Once Upon a Time: World’s First Great Woman Swimmer settled in Teeswater

When Teeswater became home to “the world’s first great woman swimmer”, you’d think she might talk about her past life.

Yet she shrugged off her accomplishments. Her daughter Betty Smith said, “She was so modest, and if her career was discussed, she’d say, ‘Oh, that was a long time ago and I did it because I just loved to swim’.”

 

She was Jennie (Fletcher) Hyslop and, swimming for Great Britain in the 1912 Olympics, won gold and bronze medals.

Jennie Fletcher was born in 1890 in Leicester, England, one of 11 children in an underprivileged family. She worked in a clothing factory to help support her family and was able to train for swimming only after putting in 12-hour days, six days a week.

At that time, few girls were encouraged to swim, and when they did, they wore a swimsuit covering them from neck to ankles. Jennie and her colleagues, however, wore a daring sleeveless one-piece in sheer silk. “We were told bathing suits were shocking and indecent and even when entering competition, we were covered with a floor-length cloak until we entered the water.” Propriety was enforced by a chaperone: the wife of her coach, Jack Jarvis. As a member of the Leicester Ladies Swimming Club she wore a suit with LLSC initials on the chest.

In 1905, Jennie set a world record for women in the 100 yard freestyle. After that, she reigned as the queen of English freestyle swimming, holding the 100 yard world record for seven years.

When she was 17, she had an offer to turn professional but her parents refused to allow it because they needed her to work and contribute to the family. She therefore remained an amateur and eligible for the Olympic games.

In 1908 the London Olympics trumpeted a new event: women’s swimming. Jennie, then 18 and at the peak of her career, was due to take part but the event was cancelled owing to a lack of competitors, because the sports bodies of some countries—the U.S. and Australia—refused to sanction women to compete in swimming.

The holdouts changed their tune four years later, at the 1912 summer Olympics and the debut of women’s swimming. Events were held on a 100 metre course in Stockholm harbour.

In the women’s 100 metre freestyle Jennie Fletcher took the bronze with a time of 1:27.0. (The winning time was 1:22.2.) She came back to win gold, swimming second leg on Great Britain’s 4 x 100 metre freestyle relay team.

For the Leicester Ladies Swimming Club it was a triumph, recognized in 2004 when the city of Leicester unveiled a plaque honouring Jennie at Cossington Street Sport Centre.

When Jennie was 15 (in 1905), she first met her husband-to-be Henry Hill Hyslop (?-1964), who was born in Ontario. But she had to say goodbye when he moved to Loverna, Saskatchewan. During the First World War Henry enlisted in the Canadian army and was shipped overseas. They had exchanged letters and while in England Henry looked up his girlfriend from long ago, and that led to them marrying in March 1917, while he was on leave. Henry returned to the front and served until war’s end, November 1918.

Henry went back to Canada and Jennie joined him in 1918 or 1919. Due to his ill health, by 1919 they had settled in Teeswater, to be near family, including Henry’s sister Mary Ballagh and his aunt Mrs. R.E. Little. (The Hyslops had emigrated from Scotland.)

The Hyslops raised a daughter and five sons. Jennie taught many young people how to swim at the mill dams in the 1930s and 40s, most of them likely not knowing of her laurels. She was a member of Knox Presbyterian Church and a life member of the Knox Women’s Missionary Society.

Teeswater honoured her when the Lions Club opened the town’s first swimming pool, in 1950. Jennie Fletcher died in Teeswater in 1968 and is buried in Teeswater Cemetery.

Her accomplishments were many and Jennie Fletcher could look back on one particular high point. In an interview, years after winning Olympic gold at Stockholm, she said, “The crowning moment of my career was when King Gustav of Sweden placed the classic laurel wreath on my head, put the gold medal round my neck and said, ‘well done, England’.”

That laurel wreath is on display at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, which inducted her in 1971 as an “Honour Swimmer”. Written above her photo is: “The World’s First Great Woman Swimmer”.

The Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre learned about Jennie Fletcher, thanks to a donation of her photograph in 2004. Museum Archivist Deb Sturdevant underscored the importance of giving it to the museum. “The donation of artefacts, documents and photographs to the museum is integral to preserving history and bringing the valuable community contributions of former residents to life.”

For alerting us to Jennie’s story, we thank Deb for her article “World’s First Great Woman Swimmer” in the newsletter of the Bruce County Genealogical Society, November 2023.

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by Robin Hilborn
for Bruce County Historical Society