Legendary life-saver promoted sea swimming

PUBLISHED: 20:31 14 June 2012

Mercury Memory 15/8

Mercury Memory 15/8


COME on in! The water’s fine! Summer’s here, so let us join other bathers on Gorleston beach, treading water while we reflect on a swimming legend whose name lives on as that of a local road: William Adams Way, linking the junction of Beccles and Southtown Roads with the bypass.

My recent columns about Olympic Games competitors from hereabouts, and the exhaustive regulations imposed in 1895 on seashore businesses, like bathing machine and changing tent proprietors, brought a response from Stewart Adams, great-great-grandson of the man whose epic lifesaving feats have rightly earned him his place in the borough’s history.

Ex-Gorlestonian Stewart, now in Norwich and employed by Norfolk County Council, notes that I illustrated my feature with a photograph of one of Mr Capps’s bathing huts, a shot familiar to him because he originally spotted it in a local history book five years ago.

“At that time I was convinced immediately that the gentleman on the left of the photo was my great-great-grandfather William Adams (1864-1913), a famous lifesaver recorded as having rescued 140 lives from drowning off Gorleston beach,” he tells me.

“The same photo was donated to the Yarmouth museums in 1978 by a descendant of Mr Capps. The caption in the book Great Yarmouth: History, Herrings and Holidays, by Charles Lewis, says it shows “Grandfather Capps, two sons and an assistant” on Gorleston beach circa 1890. I presume this caption was gleaned from details on the back of the original photo.

“I understand that Mr Capps introduced the first bathing huts on Gorleston beach and I have a Yarmouth Mercury cutting from August 1882 which mentions the fine bathing “accommodation” provided by Messrs Capps and Cooper.

“Also, I have a Mercury cutting showing that William Adams began his own bathing machine/swimming tuition business on Gorleston beach in 1891. By then Adams had already saved a great many lives from drowning off Gorleston beach.

“His first rescue was in 1875 when he was just 11 years old! William Adams was known in the local press as ‘the Hero of Gorleston Pier’ and as ‘Professor Adams’ for the expert swimming tuition he provided.

“Although I can find no written evidence that he worked for Mr Capps, I am 99.9% sure that it is William Adams on the photo as I strongly suspect that he was working on Gorleston beach in summer from as early as 1884. It would therefore seem perfectly feasible that William Adams worked for Mr Capps before striking out on his own in 1891.”

My article about those old beach regulations said that Police Inspector Dann appeared to be the man with responsibility for enforcing them, and Stewart Adams says he has a copy of a handwritten letter William Adams wrote (presumably to the borough council) in March 1896 requesting a site on Gorleston beach for his bathing huts that summer.

William Adams – father of six sons, all of whom were excellent swimmers too - wrote: “I have seen Inspector Dann who says there is plenty of room on the south part of the beach, clear of the other machines, and he thinks there will be room enough for me.

“I have been on the beach several summers teaching swimming and I have also been the means of saving several lives from drowning. Being a native of Gorleston, I should like to have a chance. Your obedient servant, W. Adams.”

Stewart, a 34-year-old husband and father, tells me my Olympic-themed article brought to mind “a link, albeit rather tenuous, between William Adams and the Stockholm Olympics of 1912.

“I have two newspaper cuttings from 1912 which detail how a Dr W Morris won the King’s Cup in London at what the Mercury described as the ‘world’s swimming competition.’ It was reported that Dr Morris beat Malcolm Champion (New Zealand), Frank Schryver (Western Australia), T W Sheffield (Canada) and Sam Blatherwick (Great Britain) among other notable competitors.

“It was also reported in one of the cuttings that Dr Morris had been a visitor to Gorleston and owed his tuition to Professor William Adams, of Gorleston. The Mercury obituary of William Adams in 1913 states that ‘as a swimming instructor he has coached some of the best swimmers of the day.’ I certainly believe that William Adams was teaching swimming at a very high level when you consider the quality of those whom Dr Morris beat.

“Malcolm Champion was New Zealand’s first gold medallist and the first swimmer to represent New Zealand at an Olympic Games.

“The aptly named Champion won his gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and also won 32 New Zealand national titles.

“Frank Schryver was the first person to represent Western Australia at an Olympics when he took part in the swimming in 1912. Sam Blatherwick, of Sheffield, represented Great Britain at swimming in the 1908 London Olympics.

“Thomas Sheffield of Canada was the holder of the King Edward trophy at the world swimming competition in 1905. He was an honorary member of the Royal Life Saving Society and was Canada’s leading light in the art of swimming.

“The world swimming competition for the King’s Cup in London was in June 1912. The Stockholm Olympics swimming events were in the July. Therefore, swimming for the King’s Cup represented some of the final preparation that Champion and Schryver would put in prior to those Olympics.

“Yes, it is a rather tenuous link between Gorleston’s William Adams and the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. but I feel it is quite impressive nonetheless.”

Despite his success in the 1912 King’s Cup event, Dr Morris was not a member of the British Olympic swimming squad in Stockholm that year.

Finally, in a recent photograph published here, we queried the identity of the Yarmouth Corporation bus-man standing in front of the 1953 Coronation open-top double-decker that led the celebratory parade.

“Niko” Nicholas, of Wadham Road, Gorleston, thought he recognised him as the father of his school chum Michael Brooks, and this was confirmed by another pal, Terry Peek, nephew of the pictured bus man, Bertie Brooks.

However, he was possibly a conductor, not a driver.

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