffordshire in the Inter-Counties competition and Gilbert became the second club member to gain international honours when he was chosen to play for England in the match with Wales.  Particularly pleasing for his mentor Ray Aulton who was the first Walsall man to be capped.

The upturn in the fortunes of the polo team in 1905 was a prelude to the most outstanding run of success in league matches in the club’s history.  The team remained undefeated for four seasons.  The record:-

     P     W   D    L    F      A    Pts                     

1905    14    11    3    0    82    13    25    Runners Up                

1906    12    12    0   0    70    10    24    Champions           

1907    12    12    0    0   62      8    24    Champions            

1908    12     9    3    0    49    15    21    Champions

The strange aspect of this period was that although the team enjoyed so much success in the Birmingham League, the performances in the knock-out competitions were comparatively poor. Perhaps the club saw the League as their priority and paid less attention to the other matches. Nevertheless there were some exciting encounters.  In the Staffordshire Cup Final of 1906 the club met Burslem for the third year running.  It seems the men from the Potteries were determined to return home with the Cup Walsall had taken from them the previous year for they played with such vigour the Observer reported they were the roughest team Walsall had ever played.  They built a 4-1 lead before Walsall began to fight back; but two goals late in the game were not enough and the Burslem team regained the trophy.  The club entered the National Championship that year and were drawn to play Aston in the first round.  It was played at Tower Street and was said to be the most exciting game at the baths for many years.  At the end of normal time the score was 3-3. After six minutes extra time it was 4-4.  In the second period of extra time the scores were level at 5-5 until the final seconds when F. H. Britton, an ex-Walsall player, clinched the match for Aston.

Aston were Walsall’s rivals for supremacy in the West Midlands in those years.   When the teams met in the Midlands and National competitions in1908 Aston won  5-0 and 7-1.  But what happened when the teams met in a Birmingham League match at Tower Street baths on August 13th caused a controversy that developed into a rift between the two clubs.    

At War With Aston

A Walsall-Aston game was always a mouth-watering proposition for anyone who wanted to see a full-blooded water polo match; but when only one point separates the teams and it’s the penultimate match of the League season then the encounter promised to be something special. The players were charged up, the spectators were charged up, and the man who was charged with the responsibility for seeing things did not get out of hand was the referee, Mr. Barker of Birmingham.

The game had only been in progress for a couple of minutes or so but in that time there were three incidents that would result in the match being called off.  In the judgement of reporters covering the game, Mr. Barker made two errors.  The first was to allow a goal to Aston when the player throwing the ball into the net was standing.  The second was to allow an Aston man to take a throw in when a member of that team had put the ball out of the bath.  Feeling somewhat rattled Mr. Barker then made a third and crucial error.

The Walsall supporters were incensed and they barracked him so vociferously he said he would stop the game if they continued.  ‘Stop it then’, shouted the crowd.  Mr. Barker did and the players climbed out of the bath with the vital match undecided.  Unfortunately the controversy did not end there.  A group of supporters gathered outside the baths and when Mr. Barker left he was verbally abused.  Even worse, stones were thrown and one struck him on the back.  There was no doubt that the Walsall supporters discredited the club that night. 

The League’s Committee met and although they had the option of awarding the match to Aston they decided the game should be replayed.  Aston agreed but said they would only do so if no spectators were present.  The League met again and said spectators would be admitted to the rearranged game but the gate money would go to the League and not to Walsall.  Walsall decided the League had given in to unwarranted pressure from Aston and the club took the remarkable decision that it would withdraw from the League after the game was played.

When the match was played on September 28th, Mr. Barker was appointed referee but he declined.  The first half was a tense struggle that ended with Walsall leading 2-1.  Nerves were stretched in the second half and after one Walsall player and two from Aston were ordered from the bath the game swung Walsall’s way.  A third Aston man was ordered out and the home team forged in front, scoring three times to take the match 5-1 and the League Championship for the third successive time

Even the euphoria of a championship victory did not alter the club’s decision to withdraw from the League.  John Bird tendered his resignation as Vice-President of the League, a move that must have caused him some distress for he was one of the men that founded it in 1895.  The club’s letter of resignation was sombre, it did not criticise the League’s Committee but it heavily condemned Aston.  The lengthy opening sentence read – ‘In view of the attitude of hostility adopted towards the Walsall Swimming Club for some time past by the Aston Swimming Club, and now openly shown by the resolution which they recently forwarded to the Press, the remarks of a prominent official of the club in an interview with the Press, and their subsequent attempt to coerce the League, we feel that they have forfeited our respect and rendered it impossible for us to meet them as friends and sportsmen ..’

Whether the decision was wise or not it certainly reflected the mood of the club at the time.  In the 1909 season the club played a series of friendlies and entered the knock-out competitions, including the National in which they were beaten by Weston-Super-Mare.  In Walsall’s absence, Aston finished top of the Birmingham League.

In the winter of that year League officials persuaded Walsall to return to the competition and the club came out the following year.  It was not a successful campaign.  They finished in third place and sustained two heavy defeats by Aston.  When they were beaten 8-1 at Tower Street there was more controversy.  The game was refereed by Mr. R. H. Morgan, the President of the League.  After the match he rebuked Teddy Gilbert, in the presence of some Aston players, about a physically dangerous tactic Gilbert had used in the closing seconds.  Just what Gilbert had done, or had tried to do, is not clear.  Certainly the ‘tactic’ Mr. Morgan called dangerous had not succeeded and Mr. Morgan had not called a foul against Gilbert. Walsall were indignant because their captain had a reputation for fair play.  

A letter from the club to Mr. Morgan demanded an explanation.  The letter made the point that a referee is hardly justified in airing opinions on an incident that he had every opportunity to judge at the time it happened.  In his reply, Mr. Morgan sidestepped that one but was still of the opinion that Gilbert had attempted something that amounted to grievous bodily harm.  He wrote; ‘Had your captain been successful in his tactics in the last minute of the match one of your visitors would have returned to Aston a marked and maimed man’.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter it was obvious that once again a game with Aston had ended on a sour note. 

Olympic Stars in Town

At the Ladies’ Annual Sports on 17th July, 1907, Dorothy Knight won the 100 yards championship and became the first recipient of an impressive solid silver trophy, presented to the club by a local businessman, Mr. J. C. Shannon.  Miss Knight evidently became partial to the trophy for she held on to it for four years.  The other regular recipient of the club’s silver, Teddy Gilbert, registered a time of 6:11.6 for the 440 yards which would stand as a club record for 25 years.

The swimming highlight of 1907 was on September 5th when the club put on the ASA National 500 yards Championship.  Like the backstroke race that had been held at Tower Street in 1903, it was billed as a ‘Championship of the World’.  This was not entirely out of order because the international body, FINA, had yet to be formed, and so on this occasion the race included a foreign competitor.

There were four entrants; Henry Taylor (Chadderton), Willie Foster (Bacup), Paul Radmilovic (Weston) and Imre Zachar (Hungary).  There were twenty lengths of the bath to cover and at the end of the seventh Taylor, the reigning champion, had a lead of ten yards.  He was forging ahead so strongly that from the half-way point it was obvious that he would win.  When he reached the line he was a full length of the bath in front of Zachar, who finished six yards up on Radmilovic. Foster was about the same distance behind in fourth place.

The Walsall public had seen some of the most outstanding swimmers of the day.  All of them were medallists at the London Olympics the following year.  Radmilovic, Foster and Taylor were in the British 4 x 200m team that won the gold, and Zachar was in the Hungarian team that finished second.  But Henry Taylor’s performance in individual events was probably the most outstanding of any swimmer at the Games, he won the 400 and 1500m and set world records in both races.

Although the water polo controversy was obviously the major event of the 1908 season from the club’s point of view, another bit of history was made when Gilbert was beaten for the first time ever in a club championship.  In July, Mark Ryan beat him by about a yard in the 100 yards.  Ryan’s time of 1:08.2 was a club record, and Gilbert’s time, although it was not recorded was likely to have been around 1:09.  It was probably the fastest he ever swam for that distance.  Although he was a better swimmer at longer distances he still managed to add to his list of championships by winning the 100 yards in 1910 and 1912.  Ryan did not contest the race in either of these years, he had left the club to join Lozells.  He returned to Walsall at the end of the 1912 season; in his letter of application he said he was keen to play polo in the Staffordshire Cup.  The club said they would be happy to have him back but could not guarantee him a place in the first team.  This must have been rather ‘tongue in cheek’ for the team was not doing particularly well at the time and Ryan was a good player.  But there were no more races between Gilbert and Ryan, by then Gilbert was concentrating solely on polo.

1912 was the year the Ladies’ Section broke with tradition.  They asked that their championships, the 100 yards and 50 yards for Juniors, should be included in the men’s gala in July.  This was readily agreed to.  Miss Sydney Evans won the 100 yards in 1:43.4, improving the club record of 1:50 that she had set in 1910.  The membership of the Ladies’ section exceeded one hundred for the first time that year.

At the Annual Gala on September 5th the club staged the ASA 220 yards Championship.  Jack Hatfield of Middlesborough had emerged as the new star of English swimming having won the 440 and 500 yards championships earlier in the year.  He made it a hat-trick by winning at Tower Street in the excellent time of 2:30.2.  Hatfield had finished second in the 400 and 1500m at the Stockholm Olympics in July and was beginning a remarkable career that would bring him 25 ASA titles.

Although Walsall had yet to produce a swimmer capable of contesting an ASA Championship the club was determined to bring the best performers to the town.  The staging of a national championship saw to this and probably had much to do with the regular increase in membership.  In 1910 it had passed 300 for the first time, by 1914 it was up to 376.  But then came the dark days of the First World War.

The War Years

One of the last events to be held before the war was the gala on 9th July, 1914.  This included the two 100 yards championships.  Sydney Evans won the ladies’ race for the third year running and Mark Ryan won the men’s in a time of 1:11.  However, it was not the swimming or the water polo match that produced headlines in the local newspaper, the reporter concentrated on a demonstration by two Suffragettes.

As the ladies in the first heat of the 50 yards handicap lined up at the start there was a commotion in the balcony.  Proceedings were halted and all eyes turned to see what was happening.  Two women were haranguing the crowd about women’s rights and brandishing posters that proclaimed VOTES FOR WOMEN.  The spectators were not amused by the interruption and there were shouts of ‘chuck ‘em in’, as an alternative to chucking them out of course.  An officious looking gentleman in frock coat and top hat made his way along the balcony, took hold of the women and dragged them down the stairway along the poolside towards the exit.  One of them broke free and the other one succeeded in pulling the official into the pool.  Enter a policeman intent on restoring order.  The second woman embraced him and they too ended in the pool.  By that time the crowd could see the joke, that the incident had been designed as a bit of comic relief. The committee that had the job of providing novelty items to entertain the crowd had come up with something that was not only novel but topical.

In 1915 the club decided to curtail its activities for the duration of the war and the only gala held that year was on September 15th.  It contained events for juniors and women, with one exception, a veterans’ race.  This was billed on the programme as an ‘Old Crocks Handicap’.  The oldest in the line-up was 70 year old Ben Jefferson who in his hey-day as an aquatic entertainer had been known as the Manfish.  He appeared with Captain Webb at the Aquatic Fete in the Arboretum in 1877.  The club’s officials turned out in force, including John Bird, Ray Aulton and the Mayor, Alderman John Cotterell.

Before the race started John Cotterell reminded the crowd that he was not the first Mayor of Walsall to appear in the pool at a club gala.  This was an allusion to the time Councillor Noake had fallen in some years before.  Research has not been able to discover the result of the handicap but what was recorded was the fact that the winners of all races agreed that no prizes should be awarded and the proceeds, including the gate money, should be presented to war charities.  A sum of 20 guineas was divided equally between the Wounded Soldiers and Sailors Fund, The Red Cross Society, Walsall Hospital and the YMCA Soldiers Fund.

From then on the club’s activities were virtually closed down.  Committee meetings were called as and when they were thought necessary.  The carnage in France had begun and the first club member to lose his life was Matthew Harrison.  His brother Charles was one of the club’s leading swimmers.   Matthew had made his mark as an official, he was Secretary of the committee that organised the Annual Sports.  He joined the 5th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment at the outbreak of war and he was killed on October 15th, 1915, one of 360 South Staffs men to fall as they recaptured a strategic position.

Private Kenneth Marshall was training to be a dentist when he answered the call and joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  He became a club member while he was still at school and had developed into a promising water polo player.  He was 19 when he died in January 1916 at the Dardanelles in the ill- conceived Gallipoli campaign.

Lieutenant John Smith joined the South Staffs in September 1914.  He had been Secretary of the club since 1911 and was still occupying that post when he joined up. 

He seemed to enjoy administration, he was also Secretary of St. Matthew’s Sunday School Teachers Association.  He died in France in 1917 but it was not until July 1919 that it was finally accepted that he was dead for his body was never found.

On April 28th, 1917, Smith left the trenches on a reconnaissance mission and was hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet.  But when the regiment later took the ground on which he fell, his body was not there.  Friends and relatives clung to the forlorn hope that he was injured and had been taken prisoner.  All hope was gone when the War Ministry issued its final list of casualties at the end of the war.  It was presumed he had been killed on April 28th.

John Smith’s final service to the club was writing the annual report of the 1914 season.  When he went into the army the Secretary’s job was taken on by his brother, Arthur, who later joined the South Staffs.  Fortunately he survived the war.

Tom Buxton’s Efforts Rewarded

During the latter part of the war the hall that housed the main pool at Tower Street had been taken over the Ministry of Labour.  The Ministry was slow in returning the pool to the Council, in fact it was not until the end of May 1919 that the swimmers were allowed back in and by then the war had been over for six months.  The club had a problem; while its swimmers were denied access to the pool the Birmingham and District League had drawn up a full set of fixtures, including a knock-out competition, and Walsall were committed to putting a team in the water.

The President of the League was Walsall’s Tom Buxton.  He went into action, contacting all members and keeping them informed of the club’s intentions.  Such was his enthusiasm, he injected a keen sense of anticipation into the polo players so that when the pool was finally opened they were raring to go, if a little short of practice.  The first match was played on June 19th and the club got away to a flying start by beating Handsworth Westminster 6-0.  The goalkeeper was non other than Tom Buxton, then aged 43.  The team was Buxton, Allen, Cleobury, Ryan, Harrison, Lawrence and Mills.  A few years later five of these players were to feature in one the club’s most famous victories.  

Buxton’s efforts in getting the club operational again should not be under-estimated.  Tom and his younger brother, Wat, had joined the club in 1893 while they were still at school.  It was said that they spent most of their spare time at Crapper’s Baths in Littleton Street.  Wat was the better swimmer, he won the club’s Junior Championship in 1894 and 1895.  Tom was prominent as a polo player.  When Walsall shared the League Championship with Dudley in 1897 he netted 14 of the 45 goals that season.  He was captain of the team from 1900 to 1903, a member of the executive committee and for some years the club’s life-saving instructor.  He left Walsall in the summer of 1903 and went to live in Glasgow.  It is not clear when he returned but it was to the club’s advantage that he did.

As the 1919 season progressed it became apparent that it was the most successful campaign since 1908.  When the season closed the team had won 15 of the 18 fixtures, the other three were drawn.  The Championship was won but unfortunately for Walsall the League did not grant the competition full status that year and the trophy was not presented.  Any disappointment the club felt was soon forgotten as it won the knock-out competition by beating Aston 6-2 in the final.  In the Staffordshire Cup the team reached the final and drew 5-5 with Stafford after two periods of extra time.  The trophy was shared, each club holding it for six months, but it was the first time Walsall had got its hands on it since the outright victory in 1905.  It is worth noting that all the players served in the Forces during the war.

Considering the difficulties the club had faced it had been a surprisingly successful season.  The membership was down to 221, many of those in the Forces were not demobilised until late in 1919. Nevertheless, the championships were held and Mark Ryan won the two 440 yards races.  He seemed anxious to make up for lost time, at the Annual Sports he won the quarter-mile, competed in a heat and final of the 50 yards handicap, played in the polo match, and also took part in the diving competition. 

A new name appeared on the A.B. Boys Trophy for the 100 yards when Fred Lawrence won in 1:10. He had won the Junior Championship twice before the war and had become a key water polo player.  Another name to emerge was that of Miss C. Whitehead who won the Ladies’ 100 yards. She also won the 80 yards handicap that was held in the Arboretum at the Aquatic Fete in August. After four years of inactivity the handicapper must have found it difficult to make a judgement on the abilities of the swimmers.

The Secretary’s Annual Report included the names of the men that had fallen during the war and also the passing of some prominent older members; H. R. Taylor, a Vice-President of the ASA Midland District, J. R. Cooper, a former Town Clerk, and Fred Edwards, a founder member and the first captain of the club.

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