The action started again in 1946. The polo team played a series of friendly matches, in the first of them they were beaten 3-2 at Sparkhill but after that there was a run of wins until they went down 5-1 at Aston. The club won the return match in thrilling fashion, 5-0 down at half-time, they won 6-5 with Ryan scoring the winner a few seconds from the end. The only recognised competition held that year was the Staffs Cup and Walsall went out 4-2 to English Electric in the semi-final.
In the spring of 1946 the club became active again. The polo team took on a full list of fixtures and though there was no League competition as such it claimed second place in an unofficial table. The rivalry with Aston was resumed. Walsall went down 5-1 away from home but won the return match at Tower Street 6-5 after changing ends 5-0 down. Overall, the results were pretty good but the only officially recognised competition that year was the Staffs Cup and the club went out 4-2 to English Electric in the semi-final. Satchwell had re-joined Walsall and he played in some of the early matches. Freddy Lawrence played occasionally; he was over 50!
When the news broke that the 1948 Olympics were to be staged in London, the Ladies’ Section immediately decided to organise a gala for Olympic funds. They were over ambitious, swimming in the area had not yet got back into full-swing, neighbouring clubs were not able to offer support so the venture was called off. The committee were anxious to get things moving again; they forwarded the names of Jill Weaver, Alison Crooke, Noreen Whittington and Elsie Holden to the organisers of the Midlands Coaching Scheme as young ladies most likely to benefit from advanced tuition. Misses Crooke and Whittington were the ones selected.
The swimming world really got back to normal in 1947. The Walsall AGM was held on March 14th at Pattison’s Café, The Bridge. Out of the meeting came the decision to confer life-membership on two people who had served the club with distinction for many years, Miss Eva Parker and Councillor Tom Mayo. Miss Parker was the first woman to receive what has always been the highest honour the club could bestow. As an administrator her name ranks as high as any in the club’s history. The meeting came down to earth and passed a resolution that annual subscription would be raised to 5/- for seniors and 1/6d for juniors – in modern money 25p and 7p.
Aston won the League that year. Walsall were not far behind them, with Mark Ryan and Dennis Hale playing as well as ever; the team was a match for any in the area. They must have relished a 3-2 win over Coventry, their first for many years. The Midlands Cup was resumed and the club went out 5-2 to English Electric – evidently quite a strong team, they beat Aston 9-2 in the final. Weston were invited to Tower Street for a friendly match, if polo matches are ever friendly, and their skilful play created such an impression it was decided to make Walsall v Weston an annual fixture.
Elsie Holden was the most successful swimmer in 1947; she won three Staffs titles, the 100yds and 220yds freestyle, and the 100yds back-stroke. Later in the season she won the Midlands 440 freestyle. Her competitive swimming ended there; she took up coaching and turned professional.
At the end of the year the Committee of the Birmingham and District Polo League decided to change the format. Division 1 would now be called the Midland League. The other three Divisions retained the title of Birmingham & District. The change to ‘Midland League’ was appropriate with clubs like Leamington, Derby and Coventry in it.
Walsall started the 1948 season in the new league with a run of poor results, one of them was an 8-2 defeat by Aston at Tower Street. It was, however, an excellent result for Aston’s goalkeeper and captain, Jack Carter, who made his final appearance for the club after a long career in the game. Walsall’s play was criticised by the press, with so much expected of them it was something they had to accept. This is an extract from a piece by ‘Bridgeman’ in the Sports Mail.
Supporters would like to see the club continue in the top flight of the game and while Walsall still hold a prominent place in Midland polo circles, there are those who feel they could do better. It all comes down, say the critics, to practice, and in recent games it is evident that this is lacking……….Mark Ryan, senior, Walsall’s best known polo product, was recently recalling how, when he was at the top of his form and in serious training, he used (and this is his own expression) ‘to drop into the Arboretum pool’ and swim for half a mile before attempting to touch a polo ball. ‘And I did that twice a day’, he added.
Perhaps the criticism had some effect for the team did much better in the second half of the season. They beat the strong Weston team 5-3 in a friendly encounter, hammered Hanley 9-4 in the semi-final of the Staffs Cup and then beat Stoke 7-1 in the final.
There was no doubt the club was still a force to be reckoned with; in 1949 it reached the finals of the Staffs and the Midlands Cup and finished second in the League. The Staffs final was a tight struggle with Burton at Willenhall Baths which Walsall lost 3-2. The Midlands was against Aston at Woodcock Street, Birmingham. Walsall went down 4-2. How keenly contested that match was can be judged from the fact that at one time Walsall had only three men in the water and Aston four.
The club introduced an interesting event into its August gala that year, a challenge match with Mansfield. In fact that event was the gala. It was Walsall v Mansfield in seven swimming races, involving men, women and juniors, with two polo matches for seniors and juniors. It could hardly have been more exciting if someone had written a script. Mansfield led 22-21 with one event to go, the senior polo match. At half-time the result was in the balance, the teams were level 2-2. It was second half goals by Ryan (2), Stanley and Sheedy that saw the club through to a 6-2 win and gave Walsall the five match points and an overall 26-22 victory.
Junior Ladies Boost Membership
In the autumn of 1949 Mrs. Jakeman stood down as instructress to the Ladies’ Section. The club’s first choice as her replacement was Elsie Holden but she declined for reasons of ill health so the job was offered to Edna Hughes and Edna accepted. She was now Mrs. Redwood, of course, but preferred to retain her maiden name within the swimming world.
The section’s membership had started to grow in 1948 and by 1950 for the first time in the club’s history there were more women than men in the club. Most of them were juniors. As the following figures show, the trend continued.
1948 59 144
1949 38 162
1950 48 244
1951 30 314
1952 44 522
The two leading administrators were honoured; Eva Parker (now Mrs. Bolton) was made a life-member of the ASAMD in 1950, and the following year Mrs. Naylor became a life-member of the club.
The section did not produce any star performers in those years. In the Midlands Team-race League the club alternated between the first and second divisions. The fastest swimmer was Noreen Whittington who won the club’s 100yds championship from 1949 to 1952, as well as the Staffs 100yds in 1952.
On July 8th, 1950, the club sent a team to Mansfield for an inter-town gala, and on August 24th received a French team at Tower Street. The visitors were Mulhouse from the district of Alsace Lorraine, one of France’s strongest clubs. The match was an all male affair, with five races and a polo match. Walsall were not strong enough to offer real competition to Mulhouse so they called in two swimmers from other clubs, Ivor Scot and Dennis Toft, to hopefully even things up. It made no difference, the Frenchmen won four of the five races, the only Walsall winner was Toft in the back-stroke. In the polo matches Walsall held a 3-1 lead at one stage but eventually went down 6-3.
Derby were the winners of the League that year, Walsall were third. The club won its match in the first round of the National by default. Cardiff Polytechnic came to Tower Street with a team depleted by illness and injury. They were forced to include two players who were not first-class members and although they won 6-4 they made no bones about the fact they were in breach of the rules. Walsall must have had misgivings about going through to the second round in this fashion for they were drawn at home against Penguins and received a 10-1 beating. The club was actually in the process of putting together a good team, one that would achieve great success locally, but there would also be regular drubbings from Southern teams in the National.
Peter Yates was the club’s leading swimmer in 1950, he won the 440yds and the Open Water. It was held in the Avon at Evesham – and with some difficulty for the water level was much lower than usual that year. The competitors swam 220yds over one of the deeper stretches, then turned and came back again.
The Festival and the Triple Crown
At the 1951 AGM Tom Longmore gave up the Secretary’s job after five years. In his place the club elected 26 year old Jack Hale. No one present could have guessed that Hale, a teacher of physical education, would hold the post for 23 years and become, in the opinion of many, the most outstanding administrator the club ever had.
The AGM was divided into two parts. After Tom Longmore had delivered his final report as Secretary the assembly voted to adjourn the meeting and hold an Extraordinary General Meeting to deal with the Entertainment tax that had to be paid every year. In Mr. E.T.E. (Tom) Bailey the club had an expert in such matters and he no doubt provided the advice that produced the following change to the club’s rules:- That all funds and other property of the club shall not be paid to or distributed among members of the club, but shall be applied towards the furtherance of the club’s objects, or for any charitable purpose. That in the event of dissolution, the funds remaining will be devoted to objects similar to those of the club, and to other purposes approved by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise.
This bit of legislation was apparently enough to avoid paying tax. The sum involved was fairly small, £2-6-0d on the Annual Sports, but it must have been nice to get one over on the tax man. After that, the Minutes state, the meeting was closed and the AGM was continued.
It was the year of the Festival of Britain and the club entered into the spirit of celebration by putting on two galas that each bore the title Grand Festival of Britain Swimming Gala. The first was held on Tuesday August 28th and featured the most accomplished swimmers that had been seen in Tower Street up to that time, the Michigan University Swimming Team.
Michigan were on a tour of Britain and Walsall was chosen as the venue for their appearance in the Midlands. Before the gala they were treated to a civic reception at the Town Hall by the Mayor – a man with more than a passing interest in swimming, Alderman Tom Mayo. Their coach, Matt Mann, who had been born in Leeds, was also in charge of the U.S. Olympic squad and regarded as one of the world’s top coaches. The team he brought to Walsall were the inter-collegiate champions, they were of such pedigree that it is doubtful if the Great Britain team of that year would have been a match for them. Eight of the team had freestyle times of 51-52 seconds for the 100yds. John Davies, an Australian studying at Michigan, was rated as one of the world’s best breast-strokers; in 1952 he proved he was the very best when he won the Olympic title at 200m. Back-stroker Bernard Kahn had recorded 60 seconds for the 100yds.
Walsall could obviously provide no competition for such formidable opposition so four capable swimmers from Sparkhill were brought in to strengthen the team, and seven of the eight races were turned into handicaps. That there were a number of closely contested races was a credit to Tom Bailey’s handicapping. Peter Yates won the 100yds in 63.2 with the Americans Don Hill and Tom Benner, who started 22 seconds after him, almost catching him on the line. They recorded 63.8 and 64 respectively; swimming times of 51.8 and 52.
In the 200yds the club’s junior champion, Brian Bennett, started 14 seconds ahead of 12 year old Frank Brunnell and 30 seconds before David Neisch, the captain of the Michigan team. Bennett won in 2:32 with Brunnell showing 2:38 and Neisch 2:39. At the end of the evening the Americans demonstrated their swimming techniques to the crowd and Matt Mann explained his method of coaching, most of it simply involved driving his pupils towards limits of exhaustion that were unheard of in this country.
The polo season had started with a dispute within the committee of the Birmingham & District League. It centred on whether there should be a system of promotion and relegation between the Midland League, which had been in operation for three years, and the 1st Division of the Birmingham League. It resulted in there being no Midland League that year, or the following year. Four clubs, including Aston, dropped out altogether. Walsall registered for the 1st Division and it turned out to be the club’s most successful season since 1929.
There was a change of leadership, Mark Ryan had been captain of the polo team since 1937 but when he was appointed club captain in place of A.G. Smith it was decided inappropriate that he should occupy both posts so Dennis Hale took on the captaincy of the team.
The early league results showed that Walsall were likely to have a good season. There were a number of significant pointers; Beresford had been reinstated an amateur and had settled in at right-back, the team was now a unit that hardly needed selecting and it was scoring goals in abundance – something that had been lacking in previous years. It proceeded to trounce the other teams in no uncertain manner. There were victories over Heath Town (13-1), Stourbridge (10-5) and English Electric (9-2). Coventry were no longer a threat and they were beaten 4-1 and 7-2. It was surprising if Dennis Hale did not score at least three goals in a match. The only defeat the team suffered was at Sparkhill, but by the end of the season it had notched up 120 goals, an average of nearly seven a match, and Walsall won the League for the first time in 22 years. The run of success seemed to rub off on the second team for they won the Division 1 Reserve League. They too caught the habit of scoring plenty of goals, when it was suggested that their league may depend on goal average they beat English Electric 16-0, and Alan Jones scored 12 of them.
In the Staffs Cup the club progressed to the final after being drawn away from home in every round and, as in the League, the number of goals was impressive. In the first round Burton were beaten 9-7 (Dennis Hale 6), Hanley 9-4 and Newcastle Paragon 7-3. The final was against Heath Town at Willenhall. It resulted in a comfortable 8-2 win for Walsall and this was not unexpected. Heath Town had finished 7th in the League, losing 12 of its 18 matches. It was the eighth time Walsall had won the Cup, the first victory had been in 1905.
The first round of the Midlands Cup brought Derby to Tower Street on June 2nd. The report on this match says it was level at 3-3 early in the second-half with Walsall losing the initiative. But Ryan came forward to notch two and put the club on the road to a 7-4 win. The team was playing well and it was developing into one of Walsall’s most successful seasons, but a week after the Derby match came the first round National tie against Plaistow United, and the result put things into perspective.
It was at home and Walsall went down 13-1. Warrallo put the club in the lead within ten seconds but after that the Londoners took complete control. Their international centre-forward, Terry Miller, helped himself to ten goals. For the best team in the Midlands to be outclassed in that way seemed to show that the standard of polo in the area was well below that in the South.
However, the team recovered its poise and on the home-front continued to score heavily and generally prove they were a cut above their local opponents. Rugby came to Tower Street on September 2nd for the Midlands semi-final. They were one of the better teams in the area, Walsall had scraped home 3-2 in a League match at Rugby earlier in the season. This time there was a more convincing 7-3 victory. It set up the opportunity of equalising the achievement of a Walsall seven twenty-one years before.
The last time the club had won the League, Staffs Cup and Midlands Cup in the same season was in 1920, and those victories presaged the start of a most successful period. For the class of 1951 the triple-crown was a definite possibility, the team had reached the final of the Midlands Cup and, as fate would have it, it would be against Aston at Tower Street on September 27th. The final had been incorporated into the Annual Sports which on this occasion had been re-titled as a Grand Festival of Britain Swimming Gala.
The gala contained two Staffordshire swimming championships, the Junior Men’s 100yds freestyle and the Ladies’ 100yds freestyle, as well as the polo final, which would be the last event. In the Junior race Brian Bennett of Walsall was fourth. In the Ladies’ race Noreen Whittington was third, thus losing the title she had won last year; but later she won the club’s championship for the third year running. The men’s 100yds was also on the programme and it was won by Peter Yates with Dennis Hale second. Then came the highlight of the evening, the Midland Polo final.
The Walsall team was the one that had lined up for almost all their games that season – Lane, Beresford, Stanley, Ryan, Worrallo, D. Hale and J. Hale. They went straight onto the attack and Dennis Hale opened the scoring. Worrallo added a second before Hale scored again. A 3-0 lead half way through the first-half was reduced when Aston scored twice to put them back in the picture. Stanley came back with a goal for Walsall and they were leading 4-2 when the teams changed ends.
In the second-half, the report says, Walsall played ‘inspired polo’. Worrallo made it 5-2 and then Dennis Hale scored another two to put the game beyond Aston’s reach. The triple-crown had been won and it was particularly pleasing that the victory that had clinched it was over the club’s ‘old enemy’.
It had been an outstanding season for Walsall, the only sad note was the death of Freddy Lawrence at the age of 55. He died at Villa Park, struck down by a heart attack after an FA Cup-tie. He won the club’s junior championship in 1911 and 1912, and the senior 100yds championship in 1922. But he was better known as a leading member of the polo team that did so well in the 1920s. He also showed an above average ability in other sports, playing as an amateur for Walsall F.C. and Walsall Phoenix, and during service with the Navy in the First World War he was heavyweight boxing champion of the Home Fleet.
Polo Reigns Again
The major factors in Walsall’s success in 1951 were their ability to score plenty of goals and to turn out the same team throughout the season. There had also been a rule change that may have been to the team’s advantage. Prior to then the rules stated that once the referee’s whistle was blown all the players had to stop. If anyone was judged to have moved he was ordered out of the water. The new rule said players were allowed free movement after the whistle. Results showed that Walsall enjoyed this freedom.
For the next three years the team was invincible in the Midland competitions, the three trophies came back to Walsall in 1952, 1953 and 1954. A quadruple triple-crown one might say. After two decades of scant success the polo team was once more carrying the club’s standard.
The nucleus of the team remained the same throughout these years. There was only one change to the formation in 1952, Jack Hale replaced Stanley at left-back and Jones came in at left-forward. Alan Jones was a talented but rather head-strong youngster. He won the club’s 100, 440 and Open Water that year and scored almost as many goals as Dennis Hale. Twelve months after he was expelled from the club for bad behaviour, later he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
The club’s poor showing in the National tends to take some of the shine from its achievement in completely dominating the clubs in the Midland area in these years. It was true that Walsall did not have any luck with the draw, more often than not it had to play one of the best teams in the country in the first round. But it was also true that the club should have performed better, they seemed to cave in and give up without a fight.
This could not be said about the way they went out of the 1952 competition. Drawn against Cheltenham, who reached the final that year, Walsall went down 9-5 but were congratulated on putting up a fine performance in what was said to be a rousing and entertaining game. The play of international forward Philip Jones was Walsall’s undoing, his ambidextrous shooting produced five goals for Cheltenham.
The League was won decisively, Walsall finished five points clear of Rugby, and the total of 102 goals was an average of seven a match. The Midlands Cup final was once again held at Tower Street, this time against Derby. At one time a Walsall victory looked most unlikely, mid-way through the second-half they were 6-2 down. A stirring rally brought two goals by Dennis Hale, one from brother Jack, and another from Warrallo to tie the match 6-6. In extra-time Dennis scored again to put Walsall in front for the first time in the match. Cotton equalised for Derby. The game was on fire with every attack looking likely to produce a goal. The see-saw struggle was resolved by Dennis Hale, he scored twice to relieve the tension of the Walsall supporters. Derby replied with a penalty by Memory in the final seconds. Walsall’s 9-8 victory was acclaimed by a press report entitled – THIS WAS INDEED A GREAT WIN.
A fortnight later the club clinched the triple crown in no uncertain manner. Stoke were Walsall’s opponents in the Staffs final at Burslem and by half-time the game was over, Walsall led 8-0. The play was less one-sided in the second half but the result was never in doubt, Walsall won 12-3. The club booked the Stork Hotel for another celebration dinner.
No Glory for the Flying Squadron
The League, or to give it its official title, The Birmingham & District Swimming Association and Water Polo League, was started in 1895. It formed two divisions in 1906, then three in 1906 and four in 1926. A Junior League was instituted in 1923. This was discontinued after three years but reinstated in 1950. All league matches were preceded by a race between the two teams, four men swimming two lengths of the bath. In the early years all the swimmers had to be members of the polo teams. Later the rule was changed so that any first claim member of the club could swim even though he might not be playing in the match. The Team Race League was never granted the same importance as the polo league but it was an indication of a club’s swimming strength.
In team swimming Walsall had a moderate record. The only purple patch the club enjoyed was in the seasons of 1906-07. In the first of those years both 1st and 2nd teams won their leagues, losing only one race between them. In 1907, with Gilbert and Ryan senior at their fastest, the 1st team won their league without losing a race. In 1920 the 2nd team won Division 2, but going into 1953 that was the total of Walsall’s successes in team races and it compared unfavourably with the club’s record at polo.
To account for this imbalance one must look to tradition. The polo team had always been successful and young swimmers of any ability wanted to play for the team. Polo was the thing, speed swimming was secondary. Learning the skills of the game soon took over from any ambitions of winning swimming titles. There were the odd exceptions like Les Nicholls and Graham Hughes, but in the main polo ruled at Walsall. That’s why the club hardly ever had a squadron of fliers.
In 1953 the Birmingham League resolved the academic problem of whether there should be a Midland League and if so should there be a system of promotion and relegation. The Committee voted in favour of both issues. The Midland League was reinstituted.
Walsall started in cracking form and proceeded to show no mercy to teams that were simply not in the same class, which included most of the teams in the League and in the County. As a pipe-opener the club beat a team representing the pick of the North Midlands League 8-6. In the first league match of the season Aston were beaten 12-2 at Tower Street. They were but a shadow of the team they once were. Later in the year Walsall beat them 8-1 in their own water. Coventry had also fallen from grace and Walsall had little difficulty beating them 5-1 and 13-1. The teams to threaten the club’s supremacy that year were Rugby and Derby. At Rugby the club suffered its first league defeat of the season, but took ample revenge by winning the return match 14-3. Derby were top of the table for most of the season but only because Walsall had played fewer matches; there was never any doubt which club would emerge as champions. When the teams met at Tower Street, Derby went down 7-3 and they were also beaten 8-2 in the semi-final of the Midlands Cup. Walsall beat Boston in the final to take the first step towards another triple-crown.
The club ran up some impressive scores on its way to the Staffs final. Away to Stoke in the first round Walsall won 21-3, the highest goals total the club had ever achieved. The Hale brothers shared twelve of them. In the next two rounds of the competition Newcastle Paragon went down 15-3 and Heath Town 11-5. The final against Burslem proved a tougher proposition.
For some of its games that year the club had included Bill Rawnsley, who was in the RAF and stationed nearby, and Barrie Davenport who had shown good form in the junior team. But for the Burslem match the club selected a familiar formation – Lane, Stanley, Beresford, Ryan, Worrallo, D. Hale and J. Hale. Dennis Hale scored twice in the first half but each time Burslem came back to equalise. Worrallo put Walsall ahead again just before the teams changed ends. He scored two more early in the second half and with a 5-2 lead it seemed the club was on its way to another comfortable victory. Not so, Burslem came back with two and a 5-4 scoreline was too close for comfort. It took a strong finish with goals from Dennis and Jack, and one from Bill Worrallo to produce a final score of Walsall 8 Burslem 4.
Going into their last match of the season the club needed just one point to be sure of winning the league and the triple-crown for the third successive year. The match was against Heath Town and for a time it was close. Walsall led 2-1 at half-time and 3-2 early in the second half, but another ‘late show’ gave Walsall a convincing 10-3 win. Their run of success was described as phenomenal and without precedent in Midlands water polo. Extravagant praise perhaps, but there was no doubt that no club had ever dominated polo in the Midlands the way Walsall had.
There were sterner tests from clubs further afield. Walsall entertained the Belgian champions Royal Antwerp in June and lost 11-5. A report said that they failed to come to terms with the style of the Belgian team which included a number of experienced internationals. If it was any consolation for Walsall, Dennis Hale was credited with scoring the best goal of the night when he flicked Beresford’s long throw into the net. It was a method that Hale had perfected.
The Club managed to get through to the second round of the National that year. The manner of their first round victory must have raised hopes of a good run in the competition, for Cardiff Polytechnic were beaten 13-4; Rawnsley scored eight of them. It was a performance that caused an enthusiastic reporter to call for the whole of the team to be chosen to represent Staffordshire. There was a precedent for this, the Plaistow team had once represented Essex but the Staffs selectors decided to call on only three of the Walsall team; Bill Lane, Mark Ryan and Dennis Hale. In the second round Walsall, effectively the standard bearers of Midlands polo, received their customary heavy defeat by a Southern club, 11-2 away at London Polytechnic.
Successful for Too Long?
1953 saw the rise of two promising junior girls, Jean Tyler and Sydney Redwood. At that stage Jean was the faster, she won all the club championships that year, 100yds senior and junior, 50yds junior and 100yds back-stroke. In 1954 she did not contest the 50yds race, but won the others more comfortably than she had done the previous year. Sydney was the daughter of Edna Hughes. Although not enjoying the immediate success that her mother had at her age, she would eventually develop into one of the country’s top swimmers.
The belief that supporters will always come to see a winning team seemed not to be the case as far as the polo team was concerned in 1954. Gates at Tower Street dropped that year. It was thought that the team had been too successful in local competitions, that the winning of matches was a formality, that perhaps the fans were sated by watching the team win so often and were losing interest. Another factor may have been the increase in sales of television sets in the 1950s. Whatever the reason for the fall in attendance, the club’s run continued and the trophies once again found their way into Walsall’s trophy cabinet.
In the League the club finished seven points ahead of Rugby. It was the clearest gap Walsall had put between itself and the runners-up in any of the four triple-crown years. The record contained convincing wins over Heath Town (12-0), Burton (9-4) and Sparkhill (17-4). With the third team winning the 3rd Division, also by a seven points margin and not losing a match, it seemed there was plenty of available talent in the pipeline.
The Staffs Cup was the easiest of the trophies to win at that time and the club progressed to the final without undue effort. In the semi-final Newcastle were beaten 13-2. Burslem provided stiffer opposition in the final that was held at Wolverhamton, as they had done the previous year. But Walsall were again the winners, this time by a score of 7-3.
The 1954 final of the Midlands Cup was held at Tower Street and there was no shortage of spectators at this gate. They were tightly packed all the way round the pool and the teams had to squeeze their way through to get in the water. The last of Walsall’s men to leave the dressing room was Barrie Davenport. He could not manage to force his way through so he was hoisted above the heads of the crowd and dropped into the pool. The large attendance was no doubt due to the fact that Derby had beaten Walsall at Tower Street in a league match earlier in the season, the only occasion the club had lost at home to Midland opposition in four years.
Both teams were without key players; Derby did not have Hancocks, their star goal-keeper and Walsall were without Dennis Hale who was recovering from an operation. Davenport took his place. The home team’s line-up was: Harris, Beresford, J. Hale, Ryan, Worrallo, Davenport and Rawnsley. The game was evenly contested until the last five minutes, then Walsall produced a deluge of goals to put the matter beyond doubt. A minute into the second-half they held a 6-5 lead. Though threatening to overwhelm the Derby defence they had been constantly pegged back by goals from Memory, the Derby centre-forward. From that point the game went all one way and Walsall piled in the goals. At the final whistle it was 15-7; the scorers Worrallo (4), Davenport (4), Rawnsley (3) Jack Hale (3) and Beresford.
Although he did not get on the score sheet Ryan was given most credit for Walsall’s victory. He had made it clear that it was to be his last season and it was obvious that it would be difficult to replace him. The report analysed Walsall’s performance: ‘The architect? Yes, the experienced Ryan. He was the brains behind almost every move, and well worth seeing was his quick sizing up of every tactical situation.’
Golden Run Ends
In 1955 newspaper reports gave the first inkling that the Council were seriously considering building a new bath. The Baths and Parks Committee toured the country looking at baths in London, Loughborough, Blackpool and Aberdeen, gathering facts and ideas. Plans were commissioned and things got as far as drilling holes in the car park beside the Tower Street Baths to see if the site was suitable. It was. Twelve months later came the encouraging news that the plans had gone through the various committees and it was agreed that Walsall was to get a new first class bath on the car park site. The estimated cost was £195,000. But Councillor Fletcher, the Chairman of the Baths and Parks Committee, said it would take four years before the work was completed. As it turned out it took longer than that, but things were heading in the right direction.
There would be several set-backs along the way, most of them concerned money. The first dilemma the Council faced was whether to spend money repairing the existing second class bath that was used mostly by school children. Corroded iron beams needed to be replaced, some of the woodwork was rotting and most importantly, the boilers needed to be repaired. They settled for building a new boiler house that could be incorporated into the new bath when it was built. It was hoped that the rest of the facility would last until the new bath was ready.
There was no triple-crown glory in 1955. The splendid run came to an end when the club were beaten 6-4 at Rugby in the second round of the Midlands Cup. Probably stung by this reverse they beat Rugby 10-3 in a league match at Tower Street the following week. The Midlands final was held at Tower Street in September and instead of watching their favourites the Walsall fans had to watch a match between Rugby and Derby.
There were signs that some of the teams that had been overshadowed by Walsall in previous years were beginning to challenge the club’s supremacy, but this did not prevent the other trophies coming back to Walsall that year. The league was won for the fifth successive time, albeit by a narrower margin than in 1954, Coventry were only two points behind them. And in the Staffs Final at Wolverhampton, a fairly regular venue for this event, the club beat Heath Town 6-3. There was some difficulty regarding team selection so the club called Mark Ryan out of retirement. With youngsters Barrie Davenport and Gordon Brownjohn in the forward-line, the team was a mixture of veterans and juniors.
Although it may have seemed surprising that Ryan was recalled for this match, the club had never satisfactorily filled the half-back position after he retired. Jack Hale had taken over as the team’s tactician but he was never in the same class as Ryan. Going into 1956 there was a slight change to the usual rule of ‘polo first and swimming second’ for a number of young and speedy swimmers were beginning to appear.
Brownjohn won the club’s 100yds in 59.8 – the first time since the war that it had been won in under the minute, and he also took the 440 in 5:39.2. Alan Cooper won the junior race in 2:48.8 – it was still being held over the time-honoured distance of 225yds. When Walsall finished top of the Midland Reserve League it was the first team-race trophy the club had won since 1920!
The junior girls followed suit by winning the Midland Girls Cup at Coventry on September 27th. Sydney Redwood was the star performer; she had taken the club’s 100yds, senior and junior, and the junior championship of Staffs. In the team races she was supported by Ann Thomas, Joyce Cook, Sandra Dolphin and Roma Swain.
In 1957, Sydney’s last year as a junior, she equalled two of her mother’s achievements. She represented Great Britain in a match with Yugoslavia, and later against West Germany, and she equalled Edna’s record time when she won the Staffs 100yds in 63.2. She went on to produce a series of remarkably fast times for the 100yds, equalling the British junior record of 62.6 and then beating it with a time of 61.1 – only .8 outside the senior record. Then Diane Wilkinson, a 13 year old, stepped into the limelight with a time of 60.3 in the individual event at the West Germany match. Sydney swam last leg in the medley relay and with a flying start turned in a time of 59.8. After such an outstanding season she faced the pressure of being expected to succeed at the highest level.
Brownjohn and Cooper continued to improve and both bettered the club records, Brownjohn with 5:37.6 for the 440 and Cooper with 2:39.2 for the junior championship. Gordon Brownjohn was 19; he was Walsall’s top male swimmer at the time, and perhaps its most effective polo player. He was selected for the ASA in the match against the Combined Services and the following season was awarded an under 21 international cap.
The Passing of Two Stalwarts
Mrs. Elizabeth Naylor died in April 1955. She had been a member for nearly 40 years and with Mrs. Bolton had formed the backbone of the administrative side of the Ladies’ Section. Mark Ryan Snr passed on in 1956 at the age of 68. One of the legendary figures of the club, a great deal of its history was made by him. Walsall honoured his memory with the Mark Ryan Memorial Trophy for the junior championship. The first recipient was Alan Cooper.
The results of seasons 1956-57-58 showed that the polo team could no longer claim to be the best in the Midlands, but were still a difficult team to beat. In 1956 the triple-crown was a definite possibility. At the end of August the team lay second in the League and was through to the two finals. But in September came a series of adverse results. They lost twice to Burton in league matches, 12-9 away and 6-5 at home, and finished runners-up to Derby. In the Staffs final, Newcastle Paragon beat them 7-4. In the Midlands Cup, played at Luton, Walsall met the league champions Derby, Dennis Hale netted seven but Derby won 10-9.
In 1957 Walsall were again second in the league, this time to Heath Town who were champions for the first time in their history. At the end of the season the teams met in the final of the Staffs Cup at Darlaston. Davenport was now in the Army but was given leave to play in this match.
Heath Town attacked the deep end in the first-half and blasted away at Tony Whittington in the Walsall goal. They quickly set up a 4-0 lead, two of them from their star player Mick Hands. Walsall came back with goals by Davenport, Brownjohn and Jack Hale. Then Heath Town replied with goals by Sidebottom (2) and Dando. Dennis Hale reduced the arrears, but Walsall were 7-4 down at half-time.
The game then turned in their favour. Two goals by Dennis Hale and one from Davenport brought the scores level, then Jack Hale put Walsall ahead for the first time in the match. Heath Town were not finished and Moore made it 8-8. A goal by Hands then restored their lead. That seemed to be the winner, but with the final seconds ticking away Dennis Hale lobbed the goalkeeper to equalise and send the match into extra-time.
When Brownjohn gave Walsall the lead and another from Dennis Hale provided a two goal cushion, Heath Town did not come back. Walsall’s 11-9 victory meant they were winners of the cup for the sixth time in seven years. The Junior Cup final was held on the same night. Walsall met Smethwick but the youngsters could not manage to provide the club with a double success. They went down 11-6.
The 1958 season got off to an exciting start when the quaintly named Het Y Club from Amsterdam appeared at the first of the monthly galas on May 8th. They were top quality opposition so Walsall did what they had done on previous occasions, they called upon some Midland champions from outside the club to give the Dutchmen a race. The best of these were two swimmers from Coventry, back-stroker Graham Sykes and butterfly specialist Graham Symonds. Sykes was pitted against Bert Sitters, the star of the Het Y team. These two were involved in the most thrilling race of the night in the 100yds butterfly.
They battled it out stroke for stroke and on the line it was difficult for the judges to separate them, but the decision went to Sitters.
The senior polo team was going through a transitional stage. Beresford and Dennis Hale retired. There were new players, positional changes and as a result the club was not able to get together a settled team with all seven players confident of selection. Nevertheless, the club was still able to put in a strong challenge for honours. When Walsall went to Heath Town, who were two points ahead of them at the top of the table, it was clear that the result would have a crucial bearing on which team won the title. Heath Town won 7-6 and Walsall had to be content with second place for the third year in succession. In the Staffs final at Wolverhampton they went down 8-7 to English Electric.
Brownjohn had taken over Dennis Hale’s position at centre-forward and while he was concentrating on polo Alan Cooper took over his position as the club’s leading swimmer. He won the Staffs Junior Championship in 57.6 and the club’s 440 in 5:17.6, exactly 20 seconds faster than the record Brownjohn had set the year before. On July 8th a very junior member put in a performance that did not go unnoticed by the local press. Mike Hale, the 7 year old son of Dennis, won a primary schools 50yds race in 35 seconds, 6 seconds better than the record.
Sydney Redwood retained the Midlands 100yds in 62.8 and also helped the ladies take second place in the Birmingham & District Team Race League. The Empire and Commonwealth Games were held in Cardiff that year, the last time the Games was known by that title, and Sydney swam in the ASA trials at Blackpool on May 31st in an attempt to gain selection for the England team. She faced tough competition in the shape of Diana Wilkinson and Judy Grinham and her effort was unsuccessful. She was 6th in the 110yds with a time of 68.8. A month later she returned to Blackpool for the ASA Championships and finished 3rd in the 220 yds. After that she decided to take up her natural qualification for Wales; she was born in Ebbw Vale. Had she made that decision earlier there is no doubt she would have appeared for Wales in the Games.