Hilda James

Hilda was the 1920s swimming sensation, multi-record holder and the lady who introduced the American crawl to the UK following silver medal success at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. In 1925 she toured South Africa and Rhodesia. In 2012 her biography by Ian McAllister published details of the trip, which is included below, by permission of the author.

Coach Jimmy Green of Pretoria with Hilda James

The following is a chapter from Hilda's biograhapy by Ian MacAllister.



Towards the end of 1924, Hilda was still pondering the major changes to her life that she had been anticipating for so long. She was excited by the prospects, but also apprehensive as she knew that whatever she decided to do, there would once again be serious trouble with her parents. There was no way to avoid it, but she was absolutely determined that whatever their reaction the choice would be hers, and hers alone. The options available at the time were either to stay at Parkgate baths, throwing in her lot with AG Grenfell and her parents as a resident swimming professional, or taking the much bigger gamble with Cunard. Deep down she worried about staying at Parkgate, and knew that she needed to break away from her difficult and increasingly domineering family. The more she thought about it, the better she liked the idea of working for Cunard, even with the as yet unspecified role they kept talking about.

At a training session in Garston one evening, she received an extraordinary invitation via Bill Howcroft. He gave her a letter from the South African Amateur Swimming Union (SAASU), which had arrived at the club asking if Hilda James would consider participating in a tour of the country, extending into Rhodesia. Unlike the American tour of 1922, their all expenses offer even included travel for two people, and it would mean being away from home for nearly three months. They discussed the options, but the outlook looked bleak.

He told her that this would be a fantastic opportunity, and in his opinion it looked even more exciting than the American trip. Unfortunately, the dates fell before her birthday, so she would still have to be chaperoned. After his furious shouting match with Gertie James, Bill Howcroft had been dismissed from the Bath House by John with orders never to cross their paths again, so there would no chance for him to grease the wheels. If she wanted to accept the invitation, it looked like Hilda would have to deal with her parents on her own this time. Her coach was adamant that she should go at all costs, and added that “at all costs” probably meant that she would have to consider taking her mother. In fact he had been trying to come up with an alternative plan for days without success. At first Hilda didn’t believe what she was hearing, and scolded him for making the situation worse by joking about it. They batted the options back and forth for a while, but in the end she had to agree with him that it was the only possible solution. It galled them both to give in to the threat that Gertie had made to the Olympic Committee just over a year before, that to get Hilda they had to have her too. As they had done more than once in the past, the two old hands hatched a cunning plan to put the question to her parents. This time they both knew that their aim was to do it very carefully, without compromising Hilda’s safety.

There was a gala coming up at Garston. Out of courtesy Bill Howcroft still normally asked Hilda’s parents to attend, but they had not responded to an invitation from him in over a year. On this occasion, he arranged for the club secretary to invite them without mentioning his name. As Hilda had predicted they duly turned up. Hilda competed with her team as usual, but Howcroft kept a lower profile than normal and didn’t appear poolside during the racing. They had decided to lull her parents into a false sense of security before springing the trap. At the end of the evening Hilda and Howcroft waited in the lobby, to literally block her Parents’ exit from the building. Their victims were the last of the audience to leave the pool, having been surprised to find themselves engaged in conversation by some of the team for a few extra minutes. When they finally reached the lobby there seemed to be an unusually large number of Garston team members hanging about outside the changing rooms. In a carefully rehearsed set piece Howcroft braved John and Gertie James, calmly staring them both down as he silently offered John the envelope. Hilda told them what it contained. She must have had her fingers crossed, because in a barefaced lie she immediately said that if they would allow her to accept she really wanted her Ma to go with her. She quickly pointed out that the dates fell during the closed season in Parkgate. Between them they had contrived to trap her parents in a position with plenty of witnesses, and where they could not start a fight. There was apparently an awkward and prolonged silence as the whole Garston team and their coach held their collective breath. In an unrehearsed addition to the plan several team members, including her great supporter and friend Austin Rawlinson, quietly moved to stand with the pair with crossed arms and help stare at her Parents. Hilda’s father apparently turned white and suddenly snatched the letter from Howcroft. John James then gripped his wife’s arm and brushed past Howcroft without a word. As the door slammed behind them, you could probably have heard the collective sigh of relief across the Mersey. Hilda wisely went to Hunt’s Cross and stayed with Margery and Jim.

Hilda never really found out if it was the exchange at Garston baths that had the effect, but something certainly did. In the end she wasn’t really surprised that her Mother suddenly changed her tune and decided to accept the invitation. The pair left from Southampton on 9th January 1925, travelling in first class aboard RMS Saxon, a 12,500 ton mixed traffic passenger and cargo ship built in 1899 and operated by the Union-Castle Mail Steam Ship Company. There would be one stop at Madeira on the 16 day voyage to Cape Town. Saxon was just over half the size of Franconia, the liner they had cruised on the previous year. She was a working ship hauling mails and mixed cargo as well as passengers. They were comfortable enough, although Hilda though what passed for First Class was a bit over rated. Worse still, there was no swimming pool on board. It definitely wasn’t Cunard.

Even aboard the ship they didn’t get along well with each other, although Hilda refused to let it spoil the experience. She loved the sea, and any excuse to be on it was acceptable. During the voyage she realised that she was going to talk to Cunard about that job when she got home. Having made a major decision she felt hugely relieved, and realised that the uncertainty had been bothering her more than she had acknowledged. She resolved to enjoy herself on the tour, and simply ignore her mother. By the time they got back, she could probably hide out at Hunt’s Cross until her birthday and then formally leave home and do as she pleased. She started to look forward to telling her father just that. At the stop in Madeira she managed to get a good workout, swimming vigorously in the ocean for a while and loving the warmer water.

On arrival in Cape Town, they were met and hosted by Gilbert Reynolds, who was the current president of the SAASU. Mrs. James had decided to award herself the joint roles of coach plus gracious and deserving mother, and positively simpered at everybody she was introduced to. Although she had never appeared to take any interest, she was instantly the big expert on swimming strokes, racing and records. Talk about not being allowed to have airs and graces, Hilda couldn’t believe the naked hypocrisy! Poor Hilda, used to travelling with her pragmatic and forthright coach was disgusted and embarrassed by her mother’s antics, and once out of view in the hotel she was happy to share her opinions. During the entire visit they didn’t speak to each other much. Hilda cheerfully started accepting invitations out with groups of young swimmers in several of the places they visited, effectively dumping her Ma by simply pushing off out of various hotels without telling her, thus avoiding having her tagging along as the oh-so-precious chaperone. Good riddance too; finally Hilda really was through with her Ma.

Hilda even contrived to enjoy a bit of fun at her mother’s expense. From day one Mrs. James had spectacularly failed to impress their hosts, by making a series of bitter protests to the swimming authorities about finding that events had been scheduled for immediately after their arrival. She was reported in one newspaper article as having said that Hilda should have at least two weeks of training time allocated before being booked to compete anywhere. She was also quoted as saying that South Africa would never see the best of her daughter without proper training. They weren’t sure what to make of this rather scary and outspoken woman. Hilda quietly put them right. She explained to Mr. Reynolds that she really thought he should be made aware that her mother was not actually her coach and was just being difficult. She assured the SAASU President that their visitor was in fact happy to make her own decisions, and fully ready to start swimming any time they liked. She also indicated that her mother had actually insisted on travelling with her instead of her coach Mr. Howcroft and anyway was not even acquainted with her training regime, having never taken the slightest interest. After that the word was passed around and from then on, however she fawned and simpered, the South Africans just ignored Mrs. James.

Much of the travel was by long distance train, but even that had its problems. On one journey they had to wait most of the day while the rails were repaired after a washout. Travelling by road was apparently an altogether more pioneering experience. At that time the idea of a “road” in South Africa was nothing more than a vague concept across much of the nation, often it meant simply following dirt tracks made by tribesmen or animals. As there had been a lot of rain the travelling party had to contend with some serious flooding, which held them up for another whole day in one place. They did make one serious transport mistake however, electing when offered a choice to travel by boat from Durban to Port Elizabeth. What kind of boat it was is not known, but though they had been fine aboard Saxon, both ladies were terribly seasick and vowed to stick to overland travel for the duration, difficult though that was.

There were galas and invitation races at every town they managed to visit. At each, she was given a rousing welcome as huge crowds chanted a traditional greeting “Yea Hilda! Yea Hilda! Yea Hilda! Forrum! Forrum! Forrum!” As usual Hilda managed to delight children with trick swimming and lessons during the day, often hosting several groups for an hour each. She also had to give the famous trick act and demonstrations most evenings, and cheerfully raced all comers at every gala. In most provinces they were entertained by local Governors and dignitaries, being put up in the best hotels available and usually invited to some form of gala evening.

In spite of the difficulties, Hilda’s tour progressed throughout South Africa and Rhodesia in much the same way as across America in 1922. The country was obviously much less developed than anywhere she had been before, and she was fascinated by it. There was time built in for delays, and when they could her hosts made the most of it, taking her to see all kinds of wonders. Without a doubt the highlight was a specially scheduled visit to Victoria Falls. It was breathtaking, although in hindsight she liked Niagara Falls better because she had nearly got right underneath that one in a boat. There were ancient rock artworks to see and of course the ever present wildlife.

As usual, everywhere they visited Hilda was showered with gifts. Without Howcroft to protect her amateur status and already planning to turn professional the moment she arrived home in England, she was happy to accept them for once. In South Africa the A.S.A. were not checking every trophy for value. There was also an absolutely enormous mounted springbok head which she somehow managed to bring home from Bloemfontein. She eventually left that at The Bath House to keep a glass eye on her parents! There was a tiny gold ingot from Johannesburg, and gold badges and brooches which were presented to her at the various mining cities. At Port Elizabeth, she was given a fantastic set of ostrich feathers which she carefully brought home for her favourite cousin Margery.

As she had been in America, Hilda was offered the chance to do some unusual things and to visit some extraordinary places that were usually off limits to the general public. This small picture shows her suited up, and standing between two foremen for the long drop underground to see the workings of the Nourse Diamond Mine at Kimberley. Ma James had to sign the indemnity for her still underage daughter, but to Hilda’s delight she flatly refused to go underground. At an evening reception, Hilda was presented with a gift from the town, a large and beautiful uncut Kimberley diamond mounted on a silver stick pin.


On completing the tour, there was a new invitation from the SAASU. The demand had been so great and adulation about their visit so intense, that the visitor and her mother were asked if they might consider staying in the country for an extra six weeks. The SAASU were being inundated with requests from people and clubs that had missed out on the spectacle, and had decided to ask Hilda to reprise the tour and go round the entire route again. In their own ways, both Hilda and Gertie realised that this was really their last chance and graciously accepted. Gertie sent a letter home to John explaining the situation, it left aboard the very ship that they had been expecting to be sailing on themselves. There was a mild protest in some sections of the press that it was all too much to ask of the visitors and the Union was being greedy, but in every town plans were hastily being made to host an even larger event than the first time around and make an even bigger fuss of the champion. As usual, even after taking her surly chaperone into account The English Comet was in big demand!

There was an English invitation XI cricket team playing in South Africa at the same time as Hilda's swimming tour. One match at the old Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg was completely rained off. One of the South African papers carried a large cartoon, which showed the two captains standing together in heavy rain, up to their knees in water on a flooded wicket. The English captain, The Hon. Lionel Hallam Tennyson is wearing a rain jacket and hat. The Transvaal captain and former rugby star VH Neser looks much more optimistic in cricket whites and a team cap. In the background stands a grinning Hilda James, wearing her signature dark blue one piece silk racing costume and hat. She is holding a cricket ball and obviously very much in her element.






*The Afrikaans word "inspan" translates as "to draft in".

As they had stayed so long beyond the original planned duration, Hilda passed her milestone by finally celebrating her long-awaited 21st birthday. April 27th was a scheduled gala day at Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, just a few days before leaving for home. The town had been in raptures since finding out that they would be hosting the visitor for a gala on her special birthday, and a surprise had been organised. Hilda and her mother had discovered months before that the South Africans liked a party, and on this occasion the entire town turned out to host a Hilda James Birthday Gala to commemorate her coming of age. Before the swimming pool extravaganza there was even a carnival parade, with a float made up to look like a pool for her to ride on as she accepted the town’s greetings. Hilda was mindful of an episode from earlier in the tour, when two police officers on duty had to call for reinforcements when a crowd of more than 300 forcibly gate crashed a sold out event. Although it was her 21st birthday, she insisted on reorganising the evening so that she could perform two entire shows because demand was so high. She addressed both of the audiences, thanking them for their hospitality and adding that she had never had quite so much fun as on the tour. She said that she had personally asked to swim twice in one evening because South Africa in general and the Stellenbosch crowd in particular deserved it. The other swimmers gave her the bumps at both performances, and both times they ended up by throwing her in the pool to the great delight of the crowd! There was given a card signed by all the swimmers and dignitaries present “To a great little sportsman – Happy Birthday Hilda James”.

While in South Africa, Hilda had naturally broken most of the local records, although there is scant evidence to demonstrate the actual races and times. She did comment that she had enjoyed the warmer water to be found in the swimming pools, usually at least ten degrees better than she was used to at competitions in England. The only practical drawback that she could identify was due to the high altitude in some places. She found that she had to modify her breathing schedule during races longer than 100 yards to get enough oxygen to avoid suffering from leg cramps.

At the close of the second tour there was a much more formal event than the birthday party. The English visitors were invited to a gala dinner hosted by the Prime Minister, Barry Herzog. SAASU President Gilbert Reynolds made a long speech thanking their visitors for giving up more time than they had planned, so that thousands of South African people who couldn’t get tickets originally could enjoy her performance. He presented Hilda with an engraved gold watch, and a magnificent citation mounted in a gilt frame which read:

South African Amateur Swimming Union

HQ Durban. Natal

Season 1924-1925

Certificate of Appreciation and Thanks Presented to Miss Hilda James

In recognition of the valuable services renderedduring her tour of South Africa

Jan 26 – May 1 1925

The Union on behalf of all swimmers throughoutSouth Africa and Rhodesia

records its grateful appreciation of the very sporting spirit

in which Miss James carried out her most strenuous tour

which included special coaching to thousands of school children

and demonstrations at more than

twenty swimming galas in all the leading towns

Gilbert Reynolds, Pres.

Hilda and her mother finally left Cape Town after being in South Africa for over three months. The tour had been another raging success for amateur swimming. Standing at the rail watching Table Mountain recede, Hilda allowed herself to bask in past glories just for a change. She mused over what had been a fitting end to what she considered as a pretty spectacular amateur career. On reaching home she would be retiring, having variously broken and lowered the English ASA records at almost every yards distance available (100, 150, 200, 220, 300, 440, 500, 880, 1000 and 1760). Most of these she still held. There was a string of six FINA ratified World Records, two of which were still current. In addition to those were the many unconfirmed times, mostly recorded as fastest swims over distance with many hailed universally as Unofficial World Records. She would also retire as the undefeated champion of the River Thames Long Distance Swim and as an Olympic Silver Medal holder. She was quitting at the top, which she saw as a positive thing. Yes she would miss the racing, but she would still train with the Garston team when she could. It had all been a great deal of fun, but it was definitely time to move on.

26/1/25       Arrive Capetown

27/1 -30/1   Kimberley

30/1 - 1/2    Bloemfontein

2/2  - 3/2    Travelling

3/2 - 8/2     Natal - Durban and Maritzburg 

9/2 - 12/2   Transvaal - Johannesburg and Pretoria

14/2 - 15/2  Travelling

15/2             Bulawayo

16/2 - 20/2  Salisbury + visit to Victoria Falls

21/2 - 24/2  Travelling

25/2 - 27/2  Transvaal - Johannesburg and Pretoria

28/2             Maritzburg

1/3 - 6/3      Durban

7/3              Currie Cup Tournament



 Hilda James starts her South African tour in Kimberley


Hilda James does coaching at Beavers gala in Pietermaritzburg

South African swimming championships in Durban, where Hilda James performs some demonstrations.