Presented by Geoff Swallow MMU SpLeisH
Spanning the period 1884-1912, Frederick Holman’s swimming career coincided with the opening of the first indoor swimming baths, the rise of amateurism, and, after the formation of the Western Counties Amateur Swimming Association in 1901, the proliferation of swimming clubs, and formation of competitive inter-club swimming team and water polo leagues in Devon. Born in Dawlish in 1883, Holman epitomised the club swimmer. He never won a national title, but returned from the London Olympics of 1908 with the 200 metres breast stroke gold medal, to civic and public adulation. Five years later, in January 1913, he was dead. Holman was a local hero, “our Freddie”, ‘idolised’ in life and sanctified in death. His Olympic gold medal and photograph are displayed like saintly relics in the museum of his native Dawlish. The legend of the “Olympic breaststroke champ [who] died five years after his Olympic victory from typhoid fever he developed while swimming in the draw-and-fill baths of Exeter” is propagated in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Digitised newspaper archives make it possible for the researcher not just to assemble and sift the ‘facts’ of a life and sporting career, but to follow the processes and agencies at work in the construction and shaping of their public image and reputation during their lifetime and after their death. This paper will set Holman’s career in the context of the development and regulation of competitive swimming in the South West; examine the extent to which his career and reputation were the product of territorial rivalries and contested power relations between three Devon towns – the coastal resorts of Dawlish and Teignmouth, and their urban neighbour, Exeter; and deconstruct representations of Holman, to explore their meanings and cultural significance, both in life and posthumously.​