The history of the swimming club starts with its founding in 1884, but the history of swimming in the Walsall area effectively began some 40 years before that. It was the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution that provided the means by which the people of Walsall were able to take to swimming. The quarrying of limestone, important for the smelting of iron, left huge craters that became filled with water. They were the swimming pools of the mid 19th century and a magnet for the swimmers of those days.
The twin lakes in the Arboretum and the Park Lime Pits near Rushall Hall were old limestone quarries. Local historians differ as to how and when they were flooded but it is known that both sites were being worked in the 1830s. The quarry in the Arboretum was probably flooded by spring water from below, or perhaps by deliberately diverting water from the Hoar Brook that flows near by. One theory says it was most likely a combination of both. However, it was completely flooded by 1840 and certainly covered a greater area than it does today. It became known as the Hatherton Lake and was originally quite deep, around 100 feet at the deepest point. The silting that has taken place for over a century has reduced its depth; soundings in 1965 made it 60 feet. The lakes are joined by an underwater cavern. The promenade that runs between them was much narrower in those days.
In spite of the obvious danger for inexperienced swimmers, some of Walsall’s more adventurous citizens learned to swim in the lake. Sadly, the newspapers of the 1840s recorded the occasional tragedy and the most prominent was the drowning of the Mayor of Walsall in 1845.
John Hyatt Harvey was 38 and reputed to be a good swimmer – by the standards of those times. He often swam late in the evening, sometimes refreshing himself after a Council Meeting. So it was on the night of July 8th. He attended a Meeting of the Watch Committee and was heard to say that he intended to swim before going to bed. No one saw him enter the water but he was seen walking towards the lake around 11 o’clock. His clothes were found at the lakeside the following morning. During the search for his body there was a further death when a boat capsized and a young man was drowned. After three days of dragging and diving the bodies were recovered. At the inquest into the Mayor’s death it was supposed he drowned after suffering an attack of cramp but there was a wound on his forehead that indicated he might have dived on to a submerged rock.
The Town Council issued a bye-law prohibiting swimming in the lake but did allow Aquatic Fetes. In the 1870s they were very popular and drew large crowds. The one on July 7th, 1875, featured a life-saving display by Captain Paul Boyton, an American who earlier that year had succeeded in crossing the Channel clad in a buoyancy suit and propelling himself with an oar. He displayed his method in the Arboretum; his ‘life-saving’ amounted to a display of how to survive if cast adrift on a raft. He caught a fish from the raft and cooked it on a miniature stove.
At the following year’s Fete the world famous Blondin appeared. He was a tight-rope artist who crossed the lake on a high wire. A relatively easy task for him, some years before he had crossed Niagara Falls pushing a wheelbarrow.
For the Fete of 1877 the organiser, Mr. Gough, engaged the services of one of Shropshire’s most famous men – Captain Matthew Webb. On 24th August, 1875, Webb had become the first man to swim the Channel, three months after Boyton’s ‘assisted crossing’. The Fete was advertised in the Walsall Observer and it contained the following item of information: ‘Captain Webb’s bathing costume being full and complete, the most fastidious of either sex may, with propriety, be present at this Entertainment’.
The Fete was held on the July Bank Holiday. It rained of course and the planned performances in the lake were delayed for three hours. But a large crowd of several thousand stayed on to watch the famous man in his ‘fastidious costume’ demonstrate the art of endurance swimming. There were other performances to interest the crowd. Reports say the Jefferson brothers provided the most popular entertainment. The older one dived into the water from a height of 50 feet and then gave a demonstration of how to save a swimmer in difficulties. The contribution of the younger Jefferson was a display of ‘ornamental swimming’ and also divesting himself of clothes while floating on the surface – with complete propriety of course.
There is no doubt that the Aquatic Fetes did much to stimulate an interest in swimming. The Arboretum was also a venue for other notable events. In July 1893 the Amateur Swimming Association held the 1 mile Championship of England in the lake. This was something of a coup for the championship was first held in 1869 on the Thames and the first recognised championship distance. John Jarvis of Leicester was 3rd in the race; in 1897 he came back to the Arboretum to set a world record for 1000 yards. At the Olympic Games of 1900 in Paris, Jarvis became the first Britain to win an Olympic gold in a swimming event, actually two of them; he won the 1000 and 4000.
The Limestone Legacy
The town had immense problems in the 19th century. Britain was changing. As the Industrial Revolution took root, new industries expanded the towns and cities. In 1801 the population of Walsall was 10,000; thirty years later it had doubled and by 1871 it was almost 50,000. The basic amenities did not keep pace with the population explosion. There was no sewerage system, no regular water supply and no hospital – until the inadequate Cottage Hospital was opened in 1863.
The over-crowded houses were insanitary and disease was rampant. Epidemics of cholera and small-pox hit the town. In 1849 cholera killed 292 people in less than two months. The Council acted as best it could but it was some years before Walsall really got a grip on its sanitation problems. In the interim there was a campaign to urge the use of disinfectant and carbolic soap.
On 14th Apri, 1860, Walsall’s newspaper, The Free Press, ran an editorial calling for public baths. On August 4th the Town Council, at a quarterly meeting, set up a sub-committee to investigate what other local councils had done regarding baths and recreation areas.
In Britain at that time public baths, both the swimming and washing variety, were enjoying a renaissance for there had not been any since Roman times.
In 1846 an Act of Parliament legalised the provision of baths and wash houses by local authorities. A commissioned report on ‘Sanitary Conditions in Large Towns and Populous Areas’ had much to do with this. Birmingham’s Council started by encouraging private enterprise to build the baths but soon agreed upon having baths owned by its Corporation. By 1862 the City had three of them.
In Walsall few houses had baths or even running water, yet the town had a public bath, privately owned, as early as 1850. It was in Dudley Street and was known as the Vicarage Water Baths. The owner was Thomas Gameson. The baths were sited opposite Bath Street, in fact the street took its name from Gameson’s Baths. They were supplied with spring water and had a swimming pool along with shower and slipper baths. Any history of these baths has disappeared, or perhaps was never recorded. By 1880 no vestige of these remained. One can only speculate about the demise of these baths but it seems likely that those townspeople who were keen on swimming or given to cleanliness were drawn to another establishment that opened in Littleton Street in 1862.
Littleton Street Baths
The call for a public bath was answered by one of the town’s Councillors, Elias Crapper. He was a manufacturer of engines, pumps and presses, who owned a factory and limestone mine in Littleton Street West. He employed over a hundred men and apparently treated them very well by the standards of those times. He had slipper baths installed in one of his factory buildings and then added a swimming pool. On 26th April, 1862, the Free Press reported the following progress:
We are glad to perceive that the new swimming bath, that is being added by Mr. Crapper to his bathing establishment, is fast approaching completion. When finished it will supply a desideration, the want of which has long been felt in this locality, as hitherto there has been no safe or proper place for the practicing of the useful and exhilarating art of swimming.
The bond between Walsall’s swimmers and limestone was still evident; the water came from a flooded section of Crapper’s mine. When the pool was opened on Monday 9th June, the local newspapers went overboard in praise of the new facility. The Free Press said the pool, which was 60 feet by 20, was lined with glazed tiles and surrounded by a range of dressing rooms. The pool, it said, was fed by a continuous flow of water that was a beautiful sea-green colour. The water had a rather peculiar taste and was said to possess valuable medicinal properties. The reporter wondered that if that was the case then he saw Walsall as a rival for Leamington Spa.
But there is a more down to earth version of what the Littleton Street pool was like, provided by William Meikle (1860-1943). Meikle was one of the town’s worthies; talented and public spirited, he is probably best remembered for taking a series of photographs of Victorian Walsall that are a valuable record of the town as it was. Writing in 1939, at the age of 79, he had this to say of the baths:
I first learned to swim at the Littleton Street Baths. They were only open in the summer time; the opening day was Good Friday. The water was obtained from Crapper’s lime-pit close by. The water was very cold and very green and was only changed once a week, on a Saturday.
The price of admittance was graduated according to the density of the filth in the water, Saturday 6d, Monday 5d, Tuesday 4d, Wednesday 3d, Thursday and Friday 2d. I have seen on a Saturday morning, before the clean water was let in, 18 inches of filthy water settled at the bottom of the bath.
But I felt proud. Being a town boy I could swim whereas my cousins in Scotland, who lived on the banks of a beautiful salmon river, could not. When I went on holiday I gave an exhibition of my swimming to my cousins.
Whatever the state of the water, the pool was well used and competitions well attended by spectators.
A gala was held in July 1864 and the organisers found it difficult to accommodate spectators. A double row of benches flanked the pool and a makeshift balcony was built on top of the dressing cubicles. When all the benches were filled a little extra room was found for people who did not mind standing and of course a screen was placed in front of the benches reserved for ladies, to protect them from the splashing.
In those days, expert swimmers who taught the art preferred to be called professors, and the gala was under the direction of Professor Garford. The first race on the programme was over four lengths and the prize was a silver medal. It was restricted, a newspaper report says, to ‘Professor Garford’s Walsall pupils’, (This was the first indication of an organised swimming group in Walsall.)
The main event was over eight lengths and open to any amateur. There were seven entrants and after two heats three lined up for the final. The report on the final gives an insight into a problem that would bedevil amateur swimming for some years. The finalists were Green (Walsall), Keel (Birmingham) and Richards (Nottingham). Going into the final turn Keel led from Richards but Richards came on strongly at the end of the race and won by five or six yards. Several bookmakers were present and they shouted odds throughout the race. There was nothing illegal about their activities but amateur officials saw the possibility of races being fixed to suit the bookmakers.
But organised swimming was beginning to take shape and what was happening in Walsall’s corner of the swimming world was also happening nationwide. Public baths were being built, most of them rather grander than Walsall’s and more and more people were learning to swim. The sport needed to be properly organised with rules and regulations and a national body to administer them.
By the end of the 1860s there were signs that the wheels of progress were starting to turn, but it was to take some years of bargaining and diplomacy before a national association was formed.
The Birth of Walsall Swimming Club
The most surprising thing about the founding of the Swimming Club is that it took so long to happen. There had been over twenty years of competitions and galas at Crapper’s Baths before the idea of a club was mooted.
The club was born at a meeting at the George Hotel on August 21st, 1884. The man who made the proposal that a Swimming Club be formed was Henry Campion, a dentist who lived in Bradford Street. He was supported by some potentially influential citizens; William H. Duignan, a solicitor, who had been Mayor of the Town in 1869, Alderman Thomas Evans, who was to become Mayor in 1886 and Doctor C. G. Sharp. Dr. Sharp was elected President. F. B. Edwards was to be Captain of the Club and Henry Campion the Secretary. Campion’s message to the assembly was ‘I hope to infuse the rising generation with a love of aquatic sports’.
With the election of officers and the subsequent formation of a committee, the club rules were drawn up. For an annual fee of £10 the club would have exclusive use of the pool from 7.00 on Thursday evenings; from 8.30 there would be water polo practice. The entrance fee would be 2/6d and the annual subscription 5 shillings. The colour of the club’s costume was to be dark blue, similar to the Oxford University colours, and the letters W.S.C. would be printed on the front. Professor Fred Hunt was to be the instructor and he would be paid an annual fee of £2.5/-.
Professor Fred Hunt had already been engaged by Mr. Crapper to teach swimming on a daily basis, and it seems likely that he was living on or near the premises for his home address was Bath House, Littleton Street.
By the time the club was established the summer was almost over and soon it would be time for Crapper to close up for the season. But there was time to squeeze in the first ever gala held by the club and it went ahead on September 23rd. The star performer was Fredrick Edwards who was to be a leading light, both as swimmer and administrator, for many years to come. In 1885 Edwards took on the job of Secretary and it was he who made Walsall’s formal application to join the Swimming Association of Great Britain.
It was in fact the last year that the national body was known by that name. The following year it became the Amateur Swimming Association. The birth of the ASA had been along and sometimes complicated pro cess. It started with a meeting in London as far back as 7th January, 1869, at which a group of clubs formed themselves into the Association of London Swimming Clubs. A year later it assumed another title: The Metropolitan Swimming Association. In 1873 it became the Swimming Association of Great Britain. Strangely, for a body that claimed that title it missed a vital opportunity of governing swimming nationwide when it turned down applications of membership from Scottish clubs.
By 1880 there were nine London and eleven provincial clubs in the Association and the numbers were increasing.
But in 1883 a major schism developed when the Association issued its version of the laws of swimming, and more importantly its definition of an amateur. Otter, the famous London club, did not like this definition and withdrew from the Association along with eight other clubs. They formed the Amateur Swimming Union.
For two years there was a continuous feud between the two bodies. The tact and diplomacy that brought these two organisations together was supplied by Henry Benjamin of the Cygnus Club. In 1886 they were reconciled and the ASA was born.
The question of amateurism, or more precisely, what constituted an amateur, was a burning issue in the 1880s and would last for some years. It was a Victorian concept and obviously had much to do with the class differences of those days. But something that united that united all who wanted to see fair competition was an aversion to gambling and the manipulation of competitors in order to make money. It was the fear that bookmakers might run the sport that made the administrators tighten the amateur rules to a degree that seems excessive by the standards of today. An indication of how obsessive the ASA was regarding its amateur code was its attitude to the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. By the time it had finished corresponding with the Olympic Committee to make sure their concept of amateurism was the same as its own it was too late to send English swimmers to the Games.
Walsall’s first set of rules did not include mention of the necessity of being an amateur, but when under the wing of the ASA Rule 1 read: ‘The club shall be called the Walsall Swimming Club and shall consist of amateurs only’.
However, as important as the amateur issue was, in the early years Walsall concentrated on attracting new members and teaching them how to swim. In September 1886, with the membership standing at 66, the club put on its second annual Gala or, as it was called in those days, the Aquatic Sports. The Youths Handicap, over four lengths, was won by Ellis Crapper, a grandson of the baths’ owner, and another grandson, James, was 2nd in the Novices’ Handicap. Edwards, the club’s star, swam off scratch in the Seniors’ Handicap but he was unable to give 26 seconds to T. J. Washbourne, another capable swimmer. Washbourne later presented his party piece, two lengths of the baths under water.
The prizes were presented by Alderman Evans who was the Town’s Mayor that year. He delivered a speech that drew enthusiastic applause when he said he looked forward to the day when the Council would be able to build a baths that were worthy of the name. There would be many ‘promising speeches’ before the baths were built.
It was a strange fact that in spite of the pull the club appeared to have in official circles, it had a number of Councillors as patrons, it received few favours. Earlier that year the Council turned down a request to hold a club championship in the Arboretum Pool.
Progress and Campaign for a New Bath
The club’s turnover in the late 1880s was in the region of £40 and it always produced a favourable balance. Fred Edwards gave up the Secretaryship and became Treasurer. He also relinquished his captaincy when J. T. Dance beat him in a race off for this position; in those days the captain had to be the fastest swimmer in the club.
The 1887 Sports were held on Wednesday, August 31st and they were well covered by the Free Press. It headlined an incident the club could well have done without. Washbourne attempted to do three lengths under water, did not quite make it and appeared to be in difficulty. Henry Greatrex, the club’s President, dived into the water fully clothed and pushed him to the side. Exciting for the newspaper perhaps but the spectators were more excited by the water polo that was a match between married and single members of the club. The water polo always supplied a splendid finale to the Sports and on this occasion the bachelors won by three to nil. The Mayor was once more in attendance and after congratulating the competitors on their mastery of the ‘valuable art of swimming’ he said the Council might soon be in a position to provide them with ‘a much larger and more commodious bath’.
The club became irritated by empty promises. At the 1891 AGM at the Stork Hotel the Secretary, James Shilton, said the club could double its membership if it had bigger baths. Comments from the floor said; ‘they were wretched compared with other baths …….. ashamed of inviting other clubs …….. visitors complained’. It was obvious that Crapper’s baths had served their purpose but something better would be needed if the club was to progress.
The Council’s attitude to the club and to swimming in general was divided. It rejected an application for an open-air pool in the Arboretum and also turned down the club’s offer to teach members of the Police Force the skills of life-saving. A certain Councillor Baker was reported to have said that the only stretch of water under their jurisdiction was in the Arboretum, and anyone who was drowned there deserved to be.
Harsh words. And when the question of accepting plans for the building of a public bath came before the Council there was plenty of opposition. On 14th August, 1893, a sub-committee delivered a report recommending the acceptance of a plan to build a baths at a cost of £8,285. The Council was equally divided. It was only on the casting vote of the Mayor that the plan went forward.
The club continued to thrive. It had taken over the management of Crapper’s baths and the membership was up to 260. Surprisingly, the club was allowed to hold a gala in the Arboretum on July 8th, that year. It was the first major swimming event held in the town for it included the 1 mile Championship of England. There were seven entrants and they swam around buoys placed 220 yards apart. The winner was J. H. Tyers of Manchester, his time of 27:22 was a new English record for the distance. He was the most outstanding swimmer of the day, holding every English record from 100 yards to the mile.
Just a month after the gala there was tragedy. A club member, 23 year old Ernest Jackson, was drowned in the Park Lime Pits.
He was entangled by weeds and drawn under. A terrible blow for his family and for the cause of swimming in Walsall. He was the only member in the long history of the club to die by drowning.
In 1895 the plans for the new baths were finally accepted. At last the talking was over and the building would start. It had been a long haul, two years of dissent, debates and amendments. Greatly encouraged by the news, the club enjoyed a successful year.
The water polo team finished 3rd in the Birmingham and District League, its highest placing so far. An ‘Aquatic Carnival’ was held in the Park Lime Pits. An attempt to hold it in the Arboretum had been turned down. Professor Fred was congratulated on his handicapping as many of the races were very closely contested. But there was a bit of sharp practice following the race for the 440 yards Championship of Walsall – the town not the swimming club. There was an objection to the winner because he was not resident in the town, and his prize was withdrawn.
The high point of the year was undoubtedly the selection of H. R. Aulton to keep goal for England in the annual match with Scotland. He was the first member of the club to gain international honours. The match was held in Edinburgh and England won 3-0. Aulton was praised for keeping a clean sheet and for some accurate passes to J. H. Tyers, the star of England’s team.
The annual sports were held at Littleton Street in September that year and this time the Mayor had something positive to report regarding the new baths. The foundations had been laid and the building would be completed next year. He did not miss the opportunity of reminding those present that it was his casting vote that got the original plans off the ground when the Council had been divided.
The Opening of the New Baths
There was a large gathering of members for the AGM on 17th February, 1896, at the Stork Hotel. Much of the Secretary’s report on the previous year’s activity was taken up with the progress of juniors and the enrolment of new members. There had been 80 of them and about 50 could not swim when they joined. Fred Hunt’s teaching made sure most of them could make their way through the water by the end of the year. Five of the established members had passed the Life Saving Society’s examination and gained bronze medals. As far as the club was concerned this was not enough and it was stressed this was an aspect of swimming the club was anxious to encourage.
The Chairman was the Mayor, Councillor Joseph Noake, and most of the applause during the evening came during his speech for it concentrated on the new baths. It had been an important issue during the local elections with many candidates being asked; ‘Are you in favour of the idea?’ From the outset there had been no doubt where Mr. Noake’s sympathies lay. Indeed the club had been fortunate to have such a keen supporter in such a prominent position. His re-election to the Presidency was carried with great enthusiasm.
Mr. Edwards delivered his financial report and as usual the club showed a slight profit. Edwards had been a founder member and for his services he was honoured with life-membership.
There was reference to a Press report that the club was unhappy with the terms offered by the Council for establishing the club at the new baths. The Committee set the record straight by saying the news report was false and they were quite satisfied with the arrangements. The membership applauded this statement.
So, the club was ready to embark on a new era. With the baths due to be officially opened on May 30th, the Walsall Observer gave its impression of the building as soon as it was completed. ‘A thoroughly well designed pile’, was its first observation on the architecture.
It listed the dimensions and facilities; a main hall 96 by 46 feet with a pool 75 by 30 feet, a second hall with a pool of 50 by 25 feet, 25 slipper baths, a Turkish bath, and at the rear of the building, sinks, mangles and drying rooms for cleaning laundry. The building had electric lighting, a modern convenience in those days. The Observer was impressed. It said the baths were certainly the best in the area, maybe in the whole country.
The opening, on a Saturday afternoon, was a formal affair. The baths were crammed with dignitaries; anyone who held an official position in the town, including those Councillors who had tried to prevent its construction. The first plunge into the water was taken by Councillors Richards and Cotterell. This was followed by some light entertainment when a member of the band, which had played from a boat moored in the centre of the pool, ‘fell’ into the water and was rescued by a member of the club. The band played, speeches were made, and Walsall congratulated itself on producing a fine new establishment dedicated to the health and fitness of its citizens.
In the evening the swimmers took over the baths as the club staged a gala. After the Bijou Orchestral Band had rendered eight numbers, finishing with God Save the Queen, the action began with five heats of the 100 yards Handicap open to any amateur in the country. It attracted a good field and the Walsall swimmers were vanquished; the final was won by J. Hunt of the Mayfield Club (Manchester), with Sanders of Birmingham 2nd and Harmer of London in 3rd place.
Following races for elementary schools’ pupils and a 100 yards Handicap for members of the club, there was a water polo match. For their first game in the new baths Walsall invited Birmingham Suburban, the winners of the 1895 Birmingham and District League, to be their opponents. The visitors entered into the spirit of the occasion by allowing Walsall to include Hunt, the winner of the 100 yards, in their team. He was an outstanding forward and current international. The home team won 1-0.
The gala ended with an exhibition of life-saving and a speech of thanks by H. R. Aulton to the Mayor for supporting their cause.
The rest of the 1896 season contained a monthly series of competitions that reached a climax with the Annual Sports on September 5th. The first man in the pool that afternoon was the Mayor, and not by design. Councillor Noake was making his way to his seat along the crowded edge of the bath when he slipped and fell in. He went home to change and missed the opening events.
Encouraging youngsters was one of the club’s chief aims and it promoted a Relay Championship between local elementary schools. Four swimmers each did two lengths. The final was won by Croft Street with St. Patrick’s second. In the club’s 440 yards Championship there was a touch of drama. The finalists were; Chilton, Stubbs, Hollowood and Dance. The distance meant 17 lengths and then 15 yards (ten yards short of a full length).
Chilton took off far too quickly and when he was overhauled by the others on the third lap he fell well behind. Stubbs went to the front and lead by half a length as he turned for the 14th time. Before he completed the 15th length he stopped swimming, thinking he had won. He started again as spectators urged him on. It was too late; Hollowood, who could obviously do his sums, came past to win by about five yards.
J. H. Tyers was back in town again, this time to defend his 500 yards Championship of England. There was never any doubt he would win; but he was given a surprisingly hard race. J. H. Derbyshire, a 16 year old from Tyers’ own club, Manchester Osborne, stayed with the champion for six of the twenty length race. When the youngster had to give ground his effort did not collapse, but the gap between the swimmers gradually grew and Tyers was ten yards clear at the finish. The winner’s time was 6:55.8, only ten seconds slower than his English record.
The water polo match was between Walsall & District and a Rest of England team. There seemed to be a fairly broad interpretation of what constituted ‘Walsall & District’ for it included J. A. Jarvis of Leicester. Walsall were first to score, and this stung the England team into action. For the rest of the game they peppered the Walsall goal and won 6-1.
After the Mayor had presented the prizes, Mr. Greatrex made a closing speech in which he said ; ‘Although it is rather late in the season, it was good to see His Worship make his first appearance in the pool’.
Spectres, Crocodiles and Football in the Water
As if to justify their use of public money, the final amount was in the region of £11,500, the Council issued figures showing how many people had used the baths each week. They were quite impressive; 1,224 for week ending July 4th, and 1,432 the following week. This meant an average of 200 people were using the baths every day.
The club drew around 200 spectators to their monthly galas. The balcony and poolside could just accommodate them, but if the crowd was larger, and it was on occasions, extra seats had to be hired from the local YMCA. There was a sub-committee to organise the galas and they saw a need to entertain the public. The races, handicaps and championships, could be repetitive and the spectators would soon tire of them. So the committee devised novelty races. A particular favourite was the ‘spectre race’. This was a play upon the character made famous by the Dickens novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ – the ghost of Jacob Marley. The swimmers wore a white smock and top hat and carried a lighted candle. The lights were turned off to add to the ghostly effect. They had to cover two lengths keeping their hats on and candles alight. It was great fun until the races became too competitive and there was a tendency to blow out or splash out somebody else’s candle.
Another favourite was the crocodile race, which involved lying full length on a log and paddling it forward with the arms. Turning at the end of the baths was comical with the competitors trying to turn themselves around on the logs. There were races in which the swimmers were blindfolded. Touching the side of the bath meant disqualification. Few managed to swim in a straight line, after a collision some would take off in the opposite direction. There was an aquatic tug-of-war, usually between married and single members. There was a skulling race in which the swimmers travelled feet first using their arms like oars.
It was all excellent entertainment. But one aspect of the club’s activity that needed nothing extra to rivet the public’s attention was the water polo match. It was so popular that many came just to watch the polo and Walsall had a team capable of taking on any in the area. The game moved Longshoreman, the Observer’s swimming correspondent, to write reports that were so enthusiastic they seemed to be the work of a publicity agent.
... I confess to a weakness for any branch of sport or athletics, and thus it was that I was caught up by the enthusiasm of the crowd as soon as the match commenced. I craned my neck and tried to see every incident of the play, only taking my eyes off the ball when the infernal whistle blew, or to look up in gaping amazement at the demonstrativeness of the crowd. Talk about Football and Cricket, why if Thursday’s experience is the rule I shall vote for polo being the most exciting game of them all …
And on another occasion:-
… Of the excellence of the treat there was but one opinion: it was a splendid game in every sense.
When the ball was thrown in and the players started from either end of the pool the scene was a most striking and animated one. At the plunge of each individual arm the water splashed up in silver sprays which the electric orbs above converted into a charming spectacle. Now the ball was in motion. It danced from side to side, forward it went and back again. The swimmers plunged hither and thither with all the dexterity of which they were capable, and among them were such giants of the game as Jarvis, England’s 1 mile champion ………When it was over the large array of spectators felt they had indeed had a real treat.
Longshoreman reflected the views of many polo fans. The game was extremely popular in the 1890s; in fact it had been popular from the time it was first played some twenty years before, though in those days it had been a fairly undisciplined scramble known as football in the water. Rules and the number of players varied from area to area. There were no goal-posts, the players ‘touched down’ at the end of the bath. The rules that the ASA adopted when it decided the game needed to be properly organised owed much to the development of the game in the Midlands. The area was a hot-bed of water polo activity. In 1883 Birmingham Leander travelled to Portsmouth to take on an All England team in a roped off area of the sea just off the shore. When the first national championships were held in 1888 the winners came from the Midlands; Burton beat Otter 3-0.
Walsall’s first major achievement came in 1897 when the club finished equal top of the Birmingham & District League. In its final game the club beat Birmingham Suburban 4-1 to go top of the table. But the club had to wait for Dudley, who had lost to Walsall by 8-0 earlier in the season, to play their final game for they had a chance of drawing level on points. A week later Dudley beat Wednesbury 4-0 and the league championship was shared.
The town was proud of its team. H. R. Aulton gained his second international cap in 1900 when England beat Ireland 5-0 in Belfast. The club produced another star, Teddy Gilbert, who was capped by England for their match with Wales at Bradford on September 30th, 1905. Gilbert became Walsall’s golden boy, he was a forward who developed a spectacular shot while facing away from the goal. It was said that in his hey-day he was the most popular sportsman in Walsall.
Walsall Ladies Take the Plunge
The emergence of a Ladies’ Section in 1897 was something of a surprise. Women had always been present as spectators at galas but there had been no mention, in the club’s records or in the press, of them being interested in practising the art. The first indication came at the end of the AGM on March 8th when the Secretary, in a brief announcement, said it seemed likely that a Ladies’ Section would be formed and such a move had the blessing of the club.
Not only did the ladies have the blessing of the club, they had its support. John Bird, who was the new Secretary, produced leaflets calling all interested parties to attend a meeting. Thus, on May 28th the press reported that a meeting had been held at the Temperance Hall at which Miss Foxley of Queen Mary’s Grammar School was elected to the Chair. The report said that the meeting was ‘exceedingly well attended’. Actually there were only 20 women present, but they meant business and out of the meeting came a resolution that a Ladies’ Section be formed. A Committee of four were elected to enrol members there and then, take subscriptions, and devote themselves to finding other members. John Bird and J. E. Bayliss were present as representatives of the club. They pledged support and offered advice. It seemed that the Ladies’ Section had been quickly conceived and quickly established but it is likely that a lot of unrecorded groundwork had been covered beforehand.
The pioneering women moved things along. They engaged an instructress, Miss Bates of Moseley College, who gave an exhibition of her talents at a special session at the Lichfield Street baths on June 8th. She worked through her repertoire of strokes and threw in some novelty items that included singing a popular song – Daisy – underwater. She did this by submerging with a bucket over her head and singing into the air-lock. 48 new members were signed up that evening.
The Town Council recognised the Ladies’ Section and gave them exclusive use of the bath from 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm on Tuesdays. The annual subscription was fixed at 2/6d and they had to pay an admission charge at each session, 3d for swimmers and 2d for non-swimmers. At the end of the year there were 7 honorary and 73 active members. Mrs. Greatrex was President; her husband was a past President of the club. Miss Kate Cozens was Secretary and the Treasurer was Miss Ida Robinson.
In his report to the club’s AGM in March, 1898, John Bird praised the work done by the officers of the Ladies’ Section and said the response of the women had exceeded all expectations. No women were there to hear him, the meeting was strictly a male preserve. Although the club had readily agreed to a Ladies’ Section it was understood that ‘never the twain shall meet’. On their part the ladies were equally sure this was the way things should be. Rule 12 of their constitution read; No member shall compete or perform at any meeting or gala where men are present.
In the years following its formation the number of members did not grow, but they did not significantly diminish. In 1901 there were 51 members and in 1903, 56. But at the end of that year rules were changed and junior members were admitted. 14 under sixteen year olds joined the club.
The club was always anxious that schoolchildren should learn how to swim. It had already put up trophies and organised inter-schools competitions at its galas.
When the Walsall Schools’ Swimming Association was formed in 1898 the club endorsed this organisation, offering support and advice. At its first meeting Miss Foxley expressed the female point of view:- ‘It was exceedingly desirable that girls should be taught swimming for they had less variety of sport. They did not play football or cricket, it would be of great benefit to them physically’. Nobody was likely to have disagreed with that, but whether girls and boys swam together in those days is doubtful.
But there was certainly no doubt that by the turn of the century Walsall was regarded as a leading centre of swimming. The ASA recognised this. In 1903 the club was given the honour of staging the first ever National Championship of the newly instituted back-stroke. It was included in the club’s annual championships on September 10th. The printed programme rather gilded the lily by proclaiming it to be ‘The Back Stroke Championship of the World’, in spite of the fact that all the competitors were English. The race was over 150 yards and eight entrants, none of them from Walsall, competed in two heats that produced four finalists, three from the North and one from London. It was W. Call of Sheffield Otter who proved he had mastered the new stroke, he led from the start, was never headed, and turned much better than the others. The 150 yards back-stroke remained the standard sprint distance for this event until it was replaced by the 100 yards in 1947.
The Story of Teddy Gilbert
When Walsall won the National Water Polo Championship in October 1922 the club’s right forward was Teddy Gilbert, just two months away from his fortieth birthday. One could well imagine this to be a splendid finale to a career in swimming and polo that began 29 years before, but Gilbert actually carried on playing for one more season. His competitive record and his dedication to the cause of Walsall Swimming Club is legendary.
Edward Gilbert was born on 29th December, 1883. He was eleven when the joined the club, which was still operating at the Littleton Street baths. Ray Aulton took him under his wing and is credited with the youngster’s early progress in the sport. In fact Aulton, who was in the leather trade, was Teddy’s first employer when he left school.
He soon proved himself to be the best junior swimmer in the club, winning the Junior Championship, held over 225 yards, at the age of 13. He went on to win this race for the next two years but he really gave notice that he was destined to be an outstanding swimmer when he won junior and senior club handicaps on the same evening in 1897 at the age of 14.
When he was fully developed he stood 5’ 10”, weighed 12 stone 11 lbs and dominated senior championships for a decade. He won 30 in all, the greatest number by one individual in the club’s history. He won the 440 yards ten times, the 100 yards nine times, and the 440 yards in open water, a race that was open to any resident of Walsall, eight times.
Gilbert’s attempt to win a Midlands title began in the summer of 1899 when he took on Jack Jarvis of Leicester over 440 yards. Jarvis beat him and this was the first of a series of defeats Teddy suffered at the hands of the Leicester man at 440 and 880 yards over the next five years, but Jarvis was a formidable opponent, the best in the country at the time, if not the best in the world. He was Olympic Champion at two distances in 1900.
As a polo player Teddy was captain of the Walsall team that enjoyed great success in the Birmingham League in the years 1905-1908. He was a forward who was renowned for delivering back-hand shots when facing away from the goal. The story has it that the shots came unexpectedly and were so powerful they would stun a goalkeeper if the ball struck him on the head. His talents were recognised at national level when he was first reserve for the England team in 1904. The following year he scored the only goal in the trial game played between teams from the North and South and was selected to play for England in the match with Wales. The game ended in a draw, 3-3.
Teddy Gilbert died young. He was only 48 when he passed away on 31st December, 1932. The newspapers paid tribute to his swimming prowess and his character, he was said to have been a true sportsman who never descended to a mean action. The pall-bearers at his funeral were the other six members of the team that brought the English Polo Championship to Walsall in 1922.
The Passion for Polo
The early years of the century were difficult ones for the polo team. Much had been expected because of the successes in the 1890s – the shared Birmingham League Championship in 1897and the fact that the second seven had taken the Division 2 title in 1898 and 1899. But in the years following, the teams failed to deliver and the press was quick to reflect the frustration of the supporters with plenty of adverse comment. The most scathing attack came from the Observer’s columnist ‘Otter’ on July 14th, 1901. The team had gone five games without a win and had just been beaten 10-1 at Wednesbury.
Ever since the best of last year’s second team players were drafted into the first team it is becoming more apparent that the system of giving instruction to players, or rather of allowing them to pick up notions where they can, at present in vogue in the club, has what little foundation it possesses resting on sand. Not a match has been won since June 4th and the reason is bad play. Nothing but three or four year’s hard work will improve matters. Walsall spectators are the same as those anywhere – they will not go to see a losing team play, no matter what the game. The club have certainly recognised this for a polo sub-committee has been formed to give instruction to all who seemed to need it. The names of this committee are printed in the club’s handbook, and anyone can see them, but the instruction has not come off in any single instance yet, as far as I can discover. Few attempts are made to pass the ball properly, or to do anything but shoot, and no word of tuition comes from the side of the bath at all. There is a point of mediocrity to which the self-instructed player may attain, whilst unassisted he will never get beyond it. It is therefore a matter for the greater regret that swimmers should be allowed to waste time and energy in merely potting at goal, perhaps twenty at a time, all supposed to be practicing polo. A radical change is needed and the sooner it is made the better.
A change in Walsall’s fortunes did come, but it took the three or four year’s hard work that Otter had predicted. Before the start of the 1904 season there was a spate of retirements by players that had served the club in the 1890s. Ray Aulton stood down, along with the brothers Tom and Wat Buxton, Lewellyn, Stubbs and Jefferson. Arthur Whittaker emigrated to Australia. He had been in the successful 1897 team, an international trialist and a prominent member of the Committee.
There were signs of improvement in the 1904 season. The club reached the finals of the Midlands and the Staffordshire Championships. In the Midlands they were beaten 5-1 by Leicester, and in the Staffordshire, 3-2 by Burslem. They achieved a respectable fourth place in the Birmingham League, in which they were beaten 6-0 and 5-3 by Aston, a club that would figure prominently in the history of the polo team during the years that followed. Teddy Gilbert was selected to play in the international trial match in Bristol. On July 16th the club’s picnic was held at Great Hayford. Among the leisurely activities was the serious business of contesting the 440 yards open water championship in the canal nearby. Some of the locals came along to watch Gilbert display his trudgeon stroke and win as easily as he had done for the previous four years.