Two swimmers whose rivalry during the 1880s served to define the professional era on the West of England circuit, J. J. Collier (1860-1899) of Salford, and George Kistler (1864-1942) of Penzance, both died on this day.
Both Collier and Kistler were recognised as world championship titles over the mile, Collier taking his from James Finney at Hollingworth Lake, Rochdale, in 1885, and Kistler taking his against Willie Beckwith in the sea at Penzance in front of thousands of spectators in 1887 – a title he controversially lost to Finney in Penzance a year later.
Born in Salford, Collier was one of the generation of swimmers that emerged from the public baths of industrial Lancashire to challenge the metropolitan hegemony of the professional era. Less well remembered today than showmen performers of the period, James Finney and Willie Beckwith, Collier nevertheless epitomised the journeyman professional. In 1883, in the space of 5 days, he competed in Southport (Lancashire), Dundee, Penzance and Exeter, earning £38 in prize money, the equivalent of £4,360 today. By contrast, Penzance-born George Kistler built his reputation as one of the leading swimmers of the era entirely on the West of England circuit, only competing ‘up-country’ a handful of times in his whole competitive career. The substantial prize money on offer on the West of England circuit was enough to induce the crack professionals of the day to travel to the far West to take on Kistler in his own water. Rewards on the circuit were considerable. Between 1882 and 1891 Collier’s total winnings on the circuit amounted to £194.10.6d in prize money, the equivalent of £19, 310 today. In 1890, his grand slam of the matches in Plymouth, St Ives, Penzance and Exeter netted him the equivalent of £3,027 in prize money in 4 successive days.
The Cornish crowds especially had a class affiliation with the visiting Northern professionals, and from his first appearance as an unknown quantity in 1882, Collier was a great favourite, winning races ‘as he liked’ which often meant toying with his opponents to give the appearance of a race, but rarely appearing to exert himself. In 1885, billed as ‘champion of the world’, Collier’s defeat by the relatively unknown Cornishman George Kistler, in St Ives was completely unexpected, especially as Kistler had to come from a long way behind in the closing stages of the race to beat him by an emphatic 40 yards. Betting had always been associated with swimming matches, even in staunchly Methodist West Cornwall, and rumours that Collier and Kistler had colluded to fix the outcome of the matches on the West of England tour that year soon circulated. The allegations were damaging and far-reaching, not just to Collier and Kistler, but also to the West of England circuit itself, at a time when the regulatory grip on the twin evils of betting and professionalism was tightening. Although both remained favourites with the crowds on the West of England circuit, over the years the ‘friendliness’ of the rivalry between Collier and Kistler only served to fuel scepticism when races between them produced a complete overturning of form. Both men’s careers continued to be dogged by rumours – and sometimes explicit allegations – of race-fixing, even in the generally pro-Kistler Cornish press.
As captain of the Professional Swimming Association in 1887, it is easy to see how in the eyes of the newly formed amateur regulatory body, the ASA, Collier represented the worst practices of professionalism. He was a confrontational figure, and it was perhaps no coincidence that it was the failure to register a benefit event held for Collier in 1889 that was the catalyst for the secession of the Northern clubs from the ASA.
With the arrival on the professional circuit of ex-amateur champion Joey Nuttall, and Collier’s failing health, his days among the first ranks of the professionals – like professionalism itself – were numbered. He continued to compete on the Western circuit until 1890, and his occupation at the 1891 census was given as a teacher of swimming, but retiring from competitive swimming, he spent the last years of his life giving exhibitions during the season at Blackpool. It was during one of these in August 1898 that he was taken ill with what turned out to be liver cancer, from which he died a few months later in January 1899. Despite being one of the highest earning professional swimmers at the height of his career, for most of his life, like many sportsmen of the period, his later years were beset by financial problems.
From 1888 Kistler’s competitive career was also in decline, and the arrival on the Western circuit of Joey Nuttall and another amateur ex-champion, S. W. Greasley, only served to emphasise the falling-off in his form. Although he continued to compete on the circuit, by 1891 he was better known as a rugby player, captaining both Penzance club and Cornwall county teams.
In October 1893, like many Cornishmen in search of a better economic future, Kistler emigrated to America. In 1897 he was appointed swimming instructor, and later coach at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he taught swimming, organised the first varsity swimming team, in the United States and, despite the limitations of the Houston Hall ‘tank’, even introduced water polo. In England, as a former professional, under ASA rules Kistler would have been debarred from teaching or coaching amateur club swimmers, but there were no such restriction on him in America. It was 1905 before the first official inter-collegiate championship was held, but by organising a number of ‘meets’ in the tank at Houston Hall, to which he invited the participation of other universities, Kistler can justifiably be said to have inaugurated inter-collegiate swimming and water polo in the United States. As ‘Coach Kistler’ he had a long, successful and much-respected career at Penn U., eventually retiring in 1934. He died in Philadelphia in 1942, aged 77.
At his death in 1899 at the relatively young age of 38, J. J. Collier was already an anachronism, an old style Victorian ‘professor’ in a modernising sport in which amateurism had largely relegated the professional swimmer to the margins. But leaving the old world for the new, George Kistler reinvented himself as the founding father of American inter-collegiate swimming and one of the first coaches of the modern era.