Speed or Grace – 100 years of “Ladies” swimming competitions

The Ladies Minute Books, kept in the Arlington Baths Club archive in the Mitchell Library, contain records for the Annual Ladies Swimming Competitions over a period of 100 years from their inception in 1875 until the last minute book entry available in the Archive in 1974.

There were only a few years during that century when competitions didn’t take place – from 1914 to 1920 (with the exception of 1917 when a small gala took place) and from 1939 to 1944.  In 1945 a joint gala was held.

At the first event in 1875 there were six events to be decided by “…graceful swimming. Little importance will be attached to speed.”   However by the following year the “graceful events” were reduced to five and three events for “fast swimming” were introduced.  The Honorary Secretary of the Ladies Section, F W Allan, was an advocate of graceful swimming for Ladies as is clear from the Minute Books.  (He later awarded a medal for it.)  I think perhaps the “Ladies” were made of sterner stuff.

The early events attracted some interest in the local media and the press cuttings in the minute books contain descriptions of the Baths, the competitors, the audience and the feats (and appearance) of the Bath Master.

Here are a few snippets:


Glasgow Daily Mail 4 Nov 1875


North British Daily Mail Monday, December 4, 1876


North British Daily Mail:  Monday, November 26, 1877

(SOURCE: Arlington Baths Club Ladies Minute Book, Glasgow City Archives, TD965/6, Mitchell Library, Glasgow)

NB Mr Robertson was the Bath Master

From 1884 the competition included the Travelling Rings and novelty races began to be included. Over the years these included such delights as the Egg and Spoon Race, Blindfold Race, Hurdle Race in Character and, in 1908, a Lemonade and Bun Race and a Thread and Needle Race. The Dive and Catch Cork event in 1889 was reported in the Evening Times as follows:


Men were generally excluded from these events unless they were participating as judges or in an official capacity. There was usually some sort of demonstration by a male swimmer – often the Baths Master – such as a demonstration of life saving, various swimming strokes or in one year  “the Flying Trapeze”.  Later there sometimes races for Junior Boys or specific races for men’s medals for which the Ladies competition seems to have provided a suitable occasion.

In 1920 the Competition, which had lapsed during the First World War, was reinstated for the 50th Jubilee of the Club. On that occasion there was also an orchestra. I am not quite sure how the stringed instruments and the piano were squeezed into the Pool Hall or protected from the pools of water that would have inevitably accumulated.


Cover of the 50th Jubilee Programme

The Competitions grew over the following years to a maximum of 24 events, still including some novelty races. It is not clear when or why the competitions were discontinued. I hope some of the older members can enlighten us.

As the Club’s 150th Jubilee approaches we should think about re-enacting the competition at least once. I particularly want to watch the “sculling feet first across the pool”. I am told it is like the breast stroke but on your back. I have not been brave enough to attempt it while there is anyone at all watching.  And, of course, we must have a “gentleman” dive from the diving board in raincoat and top hat as demonstrated by Mr Robertson in 1877.

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