By Hayley Du-Buisson
At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Lucy Morton became the first ever British female swimmer to win a gold medal in an individual event.
Lucy's gold medal and other items from her collection have been acquired at auction by Blackpool Council. Not only did Lucy learn to swim in the town, but she represented Blackpool at the highest level of her sport and then taught many of the town's children to swim throughout her long teaching career.
This is the story of how Blackpool's swimming star Lucy Morton achieved the ultimate sporting goal.
Lucy's story did not start in Blackpool, as she was born on 23rd February 1898 in New Tatton, Knutsford, Cheshire to parents Alfred and Jessie Morton.
The family moved to Blackpool, where Alfred would later become the Mayoral Attendant and Town Hall Keeper. The family even lived for a number of years in accommodation at Blackpool Town Hall. Lucy lived in the Town Hall from 1919 until she married in 1927.
Learning to Swim
Lucy attended Christ Church School on Queen Street, Blackpool and it was through school that she started swimming. Her autobiography explains how her,
"Headmistress sent a note to my father stating I was the biggest Dunce in school and suggested swimming might brighten my ideas up a bit".
Although this comment may seem a little unfair, Headmistress Mrs Phillips and Christ Church School were very forward thinking and had been teaching their girls to swim before it was ever encouraged by the government. Mrs Phillips remarked,
"I have always felt that where there are facilities, every physically fit child should learn to swim so I took lessons myself and encouraged members of the staff to do the same,then on a Saturday morning as many as 17 girls at a time took lessons".
The Christ Church girls, including Lucy, entered numerous competitions and became very successful.
Lucy started swimming at the age of 10. Her first experience in the swimming pool at Arbury Baths was certainly memorable, as she nearly drowned in the deep end. However, as was her character, she was undeterred and returned to try again the following week.
She was a quick learner and in 1910 her father put her under the tuition of Professor Faraday, who was a swimming instructor at the Baths on Cocker Street.
Faraday would teach Lucy the technique of what she describes in her autobiography as 'Australian Crawl', which was a new stroke to England at the time. Unfortunately, Faraday died not long after.
After the death of Professor Faraday, Lucy's tuition was taken up by the Superintendent of the Corporation Baths, Mr R.L. Swarbrick. It was Swarbrick who focused Lucy to train and compete using only two strokes, the breast stroke and what was known as the old English back stroke (a technique where you would rotate both arms backwards at the same time rather than alternating).
Swarbrick would remain a key component to Lucy's training throughout her competitive career. However, it could have been different, as Swarbrick only became the Superintendent of the Baths at that time due to a horrific accident.
The previous Superintendent, John Arnold Parkinson, unfortunately died as a result of his courageous efforts to try and save the Baths Engineer Isaac Howcroft, who had fallen into the hot water tank at the Baths. According to the Council Minutes, the accident took place on the 12th December 1911 and sadly both men later died from their injuries.
Blackpool Makes Waves
Blackpool naturally has a close relationship with the water. The initial growth of the town centred on the idea of Blackpool as a health resort and that sea bathing would be beneficial for visitors. The town also saw the creation of other opportunities to engage with the water including Turkish baths, swimming and plunge pools.
At the time that Lucy started swimming, there were still some Victorian ideas in place surrounding the practice. Men and boys above the age of 8 years old were not allowed to swim with women and girls and children under the age of 8 years old. This meant that families could not learn to swim together and that swimming facilities would have specific times for men and women to swim separately.
However, some things were beginning to change. For example, even though Lucy's school had already encouraged her to swim, it became more of a focus of the government to get school children swimming. Children, including Lucy, began to gain swimming certificates from the Blackpool Education Committee from 1909.
Blackpool Corporation really put a focus on swimming and improving facilities through the Blackpool Improvement Act of 1910,
‘An Act to empower the Corporation of Blackpool to purchase the sea-water baths known as the North Shore Baths* in the borough to empower the Corporation to provide and maintain sea-water and fresh-water swimming and other baths and for other purposes'
*The North Shore Baths have previously been mentioned and were located on Cocker Street. The Baths had numerous owners before the Corporation took over.
With this Act, local government could now enforce more control and regulation over the practice of swimming and on the local facilities.
Blackpool made headlines internationally with the building of the Open Air Baths (South Shore) which were officially opened at the start of the Blackpool Carnival on the 9th June 1923.
Many famous swimmers were invited to take part in the opening event, including Lucy Morton. She represented Blackpool in a Ladies' 100 Metres Breast Stroke Scratch Race and also took part in a 'Display of Motionless Floating'.
The Baths were designed by the Borough Surveyor, Mr Francis Wood. According to the opening programme there were:
‘574 dressing rooms, a grand stand for 3,000 spectators, a spacious café, a swimming pool of 50,000 square feet, and every possible contrivance for the convenience of an immense number of bathers and onlookers, from coffee-bars to a motor garage, from a bandstand to balconies on which you may enjoy the sun and watch the sport’.
The Baths were recognised worldwide due to the size and architecture of the venue, plus it's ability to host competitive swimming events. The Baths would go on to hold Olympic Swimming Trials, which will be discussed later in this feature.
By 1981 outdoor swimming had fallen out of favour and the Baths closed. It was demolished in 1983 and the Sandcastle Waterpark now occupies the site (with a tropical 84 degree climate).
Lucy Starts Competitive Swimming
In 1912, Lucy entered her first open event and came second in the Northern Counties Amateur Swimming Association's Breast Stroke Championship. She would go on to win the same event the following year. Also in 1913, she achieved Ladies' Records in both the 200 yds Breast Stroke and the 150 yds Back Stroke.
Lucy competed at Hoylake in 1913 in a 2 mile race. She came second in the event, but remarked in her autobiography that her preparation for the event showed her inexperience at that time,
"Maybe if I had the experience I have now I wouldn't have eaten such a big meal before a race, soup, fish, steak and chips and to top it all, peaches and cream".
In 1914, Lucy won the 1 mile race which took place in the River Mersey. However, with the outbreak of the First World War it was unknown what would happen with competitive races and Lucy did not compete much throughout 1915.
Lucy had a very successful year in 1916, as she achieved two world records. She set the record for the 150 yds Back Stroke and the 200 yds Breast Stroke, with the latter being taken back from one of her main competitors the American, Agnes Geraghty. Unfortunately, the 1916 Olympic Games did not take place due to the war.
In 1917, Lucy was invited to swim at Lambeth Baths in London against chosen swimmers from across the country. She headed to the event with Swarbrick and notes in her autobiography that as they arrived, London had just been given the all clear after an air raid. The race took place the next day and Lucy won.
"Mr Swarbrick and I arrived at 6am just as the all clear had been given for the first air raid over London in the First World War"
Lucy made a name for herself in open-water swimming and was extremely capable over long distances. She took part in the Kew to Putney races in 1919 and 1920, which was a distance race of 5 miles. She ended up finishing second both times behind Connie Jeans. Both Lucy and Connie would go on to be team mates in the 1924 Olympic Games.
Another example of her ability outdoors was shown through her competing in the Morecambe Cross Bay Championship. This was a long distance swim of over 10 miles between Grange-over-Sands and Morecambe. Lucy was the first lady to cross the line in 1920, 1922 and 1923.
The Olympic Games should have been a feature for Lucy before 1924, but the 1916 Games were cancelled and the 1920 Games in Antwerp only featured three female races all of which were for freestyle swimmers (Lucy only ever trained and competed using either breast stroke or what was known as old English back stroke). It must have been disappointing, as in both 1916 and 1920, Lucy was a World Record Holder in her events.
As preparations started for the 1924 Olympic Games, Lucy was no longer the favourite in her event. However, she was asked by the Amateur Swimming Association to resume her training. Lucy suspended open-water swimming and returned to bath swimming.
In June 1924, the Olympic Swimming Trials were held at the Open Air Baths in Blackpool. Lucy finished second in the event and was chosen to compete at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. There were to be five female swimming events at the Games that year, including the 200 Metres Breast Stroke which Lucy would enter.
Paris - Olympic Games 1924
As Lucy embarked on her trip from Blackpool to Paris, she was seen off by those who had contributed to her career including Mr Swarbrick who waved her off from the station and her father Alfred Morton who accompanied her as far as Preston.
Lucy stayed with the British Team at Le Grand Hotel Du Louvre. In her letters home she remarked how she had a lovely room, but was not very fond of the food and explained how the weather was very hot.
"It is still very hot, we almost feel like walking about in a swimming costume"
She was very lucky to end up competing, as some unfortunate events happened to the team during the lead up to the final. Her main British competitor, Irene Gilbert was taken ill with tonsillitis. Although Gilbert would continue to compete, she was not able to reproduce her normal form. Gilbert was the World Record Holder in the event going into the Olympics.
Not only this, but a number of the team including Lucy, were involved in a crash when the taxi they were travelling in collided with another taxi. Lucy suffered from shaking, a badly cut mouth and lost five teeth in the accident. Along with two of the other girls, Lucy was given a sleeping draft by the doctor and did not recall anything until the following day.
"Thank everybody for wishes & please don’t make a big fuss when I get home for I want to get my teeth done first" (Letter from Lucy to her family)
The 1924 Olympic Games showcased many technological advancements and was the first Games to be broadcast live on the radio.
The organisers had built a new swimming pool for the event, which was located at Tourelles on the outskirts of Paris. The facility could hold 10,000 spectators and used new technology of the time to separate competitors using innovative ropes supported by cork floats to make the lanes.
Just a couple of days after the taxi accident, Lucy won her heat and advanced into the final for the 200 Metres Breast Stroke. Her heat time was the second fastest, behind that of the American, Agnes Geraghty.
The final was a close race between Morton and Geraghty. Lucy did not realise she had won until someone told her so. In fact, her win was so unexpected and the Americans had been so dominant, the organisers did not have a large British flag ready to communicate who had won to the crowd.
1. Lucy Morton (GBR)
2. Agnes Geraghty (USA)
3. Gladys Carson (GBR)
On her return home from Paris, Lucy was welcomed by a very proud town. Thousands of people greeted her at the station and at the Town Hall. When Lucy thanked everyone for the turn out, she remarked,
"I would rather swim than make a speech".
She was later given a civic reception by the Mayor of Blackpool and in the following days was also received by the Mayor and Mayoress of Lytham St Anne's, as Lucy had worked for the Post Office there.
Not only did Lucy receive a gold medal and a Sevres vase from the Olympic Games, but the people of Blackpool even gifted her a piano. Funds for the piano were raised through a public subscription.
After her success in the Olympics, Lucy retired from competitive swimming. She did take part in a number of exhibition swims and even performed multiple times at the Blackpool Tower Circus in the late 1920s.
On 23rd February 1927, not only was it her Birthday, but Lucy married Harry Heaton at Christ Church, Blackpool. The couple had met at a Post Office employees dance. They had their son Peter in 1933.
Lucy also embarked on a new career in swimming. She achieved her qualifications to become a swimming teacher and made this her career for the next 42 years! Many children in the town received lessons from Lucy and some went on to compete internationally such as Margaret Grundy, Trevis Wilson and Ann Morton (no relation).
She received the Harold Fern Award in 1970 for her outstanding contribution to swimming and on her retirement in 1972, she was awarded a certificate by the Blackpool Education Authority for services rendered during her 42 year teaching career.
Lucy died on 26th August 1980, but her achievements have continued to be recognised since her death.
In 1988, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale (USA) and in 2008 she was recognised by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as one of their 'five forgotten Olympians'.
Blackpool Civic Trust unveiled a blue plaque dedicated to Lucy at Blackpool Town Hall in 2012. This was a fitting tribute, as not only did it recognise a local Olympian in an Olympic year, but the plaque was placed on her former family home. The plaque can still be found on the front of the building, for anyone passing by.
Last year, Lucy's gold medal and other items from her collection including letters and photographs, were acquired at auction by Blackpool Council. They will now be cherished by the people of Blackpool for many years to come.