Three Taylor-made triumphs in the pool

Until 2008, Henry Taylor was Great Britain’s most prolific gold medallist at an Olympic Games – his prowess in the pool setting a standard that would, astonishingly, not be bettered for an entire century.

Taylor was brought up in impoverished surroundings in Oldham, Greater Manchester. He was so poor, according to the Manchester Evening News, that he could only afford to swim in his local Chadderton Baths on ‘dirty water day’, when the entrance fee was reduced. His first experiences of swimming had come in a canal.

By the age of 21 he had been successful enough at Chadderton Swimming Club to be selected for the 1906 Intercalated Games, where he caused some surprise by winning a gold, a solver and a bronze. He broke the 880 yards world record before the end of that year, and there was no doubting his place in Britain’s Olympic team.

The swimming events at London 1908 were the first to take place in a specially-constructed pool – which, uniquely, was situated inside the running track and sat squarely in front of one of the stands. Taylor’s first event in the new facility was the 400m freestyle, an event whose distance had been tweaked slightly from the 440 yards it had been competed over in 1904. He won his first heat by six yards, but was beaten at the last by the Austrian Otto Scheff in the semi-finals. Both progressed to the final, though, where what started out as a tense race was quickly fought out by leaders Taylor and the Australian Frank Beaurepaire. Taylor eased clear over the last 50m to take the first gold of his hat-trick by a margin of 8.2 seconds. He was almost 10 seconds ahead of Scheff.

The 1,500m event was a more leisurely affair for Taylor, who by the semi-finals was “swimming beautifully, and without calling upon his reserve,” according to the Official Report. The final, fought out at a “cracking pace”, went to Taylor in a world record time of 22 minutes 48.4 seconds. Curiously, the man he defeated by 2.8 seconds, Thomas Battersby, continued swimming after the 1,500m mark had been met, going on to complete the mile in an unofficial record time of his own.

Taylor’s third gold arrived in the 800m team race, in which he swam for Britain alongside John Derbyshire, William Foster and Paul Radmilovic. He was the hero in the team’s semi-final, overhauling the USA’s Leslie Rich on the final leg despite the American having a three-yard start on him at the changeover. Taylor was a formidable figure to finish a relay with – and demonstrated this in spectacular fashion in a final contested against the USA, Hungary and Australasia. By the final turn, the Hungarians’ Zoltan Halmay was 15 yards in front of Rich, who was a further four yards ahead of Taylor. A superhuman effort, coupled by a collapse on Halmay’s part, saw Taylor stay the course to win by three yards, beating Hungary into second and sealing one of this Games’ most stunning comebacks.

Taylor, who held down a factory job and trained in his lunch hour, was seen again at the 1912 and 1920 games, helping Britain to bronze in the 800m team race at each. He retired in 1926, and later on in his life he became an attendant at the Chadderton Baths complex that had been so formative to his story. He is still regarded at Britain’s greatest-ever amateur swimmer, and was undoubtedly his country’s hero of the 1908 Games.