Mum was a swimmer until she was 85, ideally in a 50m pool and with a dedicated lane to herself. Her determination to be a swimmer – apparently originating in her childhood – was an amazingly inspirational journey. Working full-time, she often swam three times a day, postwar, in a time of rationing; a small slight woman, she demonstrated how dreams can come true, if someone is determined enough and willing to practice.1

I have been researching the history of British women Olympians for over a decade, prompted by the award of the 2012 Games to London. Having first hosted the Olympic Games in 1908, at the height of the suffragette campaign and in a context of Irish Home rule dominating domestic politics, the second London Olympic Games in 1948 were less controversial but nevertheless historically significant.

Robert Edelman has argued that 1948 should be seen as, ‘The last of the pre-war Games’ before Cold War rivalries changed the intensity of nationalism from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics onwards.2 In the assessment of Bob Phillips, London ‘rescued’ the Olympic Games, from the highly politicised atmosphere in Berlin.3 This goes a little far, as the degree of pomp and ceremonial British nationalism made them a political statement in their own right.4 But who were the women who represented Great Britain?

The swimmer Margaret Wellington was one British representative amongst approximately 390 women athletes, compared with roughly 3,714 male Olympic contestants.5 Though statistically small, this number was a ten-fold increase on the women competitors at the first London Olympics in 1908. The following biographical information is based on an interview with Margaret’s daughter, Lesley, in December 2015. Born in Sydenham in December 1926, Margaret had an elder brother born the previous January, Peter Beresford Wellington. She did not care for her middle name, Olive, but preferred Maggie and this was one of several nicknames she would acquire throughout life, including being dubbed by the newspapers ‘The Peppy Kid’. Although not a medalist in 1948, Maggie was to achieve a degree of world-wide fame as a result of becoming an Olympic and Empire Games/Commonwealth Games competitor. This article focuses on her 1948 Olympic appearance and a subsequent article will compare this with her Commonwealth representation.

Margaret attended Alexandra Junior School and then Beckenham Girls’ Grammar School and was said to have wanted to swim to a high level – ‘to be a champion’ – from the age of seven. The physical signs of a future Olympian were not initially evident if Margaret’s own account is to be believed, as she reported having ‘tried almost every other game and had been a miserable failure…If there is one thing I have proved in my life as a sportswoman, it is that a national swimming champion can be fashioned out of the most hopeless-looking material.’6 Margaret was small, had glasses from an early age and for a while had to wear a patch over one eye, leading to the unkind nickname ‘five eyes’ at school.

At the relatively late age of fifteen and a half, Margaret set her mind to swim seriously, seven days a week and train with Beckenham Ladies Swimming Club. As well as strong school performances in the Freestyle, Margaret became Junior Southern champion in 1942. In 1944 she came to national prominence as a potential Olympic hopeful in the Freestyle events over both 100 and 400 metres. For the next three years her friendship and rivalry with the Scottish Freestyle competitors Cathie Gibson and Nancy Riach provided a South versus North narrative that many newspapers capitalised upon.

Margaret’s appetite for increased training had a dramatic effect, as she would finish second in the 100 yards Freestyle final, third in the 220 yards race and fourth over 440 yards at the National Championships in 1946 in New Brighton. A close third to Riach and Gibson followed in the 1947 national finals, held at Hastings, and Pathé News dubbed Wellington the ‘Mermaid in the City’.7 Often called ‘the personality girl’ of the English or British team, Wellington was also frequently described as ‘tawny-haired’ in the newspapers.

Margaret then set herself a series of goals and these were ‘To win all three Freestyle national titles, and to represent Great Britain in the European, Empire and Olympic Games.’8 She would go on to achieve all of these targets between 1947 and 1950, although she represented England, rather than Great Britain in the Empire Games.

In perhaps the most intensely competitive Olympic women’s swimming event in 1948, Margaret Wellington, Lillian Preece and Patricia Neilsen were all eliminated in their respective heats in the 100 metres metres Freestyle individual race. However, Maggie was national 100 yards Freestyle champion that year, having taken the title in Scarborough. In 1949 she would go on to take both the 220 yards and 400 yards Freestyle national championships in Derby.

Margaret Wellington remained well known following her Olympic appearance. For example, in 1949 the BBC paid her ten guineas and all travelling expenses to deliver an eight-minute talk as part of a light programme, called ‘Hullo Children: Spotlight On Swimming.’9 However, she was an amateur in both attitude and in status. Before describing her subsequent Commonwealth career, it is worth leaving the last word to her daughter.

A vivacious, vibrant member of the British team, she eat, drank, dreamt, lived, breathed swimming. Gutsy, committed and determined, she especially loved the time she spent at Loughborough University; every day dedicated to improving her talent. Mum was extremely proud to be an amateur, never wanting to associate money with her skill. She believed that swimming is not only the best exercise for the whole body, but is also a sport available to everyone.10

[1] Lesley Restorick Margaret Wellington: Personal Communication 20 January 2016

[2] Robert Edelman Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sport in the USSR New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 p. 25.

[3] Bob Phillips The 1948 Olympics: How London Rescued the Games London: Sports Pages, 2007.

[4] Janie Hampton London Olympics, 1908 and 1948 London: Shire, 2011; Janie Hampton The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948 London: Aurum Press, 2012.

[5] Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad The Official Report of the Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad Part One and Part Two London: Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad, 1948.

[6] Margaret Wellington ‘Swimming to be a Champion-7 Days a Week’ in Carolyn Dingle (ed.) News Chronicle: Sport For Girls London: News Chronicle Publications Department, 1951 p. 29.

[7] British Pathé Margaret Wellington: Mermaid in the City 1946 film number 1388.02 http://www.britishpathe.com/video/mermaid-in-the-city accessed 26 May 2016.

[8] Margaret Wellington ‘Swimming to be a Champion’ p. 31.

[9] British Broadcasting Corporation Margaret Wellington: Hullo Children London: Broadcasting House 12 December 1949.

[10] Lesley Restorick Margaret Wellington: Personal Communication 20 January 2016.