The History of Tavistock Swimming Club

From an account given by the President, Sue Dunstan   

Tavistock Swimming Club was founded in the spring of 1990, while the builders were still hard at work on what is now Meadowlands Leisure Pool. The inaugural committee meeting, chaired by the late John Reed whose vision and determination were instrumental in getting the club up and running, was held on 20th March 1990 in the Council Chambers, hired at a cost of £11.

The new committee worked hard to plan and prepare for the club’s first session at the pool. Several qualified swimming teachers had offered their services and a local competition was arranged for the design of a club logo. Red, blue and yellow, reflecting the Tavistock coat of arms, were selected as the club colours. Two new logos have since replaced that first one, the colours now being yellow and black. I drew up the membership forms on my Archimedes computer and David Glover sponsored the £15 printing costs.

June 1990 was the first time residents in Tavistock and the surroundings areas had had regular access to a public pool all year round. The old Victorian open-air pool at Bannawell Street had been well used during any hot weather, but was rather less popular when the sun wasn’t shining.  In any event, it was deteriorating rapidly and had sprung a leak. It closed down at the end of the summer of 1989 and its committee were early benefactors of the club, providing a grant of £580.

The first club session was at 7pm on Sunday 17th June 1990, the day before the pool opened to the public. The management had allowed us just one hour, 7.00-8.00pm. So many young people, 320 in the first instance, applied to join that the initial assessments extended over two Sunday sessions. 280 signed up after those first trials: 104 beginners, 106 improvers and 70 advanced swimmers.  In those early days, the teaching of beginners – those who could not yet swim - was permitted. As can be imagined, the pool was extremely busy. We ran two half-hour sessions, with three groups in the learner pool at any one time and three in the main pool. Space was at such a premium that some of the groups in the main pool swam widths, with John Reed coaching from the mushrooms and directing his class across to the waterfall and back. The large numbers persuaded the management to allow more time and the pool hire was soon extended to 2½ hours, 6.30–9.00pm.

In the early days swimmers trained under the experienced eye of head coach Stephanie Worth, followed in turn by the late Grahame Cooper, Wendy Dalton, the late Margaret Gardner, and Paul Chinn. My role was liaison on poolside, plus listing and co-ordinating the groups. Although qualified to teach, I didn’t do so, not least because there were others far more experienced than me.

With many children having had limited opportunity to swim regularly until then, the club had a flourishing membership. By July 1990 it had increased to 380 members, with a waiting list. We charged an annual membership fee of £16 plus 60p for each Sunday evening session. A rota of willing parents for “Sunday desk duty” - sitting at a desk in the entrance, collecting dues and ticking a register – was soon established. It was an excellent way to get to know the members and queries could be dealt with quickly, face to face.

In the later part of the evening the advanced groups swam lengths. Initially, we couldn’t afford proper lane dividers. We purchased five orange lifesaving ropes instead. These turned out to be less than ideal as, with no flotation rings, they sagged in the middle and vanished from sight. Our only other equipment was 100 blue kick-boards and a first-aid kit.  It was as well we didn’t have more, for initially everything had to be taken away between sessions and stored at members’ homes.  Eventually, the management gave us permission to have a small storage container tucked away in a corner on poolside.

With the obvious popularity of the club, we made many requests for more pool time, and received just as many refusals. The vision for pool use in those early days appeared to give more priority to tourists than to locals, with the leisure features being widely advertised.  However, perseverance eventually paid off. Around Easter 1991 we obtained pool time on Wednesdays 4.30–6.00pm and, in September, Friday mornings at 7.00am were added.

It wasn’t long before invitations to galas against other clubs started arriving and the fixture list took shape. In August 1990, the club competed at Newton Abbott and Teignmouth, then on to Okehampton Otters in September and Launceston in November. The following year saw the team heading for Totnes, Dawlish, Plymouth Leander, Kingsteignton and Torridgeside. Saturday afternoons found the swimmers and supporters on coaches travelling across the county, usually for 5.30pm warm-ups and evening competitions. Tavistock Swimming Club was on the map! In March 1991, we held our first internal club championships, with everyone encouraged to take part. An impressive array of trophies were on show, all donated by local supporters. 

At around this time, information started to trickle out in that, in some cases, pool management companies were removing their authority for swimming clubs to teach swimming to those starting out. They wanted to create their own, lucrative, swim schools. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the club had to adhere to this policy.  We were no longer allowed a beginners group. Our membership had to be restricted to children who could already swim competently. Not surprisingly, the numbers and income dropped.

Nonetheless, by July 1991 £2,400 had been saved for the purchase of five anti-turbulence lane ropes and a storage reel. These were crucial to the delivery of safe and effective training, although their maintenance and repairs cost a great deal, in both money and labour, over the years. They remained in regular use for nearly three decades until, after considerable pressure from the Meadowlands User Group Committee, the pool management bought their own in March 2020, for the convenience of all pool users.  We then had no further need of ours. Fortunately, they were snapped up by Mount Kelly Swim Centre and started a new life, a mile down the road, as spares for the 25m pool there.

As the success increased and was recognised, more pool time was made available, allowing the dedicated swimmer to train six or more times a week, with a variety of sessions, including early mornings and evenings.  “Long-course” sessions in a 50m pool were introduced, initially at the Plymouth Life Centre then, when the Olympic legacy pool was opened in 2016, at Mount Kelly Swim Centre. The club continued to cater for all levels, developing a wide range of skills in its members. Sunday remained (and remains) Club Night when all members attend.

Sadly, John Reed died on 16th January 2018 (aged 91). The family announced that donations in his memory would be shared between the club and a local doctors’ surgery. This moving and wholly unexpected gift was used to purchase “the John Reed Memorial Trophy”, which is awarded each year to a swimmer who has joined since 1st September in the preceding year, in tribute to John’s particular enthusiasm for encouraging new swimmers. 

There have been many successes amongst club members, both in the indoor pool and beyond. Swimmers have competed successfully in both county and regional championships and several have qualified for the National Championships.  Members have also used their skills to diversify into associated sports, such as biathlon, aquathon, triathlon, pentathlon, water polo and open water swimming. They have competed in the Devon Open Water competitions at Babbacombe and the Plymouth Breakwater Swim (of which we can claim both male and female winners). They have gone even further afield too. Former club captain, Olly White, made a successful English Channel crossing in 2005, becoming only the 722nd person to do so and achieving a very respectable time of 11hrs 43mins[1]. Olympic medal winning Modern Pentathletes Kate Allenby (Sydney, 2000, bronze) and Heather Fell (Beijing, 2008, silver) were club members and swam competitively for Tavistock in their younger teenage years, with Kate Allenby taking part in one of our first galas.

In addition, many young people have enhanced their CVs, and increased their limited student funds, by gaining lifeguarding, swim teaching and coaching qualifications, often leading to part- and full-time jobs while in the sixth form and further education.

A few have gone on to be head coaches. One founder member is still with us today. Placed in the “improvers” group as a 10 year-old at that first session in June 1990, he trained hard, leading by example as club captain and achieving competitive successes.  After graduating from university this young man - James Lake – chose to pursue his ambition for a career in swimming by increasing his teaching and coaching qualifications and gaining experience at various local pools in Plymouth and Tavistock. In 2005 he married another former club member, Sam Gardner, herself an international athlete, and in 2012, to the delight of the membership, accepted the post of head coach of the club. At the time, he had two young children. Those children, no longer so young, are now club members themselves, as are the children of several other former members. As so it continues, down the generations for, we hope, very many years to come.