A team of Dutch women appeared at the Annual Sports in 1927. The Hollandasche Dames were warmly received; the club’s committee invited them to lunch at the Dora Café the day before the gala, and they were taken to see a film at the Picture House. In the water they were more than a match for the local girls. They beat teams from Birmingham and Walsall in a 4 x 1 length medley, won a diving competition, and beat a Midland team 7-2 in a polo match. Women were beginning to take to polo and the Dutch team had an ace in their pack, a Miss Kolloffel who was known as the ‘Amsterdam cannon ‘, a sort of female Teddy Gilbert with an equally frightening shot. Sadly, there were no Walsall women in the Midland team.
In accordance with the ASA ruling the polo team played its first League match behind closed doors. The result was a 2-1 win over Coventry, last year’s champions. A fortnight later Aston were beaten 4-0 at Tower Street, another success the crowd were not allowed to witness. Walsall went on to win the League convincingly that year and their record included away wins over Aston (8-3) and Stafford (6-0). Tunstall were beaten 5-1 in the Staffs final but the team went down 2-1 to Derby in the Midlands final. Surprisingly, in view of the League wins over Aston, Walsall lost 4-2 to Aston in the second round of the National.
There was cheering news for the supporters before the start of the 1928 season. Freddy Lawrence had considered joining Wolverhampton but then decided to stay, and Harry Mills returned to the fold after three years with Aston. He strengthened a team that was already the best in the area. Walsall won the League by three points, only a 4-4 draw at Stafford prevented them winning every match. A week after that match the club beat Stafford in the final of the Staffs Cup. But success at local level was something the club had come to expect; a good run in the National was needed to prove that Walsall was still a force in the land.
In the first two rounds Leamington were beaten 6-2 at home and Wolverhampton 3-1 away. Then came a 2-1 win over Coventry that brought controversy – polo would not be the same without it.
Coventry protested that Mills, although eligible for League matches, was not eligible for the National competition because according to the rules he had to be registered before January 1st. Mills had signed for Walsall sometime in February. Frank Cooper was on thin ice when he presented the club’s case at the hearing and had to use all his legal skills. He concentrated on the fact that Mills had entered the sport as a member of Walsall and had played with them for many years and he cited the rule in question; ‘The definition of a first-claim member shall be one who joined the club he represents prior to joining any other club of which is he a member’! He must have confused them so much that they gave Walsall the benefit of the doubt. The result stood and Coventry were not at all pleased about that.
On Saturday, August 8th, Walsall began a series of four games in six days, all of them vitally important. In the National Quarter-Finals Liverpool Police were beaten 6-4 at Tower Street; Freddy Lawrence scoring all six. On Monday, at Coventry, a 4-3 defeat in the Semi-Final of the Midlands. The following night, at West Bromwich, a 7-1 win that clinched the League Championship. On Thursday came the big one, the Semi-Final of the National at Blackburn.
The Lancashire team had not been beaten in their own water for six years. The task was formidable but Walsall rose to the occasion as well as they had done in the match with Wigan in 1922. In the first half the defence was under a great deal of pressure but it held out with Beech making a number of fine saves. There was no score at half-time. The vital breakthrough came a minute into the second half. Blackburn had a player sent out and while Walsall were trying to take advantage with a spell of pressure the Blackburn goalkeeper submerged Mills as he was in the act of shooting from point-blank range. The keeper departed from the bath and Mills put the penalty into an empty net. Near the end Lawrence made it 2-0 and Walsall was in the final for the second time. It would be against Plaistow United in Manchester.
Polo fever took hold of the town. A special train was put on to take the team and supporters to Manchester, there were almost 400 of them, decked out in the club’s blue and gold. It left Walsall at 3.20 p.m. and as it passed the ‘Laundry end’ at Fellows Park where Walsall were playing Plymouth Argyle, the football fans turned to cheer the team on its way. The Borough Member, Mr. Preston, watched the football match before travelling to Manchester by road.
Plaistow United were something of an unknown quantity, they were in the final for the first time, but they had some notable players. Sutton was an England international forward, Temme at half-back was well known for having swum the Channel, and Hill at left-forward was an old adversary of Walsall’s, he had played for Aston for some years. Walsall included five of the 1922 team; the changes were Beech in goal and Burns in place of Gilbert in the forward line. It was said that much depended on whether Ryan could lift the team by example. He was an inspirational leader, so keen on maintaining his own level of fitness he took his early morning dip in the Arboretum after arriving home at 3.00 a.m. following the match at Blackburn.
The team received a tumultuous reception when it entered the bath. The reception for Plaistow was more restrained, their supporters had to travel from Sussex and there were far fewer of them. Walsall won the toss, defended the deep end, and found themselves in trouble. The opening exchanges were fairly even but there was no doubt from the way Plaistow shaped up that they were a good team. Once Temme had opened the scoring, Plaistow grew in confidence and scored three more before half-time. There was more pressure on the Walsall goal early in the second half before Lawrence pulled one back to make it 4-1. But Plaistow were in no mood to allow them back into the game, straight from the swim-up Sutton lobbed the ball over Beech to make it 5-1.
It was apparent that Walsall were being beaten by a better team. However, Ryan would not accept it, he got Walsall’s second and then swam up to join his forwards in an attempt to retrieve the position. Mills scored from a penalty, but that was all, the team went down 5-3. The damage had been done in the first half. It was the first of four successive National Championship wins by Plaistow, and they went on to record eight wins in the years 1928-1938.
It would be some years before a Walsall polo team would enjoy the same level of success. The 1930 season marked the start of a decline; in the League the team finished 4th, losing five of the sixteen matches. In the next decade the club’s standard bearer would be a swimmer, a young girl who rose to prominence quite suddenly.
Edna Hughes was born on August 1st, 1917. She learned to swim at eleven. It’s said that it took some time, and when she first managed to swim across the bath she raced home to tell her mother. The programme of the Walsall Schools’ Sports held on September 27th, 1928, shows E. Hughes in the Under 12s Learners Race. She was second in her heat but went on to win the final. At the same sports twelve months later she won the 50yds Girls’ Championship in 36.8, and the 1 length back-stroke. In the winter of 1929-30, with the Tower Street Baths closed until the spring, her father took her and her brother Graham to the Kent Street Baths in Birmingham where they were coached by Mrs. Jakeman. When the new season opened Edna showed a remarkable improvement.
Her form was so impressive the handicapper had her swimming off scratch in the 50yds Handicap at the first of the club’s monthly galas in May, and she won the race with a swimming time of 30.0. The older members must have held their breath; could this be the champion they had been waiting for? It was. On July 23rd at Cleethorpes, a week before her fourteenth birthday, she won the Senior 100yds Championship of the Midlands in 1:19, the first Walsall member to win an ASAMD title. In August she won the Staffordshire title, improving her time to 1:11.
Edna received the Midland trophy at the club’s gala on July 29th. It was presented by Frank Cooper. He said; ‘If she did not lose her head there was no reason why she could not bring national honours to Walsall.’ Graham, a year older than his sister, had also improved considerably after the winter’s coaching at Kent Street. He won the 225yds Junior Championship in the record time of 3:12 and was third behind Les Nicholls and Tom Longmore in the Senior 100yds. Strangely, in view of her wins at county and area level, Edna was not able to swim for a club championship that season. The club rules said she had to be a member for at least twelve months and she had only joined in April.
After Edna’s success, and the publicity of her winter in Birmingham, the Council decided to open Tower Street in the winter months. There was to be no chance of Birmingham claiming the credit for Walsall’s budding champion. But there were rumblings of discontent about the facilities at the baths; the swimmers thought the time had come to have something bigger and better. The Council had been thinking about this for two years.
Pressure on the Council
A dinner was held at the Stork Hotel in November 1928 to honour the polo team’s achievement in reaching the National final. Their efforts received plenty of praise from the after-dinner speakers but there was constant reference to the need for new baths. One of the speakers was the President of the ASAMD, Mr. J.T. Lee of Birmingham. He did not pull his punches; ‘I should like to suggest to the Town Council that it is high time a club of the standing of Walsall Swimming Club should be provided with better accommodation, whilst there is the further point that swimming is fast coming to the front in the curriculum of the elementary schools, and the present Walsall bath is quite insufficient to meet the needs of the town.’
The Parks and Baths Committee, always keen supporters of the club, produced a plan for a new and bigger first class pool, improved dressing accommodation, a filtration plant, new slipper baths, extra laundering facilities and other general internal improvements. The Council liked the idea but not the cost, it was £56,950. It went back to the drawing board.
The Committee came back with a modified plan that would cost £13,000. This was accepted. There would be no new pool, but the other improvements contained in the original plan along with improvements to the pools in the Arboretum and Reedswood Park. The work went ahead in the winter of 1930-31. The Arboretum pool was fenced in and it had new dressing rooms. It was re-opened with a gala on July 11th, 1931.
Edna Hughes continued to win championships that year; the Staffs and Midlands at 100yds, and the Midland 220yds that was held at the Annual Sports in September. She went to Lowestoft and finished fourth in the ASA Championship. Other youngsters made their mark. 13 year old Beryl Markham swam across the Tay in Scotland, a distance of 1.5 miles in 45 minutes. Mark Ryan junior emerged to win the club’s Junior Championship in record time. Graham Hughes bettered a club record that few expected would ever be broken, the 440yds Open Water.
It was no secret that Teddy Gilbert was swimming with a strong current when he turned in the ‘impossible’ time of 3:45 in 1903. The 1931 race was held over the same stretch of water in the Severn at Bridgnorth and one can only suppose Graham was swimming with an equally strong current for he won the race in 3:40. Mr. Gilbert had already taken note of the youngster’s potential when Graham broke the 225yds junior record the year before and he presented him with a special medal. Graham Hughes went on to win many medals but he prized that one most of all.
Edna Hughes, Olympian
The publicity Edna received helped to draw more girls into the Club. At the 1932 AGM it was announced that the membership had risen to 401 and 164 of them were women. In June, Edna was selected for the Olympics in Los Angeles. With five girls within a second of each other at 100yds the selectors had a difficult task. There were several trial races b before she was chosen to swim the 100m individual and the 4 x 100m relay.
Of the three girls in the 100m; Edna, Valerie Davies and Joyce Cooper, only one, Cooper, qualified from the heats. She was Britain’s best but she went out in the semi-final. The girls fared much better in the relay, the Americans won by a considerable margin, but Britain finished third behind Holland. Edna swam third stage, took over in third place and held that position. The British times were: Davies 1:13.8, Varcoe 1:14.9, Hughes 1:14.4 and Cooper 1:09.3.
The trip was a memorable one for young Edna, she celebrated her 16th birthday on board ship on the way over. When she arrived back at Scarborough Road, Pleck, with ‘Welcome home Edna’ banners across the street, she had many exciting tales to tell – of seeing New York and Chicago, and exotic places like Hollywood, Santa Fe and Dodge City, where she met the Sheriff. Walsall, realising the interest Edna had aroused, showed commendable enterprise in putting on the ASA 220yds Championship at the sports in September. Joyce Cooper from London won the race in the new record time of 2:42.2. Edna was third in 2:59.6. It was said she seemed over anxious to impress and made a number of faulty turns. Nevertheless, it had been a successful season, she improved her time at all distances and retained her Staffs and Midland titles.
Graham also had a splendid season. He took a chunk off the club’s 100yds record when he won the championship in 61.6 and even more impressively he knocked exactly five seconds off Gilbert’s 440yds record of 6:11.6 that had stood for 25 years. The Hughes family had now made the club’s records look respectable. Furthermore, they had ‘upstaged’ the polo team which was going through a difficult time.
The only consolation was that Aston were struggling as well. Matches between the teams did not have the significance they had in previous years. Coventry were the top-dogs, they beat Walsall in both League games and also inflicted a crushing 9-2 defeat in the second round of the National. In the League match at Bourneville, a young Mark Ryan was drafted in to play alongside his father. At 15 he was a good swimmer and a player of promise, but hardly ready to play at that level. His time would come.
It was sad that Teddy Gilbert did not live to see Edna become the club’s first Olympian. He died in the early hours of January 1st, 1932. The club mourned the passing of its captain, a man who gave his life to swimming and polo. His coffin was borne to the grave in Ryecroft Cemetery by the other six members of the team that had won the National Championship in 1922.
In the mid 1930s there were changes in the polo team as the older players gave way to youngsters. At the start of the 1933 season four of the 1922 team were still there; Cleobury, Ryan, Mills and Lawrence, but teenagers Hughes and Ryan junior were inducted into the forward line. The season started promisingly enough with a series of convincing wins but after a 6-1 defeat at Stafford that was followed by an 8-2 drubbing by Coventry, the team’s performances fell away and it finished half way down the League table. The team struggled again in 1934, in fact there was something of a crisis for they faced relegation.
Frank Holford was brought in to replace Tom Cleobury at full-back, and during the season Freddy Lawrence left to join Bloxwich and Harry Mills retired from the game. In the third League match against Bournville the team contained a number of new names; Blakemore, White, Holford, Ryan, Ryan junior, Nicholls and Boule. Later in the season Bill Whittington, Basil Webb and Roy Harris were also given a chance to show what they could do. Results were poor, Coventry beat Walsall 11-1 at Tower Street and the club went out of the National, 6-0 at Derby. At one time it looked likely that Walsall would be relegated, the final humiliation for a club with such a proud record, but a 7-1 win over the bottom club, Birmingham Municipal, made their position safe. Had Mark Ryan not continued playing that season, he was 46, there is no doubt the club would have gone down. He was still playing well enough to represent Staffordshire.
Ryan, the captain of the team since 1913, continued to turn out in 1935 and results started to improve as the younger players gained experience. However, the club lost a fine player when Graham Hughes joined the Navy. Some good results in the first half of the season gave Walsall a final position in the top half of the table. But there were defeats that showed the club had a long way to go before it recovered its former glory. The worst was once more dealt out by Coventry, 15-5 at Tower Street.
At the AGM in March 1936, Ryan announced his retirement from the game. He had been the major force in the club’s successful years in the 1920s and had stayed to see it through the more difficult years in the 1930s. His contribution had been outstanding but with the team now re-establishing itself he considered it was the right time to stand down. Freddy Lawrence returned from Bloxwich to take over the captaincy, and another stalwart, Harry Mills, came back to the club.
An early season result was most encouraging, it was a 6-4 defeat at Coventry, but considering the thrashing Walsall had received in previous years it was hailed as a major achievement. In the return match at Tower Street, Coventry only just won 3-2. In the first round of the National the club was drawn away at Middlesborough. There was a last minute problem with one of the players and to everyone’s surprise Ryan was called out of retirement to play. In the true tradition of polo it was a full-blooded encounter with plenty of bodily contact. Walsall lost 7-4 after leading 4-1 at one stage. This is the version of the Observer’s reporter.
Middlesborough owed their success to Jack Hatfield, the old international player. This energetic and totally fearless forward got six of the seven goals, but some of his tactics might not have gone unheeded by a stricter official.
The two Ryans and Blakemore had their costumes badly torn after scuffles with Hatfield, who was allowed to get away with a great deal more. Twice he scored from penalties which one felt should never have been awarded, for it seemed as though he himself had been the original offender….The feature of the game from Walsall’s point of view was the clever interpassing by the three youngsters of the side – Ryan, Hale and White. Three of the goals resulted from their efforts.
There was a strong indication that better times were on the way when Walsall reached the final of the Staffs Cup. It was against Burslem at Wolverhampton and though Burslem won 6-3 after extra time, Walsall came close to winning 3-2 in normal time. A late equaliser gave Burslem another chance and their strength and experience saw them through.
It had been a season in which Walsall showed they were once again a team to be reckoned with. The younger players were beginning to shine. Young Mark Ryan was selected for the Staffs team that played Gloucester in the Counties Championship. Dennis Hale was now an established first team forward, during the season he scored seven for the Junior team in a Midlands Championship match.
Edna Hughes - Champion of England
At the AGM of 1933 the club honoured Frank Cooper with life-membership, and it broke with tradition when he was elected President; up to that time the President had always been the Mayor. It was a year that saw the passing of Tom Buxton and Fred Hunt, and with them went a vital link with the club’s early years at the Littleton Street Baths. Mr. Hunt was 79, earlier in the year he had been featured in a newspaper article. It told of his many years as instructor to Walsall, and to twelve other clubs as well. It also told of how he was sacked from Leander for being too successful. Leander awarded gold centred medals to swimmers that achieved a given standard and under Professor Hunt’s guidance so many of them did so, the club almost went broke. He was the Grand Old Man of Walsall Swimming Club. As long ago as 1891 the members had presented him with a medal in recognition of his services.
The club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1934. There were two ASA championships held at Tower Street, the men’s 220yds and the women’s 440yds. The men’s race was won by G. Larson of Canada, and the women’s by Beatrice Wolstenholme, a 14 year old from Manchester. Edna Hughes was third. It was not her best distance and she may have been a little tired after retaining her Midlands 440 title at Kettering the night before. Nevertheless, her times over 440 showed that she was not a match for Wolstenholme, or Mary Kenyon, the girl who finished second.
Edna’s best distance was the 100 yards and she won the Midland and Staffs titles, both for the fifth successive year. It was perhaps her most outstanding season for she went on to win the ASA Championship at 100yds and reach the final at the Empire Games. The National Championship victory, the first by a Walsall member in an individual event, was accomplished at North Shields in June. She beat the holder, S. Calderwood of Barrow, by three yards in a time of 66.8. At the Empire Games in July she was second in her heat and fifth in the final, recording exactly the same time – 66.8 in both races. With Misses Wolstenholme, Bartle and Hinton, she took a bronze medal as the England team finished third in the 4 x 100yds relay.
Although not achieving the level of success of his sister, Graham swam very well that year, winning the club’s 100yds and 440yds in record times – 60.4 and 5:51.8. Another Hughes, younger brother Sidney, was beginning to show that he could swim as well, he was second to Dennis Hale in the Junior Championships.
Hale went on to win the Junior race for the third time in 1935, the first time that anyone had done so since Teddy Gilbert in the 1890s. Hale’s time was 2:49.4, a considerable improvement on the previous best of 3:10.4 by young Mark Ryan in 1931. Ryan was a senior at the time and he emulated his father by winning the 100 and 440yds titles.
However, Edna Hughes continued to be the club’s leading light. In 1935 she improved her best at 100yds to 65.0 and the following year gained selection for the Olympic Games in Berlin. As in 1932 she had to fight hard to make the team. Other swimmers had come to the fore: Olive Wadham of Bournemouth had taken her National 100yds title and Gladys Morcom, a local girl from Tipton S.C. had beaten Edna for the Midland 220 title.
The three places in the 100m individual went to Z. Grant, S.Hinton and Olive Wadham. Only Wadham emerged from the heats and she was eliminated in the semi-finals. But as in Los Angeles there was a better showing in the relay. Edna and Miss M.K. Jeffrey joined Grant and Wadham to make the team, and they did very well in their heat. At the end of the first stage, swum by Grant, Great Britain were level with the USA with Canada third. On the second stage Jeffrey lost contact with the American and the Canadian had drawn level as she touched to let Edna Hughes in for the third stage. The Walsall girl produced a superb effort, pulling away from Canada and then overhauling the USA to hand a lead of about two yards to Britain’s last swimmer. Olive Wadham, the ASA champion also swam superbly, but Miss McKeen for the USA gradually pulled back and got home a tenth of a second ahead of the British girl. But second place meant Britain had qualified for the final.
Their performance in the final was disappointing; they finished sixth with a time of 4:51.0. Had they produced the form they showed in the heat in which they recorded 4:47.2 they would have been placed fourth. There was no chance of them getting a medal, for Holland, Germany and the USA were well clear, but they were capable of beating Hungary and Canada who also finished ahead of them.
Edna turned in good times in heat and final – 69.9 and 70.5; she was the fastest British swimmer in both races. Keen to display her form at home, she finished the season with her fastest ever times at 100yds – 63.2 – in winning the Staffs title and 63.6 in the club championships. Had she shown that speed earlier in the season there is no doubt she would have won the national title she lost to Olive Wadham.
The Value of Coaching & Administration
The club recognised that Edna Hughes owed her success to the coaching of Mrs. Jakeman. Those who saw Edna swim say her crawl was technically perfect, and she travelled through the water like poetry in motion. The writer heard the mild criticism that she concentrated overmuch on style and might have gone faster had she devoted more time to developing strength and speed. As with all athletic activities it is impossible to prove, the fact is she was by far the most successful swimmer Walsall had produced up to that time and her record speaks for itself.
Certainly the Ladies’ section was impressed by Mrs. Jakeman. The women had been coached for many years by Professor Hunt; when he stood down in 1928 they employed the services of Madame Jarvis. She was the daughter of Jack Jarvis, the Olympic champion back in 1900. No one seems to know why she preferred ‘Madame’. It may have been after a series of swimming displays in France, perhaps being introduced as Madame Jarvis appealed to her. When she retired the Ladies’ section turned to Mrs. Jakeman and she was employed to instruct for two hours on Friday nights for the sum of 12/6d plus travel expenses. It was money well spent.
Team swimming was becoming popular with women so the club put on the ASAMD medley championship in August 1935. Walsall did not have a team in it but reports say the event, won by Dudley, was received with great enthusiasm. The following year a Walsall team won the 2nd Division of the Midland Ladies’ Team Championship, the four girls – Muriel Parkes, Edna Hughes, Margaret Yates and Dorothy Batsford, won every race.
The performance of the women swimmers produced plenty of local press coverage in the 1930s, most of it generated by Edna Hughes, but there were some very capable administrators behind them. Eva Parker had been with the club since 1916 and during the 1920s had served as Club Captain, Committee member, Treasurer and Secretary. She continued as Secretary through the 1930s. Mrs. Elizabeth Naylor also gave sterling service in those years, first as acting-President and then, from 1934, as the President. Prior to that time the office had automatically gone to the Lady Mayoress. The Ladies’ Section owes much to the service of these two women. They were well supported by others whose names appear year after year in the section’s minute books, showing that they attended Committee meetings and took various roles in the galas. The name of Miss Maud Thompson appeared as present at a meeting in 1928. She would eventually become the longest serving officer in Walsall’s history, she is better known as Mrs. Maud Mander.
Devotion to the cause is a feature of the club’s history. George Thorburn was an excellent administrator, when he stood down as Secretary in 1937 after 10 years in the job, he was presented with a gold watch and his wife received a tea-service. A teacher, later to become a headmaster, he was drawn to the club after taking classes of boys to the baths for instruction. At social functions he sometimes entertained with a display of conjuring tricks. His secretarial work was highly regarded and appreciated, as was that of his successor, George Green, who was also something of a ‘social light’, delivering monologues in a broad Lancashire accent to supplement after-dinner speeches.
Councillor Tom Mayo was Secretary for three years (1924-27). He went on to serve on the ASAMD Committee and eventually became President. At national level he was Secretary of the ASAs Water Polo Selection Committee. He achieved his highest office when he became Mayor of Walsall in 1951.
A man whose name appears regularly in the line-up of officials at galas is Jack Aspinall. He joined as a youngster in the late 1880 s and when his swimming days were over, served at various times as Treasurer, Sports Secretary and Timekeeper through to the 1930s. The programme for the gala held on July 8th, 1937, shows that he was on duty as a judge, with his son Jack junior, listed as joint Secretary of the Sports.
Sadly, the club lost one of its stalwarts as a result of a dispute in 1938. Harry Dutton was club Captain and the firm he worked for, Ballanger & Dean, had printed the club’s programmes for many years. It was decided to move the work to another firm which offered cheaper rates. Harry took exception to this for the company employed non-union labour; he felt so strongly about it he severed all connections with the club.
More improvements but no New Bath
The 50th Annual Sports was held in September 1937. There was an outstanding performance from Fred Satchwell who won the club’s 440yds from Dennis Hale and Sidney Hughes in the record time of 5:40. Satchwell, who came from Birmingham, Joined the club when he came to Walsall to join the Police Force. Earlier in the year he was the first Walsall member to swim under 60 seconds for the 100yds when he won the club championship in 59.2. He later returned 57.2 in a race at Droitwich. There is no record of him having contested an ASAMD championship that year, it seems likely that he turned his attention to police championships. In August he was second in the British Police 440yds at Hammersmith. His talents extended to life-saving; he collected the intermediate certificate, bronze medal, silver medal (award of merit), and first class instructor’s badge.
The long running dialogue with the Council about building a gala baths had been going on for ten years and things came to a head in 1937. The press reported views both pro and anti. In the club’s corner were Councillor Mayo and Mr. Frank Cooper who took the line that new baths would add to the town’s prestige. The Mayor, Alderman Leckie, and most of the Council declared against. It was not that they were firmly set against the idea but they had also to consider other baths in the area – Bloxwich, the Arboretum and Reedswood Park. Somewhat surprisingly, the Superintendent at Tower Street, Mr. J. Wearing, delivered the pointed opinion that; ‘A gala baths would be solely for the benefit of the swimming club.’ Other statements indicated that there may have been some animosity between Mr. Wearing and the club.
The Council settled for improvements to the existing facility along the lines of those in 1932. This time the first-class bath was provided with an ozone sterilisation plant with a pre-cleansing chamber, new tiles, new dressing rooms and increased accommodation for spectators. When the work was completed there was an official opening ceremony on May 7th, 1938. But it would be some years before the town got a new gala baths.
At the time the standard of swimming by the local schools was higher than it had ever been; this was exemplified by the Blue Coat School which produced a team that won the Midland Schools’ Team Championship in 1936 and 1937. In fact the team finished second in the national championships in1937, the four swimmers were Stan Wilkinson, Jack Hale, Robert Hitchin and Stanley Gladwell. The story has it that before the race Wilkinson, the fastest of the four, complained about a boil near his elbow that prevented him straightening his arm. He doubted that he would be able to swim. Jack Hale asked to have a close look at it. Offering his sympathies he suddenly squeezed the boil between his thumbs. Stan leapt in agony, but the painful remedy did the trick. The gathering puss was released and he was able to swim.
It seemed the club would not be short of a ready supply of good swimmers with the Walsall schools providing such a good breeding ground. But for no obvious reason it suffered from decreased membership in those years. In 1936 the total was 357 and in 1937 it fell to 311. The following year it went down to 303. But the Bloxwich club was growing so maybe it was attracting some of Walsall’s prospective members.
An event that the club regularly put on at its July gala was the ASAMD Women’s Medley Team Championship. Unfortunately Walsall could never get a team into the final; it had some capable freestylers but seemed to lack girls who could perform well at the breast-stroke and back-stroke. On the other hand the records show that Miss E.M. Holden won the Staffs back-stroke title in 1937.
Edna Hughes was not the force she had been in previous years and the press were surprised that she was chosen for the Empire Games in Sydney in January 1938. It seems likely that the selectors considered her performances in past international events and felt sure she would rise to the occasion. In those days the team travelled by sea and Edna was away for nearly four months. It was an enviable trip, with visits to Gibraltar, Port Said, Colombo and Freemantle. Warming up for the Games she won the Victorian State Championship. In Sydney the individual event was held over 110yds – roughly equivalent to 100 metres. Edna won her heat and finished fifth in the final. Ahead of her were two Australians and two Canadians. As the first English girl she had justified her selection. In the 4 x 110yds relay the England team was Joyce Harrowby, Edna Hughes, Zilpha Grant and Marjorie Hinton, and of course they had to settle for third place behind Canada and Australia. Edna had a bronze medal to add to those she won in the relays in Los Angeles in 1932 and the previous Empire Games in London in 1934.
It was a commendable end to her international career. When she returned home she told of meeting many emigrant Walsallians who offered her every encouragement. The team’s dignitaries offered their congratulations at a dinner held in her honour at the Stork Hotel on May 3rd.
The star of the 1938 club championships was Dennis Hale. Satchwell had left the club and Hale won the 100, 440 and the Open Water. His 58.4 for the 100yds bettered Satchwell’s 59.2 at the 1937 championships. He was second in the ASAMD 100 and 220, in fact he might have won the 100 but was impeded. The lanes were not roped off and as he turned for the final length he swam into the man then in second place. He lost the lead and was not able to recover his rhythm.
A Trophy for the Polo Team
In his Presidential address at the AGM in March 1938 Frank Cooper warned that the club’s financial situation was not as good as it might be. His remarks were endorsed by the Treasurer, Mr. George Spruce. The chief problem was a fall in the number of spectators watching the polo matches. The match receipts amounted to less than half the travelling and refreshment expenses. But there were happier items to report. George Thorburn was honoured with life-membership, ten members received life-saving awards, and Jack Hale was awarded the first 3 miles certificate vouched for by the club.
The polo team enjoyed its best season for some years. The leading lights were Mark Ryan and Dennis Hale who were selected for the Midlands against the North at Ashton-under-Lyme in May, one of a series of inter area matches that served as trials for the national team. In June they went to London for the final trial match, Ryan to play and Hale as reserve.
With a strong Coventry team still dominating the Birmingham League there was no chance of Walsall regaining the championship it had last won in 1929, but there were several good results, notably against Burton who were beaten 7-6 and 5-3. The team progressed to the semi-final of the Midlands Cup and were beaten 2-1 by Derby at Tower Street. The local press report indicated it was a match Walsall should have won; it spoke of slack marking by Boole at full-back, and of Hale fumbling the ball when in a good position to score. However, the reporter produced an enthusiastic report when the team reached the final of the Staffs Cup by beating Burton 4-1. Ryan, White and Boole were given full marks for their defensive work and Hale was commended for two fine goals.
The final was against Burslem at Stafford in November. The team was; Lane, Boole, White, Ryan, Wilkes, Hale and Lawrence. At 43 Freddy Lawrence was the ‘old man’ of the side; he played in the team that last won the Cup in 1928. It was a trophy that Burslem could claim to be their own; they had won it 21 times!
Walsall had the better of things in the first-half. Lawrence put them ahead and after Burslem had equalised, goals by Hale, Ryan and Wilkes gave them a 4-1 lead at change over. Burslem reduced Walsall’s lead with goals by Stockton and Beech, but then Lawrence made it 5-3 with a shot that was described as a ‘donkey dropper’. Burslem came back with a goal by Stockton that Walsall disputed. It was claimed that the ball had not fully crossed the line. Then with Ryan out of the water, Stockton scored again to make it 5-5 and send the game into extra-time.
As a result of various offences in the first few minutes of extra-time Walsall were reduced to five men and Burslem to four. Wilkes scored to make it 6-5. Defending the deep end for the second three minutes, the team produced a splendid effort, taking control and adding to their score with goals by Hale and Boole. Time was running out when Dunn pulled one back for Burslem. Walsall won 8-6.
It was a result that received the usual rapturous press report when the team had done well, ending with the following advice:-
Given some properly organised winter practice here is a team that is capable of bringing further honours to the town and of proving one’s recent assertion that there is a local polo revival.
The club knew how to celebrate its success; it held a dinner at Bloxwich Baths and then danced to the Paramount Jazz Band until two o’clock in the morning.
The stringent amateur rules of the ASA were applied when Reg Beresford, a polo player then in the second team, signed professional forms with Aston Villa. He was not allowed to compete in swimming events or play in polo matches. Complaints about the professional and amateur problem as a time-worn snobbery fell on deaf ears.
Edna Hughes announced her retirement in March 1939, but only from competitive swimming. She was to become coach to the Ladies’ Section. In May she married Douglas Redwood, a footballer from South Wales who had joined Walsall F.C. from Cardiff City.
Dennis Hale retained his club championships at 100 and 440yds but lost the Open Water 440 to his younger brother Jack. The race was held on a cold and foggy Sunday morning in the Arboretum pool and it seems Jack was better able to cope with the conditions. The Junior Championship was won by Vic Hamblett, he beat Stan Wilkinson who was generally expected to win.
The predicted success for the polo team did not materialise; it was beaten by Coventry in the second round of the Midlands and by Stoke in the quarter-final of the Staffs Cup. But the team rose to the occasion when their League match with Burton was broadcast on the radio. Walsall won 5-1 and the commentator, Mr. Harry Walker, praised the play of Ryan, Hale and Bill Whittington.
It was a season in which the ASA instituted a rule change, the male swimmers and polo players could now wear trunks instead of the full costume. It meant the players had less material to tear as they prevented their opponents from swimming clear of them. But of course there were more important matters to concentrate the minds of everyone in the summer of 1939.
The war started in September but the club was determined to hold its Annual Gala come what may. There was a touch of ‘Dad’s Army’ about the Committee meeting on October 23rd. It was decided that the gala would be held on November 16th and the main event would be a team race between Walsall, Aston and the R.A.F. At the end of the evening the teams would be invited to a supper at the Stork so the Secretary was empowered to spend up to £3 on the necessary arrangements. It was also decided that the club’s funds, there was £109-7/2d in the bank, would be converted into National Savings Certificates and those members called-up would not have to pay subscriptions while they were in the Forces.