Before the foundation and relative consolidation of the international federations, various sporting disciplines held unofficial European Championships, especially in the Central European area. The competing associations participated seriously in these events and they were  convinced of the validity of the competitions, despite their unofficial nature. In the memory and literature of the related countries, these events have enjoyed, and still boast, relevance and credit[1].

British athletes were generally far away from these Continental events. An exception to this trend was William Henry (1859-1928), for many years the driving force of the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) . He was probably more sensitive to the confrontation between European nations, given his Polish origins. His surname was actually Nawrocki, later changed due to the difficulty of those who came into contact with him with the pronunciation[2].

1861 Baptism of William Henry Nawrocke

At the helm of the RLSS, he built extensive sports diplomatic relations, far superior to those of the Amateur Swimming Association, often leading delegations of swimmers and officials to compete abroad and receiving in exchange many reciprocal visits to Britain, thus mutually enriching techniques for swimming, diving, water polo, lifesaving[3].

William Henry
Source: Swimming and Life Saving, 1906, by Archibald Sinclair, pg 32,

Henry debuted in the swimming pool as early as 1879 and after having achieved numerous successes, in 1889 he won the English 440 yards title in salt water and in 1890 the long distance championship in the Thames. He claimed the European title in the 100m freestyle on 19 July 1896 in Frankfurt, in a establishment on the banks of the river Main[4].

Report of 1000 metres freestyle in Frankfurt 19 July 1896
Source: Schwimmsport

The swimming literature of the German-speaking area reports data and results on the unofficial European Championships, but Henry’s name and victory in 1896 is not recorded. Even scrolling through the magazines of the time, from Schwimmsport , the official bulletin of the German federation, or Viennese Allgemeine Sport Zeitung, the race of 19 July 1896 was labelled as an international competition staged by the Erste Frankfurter Schwimmen Club, while the European Championship was planned and took place on 2 August in Vienna[5].

Schwimmsport on 1 May 1896 (p. 101) illustrated the programme of events. Frankfurt’s meeting does not consider European championship

Furthermore, on the pages of Allgemeine Sport Zeitung there is no mention of any controversy related to an alleged duplication of the Championship. At the time, the two main Austrian clubs, Erste Wiener Amateur Schwimmen Club (EWASC), the organizer of the European event, and Austria were part of the German federation.

Henry went to Frankfurt on his own, without leading a selection of English swimmers. He entered the 400m race, but while in the lead, an illness forced him to slow down and retire. He managed to recover to win the 100m in 1.16.3/5, ahead of the German Georg Friboes of Berliner Schwimmclub Borussia in 1.18.2/5. From 1889, Friboes was a national-level swimmer and an accomplished speed skater, having participated in the European Championships of 1891 in Berlin. In the Viennese European competition of August 1896, which was won by the Hungarian Olympic champion Alfred Hajos, he finished 7th with a time around 1.25, a brilliant time for a still water baths[6]. In September, Friboes lowered his record to 1.20. Schwimmsport emphasized the friendship established by the visit of Henry, who complimented the beautiful style of Friboes.

Alfred Hajos the “true” 1896 European 100m Champion

Several British journals commented on Henry’s European victory. Even the Weekly Dispatch of 19 July announced the upcoming Championship, albeit with the distance of 1000m, giving the idea that there was a solid agreement in this regard. On 1 August, the Walsall Advertiser pointed out that the English anthem had been sung in Frankfurt. There were obviously inaccuracies. It was often pointed out that the race was held over 100 yards and not the Continental 100m.

Henry was sure he had won the European title; indeed in the Sporting Life on 8 July 1897, he published a signed article in which he called on British swimmers to take part in new European Championships, again in Vienna. He explained that this was an event organized following an agreement between Austria and Germany and hosted alternately in the two countries.

Excerpts of Sporting Life in which Henry invited English swimmers to defend his claimed title

Broadly speaking, Henry’s article was authentic. EWASC had launched this challenge, advertised to Europe’s main sports newspapers and journals, and had organized on 4 August 1889 the first European Championships with three competitions for the short distance (68m or twice the Diana bath length), long distance (1598m) and fancy diving.

Although Vienna pressented this as an original event,  in 1891 a Hamburg association had organized a 1500m  Championship of Europe in open water. After various controversies and the entry of EWASC into the German federation, an agreement established that a German association had to set up the 1500m and diving championships, while Vienna took care of the short race[7]. On 2 August 1897, providing evidence of the lack of any conflict generated by an improvised Frankurter championship for the British guest, EWASC celebrated its 10th anniversary in organizing the two European and all the German championships[8].

Perhaps Henry, who probably did not speak German, misunderstood the situation or perhaps the enthusiasm caused some confusion with the Frankfurter organizers in welcoming the first British swimmer since Coles, runner-up in the German Championship of 1882. They knew that the German federation had established very early a calendar of large championships. In general, in these events, the winner would receive a medal with the inscription of ‘European Champion’. No one knows if Henry received this type of award, but, if so, a serious conflict would have arisen. On 19 July in Frankfurt only one top-level German swimmer, namely Arnold Töpfer, was present and he had won the 400m race in which Henry had been forced to retire. During this time, the best German swimmer for the 100m was Eugen Wolff, affiliated to EWASC who finished 2nd in Vienna on 2 August 1896.

The top German swimmer of 1896, Arnold Töpfer

The alleged European victory remained in English historiography. In the book on the centenary of RLSS, the author Pearsall tells the anecdote that Henry’s costume was damaged in the first race and he competed in the 10om with a costume borrowed from a German swimmer[9]. It’s not been possible to clarify this ancecdote and this may be a further example of the myths that have been generated around these swimming events.

Article © of Gherardo Bonini 


[1] Gherardo Bonini, Europa, Mitteleuropa, Vaste Land, Florence, in-house, 2008, pp. 11-16

[2] Ralph Thomas, Swimming, London, Samson Low Marston & Co., 1904, p. 395

[3] James R. McClelland, The Bronze Medaillon & Life Saving Story, Bribie Island, Queensland, Victoria Press, 2016, p. 10

[4] Pat Besford, Encylopaedia of swimming, London, Robert Hale, 1971, p. 37

[5] Schwimmsport, 1 August 1896, p. 184 ; Allgemeine Sport Zeitung, 26 July 1896, p. 827 ; Sportvilàg (Budapest), 26 July 1896, p. 9 ; Deutsche Schwimmen Verband, EM-Buch des Deutsches Schwimmens Verbandes. Team, Daten, Fakten zur EM seit 1926, Berlin, 1995, pp. 8-9

[6] Allgemeine Sport Zeitung, 9 August 1896, p. 880 and also Schwimmsport, 15 September 1896, p. 232.

[7] Gherardo Bonini, Europa, Mitteleuropa, Vaste Land, op. cit., p. 72

[8] Allgemeine Sport Zeitung, 7 August 1897, pp. 886-888

[9] Roland Pearsall, The Story of the Royal Life Saving Society, London, David & Charles, 1991, p. 12