Extracted from “100 Years of Scottish Swimming” – Peter Bilsborough (1988)
During the early 1870s, attempts were made by the various English clubs to arrange some kind of ball game in the water.
A game termed ‘water base-ball’ was created. Sides consisted of no more than three players. By 1876 one or two south coast clubs started to play a game called ‘aquatic hand-ball’.
Scotland, however, can take most of the credit for creating and nurturing the modern game of water polo.
Members of Bon-Accord S.C. started to play a ball game in the water called ‘aquatic football’ in the early seventies.
One of the principal rules was that no player could touch the ball with his hands. Players had to sit in the water and kick the ball with their feet when passing or shooting for goal.
It was a rather difficult game to play and never became popular.
A few years later in 1877, William Wilson, President of the A.S.C.S. and Manager at Glasgow’s Victoria Baths Club was asked by Bon-Accord’s President if he knew of a suitable game or competition which could be played at the club’s annual championship gala to relieve spectators from the monotony of watching a lengthy programme competitive swimming races.
Wilson drew up a set of rules for a water game called ‘aquatic football’. It was played from bank to bank on the River Dee at the club’s annual championships.
Although Wilson had invented an attractive handling game, it was not that successful on moving water as the current carried the ball downstream and only the strongest swimmers could keep up with the play.
A few months later, Wilson arranged a second game but this time in an indoor pool. Teams representing Victoria Baths and West of Scotland played at the opening of the Victoria Baths, Glasgow. Afterwards Wilson changed some of the rules to make it more attractive. It was played in its revised form for the first time at Paisley Baths in October 1877.
In the following year further rule adjustments were made for a match at a Carnegie S.C. gala.
Compared to the modern game these initial contests were simple rough and tumble scrambles from one end of the bath to the other. Soft India-rubber balls were used which were difficult to throw any distance. However, enthusiasts recognised that the game had potential and if properly developed could provide a useful addition to club activities and entertainments.
Consequently Wilson made further changes: goal posts similar to those in football were introduced; standing on the pool bottom became an offence; catching with both hands was abolished.
The first game under these new conditions took place in Glasgow in October 1879 between the West of Scotland and Clyde clubs.
At the same time copies of the rules were passed around the clubs in Glasgow and it was introduced into club practice evenings to supplement long sessions of coaching and training.
As more swimmers acquired the skills and familiarised themselves with the rules, intra-club games became commonplace and by 1880 inter-club contests started to flourish.
Water polo was popular since it shared many of the qualities found in Association football. For players it was skilful, fast and exciting. It required little equipment and could be easily learned by the average swimmer. It also provided a useful supplement to racing by improving both speed and stamina.
The game also became increasingly popular with spectators because it was exciting to watch and easy to comprehend. The warm comfortable atmosphere of a swimming pool was particularly conducive to sustained spectator interest.
Similar developments were taking place in England. In Birmingham a few clubs began to play a crude style of water polo in 1883 but progress was restricted as each club had made up rules of its own. Uniformity was not achieved until 1885 when the S.A.G.B. produced and circulated an agreed set of rules.
In Scotland, in contrast, the acceptance of a single code of rules (albeit informally) in the late 1870s and the availability of suitable playing facilities, enabled Glasgow’s swimming clubs to emerge as pioneers in the game’s early development.
Water polo’s initial popularity was consolidated after 1886 when the A.S.C.G. started an inter-club knock-out cup competition. Several laws, particularly those concerned with tackling, were changed to make the game more skilful and consequently more enjoyable to play and watch and all affiliated clubs were circulated with a set of competition rules.
West of Scotland S.C. beat South Side S.C. in the first final.
By 1889 the competition ‘was engaged in by nearly all the Glasgow clubs, and during the series of matches the interest and popularity of the game has increased in public favour’.
As it was easy to arrange games between clubs in a confined geographical area which possessed good public facilities, the competition went from strength to strength.
As with Association football in Glasgow, distinct district loyalties developed. There was widespread support for neighbourhood teams.
In September 1888,
‘Between 300 and 400 aquatic football enthusiasts paid for admission to Cranstonhill Baths last Tuesday, to witness the cup tie — Western v South Side.’
A local intra-city fixture between Glasgow North and Glasgow South was also inaugurated by the A.S. C.G. in 1886.
With the establishment of County Associations by the S.A.S.A. in the late eighties the game spread and became popular in other parts of the country.
Dundee clubs started to play and in 1889 they formed a team to play in an inter-city game against Glasgow. This became an annual fixture until 1907 when sufficient development had taken place in Edinburgh and Aberdeen for the establishment of an inter-district competition. Representative fixtures not only improved playing standards but also allowed spectators to watch the country’s leading players.
Additional interest was nurtured after 1890 with the inauguration of an annual Scotland v England international fixture. Although the first game took place at the Kensington Baths in London,
it aroused considerable attention in Scottish swimming circles. Scottish Sport gave 20 column inches to a widely celebrated Scottish victory. To defeat the ‘auld enemy’ at any sport was guaranteed to arouse considerable patriotic fervour and consequently a resounding victory gave an enormous fillip to the game — particularly in Glasgow since six of the seven players belonged to local clubs.
‘We have bearded the lion in his den, and he is not the lion today he was a week ago … puir auld Scotland sent up her best seven, and they came home laden with honour.’
Cup and representative games were very popular but they did not provide the average club player with regular competition. Consequently in the early 1890s some clubs from Glasgow asked the W.C.A.S.A. to establish a league competition for affiliated clubs. It began in 1906. Six clubs took part. Within three years the W.C.A.S.A. League contained 16 clubs split into two divisions and 21 were involved by 1912.
Similar developments were copied by the other County Associations, albeit on a smaller scale.
While league structures widened the game’s appeal and helped to improve skill levels, they also created an unhealthy concern for winning. Swearing, fighting and bad sportsmanship were common. At a Glasgow Amateurs v Paisley game in 1907 the referee was:
‘forced to stop the game two seconds from time owing to spectators making such a noise as prevented him being heard by the players and he had occasion to order Currie and another player of the Paisley team out of the water for wilful fouling.’
It was not the end of the affair.
After the game the referee, upon leaving the baths, ‘was pelted with stones, mud, and other missiles all the way to the station.’
County administrators and officials had to work hard to ensure that clubs adhered to acceptable standards of sporting behaviour. They introduced various regulations to penalise offenders.
By 1914 water polo was no longer regarded as a casual fun activity played at the end of club practice evenings or a novelty item used as a respite from swimming races at gala nights.
It had become an extremely popular local, national and international sport.