Marking 100th anniversary of one of country's finest moments in Olympic swimming pool

The Northern Echo: FATHER AND SON: Jack Hatfield, second right, and his father, Tom, far left, outside Middlesbrough Corporation Baths, Gilkes Street FATHER AND SON: Jack Hatfield, second right, and his father, Tom, far left, outside Middlesbrough Corporation Baths, Gilkes Street

A month ago, we told of the 150th anniversary of the country's second oldest swimming club in Durham. Today, Chris Lloyd marks the 100th anniversary of one of this country's finest moments in the Olympic swimming pool.

ONE hundred years ago, more than 20,000 people awaited the arrival of an Olympic homecoming train. In the pouring rain, they waited to greet a triple medal winner, a young man who was on the brink of becoming one of the nation’s sporting greats.

“They all love Jack!” shouted The Northern Echo’s headline.

The Northern Echo: Jack Hatfield's homecoming Northern Echo report

When the train arrived at Middlesbrough station, swimmer Jack Hatfield, fresh from his triumphs at the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm, was hauled out of his carriage and carried shoulder-high to his charabanc, while a band struggled to make heard its rendition of See the Conquering Hero Comes above the cheering cacophony.

The hero Hatfield was only 18, the youngest swimmer at the Games who had became the sensation of the tournament, winning two silver medals and a bronze, breaking world records, coming within a fingernail of greater glory and so promising much for the future.

Walter Brickett, trainer of Britain’s swimmers, had already written to Jack’s father in the Boro saying: “I am sure Jack Hatfield is the coming English champion.”

The Echo had a reporter on the homecoming train, travelling with Jack on his last leg from Darlington into his native Middlesbrough. The reporter wrote: “It was difficult to recognise in that modest, retiring, broad-shouldered youth with the sun-burnt face, the British success of the Olympic swimming events.”

Indeed, Hatfield went on to win 42 English championships, to break four world and three English records.

But he never added to his Olympic tally, and he never went on to achieve the global domination of swimming that his 1912 potential suggested was within his reach.

“The First World War took away the best swimming years of his life,” says his son, Jack Jnr, who is surrounded by his father’s medals and trophies in his retirement home in Middleton St George.

THE Hatfield story is a classic Middlesbrough story. The first Hatfields arrived in the town’s earliest days, attracted from near Hull by the enterprising opportunities opening up in “the infant Hercules”. They started a fruit stall.

The Hatfields were an athletic family. In the early summer of 1893, Tom Hatfield was serving on the stall on Coatham Pier, at Redcar, when he heard two people in difficulty in the sea. He dived in and saved them. He was awarded a medal, and he capitalised on his fame by calling himself “Professor Hatfield”

and touring the area with his swimming exhibition.

A couple of months later, Tom was selling fruit at the seaside when he got a message to head to Great Ayton, where his wife had prematurely gone into labour.

“She’d gone there from Middlesbrough for her holidays with her family, but she’d been so shaken up in the pony and trap that she’d gone into labour,” says Jack Jnr, slipping an unexpected syllable into “Middlesbo-rough” indicating his childhood in the centre of Teesside.

“The midwife told her ‘never mind the baby, look after yourself’, and chucked it to the bottom of the bed. But an old aunt said ‘this bairn’s breathing’, and they wrapped him up and he survived.”

And so the great swimmer, Jack Hatfield, entered the world.

When Jack was small, “Professor Hatfield” was appointed superintendent of Middlesbrough Corporation Baths. A century ago, private baths were rare in an industrial town of terraces, so the local council provided washing facilities.

In the Gilkes Street baths (now beneath Captain Cook Square), there were individual slipper baths, communal swimming baths and exotic Russian or Turkish steam baths.

Not everyone could afford a costume to cover their modesty.

In the bottom of Jack Jnr’s box of treasures is an original linen Middlesbrough baths slip that could be hired, along with a towel and a bar of soap, on entry.

Young Jack took to the baths like a fish to water. He trained there, as well as in the Tees, in Smith’s Dock, in the Albert Park boating lake and, when on holiday, in a flooded quarry at Ayton.

He was one of the first to employ the “Trudgen crawl”, named after an English swimmer, John Trudgen, who copied it from native Americans.

The arms came out of the water and were accompanied by a powerful scissor kick of the legs. It propelled Jack to become the Senior Champion of Middlesbrough in 1907. He won county titles in Durham and then Yorkshire, which brought him to the attention of the Olympic selectors.

Even though he had yet to win a national title, they were impressed by his potential and selected him for Stockholm in 1912 so he could gain experience for the 1916 Olympics, which were scheduled to be held in Berlin.

Yet, unexpectedly, the youth stole the Stockholm show.

He finished with two silvers and a bronze – half of all the medals Britain won in the pool in those Games, and the last Olympic swimming medals that Britain would win for more than 50 years.

To triumph, Jack had to face three major difficulties.

First, the food. He told the Echo reporter on the homecoming train: “They were quartered in one of the fashionable hotels, but the Continental cooking did not agree with them. A change was made, but they fared little better, until at last they discovered some English meat in a hotel and took up their quarters there.”

Powered by English meat, Jack overcame the second problem: the patriotic emblem on his costume.

“The beautiful silkwrought Union Jack with which the swimmers were supplied weighed in the water about a pound, so, following the example of the more experienced, he had his colours taken off, and was undoubtedly much freer in the water for doing so.”

Unfortunately, Jack could not quite overcome the third difficulty: George Hodgson, the phenomenal Canadian, who pipped him to gold medals in both the 400m and the 1,500m.

“Hodgson only learned to swim four years ago,” said the Echo reporter on the train.

“His action in the water is perfect and his rapid progress is made as smoothly as an eel.”

TWO silvers and a bronze were reason enough for his hometown to turn out to welcome him home.

Detrained, the Echo reported: “The charabanc made triumphant progress through a huge crowd of cheering people to the Corporation Baths.

Flags hung listlessly in the wet, but still the delighted Middlesbrough people refused to have their enthusiasm damped.”

Among the speakers at the baths was a Mr Jefferson. “He concluded a very warm and appreciative speech by remarking that they hoped to have to welcome Mr Jack Hatfield home from the next Olympic Games in 1916 the world’s champion (Cheers),” said the Echo.

Although Jack broke more records and won national titles in 1913, there were no Olympics in 1916. In fact, 1916 found him in the trenches of the Somme, “like dogs living in slime”, with his chances of becoming a world champion fading with every month that the war dragged on.

To be continued next week...

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