Walter Septimus Brickett was born in 1865 in Camden to Sarah Brickett and James Brickett, a grocer. By 1881, he was following in the footsteps of brothers James, Arthur, and Alfred, as a pianoforte maker and competing

regularly in amateur swimming events. He came third in the 500 yards championship in 1888, and second in 1896, third in the Ulph Cup race in 1889, second for the Sportsman Cup in 1892, and third in the salt water championship in 1891. He also competed in athletics winning a one-mile walking handicap for Highgate Harriers at Stamford Bridge in April 1887. Walter was involved in the creation of the Life Saving Society on 3 January 1891 and he was holder of the Society’s Bronze Medal for Life Saving, skills which came in useful in 1907 when he rescued and resuscitated a drowning seaman.

Walter became a prominent swimming coach and in 1908 he was appointed trainer to the Olympic team. After the Games, Walter was presented with a testimonial from the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), signed by George W. Hearne, ASA President, and seventy members of the Committee, water polo, swimming, and diving teams, “bearing testimony to, and sincere appreciation of, the valuable and unremitting services of professor Brickett, to whom all British Olympic swimmers were greatly indebted”.

In the 1911 census Walter described himself as a swimming instructor and his appointment for Stockholm as trainer and adviser-in-chief to the British swimming team was confirmed at the 1912 annual general meeting of the ASA. The committee report following Stockholm commended Madame Jarvis and Professor Walter Brickett, who had accompanied the team as “professional trainers and attendants”, for carrying out their duties “in the most capable manner”.

Belle White who won a diving bronze medal in Stockholm recalled Walter as “a fatherly type of man, but he was a hard disciplinarian in training. He gave you marvellous encouragement and always tried to make you feel confident.”

Walter’s business card, circa 1914, advertised him as the “well-known British Olympic Trainer, appointed by the Amateur Swimming Association, and teacher of all styles of Swimming” and he was one of the few British coaches to teach the new front crawl stroke. A course of lessons cost a guinea, a single lesson was two shillings, while a course of twelve lessons concentrating on crawl, over-arm and trudgen was one pound, four shillings.

Walter also trained channel swimmers, including Jabez Wolffe who made twenty-two attempts but never succeeded, failing by yards in 1911. Wolffe was always rubbed all over with a special preparation of Walter’s, which was allowed to soak in and dry before being covered with lamb’s fat. Walter fed him every half-hour from a small boat, principally with chicken sandwiches, biscuits, Oxo, chocolate, chicken broth, weak tea and cocoa, and Wolffe recorded his appreciation of “Professor Walter Brickett, who has always understood me thoroughly and who has developed my powers in a truly re­markable fashion”.

Interviewed late in his career, Walter noted that girls were well suited for swimming because of their buoyancy and suppleness, their ability to stay in the water for long periods, and their stamina, which was equal to that of men. Under his guidance, Lilian Maud Smith became the third woman to tackle the channel in 1912, although she failed both on that occasion and then again in August 1913. American Clarabelle Barrett attempted a Channel crossing in August 1926 after training with Walter.

Using a strong crawl stroke Clarabelle got within two miles of France, when she had to be taken out of the water in an exhausted condition having, according to Walter, taken around 26,400 strokes.

After he became a paid trainer, thereby excluding himself from amateur competitions, Walter combined his athletics and swimming into multi-event challenges. On 23 July 1914, at the age of forty-nine, he walked a mile, ran a mile, cycled a mile, rowed a mile, and swam a mile, all within an hour, between Putney and Hammersmith. Continuing his successful one-hour challenges Walter added a mile to his run in 1915, completed seven miles on land and water in 1916, and in August 1919, aged 54 and sponsored by the News of the World, he walked a mile, ran a mile, ran a mile over hurdles, cycled three miles, rowed a mile, and swam a mile, in just over fifty-five minutes. The value to his coaching career of these achievements, together with his appointments as Olympic trainer, was demonstrated in his advertisements which noted that he was the “Holder World’s Athletic record, Aug. 15th, 1919” and “British Olympic Swimming Trainer, 1908, 1912.”


Walter’s first wife Dora, who he married in 1889, died in 1925 and Walter, as a 65-year-old widower and swimming teacher, married 31-year-old Ethel Mitchell, a domestic servant, in 1931. Kathleen was born to the couple in June 1932, the same year that newspapers were announcing the enforced retirement through ill-health of “Professor Walter Brickett, the well-known swimming instructor and coach” who was at that stage still the official trainer of the St. Pancras S.C., the St. Pancras Leander, and the Amateur S.C. Walter moved out of London to the seaside at Gosport, where he died of heart disease, aged 67, on 21 January 1933. He was recorded as a swimming instructor on his death certificate and the obituary in the local paper estimated that about ten thousand ladies had attended his swimming lessons during the previous eleven years.

Walter’s children carried on their father’s involvement in swimming. Sidney represented both St. Pancras and Lloyd’s, as did brother Reg, while Sidney’s son, Peter, became Southern Counties champion and record holder for the 100 and 200 yards breaststroke in the late 1930s. Sidney and Reg were both founder members of the National Association of Swimming Instructors, and daughter Dolly was also involved in teaching swimming. Reg became President of the Swimming Teachers Association of Great Britain and coached Hoddesdon S.C., as his father had before him, and he was the inventor of Brickett’s Swim Easy arm floats, popular and widely used aids which were available at Harrods, Hamleys, and elsewhere for 8s. 6d. a pair.

Article © Dave Day