Battle of the Bathsmasters

William Wilson was the the first Bathsmaster at the Arlington Baths. He was well known, not only a swimming teacher, but also a vocal advocate for the art of natation.

He and his wife Ruth came to work at the Baths to manage the facilities and teach swimming. Ruth taught the ladies, and possibly was the first female swimming teacher in Scotland. We think they lived in a flat in the basement! 

​As well as managing the Arlington Baths and then moving to manage the new Victoria Baths on the Southside of Glasgow, William Wilson wrote books about learning to swim and published journalism to promote swimming and lifesaving. ​

Indeed, this activity ended up in a media spat…! ​

Tragedy at The Gareloch

"Those interested in the progress of the art throughout the country were of the opinion that after the accident to the Princess Alice steamboat on the Thames, now nearly a year ago, when so many were in almost an instant of time hurried into eternity something would have been done in a public way to popularise the learning of the art, of all others the most useful in such and many other circumstances. My wife at that time volunteered to undertake the teaching of one hundred women and girls free of charge, and her efforts were kindly seconded by the Lord provost and Town Council of Glasgow, who gave the necessary permission to use the women’s pond in the Greenhead Baths for that purpose. Up to the end of last year, and since the beginning of the present season, she has attended on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from seven to nine o’clock, and at these free classes upwards of forty have been taught, some of whom can now swim thirty, forty, and in one instance fifty lengths of the baths. Still she would wish that greater numbers had taken advantage of the facilities thus offered. To be sure, many ladies have been taught in the Arlington, Victoria, and Western Baths. We have, between us, in the past eight years, in these baths and in private classes, taught upwards of 700 ladies to swim. And thus far so good. But it is on behalf of those who cannot during the day take advantage of such opportunities that some effort should now be made."
Extract of letter from William Wilson published in the Evening Post, 31 July 1879. The same letter was published in the North British Daily Mail on the same date.

In July 1879, following the drowning of two young women at the Gareloch, Mr Wilson wrote to the North British Daily Mail to urge the necessity of people learning to swim, including women. her also referenced the sinking of the Princess Alice paddle steamer the previous year, an accident which led to around 650 people drowning in the polluted waters of the Thames.

Mr Wilson said that his wife had volunteered her services and taught 50 women were taught to swim at the Greenhead Baths, run by the Glasgow city corporation, some could now swim 30, 40 or 50 lengths. He added that over the past eight years he and Ruth had taught around 700 women to swim.​

“Up to the end of last year, and since the beginning of the present season, [my wife] has attended on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 o’clock, and at these free classes upwards of 40 [ladies] have been taught, some of whom can now swim 30, 40, and in one instance 50 lengths of the baths.”​

He went on to explain that he was developing a scheme whereby:

“…hundreds of women and girls engaged during the day in warehouses, workrooms, and factories would learn and benefit by the exercise of swimming. It would be to them a sanitary boon, a healthy exercise, and a necessary accomplishment, as being the means of saving their own and it may be the lives of others in cases of emergency.”

Figures under fire

But his claims were disputed by the the new bathsmaster at the Arlington Baths, a Mr R A Robertson who was also the Honorary Secretary of the Associated Swimming Clubs of Scotland. He suggested that it wasn’t possible for the Wilsons to have taught so many women to swim in the time stated.

"Arlington Baths, Glasgow, 1 August 1879 Sir, in yours of the 31st July I notice a letter from Mr William Wilson, chairman of the Associated Swimming Clubs of Scotland, on the above sad accident. He makes a suggestion to prevent such accidents which seems to me so highly impracticable that I will not occupy your space in commenting upon the same. I regret very much, however, to see that he should take advantage of such an accident as this to place his claims as a teacher of swimming before the public, make use of the names of private establishments with which he has now no connection, and quote figures as to the number of ladies he has taught swimming (which are very far from being correct), and that has prompted me to reply."
Extract of a letter from Mr RA Robertson, in the Glasgow Herald, 2 August 1879

Furthermore he doubted that anyone who had only recently learnt to swim would be able to complete the distances Mr Wilson had quoted.

“I am not inclined to believe such a distance being swam by anyone so recently taught swimming, and will be glad to present any pupil in this class swimming 30 or 40 lengths with a silver medal, and any pupil doing 50 lengths with a gold medal. ​

“I will place the same in the hands of the chairman of the Public Baths Committee any day within the next fortnight if accepted, and have written Bailie Wilson to this effect.” 

​The Wilsons fight back

​But Mr and Mrs Wilson did not take this lying down. Mr Wilson responded to the letter by replying to the Glasgow Herald saying

“I would much rather have treated it with the contempt that it deserves than enter seriously into its details, but as you have given it publicity, I have no doubt but you will also afford me an opportunity of putting myself right with those that have read it.”

He then went on to explain his figures for the numbers of women taught, and defended their abilities in the water.

“Disbelief is next expressed as to the distance swam by some of these ladies. That such results should so bewilder Mr Robertson shows on his part an amount of ignorance of his business as a teacher of the art that he ought to be ashamed of. I have yesterday, and today seen three of the youngest misses in these classes, all members of different families, swim 54 and 56 lengths of a bath, six feet longer than  the pond in the Greenhead Baths, and with the greatest of ease; so Mr Robertson had better set his goldsmith and silversmith agoing, for I have letters from others ambitious to possess trophies of their powers in the water at this cheap rate.”

William Wilson, letter to The Glasgow Herald, 12 August 1879​

A public contest

"On this challenge appearing in the papers, two of Mrs Wilson’s pupils, both girls, who had never tried to swim till after Greenhead Baths were opened and got their first and only lessons from Mrs Wilson, accepted it. The competition took place yesterday in the Cromwell Street Baths. The two champions, Miss Elizabeth Gow, aged fifteen, and Miss Minnie Geddes, in her fourteenth year, entered the water shortly before ten. Both were dressed in neat bathing suits, and upwards of thirty ladies and gentlemen were present. Miss Duncan, secretary of the Ladies Club, Victoria Swimming Baths, and Miss McMillan, daughter to Dr McMillan, were appointed judges. Both girls swam very gracefully. Miss Geddes was fully faster and occasionally used overhand stroke, but Miss Gow swam in splendid style on her back. Miss Geddes accomplished the fifty lengths in 23 minutes, and Miss Gow finished the half mile in 33 minutes. Both were repeatedly cheered and at the close highly complimented. It may be stated that the Cromwell Street bath is six feet longer than the female bath at Greenhead, so that the swimmers accomplished nearly 150 yards more than Mr Wilson stated in his letter. It has been arranged that the same feat will be performed on the Clyde, by the same girls, on an a early day, so that the general public may have an opportunity of witnessing the performances."
News report in the Daily Review, 16 August 1879.

Following this spat, two of Mrs Wilson’s pupils took to the water to prove they could do what was claimed. A contest was arranged at the Cromwell Street Baths. This was a private swimming baths situated just a few streets away from the Arlington Baths.

The swimmers were Miss Elizabeth Gow, 15, and Miss Minnie Geddes, 14. Minnie was the daughter of George Geddes, who became the second officer of the Glasgow Humane Society in 1889 on the death of his father, also called George Geddes. the Glasgow Humane Society was founded in 1790 to rescue people at risk of drowning in the River Clyde, and it is still operating today.

Around 30 ladies and gentlemen were present and two women were appointed judges.

Minnie did the 50 lengths in 23 minutes and Elizabeth finished in 33 minutes. And it was pointed out that the pool was actually longer than Greenhead Baths where the women’s pool was only 40 feet by 20 feet, so they had actually swum nearly 150 yards than they were used to.​

In fact everyone was so impressed by their achievement that they were prevailed upon to do it again, this time in the River Clyde, apparently over the reluctance of Mr Geddes. Mr Wilson swam with them, and a crowd of 5-6,000 people cheered them on!

"The Wilson-Robertson Swimming Controversy A swimming exhibition which conclusively ended the Wilson-Robertson controversy in favour of the former, took place on the Clyde on Saturday. The events with led to Saturday’s proceedings are of too recent a nature to need repeating. Mr Robertson, not being satisfied with the swimming of the girls in the Greenhead Baths a short time ago, the permission of Mr George Geddes was reluctantly obtained to allow his daughter to swim in the Clyde with the public as judges. Accordingly, on Saturday, at four o’clock, Miss E Gow and Miss Minnie Geddes, accompanied by Mr W Wilson, took the water at the Springboards, and swam to the Humane Society’s House, the distance being a good half mile. Miss Geddes, who looks a mere child, and is, in fact, only a day or two over fourteen years of age, is undoubtedly the finer swimmer of the two, and came in first by half-a-dozen yards. The event, however, was not so much a race as an exhibition to prove that the girls really could swim the distance Mr Wilson claimed for them. The crowd on the bank must have numbered between 5,000 and 6,000, and the swimmers were enthusiastically cheered on leaving the water."
News report in the Evening News and Star, 1 Sept 18

An inspiring story

​The Wilsons continued to teach in Glasgow and campaign for everyone to learn to swim. We have a lot more to learn about their lives and work.

Mrs Wilson died in 1899, and in an obituary in the Scottish Referee was described as the “first female teacher of swimming in Scotland, having been appointed to the Arlington Baths Ladies Club in 1872”.

At the Arlington Baths today, we were so inspired by this story that – thanks to generous funding from Sporting Heritage – we created our own dramatisation of the events!

  • Researcher: Will Jess
  • Script and blog: Lucy Janes
  • Filming and editing: Jon Oates

The creation of this film was generously funded by Sporting Heritage, which brings together the UK’s sporting collections and the people who care for them.

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