In honor of Women’s History Month, Hilda James: One of the great early female pioneers and feminists!
Hilda James (GBR) 2016 Honor Pioneer Swimmer
FOR THE RECORD: 1920 OLYMPIC GAMES: silver (4x100m freestyle); SEVEN WORLD RECORDS: two (300yd freestyle), two (150yd freestyle), one (440yd freestyle), one (400m freestyle), two (220yd freestyle), three (300m freestyle); 29 ENGLISH RECORDS: four (300yd freestyle), one (440yd freestyle), one (500yd freestyle), four (220yd freestyle), four (100yd freestyle), four (150yd freestyle), two (440yd freestyle), two (500yd freestyle), one (440m freestyle), one (1750yd freestyle), one (880yd freestyle), one (1000yd freestyle); EIGHT U.K. NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: four (220yd freestyle), one (100yd freestyle), two (Thames Long Distance from Kew Putney five miles 50yd), one (440yd freestyle); FOUR SCOTTISH RECORDS: one (220yd freestyle), two (200yd freestyle), one (300yd freestyle), one (400m freestyle); FOUR OTHER MEET RESULTS: gold (300yd individual medley), gold (220yd freestyle), gold (110yd breaststroke), one River Seine 8k Race.
To avoid attending Church of England religious education classes, which conflicted with her parents religious beliefs, this 11-year old Liverpudlian was assigned to swimming classes at the Garston Baths.
Five years later, Hilda James was Great Britain’s best female swimmer and left for the 1920 Olympic Games with high expectations. Unfortunately in Amsterdam, the USA women completely dominated, sweeping the gold, silver and bronze medals in the 100m and 300m freestyle, the only individual swimming events for women at the 1920 Games. And while the British did win silver medals in the 4x100m relay, they finished a full 30 seconds behind the Americans. The following day Hilda cheekily asked the American coach, Lou de B. Handley, to teach her the American Crawl.
In 1922, Hilda was invited by her American friends to visit the USA for the summer racing season. While she was still behind the American stars Helen Wainwright and Gertrude Ederle, she was closing the gap.
By 1924, Hilda held every British and European freestyle record from 100 meters to the mile, and a handful of world records as well. She easily made the 1924 Olympic team, and it was widely believed that she would return from Paris with a handful of medals. When Hilda’s mother insisted she accompany her daughter as chaperone, and the British Olympic Committee refused, Hilda’s mother refused to let her go. Unfortunately, Hilda was not yet 21, was under the care of her parents – and had to obey.
Hilda turned 21 shortly after the Olympic Games, gained her independence, and took a job with the Cunard Shipping Company, traveling the world as a celebrity spokesperson, at a time when women were just starting to gain their freedom.
We will never know how Hilda would have fared in the 1924 Olympic Games, but she was a trailblazer and one of Europe’s first female sports superstars who inspired future generations of girls to follow in her wake.
From Hilda’s grandson: Ian Hugh McAllister:
My Grandmother Hilda James officially opened the pool in 1925. As the premiere swimming star of the era she was also invited to participate in the opening gala but declined to swim in the races, substituting a demonstration of trick and fancy swimming instead. What the audience didn’t know was that she had already signed as a professional with Cunard, and was due to become the first celebrity crew member aboard Carinthia, the very first purpose-built cruise liner. Although not officially on the Cunard payroll until the following week, she was not exactly sure when they would start paying her, and dared not compete in case the press found out she was no longer an amateur. It was a poignant moment for Hilda, her last ever appearance as an amateur following a meteoric nine year career. During that time she held an Olympic silver medal, broke seven World Records, and actually introduced the crawl stroke to the UK.
The whole story is told in her biography “Lost Olympics” which was published last year on Amazon and for Kindle download. Please visit the Lost Olympics facebook page for a lot more information, including my various TV and radio interviews etc. Hilda has recently been nominated for induction to The International Swimming Hall of Fame.
When the pool gets rebuilt, can I come and open it again for you, or at least be at the opening? (although I am no swimmer!)