Olympic ready

Swimming was part of school life at North from the first years with lessons starting in 1895.  At this time North School used the public bathing place in the River Colne for lessons, just for boys, and the teams were very successful winning the Challenge and Coates-Hutton swimming shield consecutively for many years.  This success was maintained once girls joined in from 1921. 

Swimming lessons were given by school teachers, Mr Goodwin, Miss Smith and Miss Rowland, but were supplemented by instructors from Colchester Swimming Club, established in 1884.  In 1914 the club took on the instruction of groups of boys before school at 7am on Wednesday or on Saturday mornings with an additional Friday swim in school time as John Harper writes “Each boy thus gets two practices weekly, one only being of little use.”

In 1932 a new open-air swimming pool was created that can still be seen today in the bend on the Colne at the end of the Avenue of Remembrance.  The oval shaped pool was 50 metres at its longest point and diving platforms were built at the end by the bridge.  Generations of Colchester people used this pool for lessons or for recreational swimming until it closed.

One North Street girl who excelled in swimming and particularly diving was Gwen Groves.  Born in 1921, Gwen lived in North Station Road with her family.  She became Essex Diving Champion when she was 14 at the Colchester Swimming Club 44th annual gala in 1935.  Early in the day Gwen competed in the 55 yards (approx. 50 metres) freestyle final against 5 girls from Blue Coats School and fellow North Street pupil Irene Chisnall.  Irene came first and Gwen came second.  Later on, Gwen came first in the Essex Diving Championship with 2 dives from 1 metre and 1 from 5 metres.

Later that year she won the Bensusan-Butt Cup race as “all round best junior lady” (Chelmsford Chronicle 02 August 1935) and was reported in the paper as “gave a clever display and was heartily applauded” (Chelmsford Chronicle 13 September 1935).

As Essex County Champion Gwen was invited to a trial for the British Olympic diving team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  She was asked to attend at Marshall Street swimming pool in Regent Street London to be assessed and there was a possibility of receiving training for a few weeks prior to the games with American Olympic diving champion Pete Desjardins.

Gwen didn’t make it to Berlin but her sights were set on the Tokyo games in 1940 and she continued swimming and diving. Another 14 year old, Betty Slade from Ilford came 9th in the diving competition in Berlin.

On 4 August 1938 Irene Chisnall and Gwen were again competitors, this time in the long distance swim, 3.5miles from Hythe Quay to Wivenhoe.  Irene won in 60mins 43secs and Gwen’s time was 61mins 26mins. (Chelmsford Chronicle 12 August 1938)

In 1938 it was decided to relocate the Tokyo Games to Helsinki, but the games were cancelled altogether because of the Second World War, and Gwen didn’t get her chance to take part.

Thank you to Ray Allan for sharing his mother Gwen Groves’ story and archive.