MTMG Victorian Sports Personality of the Year 2008

What with Christmas decorations shouldering their way back into our malls and high streets, it’s obviously time once more to hand out the most prestigious award in Victorian sport today: The More Than Mind Games Victorian Sports Personality of the Year.

The award goes to that sports person, active between the years 1837 and 1901, who has, in the opinion of the judges, done the most to promote their sport, shown the greatest achievement within it, made the sacrifices, taken the risks and entertained the general public.

Competition for the 2008 award has been even more intense than in previous years.  Our shortlist contained great names: Fred Archer from the world of racing; Tom Morris Junior from the world of golf; the great boxer William Thompson; others of the same calibre. Our winner can be sure of the scale of his achievement and the worthiness of his prize.

The winner of the More Than Mind Games Victorian Sports Personality of the Year 2008 is H.J. Barron.  I have asked the Bicycling and Athletic Journal November 4 1880 to provide us with his eulogy.

FOREMOST amongst Metropolitan Swimming Clubs stands the “Otter,” whose headquarters are at the Marylebone Baths, Edgware Road. Our portrait this week is that of one of its most prominent members – Mr. H.J. Barron, who was born in London on March 31st, 1857. Although able to swim at the early age of seven years, and facile princeps amongst his school chums at Charterhouse, he did not make his debut in public until the year 1874, when as a member of the Otter Club, he won a Novice Race on May 22nd. This success he followed up by gaining the contest for the Ladies’ Challenge Cup, on the occasion of its inauguration on July 3rd. During the following year, Mr. Barron was engaged in study, and, therefore, had but little time to devote to his favourite pastime. However, he placed to his credit the Open Six Lengths Amateur Handicap at Professor C. Whyte’s entertainment at the Paddington Baths, on Oct. 18. On this occasion he was in receipt of a 20 sec. start from the scratch man T. Robinson. He won the third prize for Egg Diving at the Surrey Entertainment, and first at the opening gala of his own club. In 1876, on May 25, at David M’Garrick’s Benefit he carried off the Egg Diving (12 eggs thrown in, 2 dives allowed); first dive, 9; second dive, 10; total, 19; and the following day, May 26, he met Mr. Charles O’Malley on level terms in a 150 Yards Otter Handicap. Barron got the best of the dive, and defeated, perhaps, some of the best all-round men of the day by a yard. On Sept. 9 he competed in the Amateur Championship at the Welsh Harp, but was outclassed. He met Mr. Charles O’Malley once again on level terms, on Sept. 13, at the Surrey Entertainment, in a 500 Yards Scratch Race, when O’Malley turned the tables on his former conqueror, and won in excellent time of 7 min. 36 sec. , beating Mr. Horace Davenport, ex-Amateur Champion, by a yard. (The last-named, however, had previously competed in another race.) On Oct 13th, at the Otter Entertainment, Mr. Barron again won the Egg Diving competition, bringing up eighteen eggs in two dives. A severe illness during the spring of 1877 incapacitated Mr. Barron from engaging in many races, though he started for the Lords and Commons Prize contested in the Thames from Putney to Westminster; but he relinquished the undertaking after covering a trifle over five miles. At the Otter entertainment, on Oct 12 he was again successful in the Egg Diving, bringing up seventeen eggs in two dives; and his feats of ornamental swimming, comprising eating, drinking, and smoking underwater, together with the Monto Christo Sack Feat, @c., fairly “brought down the house.” On May 31, 1878, Mr Barron won the 98 yards Gold Badge of the Otter Club, in 1 min 14 1/2 sec; time allowed, 1 min 15 sec. On August 9, he gained the Captaincy for the Year of the Otter S.C.; distance, 1000 yards, in the Serpentine, after an exciting finish with Mr James Rope. On August 26, he won the Amateur Swimming Race at Shanklin (Isle of Wight) Regatta; but at Ryde Royal Regatta sustained defeat, after a desperate race (distance 600 yards) at the hands of M. White, of the Portsmouth S.C., who won by a few yards. On Sept 20, he competed for the 485 Yards Gold Badge of the Otter Club; time allowed being eight minutes; he won it in 7 min 48 sec. Mr Barron then turned his attention to the cinder-path, and carried off second honours in the race for the Mile Challenge Cup, at the United Hospital Sports at Lillie Bridge. He next engaged in a long walk from London to Portsmouth, starting at 10 p.m., Aug. 9, and reaching Portsmouth at 9 p.m., Saturday, 10th; the distance traversed being 72 miles, and the roads in a bad state, owing to rain. In June 1879, he won both the Short and Long Distance Races at the Edinburgh University Swimming Meeting, voluntarily conceding his fellow students 20 sec. start in the 165 yards. At the Whitehall S.C. Entertainment, held at the Floating Baths, on July 31, 1879, he won the swimming under water with 68 yards 6 in.; and was defeated in the Otter Captaincy Race by Mr. Charles O’Malley, and again at Ryde Royal Regatta by Mr. Geo. D. M. White; the distances in each case being too far for a quick stroke. He also competed successfully at Sandown and Ventnor Regattas, Isle of Wight. At the Otter entertainment, Oct. 7 (Marylebone), he swam a splendid race in the Open 98 Yards Scratch contest with Mr. Geo. Ellis, defeating him by a yard. At the Cadogan S.C. Meeting at Chelsea Baths, he proved best man in another “swim under water,” with 67 yards 18 in. The Swimming Association being in a weak and critical condition, the Otter SC. joined it in the early part of the season, with a view to renovating it and making it the strong and representative body it should be. Their efforts have proved very successful. Of their delegates, Mr. H. Davenport was unanimously elected to the office of president, and Mr Barron as hon. sec. On July 27, Mr Barron again Mr. George Ellis in the Otter 98 Yards Scratch Race, and getting a bad start was defeated by “the touch.” On August 2 he won the Swimming Race at the Bath Amateur Regatta, and five days later swam in the Floating Baths Company’s Long Distance Thames Race, from Putney to Charing Cross, distance, 5 3/4 miles; he was, however, compelled to retire at the Albert Bridge, Battersea Park, owing to an attack of cramp. On August 28 at the Swimming Races of the Bangor (County Down), Ireland, S.C., Mr. Barron defeated Mr. W.R.C. Richardson, of Portrush, in the 440 Yards Race, and also secured the 100 Yards Race, swimming on the back only; and at Portrush (County Antrim), on Aug. 3, he won the 100 Yards Open Scratch Race, but was beaten after a grand race by W.R.C. Richardson in the 880 Yards Handicap, both starting from scratch. Unquestionably the gentleman whose prowess has been so lightly touched upon is in the first flight as a “sprint” swimmer, but staying is not his forte. As an exponent of some of the most difficult feats in ornamental natation, Mr. Barron has few, if any equals. Both “by land and water” he has striven hard to encourage and give a healthy tone to his favourite pastime, and recently lectured in its favour before the boys at Fettes College, Edinburgh. Not by any means has Mr. Barron permitted his infatuation for the art to interfere with the duties of his profession, in which he has taken high honours both at his hospital and Edinburgh University. He is not only an exceedingly popular “Otter,” but a universal favourite in the swimming world.

The Sunny South. – A gentleman writes to us as follows from Braunton, Devonshire: “I see snow has fallen heavily of late, but Braunton has escaped the visitation. Neither was there any snow here last winter. Only yesterday (Oct. 30) swallows were flitting merrily to and fro.”

(I don’t know what that last bit is about).

All kidding aside… there are a number of points of interest here.

Whig history, first of all: a modern reading about Barron sees a sport in its disorganised infancy. We look out for the features modern swimming shares with the Victorian past time, and wonder-slash-smile at the incongruities. Smoking underwater? Egg diving? Natation, forsooth?

This is how most modern sports history is written: what matters about Victorian sport is how it contributed to the modern picture, and the “winners”, if you like, are those that contributed to those pioneering/enduring features.

But this is history-by-verdicts: the kind of history politicians fancy themselves to be tilting for. Proper academic history has laughed this kind of thing out of court since Herbert Butterfield’s day. Most sport history, even at the supposed academic level, is yet to bring itself to the task of explaining Victorian sport on its own terms. (N.B. I’m well aware of the philosophical difficulties involved in describing the past to the present in terms of ideology and mores, but just because those difficulties exist doesn’t mean that the field has to be abandoned to the waggling moustache of Hunter Davies).

One is struck by the willingness Barron showed to take actual risks – all that underwater stuff. And then there’s swimming the Thames. This is, remember, the Victorian Thames, only 20 years after the Great Stink. Of course, Bazelgette’s sewers would have made life for the 1870s swimmer sweeter than for his earlier counterpart, but embankment of the Thames intensified the current and accelerated the water flow: Barron’s two Thames races were genuinely dangerous affairs. London’s is not a river to be taken lightly.

The “Floating Baths” were quite literally that, by the way. It was a tank placed in the Thames and filled with filtered water. I’ll describe it, with my Whig Historian hat on, as a forerunner of today’s professional-level indoor pools.

Barron swam on for another year or two, then turned to refereeing, as it were. In the middle of the 1880s, the Swimming Association split over the subject of amateurism. The Otter Club were among those to resign their membership. At about the same time, Dr Hunter Barron completed his diploma and was admitted member of the Royal College of Surgeons; thereafter, his name is heard no more in the halls of the Natation King.

Not so Horace Davenport, he who would race twice on the same day, who, when finished with swimming, became a croquet hero of the sunny south..


5 Replies to “MTMG Victorian Sports Personality of the Year 2008”

  1. Croquet, eh? Is there still a croquet club at Lauriston Castle? If so, let me recommend post-prandial bang-abouts on the shores of the Firth on long summer evenings. Awfy nice, if you can stomach the level of ruthless competition.

  2. Completely seriously: egg-diving would make a brilliant Olympic sport. It’s a real test of athleticism and it would make good television. And it’s far less inherently silly than the triple jump.

  3. @dearieme: Let me get past the long winter evenings first..
    @Harry: I can’t agree more about the triple jump, although my instinct would be to add egg diving to the Modern Pentathalon and make them do it on horseback.

  4. And let us also remember Bible teacher John Ripsher “midwife, nurse, father, teacher (and president) of Tottenham Hotspur” buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave at St Mary’s Cemetery, Dover.

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