Home » Uncategorized » The Life-Saving Society Swimming Fete at the West India Docks – 1897

The Life-Saving Society Swimming Fete at the West India Docks – 1897

Swimming Fete at West India Docks 1895

Regular readers may know that the Isle of Dogs played an important part in the history of swimming being the birthplace of John Trudgen and the scene of many swimming competitions.

William Henry

However, the West India Docks also placed an important part in the promotion of Lifesaving in the water. William Henry who was a champion swimmer became increasingly concerned by the amount of drownings in Victorian Britain. This led him to become the founder of the Royal Lifesaving Society which was founded in 1891. The main architects of the formation of the new Society were William Henry and Archibald Sinclair who were keen to promote lifesaving. In the first year, the first lifesaving courses were introduced and a handbook of techniques produced and a national lifesaving competition was held with 24 teams competing.

By 1897, the Lifesaving Society were ready to expand their society and organised its first International Gala at the West India Dock in the presence of the Duke & Duchess of York. Competitors participated from United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Germany Sweden and France. Events included swimming competitions, lifesaving demonstrations and diving events.

Swimming Fete at West India Docks 1895

This was not the first time that swimming events had been held in West India Dock but was one of the largest and most prestigious.

A newspaper report from 1897 gives all the details.

Swimming Fete at the West India Docks

In the six years of its existence the Life-Saving Society has organised no more important or successful gathering than the “Diamond Jubilee International Championship Gala,” which took place at the West India Docks on July 3. Various circumstances combined to give a distinction to the occasion, not the least being the presence of the Duke of York, who is president of the society, accompanied by the Duchess of York. Although not a wealthy organisation, the Life-Saving Society has a great and widespread influence in all parts of the world where swimming clubs are established. The proceedings had been timed to begin at 3 o’clock, but long before that hour vast concourse of spectators had lined the quays of the West India Dock, and had occupied every position from which a view was obtainable.

In honor of the occasion, the warehouses and other buildings in the neighbourhood hung out flags, and the vessels in the dock made a liberal display of bunting, which gave au appearance of unusual gaiety and brightness to the generally sombre surroundings.

A most enthusiastic welcome was given to the Duke and Duchess of York, when punctually at 3 o’clock, they arrived, accompanied by Lord Knutsford and the Hon Sydney Holland, acting-president of the society. The Royal party entered the dock in the steam launch Cintra, which, besides flying the Royal Standard and the Union Jack, was tastefully decorated with flowers and. evergreens.

The first item on the programme was a display of rescue and release drill by twenty-two teams of four swimmers each. The most important event on the “card ” was the mile amateur championship, for a challenge cup, which has been held since 1893 by J. H. Tyers, Manchester Osborne S.C., champion of England, and holder of the world’s record. As events proved, however, Tyers was not to retain the championship for another year. First to get away, he was speedily challenged by J.H. Derbyshire, a member of his own club, but at the end of the first lap, he was leading by nine yards. At the third round out of the eight which made up the mile, the race lay between Tyers, Derbyshire, Arnold Toepfer (Poseidon S.C., Berlin, champion of Germany),and Percy Cavill (East Sydney S.C., champion of Australia). Very soon, however, Derbyshire, Toepfer, and Cavill fell off, and J. A. Jarvis (LeicesterS.C.), Midland Counties champion swam to the front. Tyers steered very wide, and finally the Midlands champion finished the winner by fully twenty yards. The English amateur record time for this distance is 26min 46sec. The time on Saturday was not so good, being 32min 28 sec. Jarvis  who is a house-painter by trade—is a young man of twenty-five, and he has won all the Midland County championships for the past four years. On every previous occasion when he competed for the mile championship he was placed third. He has not swum a mile for twelve months, and won Saturday’s race practically untrained.

Later events proved that in diving the Swedish representatives are unapproachable, bat the race unmistakably demonstrated the superiority of the Englishmen in strong, powerful swimming. Toepfer, the German, was the only representative from abroad, who seemed able to maintain anything like the pace of the English swimmers. Guy Seron (Brussels S.C.), the Belgian champion, Cavill, of Australia, and W. J. Stratton (Zephyr S.C.), champion of New Zealand, all fell behind early in the contest, and finished a long distance in the rear of Jarvis and Tyers.

In a special 100-Yards Scratch Race, J. Hellings (Bondi), Sydney, obtained first place, J. Hunt (May field), Manchester, second, and T. Rourke, Salford, third position. The winner’s time was 1 min 11 sec , the second and third man being respectively one and three seconds behind
him.

A 100-Yards Rescue Race was won by J. T. Savill and W. E. Wood (London and India Docks S.C.), W. W.. Green and S. W. Turner
(Pacific S.G.) being awarded second place. A 100 yards open amateur handicap was swum in four heats, the final result being:—

O. W. Payne (Polytechnic), first ;
F. G. Robinson (Neptune), second ; and
E. Eildred (York), third.

The winner received s start of 16sec.

Z. Claro (City Police), with a start of 16sec
wonthe 100yds Open Obstacle Handicap,
with S. Ross (Shakespeare) for second,
and W. Fewell (Polytechnic) in third
place.

Apart from these contests, the most interesting feature of the programme was the display of high aud fancy diving given by the twelve gentlemen who came as representatives of the Swedish Swimming Associations. It is no exaggeration to say that nothing to equal it has ever been seen in London, and it drew from the spectators round after round of the heartiest and most appreciative cheering. So great was the interest manifested in it by the Duke of York that the launch was moored out nearer to the diving platform, in order that His Royal Highness and the Duchess of York who also followed the exhibition with evident
pleasure might have a better opportunity of witnessing the performances.

Succeeding this display came a national graceful diving contest, which was won by V. Sounemans, of Brussels, H. S. Martin, of St. James, being awarded second position, and Master W. E. Webb, of the same club (a mere boy), taking third place. Sounemans, when the result was announced, offered to give an exhibition of high and fancy diving, and was rewarded with an outburst of hearty, honest English cheering, the recollection of which must always remain with him. The diving display was “sandwiched” between several minor events, and shortly after it was over the Duke and Duchess of York took their departure, having remained for fully an hour and a half, most interested spectators of the gala.

Swimming events were held in West India Dock up to the 1930s but few would have been as well attended than this one. The Royal Lifesaving Society has gone from strength to strength and runs courses and competitions all around the world. It is now a  Drowning Prevention Charity and the UK’s leading provider of water safety and drowning prevention education.


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