John Henry “Rob” Derbyshire (GBR)
Honor Pioneer Swimmer (2005)
FOR THE RECORD: 1900 OLYMPIC GAMES: gold (water polo): 1906 OLYMPIC GAMES: bronze (4 x 200m freestyle relay), 5th (100m freestyle); 1908 OLYMPIC GAMES: gold (4 x 200 m freestyle relay), unplaced (100m freestyle); 1912 OLYMPIC GAMES: unplaced (100m freestyle); 1928 OLYMPIC GAMES: Coach of British Swimming Team; 1936 OLYMPIC GAMES: Manager of British Team; First (with Freddie Lane) to Swim 100y Freestyle in One Minute; First British Swimmer to Swim 100y Freestyle Under One Minute: Innovative Synchronized Swimmer; Coached Numerous Swimmers to Olympic Teams of 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936; 10 A.S.A. Championship Titles; Four World Records; 2-100y freestyle, 1 – 150y freestyle, 1 – 220y freestyle.
John Henry Derbyshire (1878-1938), known affectionately as “Rob”, was born in Manchester the son of a baths superintendent. He had a very long competitive career from his first prize, winning at the age of six, through four Olympic Games until 1912. He coached the Hammersmith Swim Club and the 1928 British Olympic Team. On the administrative side, he was Team Manager at the 1936 Olympic Games.
His father, John Derbyshire, was the superintendent of the Osborne Street Baths in Manchester and the inspiration behind its polo team which won the 1900 Olympic Gold medal and dominated this national sport winning the National title from 1894 – 1900. His father used him at the age of three as a periscope during a demonstration of a submarine in the water. He became known as “The little Robin” – later abbreviated to “Rob”. The name stuck with him for the rest of his life.
This fast water polo player was also recognized as the fleetest of British sprinters from 1898, when Jack Tyers turned professional, until 1907 when he became the first Englishman to break one minute for 100 yards freestyle. At the 1900 Olympics in Paris, Rob was Britain’s leading medal hope in the 200m freestyle, the shortest swimming event at the Games. Unfortunately a stomach virus precluded his competing in the 200m race. In the 200m team race, the strong British team, of which he was a member, showed up late for the start (perhaps given the wrong time) and weren’t allowed to compete.
He was capped as England International at water polo nine times during 1896, 1898, 1899 (captain) and in 1900 as well as in the Manchester team which won the national team polo competition on seven occasions. British representatives were not sent to the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis but at the Interim Games in Athens in 1906 he was member of the bronze medal winning 4 x 250m freestyle relay team and also placed a creditable 5th in the 100m freestyle. He also competed in the 400m event. In 1904 he left Manchester Osborne Club, co-founded Old Trafford Swim Club, then later Lime Grove Baths in Hammersmith, London and finally the Penguin Swim Club, one of the outstanding teams of the 1920’s. Rob coached several members to success at the 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics and has probably placed more swimmers on GBR Olympic teams than any other coach.
At the London Olympiad of 1908, he had his greatest Olympic triumph as a member of the winning British 4x200m freestyle relay, along with Willy Foster and Hall of Famers Henry Taylor and Paul Radmilovic. At the 1912 Games in Stockholm he again competed in the 100m freestyle but was unplaced. In the A.S.A. swimming championships he won a total of ten individual titles including six wins in the 100y freestyle – a record. Like most individuals of his day he swam over a wide range of distances and as championships weren’t centralized it required traveling all over the country.
The 100y race of 1902 was a classic between Freddie Lane and Dick Cavill, both of Australia, and Rob almost finishing together. The race went to Lane who equaled the “magic minute” time for the first time. The contestants had to come out from the changing rooms three times to acknowledge the applause.
Other notable visitors for the 100y event included the Olympic champions Zoltan de Halmay of Hungary who won in 1905 after Rob defeated him in 1903, and Charles Daniels of the USA the victor in 1906 and 1907. On the latter occasion, at the Victoria Baths Manchester, the finalists were Tartakover (Australia), Radmilovic (Wales), Derbyshire (England), de Halmay (Hungary), Dockerill (Ireland) and Daniels (USA). Daniels won with a new World Record of 55.4 sec and in third place Rob became the first British swimmer to beat the minute for 100yds. Such was the excitement that the spectators clamored for speeches from the medalists before the gala could be resumed!
At the age of 14 years he competed in the Yorkshire Ornamental Swimming Championship (men only) and won the title in 1893 and 1894. In winning the competition he is reported to have performed front and back somersaults, torpedo and other stunts much the same as synchronized swimmers do today. One of his most spectacular stunts was to perform a somersault while sitting on a chair. Historians of this branch of the sport feel this was the first recognized synchro competition albeit won by a man!
His wife Alice shared his enthusiasm for the sport and on their move to London was co-founder of Hammersmith Ladies in 1916 which had several Olympians. She also was chaperone to the 1920 Olympic team in Antwerp. After Rob’s death at Forge Baslow, at the age of 59 his wife Alice remained very active in the swimming world where she was known affectionately as “Auntie Alice.” She lived to the ripe age of 94 years having been President of the Southern Counties A.S.A in 1946. In March, 1948 a memorial tablet was unveiled at Lime Grove Baths, London in appreciation of the work he did among the Hammersmith school children.
A portrait of Rob hangs in the entrance hall of the A.S.A., a lasting tribute to an outstanding swimmer and personality in the sport.
* Edited from the writings of Dr. Ian Gordon (GBR)