Early Years

In earlier years the teams from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth - Western Province and Eastern Province of the British Cape Colony - had regularly competed in water polo and swimming events. Another aspect of early swimming competitions was reported in the Cape Times of 20 January 1897, when two swimmers - George Williamson W. A. Bennett - swam from the Central Jetty in Table Bay.

The Sydney Times gives an interesting glimpse of swimming in southern Africa in 1897.

The Times reported: The match between Bennett and Williamson was contested on a Saturday afternoon in beautiful weather and smooth water (Ed. - we all know how cold the Atlantic is!) A start was made from the pipes on Woodstock beach Bennett at once forged ahead. At the completion of half a mile Williamson, who was not in very good condition, began to tire, and on the completion of about a mile retired, while Bennett, who swimming very strongly, went some distance further before he was taken up. The same newspaper also reports a gala held at the Claremont Baths, where swimmers and water polo players from the Suburban Amateur Swimming Club, and the Leander ASC competed. A display of High Diving was given by a squad of the King's Royal Rifles - putting diving on the map from the earliest days of competitive waters ports in South Africa.

Aquatic sports had a high profile in those early days at the Cape. The Times also reports an event held at the Graving Dock in Table Bay, where the City Council was unable to finance the purchase of a suitable trophy " for the encouragement of swimming. Individual members have stepped into the breach... and subscribed 10 guineas to purchase a swimming cup for the swimming section of the Cape Town Football Club. It was decided to ask the Councillors to present the cup direct to the Western Province ASA as a trophy for the 500 yards championships."

The Australian swimmer Ernest Cavill, with fellow professionals James Finey and someone named Daniells was present at a carnival organized by the Western Province ASA in February 1898. In 1899 his brother Percy Cavill also landed at the Cape. The Times reports that "he is busy arranging details with the proprietors of the Normal College and the Sea Point Baths to start a course of instruction in the Art of swimming." (The earliest mention of swimming coaching in SA that I have able to find - Ed).

1897 Ernest Cavill in South Africa

January 1900 - The South African Amateur Swimming Union was founded in 1900, after the water polo and swimming championships, hosted that year by the Western Province Swimming Union at the Claremont Baths, near Cape Town. The whole tournament was known as the "Currie Cup" for many years, owing to another South African sporting trophy donated by the owner of the Union Castle shipping line - Sir Donald Currie.

The Sydney Referee caried this article on 6 April 1898.

The trophy was donated the previous year, and won in the Cape by the Suburban Club. At the event hosted in Port Elizabeth in 1900, the Currie Cup was awarded to Western Province won, beating the only other team - Eastern Province, from Port Elizabeth. In the swimming events - the 100 yards SA Championship (sic - as the Cape Times reported it - Ed.) was won by R Marais (WP) in 1 min 17 3-5 seconds, followed by WD Cornwall (WP) second, and JC Wrensch (WP) thired. R Richardson of Eastern Province was 4th.

The following year the event was again held at the Claremont Baths, but was cut short by the death of Queen Victoria on 22nd January 1901. Officially no result was recorded for the 100 yards championship, as the final was never swum. In the two heats FW Porter of Suburban ASC won the first in 1 min 15 4-5, while the second was won in a faster time by G Marais in 1 min 13. The Western Province team, captained by B. Godbold and the Eastern Province team led by W Fiddian Green, also President of the South African Amateur Swimming Association (SAASU) only had one match, which the Western Province won 6 goals to 4.

March 1902 saw the second SAASU national championships, hosted by Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth. With the war over, more men were available to compete in the championships. Western Province again won the Currie Cup water polo championship, while the 100 yards championship was won by E. Wearin from Western Province in 1 min 07 1-5 , William Carswell and W Goldrick. also of Western Province taking second and third. Wearin also won the 500 yard and 50 yard events. A diving display was done by the PE Swimming Club, coached by ER Marks.

1904 saw the Currie Cup, held in Cape Town, going to Western Province, who beat Transvaal 20-0 and Eastern Province 12-0.

In 1906 the championships were held at the Central Baths, Pretoria, with teams from the Transvaal, Natal, Western Province and Eastern Province competing. Ben Jenkins of Transvaal won the 100 yards with a new record time of 65 1-5 seconds. He also won the 320 yards and 500 yards event, which he won by 40 yards. Jenkins had won a number of championship events in England before coming to Johannesburg in 1904, where he joined the Corner House Swimming Club. Western Province beat Transvaal 8-5 in final of the water polo, to win the Currie Cup, which was a great improvement for the Transvaal team that had been wooden spoonists in the previous two years competitions.

Eastern Province were the hosts again in March 1908, where East London first competed as a new team, and the Western Province team - who had won the Currie Cup every year since its inauguration, failed to send a team! In the swimming Jenkins was to come up against newcomer George Godfrey of Natal, who later became the first 'Springbok' swimmer, when he represented South Africa at the 1912 Olympic Games. No results of these events have been found yet.

Despite their absence at the previous tournament, the Currie Cup was again hosted by Western Province 1909, where Natal won the Cup, beating Transvaal by one point, with three wins and a draw against Eastern Province, who finished the tournament in third place. Transvaal was a close second, followed by Province and East London, who failed to win a game. Before the championships, George Godfrey of Natal set a new South African record for the 500 yards in Durban, reducing the record by 22 4-5 seconds. His time of 6 min 51 8-5 sec was still short of the world record 6 min 7 1-5, set by Australian Bernard Kieran in 1905.

1910 saw the South African swimming championship and Currie Cup water polo tournament held at Doornfontein, in Johannesburg. Transvaal, Natal, Western Province and East London competed for the Currie Cup, which was won by Transvaal. who won all three of their games. In the swimming Transvalers FJ Ralf won the 100 yards and also the team race, while Natal won the 220 yards through RH Simmonds and the 500 yards by George Godfrey.

According to its own rules, the South African Amateur Swimming Union moved its headquarters every year - to the province which is to host the next Currie Cup and swimming championships.. The Sunday Times reports : " The question of next season's headquarters, ..., still remains unresolved. By the ordinary course of events it is Natal's turn to hold office, but the Durban swimming officials are not prepared to take on the organization of the tournament until their new corporation bath is completed, and therefore prefer to put off their turn until a later season when their chances of having a successful gate would be much improved."

The story goes on: " Bloemfontein has been suggested, but although the Bath there is a well-appointed one, capable of holding a large crowd, and the place is most conveniently situated in regard to all the other centres, swimmers know so little of the Bloemfontein people's capabilities that they do not feel justified in risking the fortunes of the Union in their hands without further inquiry."

Despite an earlier reluctance to host the 1911 tournament, Natal ASA were the hosts in Durban. Reflecting an local enthusiasm for the sport, when the water polo final was held on the last day "hundreds of spectators were turned away, on account of the bath not being able to accommodate them." The first event - the Team Race - was won by Natal, despite Transvaal being the favour it es to win. The (Johannesburg) Sunday Times of 19 March wrote: This event was considered the proverbial good thing for our speed merchants. In the race our first three men were yards in front of Natal, and then came Hayward, Ray and Woodhead, who made up what their fellows had 'lost', and the latter eventually finished a yard ahead of Wearin (Transvaal)." Godfrey ended the tournament by winning the 100, 220 and 500 yards swimming events, with Simons of Natal taking second in each race.

Port Elizabeth hosted the 1912 event, and Godfrey and Simons were included in the Natal team. No results of the tournament have been found yet. 1913 is also missing, although Natal did apparently win the Currie Cup.

1914 saw the event held at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. Transvaal won the match against Natal, winning the Cup back. No results of the swimming have been located, but the Sunday Times does mention the presence of two players from Pietermaritzburg in the Natal team - E English and G Morgan - as this was the first time players from outside Durban had been selected.

  • The first swimmer to represent South Africa at an Olympic Games was George Albert Godfrey at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. 

  • Swimmers represented South Africa again in 1920 and at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam the Ladies 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay Team won the Bronze medal. 

  • In 1930 the first Empire Games were held in Hamilton, Canada and Onagh Whitsett of South Africa won the Gold Medal in the Ladies Springboard Diving. 

  • In 1932 at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles Jennie Maakal won the bronze Medal in e Ladies 400m Freestyle.

  • South Africa was represented at the 1934 Empire Games in London, the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney, the 1948 Olympic Games in London. 

  • At the Empire Games in Auckland in 1950, gold medals were won by Graham Johnston (Men’s 1650 yards Freestyle); Jacobus Wiid (Men’s 110 yards Backstroke) and Joan Harrison (Ladies 440 yards Freestyle and Bronze in the ladies 110 yards Backstroke).

  • At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki Joan Harrison won the Gold medal in the Ladies 100m Backstroke. 

  • Again, Gold medals were won at the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver by Graham Johnston, men’s 1650 yards Freestyle, Joan Harrison, ladies 110 yards Backstroke and the South African Ladies 4 x 110 yards Freestyle Relay team.

  • At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne the Ladies Relay team took the bronze medal in the 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay. 

  • In 1965 Karen Muir became the youngest person in the world to break a World record in any sport and that record still stands today. At the British Championships in Blackpool, she broke the World Record for the Women’s 110 yds Backstroke at the age of 12 and between 1965 and 1970 she went on to break 15 World Records in the 110 and 220 yds backstroke as well as the 100m and 200m backstroke.

  • The 1960 Olympic Games in Rome was the last Games that South Africans competed in until 1992 when they were readmitted and competed in the Games in Barcelona.

  • South Africa was readmitted to the Commonwealth in 1994 and took part in the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada in 1994. Swimming Today In 1995 South Africa competed in the All Africa Games for the first time and South African swimmers won a total of 26 Gold 22 Silver medals and 6 Bronze medals and broke 6 South African & African Records.

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