William (‘Bill’) Howcroft was born in 1875 in Tamworth, Staffordshire. By 1901 he was a self-employed ‘hardware dealer’, working from home, and ten years later he was a ‘gas works weighman’ in Garston, which is where he made his reputation as a swimming coach and swimming journalist. Howcroft visited the US to study their techniques and acquire a ‘thorough knowledge of the American crawl’, adoption of which had been particularly slow in Britain, subsequently passing on this knowledge to other British coaches. By the 1920s, he was effectively the leading swimming coach in the country.
Amateur coach and administrator, 1919 – 1924
As an amateur coach, Howcroft had an opportunity to contribute to the organisation of swimming and at its first meeting for four years in February 1919 the elected officials of the Northern Counties Amateur Swimming Association (NCASA) executive committee, who controlled all swimming in the area, included Howcroft, who was also elected to the ASA council. In 1922, Howcroft headed the delegates elected to the NCASA executive and he was re-elected in 1923 as well as being appointed to the District education committee and to the ASA as an NCASA representative. In March 1923, the ASA Olympic Games selection committee included Howcroft, who sat on the NCASA executive committee again in 1924, as well as the championship sub-committee. Emphasising the amateur nature of swimming in this period, the executive committee had announced in 1923 that officials for the Olympic Games in Paris would have to make their own arrangements as to expenses and accommodation.
As coach of Garston Swimming Club, based at the Speke Road Baths in Liverpool, Howcroft had produced four of the six female members of the 1920 British Olympic team and when, in early 1922, the ASA appointed a special sub-committee to consider the cause of British failures at Antwerp in 1920 and to ‘suggest a remedy’, Howcroft was included as a member. The sub-committee reported that the chief cause of failure was that Britain had ‘not appreciated the value of, and therefore not adopted, the modern developments in swimming strokes’. Further contributory causes were the general dislocation of swimming activities due to the war and the lack of competent instructors in modern strokes. These failures could be remedied by the universal adoption of the ASA scholarship scheme as initiated by the Association in 1913, the demonstration in centres throughout the country of modern strokes by expert swimmers, and a special effort to persuade local authorities to make it a condition when appointing swimming instructors that preference be given to holders of the ASA teacher’s certificate. Since there was little prospect of the British Olympic Council (BOC) providing financial support towards the cost of training and sending representatives in swimming and water polo to Paris, the committee suggested inaugurating a swimmers’ ‘one-million penny fund’ supplemented by galas and social functions.
Professional coach and swimming journalist, 1924 – 1951
In March 1923, the ASA reinforced its definition of an amateur as ‘one who has never taught swimming for pecuniary gain, but school teachers, organisers of games, masters giving instruction in swimming to pupils of schools or colleges and receiving payment from the school management do not, because of such payment, endanger their amateur status’ and this seems to have prompted Howcroft to review his status as an amateur. In July 1924, Howcroft ‘of Garston, the Olympic coach’, wrote to the NCASA resigning ‘all his offices on account of the fact that he was joining the professional ranks at the conclusion of the Olympic Games’. It was decided to present him with the Association’s certificate as an appreciation of his work’ and, later that month, the Lancashire County Swimming and Water Polo Association voted to award Howcroft the Association’s gold medal.
Howcroft, newly appointed as Olympic Coach, toured ten swimming centres throughout England that year and commented that his visits had stimulated the 200 swimmers he had tested. He had tried to coordinate and systematise the work and methods of the best English coaches and believed that the crawl stroke was finally being adopted for freestyle swimming. The results of the Paris Olympics, however, were ‘only a little better’ than in Antwerp and, although District Coaching and Training Committees had been established by the late 1920s, Howcroft, writing in 1930, commented that while standards had improved this progress had not been as rapid as in other countries. Britain had failed to keep up with the latest developments in instruction methods, stroke analysis, and progressive training, leaving it as the ‘only country where the governing associations have attempted to control instructional methods by textbooks and certificate exams. The ASA have dallied on the path to progress. Their recent record is one of apathy and procrastination’. Howcroft then criticised the existing ASA publications, arguing for their immediate revision, and pointed out that Training Colleges were using texts ‘which should have been scrapped years ago’. During his coaching career, he contributed his own texts, Swimming for Speed: The Crawl Stroke (1935), Swimming for Schoolboys (1936), and Crawl-Stroke Swimming (1929), a joint text produced with American coach L. de B. Handley.
Howcroft, described on the 1939 register as a ‘swimming instructor’ and ‘journalist’, continued to be an active influence in swimming throughout the 1930s, not least through his writings for the Morning Post. In 1935, he expressed concern for the administration of Olympic training and advocated ‘the appointment of a national organiser, that new blood was needed in the administration and that the place to raise standards was in the training pool and not in the racing arena’.
In October 1931, Howcroft was on the radio commentating on the England v France water polo international and the English swimming championships and at a Times sponsored gala at the Marshall Street Baths in October 1937 he attracted ‘great interest’ in his commentary on a combined display by four English champions. Uniquely, he coached both major universities simultaneously. After Cambridge University Swimming Club secured his services as swimming coach, the Light Blues had had an unbroken run of success against Oxford in the annual swimming and water polo fixture at the Bath Club. In 1930, following a discussion between the two universities, Cambridge agreed that his services would also be available at Oxford, who were expected to improve significantly as a result. British Olympian Joyce Cooper later described ‘Old Howcroft’ as the best coach in the world at that time. Unfortunately, ‘he went a bit bats towards his end but all during my career he was wonderful. I was supple but not strong. I had no strength in my legs and my back, my arms were weak. I couldn’t climb a rope and fell off a bar if I got on it. He gave me my strength. I owed everything to him’.
On August 14, 1951, Howcroft, the Olympic swimming coach and resident of 16 Parkway, Hillingdon, Middlesex, died in the National Temperance Hospital, Euston, at the age of 76, leaving his effects of £1,937 19s 9d. to his wife Agnes. His passing seems to have gone almost unnoticed and, like many other swimming coaches of the period, male and female, he has disappeared from the collective swimming memory but it is to be hoped that this can be rectified over the next few years as these ‘hidden histories’ of swim coaching are gradually exposed. If anyone has any information regarding these coaches or knows of any relevant sources they are encouraged to contact the author at D.J.Day@mmu.ac.uk.
Article © Dave Day
Census records 1891-1911; 1939 register; Probate records; Swimming magazine; Newspapers including the Guardian, The Times, Observer, and Morning Post; Keil, I. and Wix, D. (1996). In the Swim: The Amateur Swimming Association from 1869 To 1994, (Swimming Times Ltd., Leicester); Daniels, S. (1999). British Swimming Memories of 1928, Amsterdam. Journal of Olympic History Spring, 20-25.