People will always talk about the old days. They’ll talk about the champion swimmer of Penzance, Professor Hicks – singing comic songs and smoking underwater, to amuse the crowd. They’ll talk about George Kistler, and the rivalry between the two men, the big money prizes. The huge crowds watching the tiny figures racing round the buoys; the grandstands set up to provide better views.
We thought those days were over. Professor Hicks, after all – he still gives lessons, but he’s an old man now. And who was there in the town to replace him, and to bring home the honours to Penzance? Nobody, it seemed. Until today.
The Cafe Marina (built 1887, demolished 1935): scene of Phyllis Bottrell's triumph (Morrab Library Photographic Archive, accessed July 25, 2017, http://photoarchive.morrablibrary.org.uk/items/show/9611.
The sea was rough all afternoon – and it seemed for a while as if today’s matches would have to be postponed. But the pool at the Cafe Marina was available and so – just for one day – all the paraphernalia of iodine treatments and sundae glasses and teapots was put to one side. The place became, once more, what was intended back in 1888: a swimming pool.
Gracie Toman, the lady champion of Cornwall, had come over from St Ives the day – no doubt expecting to take a few more trophies home with her. And when the Ladies Open started off, nobody was surprised when Miss Toman took the lead. But there, three places behind her, was a local schoolgirl, by the name of Phyllis Bottrell. All eyes were on Miss Toman to begin with. Phyllis is a little girl – a tiny girl – and nobody even noticed her. But she kept her place, and at the half way point a few people noticed that she was gaining on her elders – slowly but surely “overhauling” them. Moving into third place, then second, then level with Miss Toman. Level pegging, stroke for stroke, with the champion of Ladies Champion of Cornwall.
“She was greeted with encouraging cheers….for a whole length of the baths the pair swam neck and neck. Excitement had by this time reached a high pitch, and the place resounded with cheers. Then at the upper end of the baths, Miss Bottrell took the load, and the cheering became deafening”. Whether the cheers inspired her, or whether Miss Toman lost heart, little Phyllis’ lead increased. She won by a full half length. Won fair and square. Nobody can argue with that.
Perhaps it was something about her smallness – her youth. The way she blushed and seemed so nervous when she came forward for her prizes. Or perhaps it was seeing a local girl succeed, against expectations. But whatever the reason, the crowd hoisted her onto their shoulders, carried her across the road shoulder high. She looked even smaller, wrapped up in a warm coat – the crowd all cheering as they followed her home.
To be fair, the whole St Mary’s School team have had an excellent season. It’sd the first season girls have been allowed to compete, and they’ve already beaten all the schools in Cornwall – even the boys’ schools – and at St Ives last week came first in every race they entered. We could pick out others – Dorothy Berriman, Maud Tabb. None of them even fourteen; their teacher – Miss Hilda Bond – must be very proud. But perhaps every team needs a star, and Phyllis – she’s the one. She’s only thirteen, but she’s brought swimming honours home to Penzance.
Cornishman 26th August 1925, page 3