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 From Strength to Strength

There can be no doubt that up to this time most of the club’s prestige had been gained from the achievements of the polo team.  This trend continued through the 1920s. However, the team did not start the decade on a high note, the first match of the 1920 League season resulted in a 4-2 defeat at Aston.  This was a major set-back because Walsall and Aston were a cut above the other teams and the championship usually hung on the results they achieved against each other.

After the Aston match the team slipped into gear and proceeded to demolish the opposition with a series of convincing scores until they met their rivals in the return game at Tower Street on August 7th.  Aston were at the top of the table, just one point ahead of Walsall.  There was no mistake this time, a 6-2 victory assured the club of the championship.  There were a number of games still to be played but they were a mere formality.  

The one adverse result in this period was a 5-1 defeat by Weston in the first round of the National Championships on July 3rd.  But that was the last time Walsall were beaten in 1920.  In the semi-final of the Midlands Championship the club went to Aston and won 4-2.  In the final at Kent Street, Birmingham, on September 9th the club won a remarkable match against Nottingham.  From being 2-4 down at half time the team rallied to win 12-4.  Mills and Allen each scored four goals.  The last match of the season was the Staffs final against Stafford at Burslem and once again the team came from behind to win: 1-2 down at half-time and then 1-3 down, there was another strong finish and a 4-3 victory.  It was the final act in an outstanding season that had brought three trophies to the club.  The only blot on the club’s record was its failure to progress in the National competition.

The club’s team could now be judged by the highest of standards so it must be said that the 1921 season, although relatively successful, was not as good as expected.  In the League matches with Aston the team was beaten 5-4 and 5-3 and a drawn game with Coventry meant the club had to settle for the runners-up spot that year.  Being beaten by Aston was always a bitter pill to swallow so the club took particular satisfaction in a 5-3 victory over the old enemy in the first round of the National.  The second round draw produced Hammersmith away.  The team travelled to London for the first time to meet a team that had been beaten finalists the year before.  At the Lime Grove Baths Walsall went down 4-1.  As strong as the team undoubtedly was it seemed the club could not make much progress in this competition.

An occurrence that did nothing for morale was an administrative slip-up.  The club failed to enter the Midland Championship, an oversight that gave it no chance of defending the trophy.  But it was not all gloom for the second team won their division of the Birmingham League. The Council was finally moved to allow swimming in the Arboretum providing it was supervised, so the club erected a hut for a dressing room and there were sessions in the summer months.  Furthermore, mixed bathing was allowed from 7 to 10 on Sunday mornings.

Champions of England

At the AGM held at the YMCA on 31st March, 1922, the Treasurer, John Bird, reported a deficit of £40.  The main reason for this was that the club had been forced to cough up three years arrears of tax, amusement tax it was called, on the block of season tickets it bought from the Council each year.  So the club increased the price of a member’s season ticked by 4d.  The Secretary, Mr. G. Brown, announced that the total membership was up; 217 men and 68 women.  This was obviously encouraging but still well short of what it had been before the war.  F. Pring,  T. Buxton and F. Sanders were honoured with life-membership.  Only six others had been honoured in this way.

The polo season got underway and the team predictably trounced local opposition in its opening games.  The first real test came with a visit to the Bristol club, Barton Hill, in the first round of the National on June 8th.  The result was a 4-2 victory after changing ends 1-2 down.  The draw for the second brought Aston to Tower Street on July 6th and the result was exactly the same as when the teams met in the first round the year before; a 5-3 win for Walsall after extra time.  But they came very close to being knocked out, Lawrence scored in the closing seconds of normal time to make it 2-2.  Then they fell behind 2-3 before Mills, Ryan and Mills again scored to settle matters and take the club into the third round for the first time.

Wigan emerged as Walsall’s next opponents.  A daunting task for the Lancashire club had appeared in the final seven times, winning it three times, and had four current internationals in their team.  The one thing in Walsall’s favour was that the game would be played at Tower Street.  The pundits said much would depend on whether Walsall could subdue Forsyth, Wigan’s leading goal-scorer.

The game was held on July 24th and Walsall produced what was perhaps the most notable win in its history up to then.  Supporters almost raised the roof as Walsall won 5-3.  Cleobury was given the job of marking Forsyth and he did this so effectively it was said his efforts were the most valuable contribution to the victory, even though Forsyth managed to score all three of Wigan’s goals.  The Walsall Observer’s reporter delivered some surprisingly dignified prose in recording the mayhem in the water.

..… with the score of 4-2 some of the Walsall players’ costumes were showing evidence of the close attention of the Lancashire men ……….just before the end Forsyth was very troublesome and Cleobury was ordered out of the water for paying too close attention to him in a manner that is not provided for in the rules.

The draw for the semi-final again went Walsall’s way, a home match with Lancaster on September 7th.  But before that there was plenty of action in the local competitions and it included the club’s first defeat of the season when it went down 1-0 at Wolverhampton in the League.  This put the club a point behind Aston and it responded by beating Wolves 10-1 in the return match and Handsworth Westminster 9-1 away from home.  Then Tunstall were beaten 8-0 in the Staffs semi-final.

Three days before the match with Lancaster the club played Aston in the Midlands final at Kent Street and went down 6-3.  

There was the inevitable controversy for the rules said there should be a referee and a timekeeper but on this occasion one man acted as both.  The club protested, saying the match should be replayed.  The protests were turned down and the result stood.

The aggravation did not seem to affect the players, or if it did it was in a positive way, for they were on the top of their form on the following Thursday in the semi-final.  Lancaster were crushed 7-2 and once more it was a late surge that did the damage.  It was 1-1 at half-time and 2-2 at one stage in the second half.  The man who did most of the demolition was Mills who scored four times.  The stage was set for the final which would be against Weston-super-Mare at the Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham on October 2nd. 

Weston had reached the final with a series of convincing victories beating Cheltenham 7-3, Derby 7-0, Middlesborough 10-2 and London Poly 6-1. They had won the National three times before, in 1906, 1907 and most recently in 1921 when they ended a run of four straight wins by Hyde Seal. Their centre-forward was Paul Radmilovic, one of the top players of the day who had been in the British gold medal winning team at three Olympics.   

It was of course Walsall’s first time in the final, in fact it was the first time for a Midland club since Leicester were beaten by Wigan in 1902.  The odds were on Weston but one thing in Walsall’s favour was the local venue, it meant their fans did not have to travel far and would be there in force.  The team was Buxton, Cleobury, Dutton, Ryan, Gilbert, Mills and Lawrence.  The senior member of the team was Tom Buxton at 46.  Gilbert was 39, he had been used sparingly during the season for he was no longer as fast as he once was, but his experience and occasional flashes of brilliance were a vital asset.    

The crowd was said to be almost 1500 and Weston got away to a flying start by scoring twice in the opening minute.  The feared Radmilovic netted the second of them.  Ryan had the job of marking him and it was crucial that he prevented ‘Raddy’ from dominating the match.  In fact he had no opportunity of doing so for some minutes as Walsall went on the offensive.  Mills scored twice to bring Walsall back into the match, and then Gilbert put them in the lead with one of his back-hand specials.  Then Gilbert made it 4-2 with another back-hander, the Walsall fans were ecstatic.      

Stung by the turn of events Weston hit back.  Radmilovic hit the bar and then forced Buxton to make a good save.  The spell of pressure eventually brought them a third goal.  The team changed ends with Walsall leading 4-3.

Weston equalised shortly after half-time and that sparked off a period of rough play by both teams.  It resulted in Ryan and Radmilovic being sent out, then Dutton and Elver, Weston’s left-forward, followed them.  Weston’s right back, Jones, took advantage of the extra space in the water and swam the length of the bath to put his team in the lead.  With time running out Weston’s half-back was ordered out.  Walsall were attacking strongly and having an unmarked player improved their chances of drawing level.  The equaliser came from Cleobury.  There was less than a minute to play. 

Both sets of supporters were shouting themselves hoarse.  The Observer described the last moments of the match.

‘With only a few seconds to be ticked off, the next test would inevitably prove the final and decisive one.  Radmilovic put forward one effort worthy of his reputation when he fired in a skimming drive from half-way down the bath, but fortunately for Walsall it just missed its mark and from the goal-throw came the movement that settled the issue.  Ryan got possession and skilfully drawing the opposition he passed to Mills.  For practically the only time throughout the match there was a silent moment as the Walsall forward prepared to shoot.  Would Mills fail or would he score?  Almost before the questions could frame themselves Mills had registered probably the most memorable goal he will ever get for his side.  His arms swung forward, the ball left his hand fair and true, and Dommett was beaten and Weston with him.  Almost before play could be restarted the end came.  Walsall had won fresh honours, the highest they can aspire to, and had won them deservedly.  They had risen to a great occasion, and proved themselves worthy of the proud title of the water polo Champions of England.  ‘Twas well done.’

The victory was said to be the finest ever recorded in the sporting history of Walsall.  Certainly it was the first time a team representing the town had won a national championship in any sport.  Six of the players were born in Walsall, the only ‘foreigner’ was Tom Buxton who came from Wolverhampton.

The players were feted.  They were guests of honour at a Smoking Concert at the Liberal Club and presented with tickets for the best cinema in the town, The Picture House in Bridge Street, no less.  On Saturday afternoon they were presented to a crowd of 7,500 at Fellows Park before Walsall’s match with Bradford Park Avenue.  Their success must have inspired the football team for Walsall won 1-0, the Saddlers’ first win of the season.  They were guests at Her Majesty’s Theatre for   Mr. Tower of London, a show that starred Gracie Fields.  The advertisement in the Observer invited people to – ‘See the Conquering Heroes Come – on Wednesday – Second House’.

When the festivities had ended it was thought the town should provide more tangible evidence of its appreciation.  A ‘shilling fund’ was organised with collecting boxes placed in prominent places in the town.  The fund was started with contributions of 100 shillings from the Mayor and the Walsall Observer. When the money was collected it was used to buy seven gold watches.  Each bore the inscription: FROM THE CITIZENS OF WALSALL TO THE WATER POLO CHAMPIONS OF ENGLAND

When they opened the 1923 season at Tower Street on April 12th with a match against Handsworth Westminster the team was given an enthusiastic welcome.  There were two changes in the team; Ian Pedley was at left-forward in place of Freddy Lawrence, and George Beech was in goal in place of Tom Buxton who had finally announced his retirement.  The result was a comfortable 7-1 win.


The draw for the first round of the National produced a bye, the second round brought Aston to Tower Street and a 3-1 win put Walsall into the next round.  Out of the hat came Bradford Dolphins at Bradford.  It was clear that the team did not produce its best form away from home, probably because it missed the fervent support it always got at Tower Street.  No more than a dozen supporters travelled North on July 26th but they were determined to make up for the lack of numbers by making plenty of noise.  They took with them rattles, toy trumpets and balloon squeakers. Lawrence was back in the team, except for Beech in goal it was the same team that had won the trophy the year before.  Walsall were 0-2 down at half-time but when Gilbert pulled one back with a back-hander it seemed the team was about to stage one of the revivals for which it was famous.  It was not to be, Bradford took hold of the game and went on to win 5-1.


In the local competitions the club retained the championship of the Birmingham League, and beat Derby 4-2 in the Midlands final.  This match was played at a new open-air baths in Great Yarmouth in front of 2000 spectators.  But the season ended on a low note when the team was beaten 7-2 by Burslem in the Staffs final.  Harry Mills was not in the team that day, he had committed the unforgivable sin of joining Aston.


Earlier in the summer, on June 13th, the Prince of Wales made a short visit to Walsall to meet some war veterans.


He also met men from earlier campaigns, the Zulu War and the Indian Mutiny.  These men were some of Walsall’s oldest inhabitants.  There was an Aquatic Carnival at which a team of four schoolgirls stole the show with an exhibition of floating, swimming and diving.  Their instructress was Miss Kathleen Huxley.  She was the daughter of Alfred Huxley, the wealthy Walsall businessman who had built the baths at Rhyl in 1905.  Miss Huxley was employed by the Walsall Education Committee as instructress to the schools.  Her credentials were impressive.  She passed the ASAs Teaching Certificate with honours; an 80% pass mark was necessary to gain a certificate that was held by less than forty people in the country; Miss Huxley scored 402 out of a possible 410, (98%).  She could demonstrate with perfection the stroke all swimmers of the day were anxious to learn – the American crawl.


In September the Mayor visited Croft Street School to present a trophy that had been put up for competition by ‘Boys Own Paper’ in 1903.  It was an annual event, a relay race knock-out competition which involved all the schools in the Midlands.  It had been won by Wisemore School in 1905 but since then had been won mostly by schools from Notts and Derby.  Croft Street had brought the trophy back to Walsall and the Mayor presented it to the four boys in the team, he then dipped his hand into his pocket and gave each one of them a shilling.  There was another presentation, the Royal Humane Society’s Certificate to 13 year old George Stringer.  He had saved an 11 year old girl from drowning in a canal.  He also received a shilling from the Mayor.

Recognition for Ryan

The polo team was now established as the best in the Midlands, in spite of the occasional hiccup, and was a force to be reckoned with on the national scene.  The club did not fail to recognise a man who had much to do with this – Tom Buxton.  When he retired to become tenant of the Prince of Wales in Stafford a delegation from the Walsall Swimming Club went to the pub to present a token of their appreciation.  It was a large framed photograph of Tom that bore the inscription; PRESENTED TO T. B. BUXTON ESQ BY HIS FELLOW TOWNSMEN OF WALSALL AS A SMALL TOKEN OF THEIR APPRECIATION OF HIS SERVICES TO AMATEUR SPORT.  There was also a case of pipes and cigars from the members of the committee. 

1924 was Olympic year.  At water polo Britain had reigned supreme, winning the Olympic title in 1908, 1912 and 1920.  At the 1924 Games in Paris the team went out in the first round, beaten 7-6 by Hungary; it marked a decline in Britain’s fortunes from which it never recovered.

It is tempting to think that Mark Ryan might have improved Britain’s chances of progressing in the Olympic Games of 1924.  He played in the Olympic trial match on May 31st but was not selected for the Games, and was first reserve for England in their matches with Scotland and Wales.  It was when the Games were over that he received recognition.  He was selected for the British Empire team that played the USA.  Starting the game at half-back he was then moved to left-back to mark Johnnie Weismuller, the winner of the 100m in Paris who later became famous as the first Tarzan in Hollywood films.  Reports of the match say he prevented Weismuller from doing any further damage to the British Empire team.  At the end of the season Ryan became the third Walsall player to gain an international cap when he was selected for the England team that beat Ireland 8-2 at Cheltenham.

Walsall met Aston five times that year.  The results of the League matches were a 3-2 win by Aston at home, and won by the same score when the teams met in the final of the Midlands at Nottingham.  The fifth encounter was a benefit match for League funds and Walsall won 4-1.  A feature of these games was the tussle between Ryan and his erstwhile team-mate Harry Mills.  By all accounts it was conducted without undue animosity.

That could not be said about the Staffs final in which Walsall lost 5-3 to Stafford.  Gilbert took a blow in the face that loosened his teeth.  In fact play was so undisciplined the only player not to be ordered out was Walsall’s goalie, George Smith.  At one time Walsall had only four players in the water.

In the National the team suffered the same fate as the previous year, going out in the third round a long way from home.  This time it was 3-2 to Avondale, a London club.  On the face of it a fairly creditable performance for Avondale had not been beaten at home for ten years.  While they were in London the players visited the House of Commons at the invitation of one of Walsall’s Members of Parliament, Mr. Pat Collins.


At the Annual Sports on September 18th there was an additional incentive for the competitors in the club’s 440yds Championship.  The record had been set by Teddy Gilbert back in 1907 and Captain W. L. Steel, a Unionist Parliamentary Candidate, offered a prize valued at £2 if the winner broke the record.  Mark Ryan had won the race six times and was expected to do so again.  It was a big surprise when he was beaten by R. Seville.  The margin of Seville’s victory, half a length, was even more surprising.  His time of 6:47 was nowhere near Gilbert’s 6:11.6 but Captain Steel handed him the prize anyway.  

Members were saddened by the death of Ray Aulton on August 3rd.  He was 54. Mr. Aulton was the club’s first international, an administrator for many years, and one of the few to be honoured with life membership.

Walsall Withdraw

A dispute with the Staffordshire Association caused the club to withdraw its entry from the Staffs Cup in 1925.  Details of the dispute are sketchy; the available evidence shows that the Association suspended Mark Ryan, Walsall demanded a hearing, when it was not granted the club withdrew.


The writer was not able to discover the precise reason for the suspension or its duration.  It was most likely to have been the Association’s response to an incident in the previous year’s final, a match that seems to have been little more than a brawl.  Whether the club’s reaction was wise is open to question.  When it pulled out of the Birmingham League in 1909 the team suffered from lack of competition and took several years to recover its high standing.  A similar thing happened in 1925, it was the first time in six years that the club failed to win a trophy.


Walsall went out of the National in the first round, beaten 2-1 by Leamington. Once again the club protested, this time to the ASA, and quite justifiably, that Leamington had registered one of its players, S. Burt, while he was still living in Australia.  It was in fact a loophole in the rules that allowed Leamington to do this.  Walsall’s protest was simply to draw the ASAs attention to this and advise a change of rules.


At the AGM the club proudly announced a much improved financial position.  This was due to a change in the law which meant that there was no entertainment tax to pay on the proceeds from polo matches.  It represented a saving of £29-5-6d.


Connie Jeans of Nottingham made an attempt on the world record for 220yds freestyle at the Ladies’ Gala on August 26th.  A staged handicap was devised to give her the right sort of competition but her time of 2:56.8 was exactly ten seconds off the record.  There was a fine performance at the Annual Sports in September, Margaret Hughes won the 100yds Championship and so completed the double of junior and senior championships in the same season.  This had only been done twice before; by Sydney Evans in 1910 and Margaret Goulding in 1923.


There is no doubt the club had been well served by its Officers since 1884 but one area had been neglected in the years following the club’s withdrawal from the League in 1909 – a full record of its affairs and activities.  The following piece appeared in the local press.

Up to a few seasons ago the records of the Walsall club were kept in faultless fashion and it is regrettable to know that the good work has been allowed to lapse.  The task has been handed over to Teddy Gilbert, who is keenly interested, and this is a gratifying piece of news.  If Fred Craddock of Canada and a few of the older hands returned to this country and found this work had not been carried on, well, some warm words would be flying about.

Disputes, Protests and Dissention

In the 1920s the club’s committee faced as many battles as the polo team did in the water.  When they decided to re-enter the Staffs Cup in 1926, Teddy Gilbert and Freddy Lawrence refused to play in matches in that competition, or even represent Staffs in the Inter Counties if they were selected.  Then a matter of a more serious nature cropped up and the Secretary of the water polo section was expelled from the club.  Mr. W. T. Cheadle had apparently approached Wednesbury, offered his services and said he could bring half the Walsall first team with him.  He denied it and appealed to the ASAMD.  With the help of Wednesbury, Walsall proved their case and the ASA came down in their favour.


There were more problems.  A weakened team travelled to Burslem for a second round Staffs Cup match and took a 9-2 beating. Then, in the first round of the National the team was beaten 4-3 by Aston at Tower Street.  There was crowd trouble.  Walsall netted twice in the final minute but both were disallowed.  At the end the referee was harangued by a number of supporters, and later as he left the baths he was subjected to more abuse.  His report to the ASA was referred back to the Midland District. Their judgement stunned the club.  There would be no spectators allowed at four home matches the following season, and the club was ordered to post notices at the bath warning spectators that any repetition of this disorderly conduct would result in the bath being closed for polo matches for twelve months.


Coventry finished top of the Birmingham League, the first time since 1903 that it had been won by a team other than Walsall or Aston.  The one bright spot for the team in 1926 was its 4-3 victory over Derby in the Midlands final, but even that match produced a protest to the ASA.  Derby claimed the referee had been biased towards Walsall.  The protest was turned down.


At the age of 73, Professor Hunt received the proceeds of a Benefit Gala.  Hunt himself appeared in the water, and so did Kathleen Huxley; the old and the new      techniques displayed by experts.  Mark Ryan collected another cap when he played half-back in England’s 9-3 win over Ireland in Dublin.  An Irish reporter was not at all pleased to see a man of that name playing against Ireland.  He wrote; ‘England now appeared to have the game well in hand, and the ‘Englishman’, Mickey Ryan, swam through repeatedly to make openings for his forwards.’


At the end of the year John Bird stood down from his post as acting-President and he was replaced by Frank Cooper, a solicitor who had also been a member of the ASAMD Executive.  The President of the club was always the Mayor, but it was the acting-President who actually presided over the club’s affairs.  In view of the wrangles the club often found itself involved in, perhaps it was thought wise to have a lawyer at the helm.

Crawling to Faster Times

The most newsworthy events in the club’s history up to this time were the successes of the polo teams.  The local press understandably concentrated on this aspect of the sport, swimming received far less coverage because Walsall had yet to produce a Midland champion, man or woman.  Gilbert and Ryan had won a number of Staffordshire titles in their time but neither were successful at Midland or National level.

Les Nicholls emerged as the man most likely to put this right.  Ryan had given up competitive swimming in 1924 and Nicholls took the 440yds Club Championship in 1925 (6:30) and 1926 (6:27.6). He also dead-heated with Tom Longmore in the 100yds that year – the only time in the club’s history that a championship was shared.  In 1927 he established himself as the club’s leading swimmer by winning all three championships.  He improved the 100yds record with a time of 1:06.8 and declared his intention of breaking Gilbert’s 440yds time at the Annual Sports on September 15th.  He came mighty close, his 6:12 was just .4 slower that Gilbert’s 6:11.6 in 1907.  In the Open Water Championship he recorded exactly the same time; there was no chance of a record attempt in this one, Gilbert’s 3:45 was set in the Severn in 1903 swimming with the river’s flood tide. Nicholls put the seal on a fine season by winning the Staffs 220yds.  He was of course using the latest technology, the crawl.  Gilbert and Ryan had used the less efficient trudgeon stroke.

Nicholls dominated the club championships for a number of years as Gilbert and Ryan had done before him.  He won the 100yds five years running, regularly improving the record; won the 440 five times and the Open Water three times.  However, like his predecessors he failed to win a Midland Championship.

Mary Abbis took a grip on the Ladies’ 100yds in the late 1920s, she won the schools 50yds, the club junior championship and the 100yds in 1926, and held on to the senior title for four years.  There was an unforgettable experience for some of the ladies in the summer of 1927.  They were due to accompany the polo team and its supporters to Stafford, where they were to take part in a team race.  They assembled at Tower Street to await the coach.  When it came the un-chivalrous males took all the seats and the ladies were told that another coach would be along shortly.  It turned out to be an open-sided jalopy with large acetylene lamps on each side.  The embarrassed females travelled out of town with heads between their legs, afraid to be seen in such a monstrosity.  The people they passed were treated to the sight of two rows of bottoms.  The vehicle managed to chug its way to Stafford but on its way back ran into a problem, the acetylene lamps failed.  The ladies were left in the dark on a country road miles from anywhere while the driver went to get the water the lamps apparently needed to make them work.  In this tense state, the next thing they saw made them even more fearful; a figure in white approaching.  A ghost?  No, merely a local farmer in a white smock arriving with water the driver had requested.  The spluttering engine and unreliable lamps got them back to Walsall late at night.

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