Norwich Swan Swimming Club

The Early Years

Norwich Swan is probably the only club to have taken its name from a laundry. This explains the absence of the plural as used in other club names.

The Swan Laundry was situated on the River Wensum and in 1879 the laundry added an indoor, heated swimming pool to its premises. In 1880 a group of young men formed themselves into the Swan Amateur Swimming Club.

A founder member of the Club, aged 10 years, was a boy named Charles R. Oury. It is reported that Charles became the first man in England to receive the Gold Medal and Diploma of the Royal Life Saving Society.

Life Saving and Water Polo seem to have been the main activities in those days. Water Polo in particular was organised on a large scale. Before the First World War Swan had teams in two local leagues and supplied most of the players for the Norfolk County team.

In 1905, the Club hosted the first Men's Championship of Norwich. The trophy, the Burton Cup, is named after a long-serving Club Doctor.

The Ladies' Section

Mixed bathing was disapproved of right up to the early 'thirties' but the Ladies formed their own section held  their first General Meeting, on January 27th, 1914.

The Club managed to keep its name alive during the First World War although the Ladies Section closed temporarily on 8th June 1915. This quotation taken from the Minutes dated June 1914 gives a clue as to why. " It was agreed to abandon club dips etc. for this season, as it is quite impossible to arrange with the Bath Proprietor as to bathing hours, owing to the military being in constant occupation of the bath". The Ladies Section did not reopen until May 1920.

An early member of the Ladies Club, Muriel Swain (later Muriel Noller) related in 1980 the stroke techniques of the early years. She used a mixture of over arm side stroke and trudgen (a swimming stroke, popularised in England by John Tudgen, in which each hand alternately is raised above the surface thrust forward and pulled back through the water). She went on to relate how it was the Ladies who engaged a "crawl" coach for a visit, much to the disapproval of the Men. Nevertheless, the Men eventually saw the wisdom of this venture and sent their young men along to learn what they could about this new stroke.

Memories of past members - Muriel Noller

"I learned to swim with the school when I was twelve years old at the Wensum Bath. I was suspended from a long pole held by either Mr. Carey, a small wiry instructor, or by a somewhat larger Mr. Ray. Learning proved a terrifying experience and many of the timid children were put off completely. The bottom of the pool was so slimy and slippery that Learners had many a ducking before frantically managing to regain their feet. I was much hardier than some unfortunates for after mastering the art of swimming, I went to The Eagle Baths to learn how to dive. The depth of water was so shallow there, that I remember hitting the bottom and cutting my eye.

I must have done reasonably well as I was soon "discovered" by a talent scout of the Swan Club - namely Billy Basher - and was invited to join the Ladies Section. At that time the Ladies Section consisted mainly of the wives of the male members.

In my early days with the Club mixed bathing was not allowed, but women's and girls' races were included in the galas, and I can still picture the Women's "Old Crocks" race! Races for the younger swimmers were mainly handicap events, and my proudest moment was when I won such a race after being handicapped by thirty seconds. The first swimmer was just reaching the end of the first length when I dived in. Using a combination of Overarm Stroke and Trudgeon, I just won by a touch, and I still have the prize. How times and speeds have changed though. It was considered something when I managed 44 seconds for 50 yards and when a school boy named Leslie Roberts swam 100 yards in 55 seconds. In spite of my swimming successes, it was diving that was my first love. My first diving competition was at the Beccles Regatta and included ten men and one lady - me! We were expected to perform two dives each from the 5 metre board, and I recall that many of the men looked like frogs dropping from a height! I managed to keep my legs straight and together in the air and did quite well in the competition.

Life Saving was a very important activity in both sections of the Club. Every year the Medical Officer gave a lecture on Life Saving at the Dolphin Baths, which was always well attended. The Ladies in particular had a very strong life saving team and frequently gave practical land and water demonstrations. This brings to mind the examinations for the Bronze and Silver Medals. There were always many entrants for the Bronze award, but it caused quite a stir when Inspector Buttle and I decided to try for the Diploma. Apart from the practical test it also included a difficult written examination involving the medical side. We both passed, but I hesitate to think of what I wrote!

Water polo was perhaps the most exciting feature of our galas, and the Men's Section had some fine players. These tough men had to have enough stamina to survive the entire match and they knew the rules - both written and unwritten! I wonder if anyone remembers the "Battle Cry" composed by Herbert Baker which was heard after every goal was scored. "Esau, Esau, Halla Balla Bula. Hittabong, Hittabong - Swan, Swan, Swan".

The surviving old Swan members may be back numbers, I suppose we could be called pioneers. My reminiscences must end here. Someone more qualified than I must take up the story. One could say this is my Swan Song."

Muriel was a good club member in the true sense and was actively involved in diving, water polo, life saving and "fancy swimming and floating". She held the County Diving Title for several years, gained the Diploma of The Royal Life Saving Society, and later became Ladies' Secretary and a swimming official of the A.S.A.

Memories of past members - Alan Betts

"On looking back over the past forty-five years [1935-1980] my immediate reaction is how fortunate I have been to be able to compete for most of that time.

When I first entered diving competitions they mostly consisted of Plain Dives. This meant that results were much closer for the top three places and a 'Dive Off' was often necessary. Frequently, heats had to be held because there were so many divers in the Norfolk and Suffolk clubs eager to compete for the valuable prizes offered. Now, of course, there are very few competitions held in this area but in those early days opportunities to compete were endless, especially during the summer months.

I remember many of the names from past years, most of whom were Swan members - B. Lees, B. Hallum, A. Evans (tragically killed whilst in the R.A.F.), L. Paston, B. Ray D. & J. Gibling, P. Richmond, C. Walker and H. Eggins are just a few that readily come to mind. The ladies are a little more difficult to name as they seemed to reach County standard and then fade away. There are just two or three exceptions, Mrs. Muriel Noller (nee Swain), Joan Lees and Bridget Belson (nee Johnson). Joan Lees gained seven consecutive Norfolk County diving titles from 1933 to 1939 and also held the Club Championship for many years.

It appears likely that the diving achievements of these Swan members will remain unchallenged, at least in the foreseeable future. It seems fitting therefore to record their successes for future generations to ponder on.

Alan Betts: Norfolk County Title 14 times; Norwich Champion 12 times; represented Norfolk from 1936 - 1965; was runner up in the Midland District Championships and R.A.F. Champion of the Middle East.

Bobby Betts: Norfolk junior Champion of Norfolk 5 times and Senior Champion 3 times. Held the Norwich title on 3 occasions and reached the English Schools Finals ' He was Club champion 5 times and represented the County, with his father on no less than three occasions which is, I believe, the only record of such a thing happening in this area.

Bridget Belson (nee Johnson): junior County title 1 year, Senior Norfolk Champion 12 times her most recent success being in 1980, represented Norfolk for 7 years and dived for Norfolk Schools at Division 8; gained a place in the Midland District Championships 3 times and held the Club title for 14 years.

Although the divers of the past had to battle on with poor facilities and unqualified coaches, they did, as you have read, achieve moderate success. With this diving tradition to uphold, it is tragic that more youngsters are not taking this wonderful sport up seriously."

The 'Basher Years'

After the end of the First World War, the Club went into an era in which it became an institution in the swimming world. It became the agent of the local School Board and thousands of children were taught to swim under its auspices. Its swimmers dominated the competitive scene and its leaders took a major part in the organisation of the sport through its connections with the Amateur Swimming Association before there was a local committee.

That the Club reached this position and maintained it for nearly fifty years was, to a large extent, due to the enthusiasm and determination of one man W. J. Basher.

It is believed that Billy Basher joined the Club in 1907 when he was 13 years old; his name certainly appeared on a programme in 1911. He was not, however, a good swimmer himself and preferred to channel his enthusiasm and great energy into organisation.

At the time of the Club's jubilee, in 1930, 'Whiffler' quoted him as having been Club Secretary for seven years and local representative of the A.S.A. In 1932 he became Secretary of the newly formed Norfolk Branch of the A.S.A. By the end of his life, Billy had been chairman to the club for 12 years, secretary for 13, and had undertaken almost every other job including Referee, Starter, Time-Keeper, Handicapper, Life Saving Instructor and Diving Judge.

Billy, a long-term employee of Norwich Union, came to public notice in 1933 when his swimming articles, under the name of "Porpoise" began to appear in the "Eastern Evening News". These articles were produced regularly for twenty-five years, the last appearing only a few days before his death in August 1958.

It was also in 1933, that the Swan Laundry decided they could maintain their pool no longer and it was closed down. The following year, however, two privately owned pools were opened - the Lido and the Samson and Hercules House.

Club meetings were held on Fridays at the 25 yards, heated Lido pool, admission 3 old pence, and on Tuesday nights in the river at the Dolphin Baths. During the Second World War the Dolphin Baths were destroyed by bombs. It was from the Dolphin that the Club used to swim its 440 yards handicap race - up to and through the bridge by one arch and back again by another one.

Between the war years, Billy organised and officiated at many galas including the Coronation Gala held on 15th September 1937 and the visit of the German Olympic Team. It was just 3 years after the visit of the German Olympic team that Billy called a committee meeting when it was decided that Norwich Swan was to remain in being, under name only, during the years of war.

1946 saw peace and the first meeting at which it was resolved Norwich Swan was to act as a club once again. In 1948 Billy was selected to act as Judge at the 14th Olympiad at the Empire Pool in Wembley. Billy was elected President of the ASA's Midland District in 1951.

Neither the Samson nor the Lido re-opened after the war, and the Club had to rely solely on river swimming at the Eagle and Lakenham Baths. It was during this early post war period that the Mens and Ladies Clubs amalgamated and became known as the Norwich Swan Swimming Club. In 1951, the Lakenham pool was isolated from the river and chlorinated, but Billy Basher continued his campaign for a publicly owned indoor pool. At last he saw the long awaited pool approved in principle but did not live to see his dream become reality.

The City of Norwich Indoor Pool, later more popularly known as St Augustine's, was opened on the 6th of April, 1961. The inaugural gala was for the W.J. Basher Perpetual Memorial Trophy, which was appropriately won by the Norwich Swan. Bona Fide clubs were granted facilities and thus the Club progressed into its second era of dominance under the guidance and coaching of H.W. Poynton.

The Poynton Years

Bill joined the Swan in 1935, before the Men's and Ladies' Clubs combined. In those days, the Club ran three water polo teams and although he had previously gained his water polo colours at Goldsmith's College, he could only get into the Club's third team initially. Apart from playing water polo, Bill was a member of the Club's competitive squad and swam regularly in its fixtures against other local Clubs.

Bill passed away in 2004, but left us with some of his memories of the years preceding the Second World War. In particular, he recalled the visit of the Olympic and World diving champion, Pete Desjardin, when he came to Norwich to give a display at the Lido pool. Bill's stories of the later Swan sponsored visit by the German Olympic Swimming team, complete with 'Praise of the Fatherland' and 'Heil Hitlers', form a little morsel of Club history which will not be forgotten.

Bill also recalled vividly swimming in the River Wensum; at the Dolphin and Eagle baths, both of which were basically holes dug out of the river bank; and in the privately owned Lido and Samson and Hercules Indoor Baths. Imagine if you can a 16 foot diving board up in the roof of the Lido Pool to which access could only be gained by either external stairs or by standing on the 9 foot board and hauling oneself up onto the higher platform. Incidentally, Muriel Noller and Joan Lees both dived at the opening ceremony of this pool.

Although Bill had learnt to swim by accident, he was a man who was more than adequately equipped to take the Club into the new technical age. Bill Poynton was an experienced competitive swimmer. He played Polo at the age of forty-eight, and swam on well into retirement. He was a student of techniques and coaching methods and  worked quietly and coolly, but with no less success. Bill Poynton was the architect of winning and that is just what the Club did under his coaching. Norwich Swan was one of the original clubs in the Motorway League; entertained and travelled to, clubs from Leicester to London, had several successes in the East Anglian League and held an annual fixture with the Club des Vikings from Rouen.


Gillian Moorby joined the Swan as a novice in 1946 when the Eagle Baths were still in regular use. She soon became involved with the competitive side of Club life and was appointed Ladies Captain. College training took her away from Norwich, but she continued her membership with the Club, despite competing for the Clacton Swimming Squad. It was during this period that she gained her A.S.A. Teachers Certificate, and in 1968 she became President of the Norfolk County A.S.A.

It was for Life Saving, however, that Gill was best known. She held all the practical awards of the Royal Life Saving Society, including the Diploma, and in 1972 received the Bar to Recognition Badge from Earl Mountbatten of Burma. She was also one of only a few people in Norwich to have been presented with the Service Cross, another being Reggie Mace, also a former member of the Club. With these many awards and years of experience it is hardly surprising to find that Gill was Chairman of the Norfolk Branch of the R.L.S.S. for several years.

The teaching of Swimming and Life Saving to Club members took up most of her spare time, but from 1962 she was involved with Bill Poynton in the running of the Disabled Swimming Club. Gillian was still actively involved with the club at the Centenary frequently acting as Chief timekeeper at Club Galas

Disabled Swimming

The Club involvement with Disabled Swimming has continued to the present day, and few who saw it will ever forget watching Suzie Colman winning the 25 metre handicap dash in the 2003 Club Championships by a 10th of a second from Kirsty McRoberts. Suzy, a disabled swimmer, started on 65 seconds, and could not have been more loudly cheered on. Swan has held a sponsored charity swim annually for several years and raised thousands of pounds to benefit the Olympic Disabled Swimming Squad, the Clare School, Bowthorpe Medical Centre and Asthma Relief. The Club also provided many of the officials for the first modern Disabled Gala organised by Janet Baker, Norwich's Swimming Development Officer, and held in the Riverside Pool in June 2004.

Modern Days

With the introduction of 'Age Group' swimming, competition became perhaps more intensive than was good for club life. The club went through a period of decline in the 1970's , but the Centenary in 1980 marked the start of a revival in the Club fortunes with a strong social ethos and a reestablishment of the historic links between the competitive section and the water polo section. John Swift was Head Coach through the 1980's, and brought much success to the Club. During this period, the Club was very large, and some of our current coaching staff can remember days when 3 coaches were needed to take teams to compete in different galas.

The abrupt closure of the St Augustine's pool in 1996 proved to be devastating for the club as there was little other water space available. This resulted in a decline that the Club is only now pulling out of. Today, the club uses over 20 pools, some well outside Norwich with the competitive section using Wymondham Leisure Centre, Riverside and the magnificent Bernard Matthews pool at the UEA. In 2004, the Club attained the Sport England Club Mark and Swim21 certification. Having lasted for over 125 years, there is no reason to suppose that, as several times in the past, Norwich Swan will not revive and become once again, a powerful and friendly Club. The prophetic words written in the 1980 'Basher' programme echo over 25 years on:

"Now there are signs that, under the present leadership, social values have begun to be re-established and that belonging to a club means a little more than a licence to compete. Social aims and a common interest brought the original members together one hundred years ago. Would that our hundreds could tell those few that their efforts, made so long ago, are still appreciated today."