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Having realised last year that he had clocked half a century as a member of Watford SC, Neil Chapman decided to record some memories for the centenary.

Half a century by Neil Chapman

I joined Watford S.C. in November 1950, when I was fifteen. Today that would seem to be a ridiculously advanced age at which to join a swimming club, but it was not unusual. One of the club's rising stars at the time was Julie Hoyle, who was only eleven, but she was an exception. She was exceptional not only for her age, but also for her talent and above all for her determination. Six years later she swam in the Olympic Games coming sixth in the final of the 100m backstroke. In 1950, however, Julie's older sister Pat regularly beat her into second place, and it was she rather than Julie who caught people's attention, not least because she was rather glamorous.
Pat and Julie were coached by Bill and Jose Juba, an extraordinary and inspiring couple, who were the making of WSC. Bill was the club coach, but also doubled up during the day as the chief schools swimming coach. Jose taught and coached free lance. Bill talent spotted during the day and as he was such an enthusiast and such fun it was difficult to refuse the suggestion that you should join the club. Jose, who had been a national standard swimmer herself before the war, was a superb coach and motivator and produced succession of fine swimmers in addition to Julie during the 50s and 60s when she coached at the Watford Pool.
Club nights were on Wednesdays. There was some organised swimming and coaching in the early part of the evening for younger members but nothing for older members except a general swim and the advice of the club coach if you wanted it. I can remember swimming alongside people who seemed very old to me (they were probably only about forty - quite young from my present perspective) among them Fred Parsons, Club Captain, who had held the club together during the war, and Lorna Frampton, who had swum for England in the 1938 Empire Games. Soon after I joined Bill introduced an organised training session for seniors.
After the swim came the water polo. Watford had two water polo teams, the first playing, I think, in the second division of the London League and captained by an ex-Irish international Tommy Dwyer. One of the prolific goal scoreres was Peter Messider, then eighteen, who was later to play for England. Water polo was rather frowned upon if you were serious about swimming; it was supposed to ruin your stroke. But Peter, one of Bill Juba's protégées, was the fastest swimmer in the county on freestyle and backstroke and the first Hertfordshire man to break sixty seconds for 100 yards freestyle. When he came out of the RAF two years later after his National Service he was an accomplished player (and a faster swimmer), but moved on to London Polytechnic S&WPC to further his ambitions. He also played basketball for the very successful Watford YMCA and later on for England. A wonderful ball-player.
The captain of the second team, Bob Daplyn, who was also Club Treasurer, was keen to get young swimmers involved in the game. I remember a special training session he arranged for would be players at the Royal Masonic School in Bushey, which had a small indoor pool, and how impossibly difficult it was to catch that ball in one hand and keep afloat at the same time. Bob introduced a few of us into the second team and used to drive us to far flung parts of the county. His driving was hair-raising, not least because he talked and smoked incessantly and was fond of a pint; indeed we suspected he sometimes went to the pub before as well as after a game. When he died in 1959 from lung cancer we mourned a much loved character.
By present day standards our training in the early 50s was pathetic with only one organised session of fifty minutes per week. I used to swim on my way home from school in the public sessions at the Hempstead Road pool. It was possible to swim lengths in the winter; occasionally indeed when the weather was really bad, as in the great smog of 1952, I was the only swimmer in the pool. I remember vividly the changing cubicles with their clanking wooden doors and canvas curtains around the edge of the pool and the diving boards the highest of which was four metres. I also remember from time to time seeing Tony Turner training on the boards. Tony was a former member of the club who had shown a talent for diving and then joined Highgate Diving Club. He went on to represent GB in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
But from about April onwards it became impossible to swim lengths in public sessions; so it had to be widths in the deep end just clear of the diving boards and leg kicking holding on to the side of the pool before moving outdoors into the chilling temperatures of unheated pools. That meant the public pools in Bushey, Hemel Hempstead or Rickmansworth, or school pools at the Boys Grammar School, Merchant Taylors or St. Albans Boys School if you were lucky. Before the end of May it was generally not possible to spend more than half an hour in the water without getting numbed fingers. Bushey did not have a proper filtration plant and the water had to be replaced every two weeks so the temperature rarely rose above 65F/18C. Hemel was somewhat better but rather exposed to the wind and it took time and money to get there. And Rickmansworth was in a league of its own. In June 1952 Rickmansworth SC organised a gala to celebrate the Queen's coronation at the outdoor pool in Ebury Road. The pool was generally on the cool side as most of its water came from a nearby underground spring and as summer was slow in coming that year the water temperature was only 52F/11C. Patriotism was the order of the day. The gala organisers kept to their plans and the swimmers swam. We deserved our commemorative medals. I never swam there again.
The first competition I swam in for the club was against RAF Halton, near Berkhamstead. It was the normal routine for a water polo game to be preceded by a swimming match, usually consisting of individual events over 100 yards followed by a freestyle relay. I can remember swimming against Slough at the community centre baths and against Luton and Vauxhall. Towards the end of the 50s we had some full scale swimming matches against clubs like Heston and Isleworth, which were thrilling and closely contested.
Then there were the county championships, held during the summer at three different venues, at least two of which would be outdoors: at Hemel, Welwyn Garden City, Letchworth, Hitchin (all 55 yards long and unheated), Hoddesdon or Bishops Stortford (25 yards). The indoor venue was generally Watford, although I do remember going to Ironmonger Row Baths in North London. There were only two age groups in the championships: under 16 and over 16. There was also the occasional inter-county match. I remember a long coach journey to Hastings to swim against Sussex in the 110yard pool on the sea front: one length backstroke under floodlights with invisible lane ropes totally defeated my limited powers of pacing and navigation.
We were ready to compete anywhere within easy reach. For several years a group of us went to Bedford for the river swim (half a mile downstream in cold, dark water) and to the Thames for the Maidenhead Mile (slightly warmer but still black - no goggles in those days). We even set up a Watford open water swim in the Ricky Aquadrome. The club's finest exponent of open water swimming was Elaine Gray, one of Jose Juba's protégées, who never quite made the break through in competitive swimming, but who discovered depths of stamina in herself which enabled her to swim the channel some years later.
I have very happy memories of those days and the people I swam with, several of whom are lifelong friends. Pat and Julie Hoyle, Peter Messider, Malcolm Kemish, David and John Williams, Malcolm Cathery, Anne Gerrard, Ernie and Brenda Biggins, Colin Dunstone, Pete Nurse, Brian Curtis, Basil Barkway, Christine Bowen, Roger and Mike Harford, Roy Woollard, Elaine Gray, Dick Marchant, Anthony Gimson, Mick Hester, Maurice Mendham, Roy Hollingdale.
A fascinating experience of the early to mid 50s was learning how to swim butterfly - an exciting new variation of breast stroke, used to devastating effect by the Australian John Davies in the 1952 Olympic Games 200m breast. Most reasonably competent swimmers found it fairly easy to combine the over arm recovery with the breast stroke leg kick, and it was still permitted to swim butterfly in a breast stroke event (until the 1956 Olympic Games, I think). I remember David Williams winning a thrilling race for the county title doing just that.
The new dolphin kick, however, demanded a different order of skills. Jack Hale from Hull was the foremost exponent in the UK if not the world, but we had our own local expert in Brian Curtis. Brian seemed to be made of elastic, able to recover his arms effortlessly at the same time as fitting in two of those awkward new kicks. Bill Juba spotted Brian's aptitude, developed his technique and encouraged his ambitions. The lack of decent water space made a proper training programme very difficult. Quite a lot of Brian's training was done in the early mornings in the cold water of the Boys Grammar School pool before going off to work. To our great delight he was selected for the English team in the Commonwealth Games of 1958 in Cardiff. On impulse Malcolm Cathery, Roger Harford and I decided to see the Games. We bundled couple of tents into Malcolm's old Riley and made our way to Cardiff where we camped in Pontcanna Fields, scrounged and bought what tickets we could, saw all of the swimming which included some world records, much of the athletics and some boxing. Will young swimmers be able to do the same for the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002? Unfortunately Brian did not reach the final of the 220 yards fly, but we were very proud and envious of his achievement in being selected.
With swimmers like Brian and Julie competing successfully at national level the national championships at Blackpool became an annual pilgrimage, not just for those with ambitions but also for keen swimmers and supporters. There were no qualifying times for entry; all you had to be was a bona fide member of a swimming club. The ordinary swimmer could rub shoulders with the best in the country; there was a remarkable cameraderie. Watford entered relay teams, and although we never won a medal I recollect we came sixth in the men's medley once. The atmosphere at the championships was simply electric. The Derby Road Baths were packed with a huge audience, many of them standing. And after the swimming there were the delights of Blackpool's golden mile to be sampled.
Two years national service for men aged 18 took several of us away from the club during the 50s. Some benefited greatly, Brian and Peter Messider particularly, as they had been drafted into the RAF, which was on the look out for swimming talent, and had cornered most of the men's national team. I had done my two years in the army with very little swimming, although just before I was demobbed I managed to compete in the army championships and reached the final of the backstroke.
Then there was university, which generally provided much better opportunities for training and for competition than we were able to get at Watford. Roger Harford, who was at London still managed to swim with Watford when needed, I could rarely get away from Oxford, largely because of poor transport, and Roy Woollard at Durham never even tried.
By the end of the 50s our much beloved club coach, Bill Juba, who had also become Editor of the Swimming Times, had moved on to coach Otter S.C., then among the strongest men's swimming clubs in the country. The lure of the big club was strong and over the next few years Brian, Roger and I joined Otters. We gained wider competitive opportunities, but with hindsight I don't think it made much difference to our standard of performance. We did not, however, lose touch with Watford, having double membership.
Roy Hollingdale took over from Bill as club coach, and a few years later he was succeeded by Roy Rogers, who led the club through its finest decade. During the 60s Watford was among the strongest clubs in the South East. There will be others to tell that tale.

Neil Chapman, Feb 2001

Greetings from British Columbia and congratulations on your great website.
I have just finished reading Neil Chapman's chronicle of events in the mid 50's and early 60's. I am a contemporary of Neils and can identify with many of the things he remembers. The most significant to me is the lifetime friendships that were made at that time. I have been away from the UK now for over 40 years and still, whenever my wife and I return, a get together is arranged. I remember many things from those days away from the pool, we made many trips together. To the West Country ostensibly to play water polo but also to sample other delights. To the Lake District to hike around the hills, we camped in a field immediately behind a pub. To Spain where we rented a "villa". To Happisburgh one April and nearly froze to death on the beach. To Wales to stay in my Uncle's caravan. We look forward to meeting many "old" friends and making some new ones at the barbeque on the 17th. We have a family reunion that day so we will not arrive until around 4pm.

Brian Curtis, 2001

Hi there.
Well I have just received info about your BBQ in 2 weeks time . It bought back many memories especially when I looked at your site. Don't know if you have any members now who would remember me....... Jane Wizard ? If anyone out there does, please get in touch as I'd love to catch up on the news about old friends. As I cannot be with you on the BBQ day, I'd just like to wish you all a great day. I will be thinking of you all.
People I'd like to contact are : Claire Stockley, Trevor Wright, Stuart Duncan, Patsy Lyons, Hilary Ball, Mike Foskett, Derek & Lesley Pitts, Nicky Juba and Steph Rosamund, Gosh there must be others, so if I've forgotten you please forgive me.
HAVE A GREAT DAY AND LOVE TO ONE AND ALL ROLL ON THE NEXT 100 YEARS

Jane Wizard, 2001


 

 

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