The West’s Past – Post War and the Golden Years of Motherwell A.S. & W.P.C.

Extracted from “100 Years of Scottish Swimming” – Peter Bilsborough (1988)

During the 1940s and early 1950s Motherwell A.S. & W.P.C. set new standards.
A combination of good talent spotting, excellent coaching, total commitment by all those involved and unlimited access to facilities produced a clutch of international swimmers.
Kids in Motherwell in the late thirties could do one of three things in their free time: go to the cinema, play football or visit the public baths.
Thousands attended the baths where they came under the watchful eye of David Crabb,the bath-master.
Those who were interested and showed potential were invited to special swimming classes which he ran after school every day from 5.30 – 6.30 pm.
He called them ‘The Early Speed Classes’ and those who showed improvement and worked hard were invited to his ‘Late Speed Classes’ which were held every night at 9 pm after the end the public sessions. Most regular swimmers bought season tickets and the price was kept as low as possible. Everyone was also provided with a towel.
In the thirties Crabb had been a fine swimmer and an outstanding diver. He possessed tremendous self-discipline and he was a dedicated fitness enthusiast. He applied all these qualities to his coaching. He spent hours with his swimmers improving their technique, increasing their fitness and instilling self-discipline. He taught them how to become good. His first, and many would say finest champion, was Nancy Riach.
During the War she amassed 28 Scottish and British records.
At one time she held every Scottish record in every stroke and at every distance and also held seven British freestyle records.
In 1945 she was regarded as the `finest ‘Water Machine’ in Britain’. (photo)
In 1947 another writer described her as the ‘finest swimmer ever produced in the British Empire’.
Sadly she was never given the opportunity to display her potential. She died of poliomyelitis in 1947 in Monte Carlo while competing for Great Britain in the European Championships.
10,000 people lined the streets in Airdrie on the day of her funeral.
David Crabb noted, `there may be faster swimmers in the future, but never will her dynamic and colourful personality be surpassed.’
Nancy Riach’s progress and achievements stimulated others to raise their sights.
She was the catalyst in Motherwell’s chemistry.
By 1947 Crabb had a dozen swimmers of national standard. He was so successful and his enthusiasm was so infectious that the Town Council gave him carte blanche to open the baths any time for training. As he lived in a flat above the baths he worked with the swimmers whenever they were available.
He kept the baths open until 11 pm and even midnight if necessary.
He also ran a half hour session every Saturday morning and a two hour session each Sunday.
The club was at its strongest in 1947 and 1948. In 1947 some of its achievements included winning 11 Scottish and seven A.S.A. individual championships. Three swimmers were selected for the British team at the European Championships and during the season Cathie Gibson broke eight Scottish Native, four Scottish All-Comers and six British Native records. (photo)
1948 was even more successful. Swimmers won seven individual A.S.A. Championships and 15 individual Scottish Championships. Seven swimmers were selected for the Olympic Games. Cathie Gibson, Trevor Harrop, Jack Wardrop and Margaret Girvan were included in the British Swimming Team and Ian Johnstone, David Murray and Forbes Gentleman in the British Water Polo Team. Cathie Gibson was the only British medallist, taking third place in the 400 metres freestyle.
As the club’s reputation grew it was invited all over Britain to take part in club galas.
The Motherwell Water Circus’, as it was known in England, performed to capacity crowds. In England prices as high as 30s. for a seat and 3s. 6d. to stand were charged at some galas.
A typical programme included: a variety of handicap and scratch races featuring Nancy Riach, Margaret Bolton, Margaret Girvan, Trevor Harrop, Ian MacDonald and Robert Thomson; a `Training for Speed Swimming’ exhibition by Ian MacDonald, the holder of six Scottish freestyle records; an exhibition of formation swimming, `The Rhythmic Swimming Display’, by a dozen swimmers
accompanied by live pipe and drum music; an exhibition of diving and swimming by Motherwell’s 4-8 year olds — the `Tiny Tots’; a diving display by Fraser Riach, Jack Ferguson and Willie Bruce; a challenge team race and a water polo match.
The club dominated Scottish swimming and water polo until the mid-fifties.
In 1952 Jack Wardrop won five A.S.A. titles, broke every British Native freestyle record from 100 yards to one mile, captained the British swimming team at the Helsinki Olympics where he finished fifth in the 400 metres freestyle and swam for Europe in an inter-continental relay event after the Games.
At the end of the season he left for the United States to become a student at Michigan University where he was coached by Matt Mann.
During 1954 he became the first Scotsman to hold a world swimming record. In April at the United States Indoor Championships at Yale University he swam 4m. 41.7 for 400 yards individual medley. He went on to set three more world records.
Jack’s brother Bert and three water polo players from Motherwell — David Murray, Jack Ferguson and Ian Johnstone — were also members of the 1952 British Olympic Team.
Motherwell’s water polo team enjoyed as much success as its swimmers.
For 12 years from 1947 it won the S.A.S.A. championship and in the five year period 1949-53 reached the final of the A.S.A. Club Championship, winning the title In 1949 and 1950.
Motherwell set new standards in Scottish swimming and water polo.
Crabb had shown that, given the right ingredients, Scotland could produce world class swimmers. It was now up to others to learn from his example and emulate his achievements.

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