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13 November 2014

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You are in: Manchester > History > History features > Oldham's triple gold Olympian

Oldham's triple gold Olympian

When cyclist Chris Hoy took his third gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, he became the first Briton in a century to complete such a feat – the last one being Oldham's often overlooked hero, swimmer Henry Taylor.

Henry Taylor (c) Getty Images

Henry Taylor at the 1908 Olympics

Henry's story reads like something out of a Boy's Own comic; the great man came from very humble beginnings to take his triple gold at the 1908 London Oympics.

Henry was born on Maple Street in Hollinwood on 17 March 1885 to James - a coalminer - and Elizabeth. His life begins in tragedy as he lost both his parents at an early age, the orphaned Henry being brought up instead by his elder brother, Bill.

The bond between the brothers was such that Bill would later to become his trainer, helping him to his swimming successes.

Training in the canal

In stark contrast to the Olympians of today, Henry learnt to swim in Hollinwood Canal before going to Oldham Baths, where at the age of seven, he tasted his first victory, beating some older boys in a two length race.

The canal side in Hollinwood in 1901 (c) Manchester Image Archives

The canal side in Hollinwood in 1901

Young Henry loved swimming, changing Oldham for his local Chadderton Baths when they opened in 1894, though he still regularly swam in the canal. Indeed, when he began working in a cotton mill, he would spend his lunchtimes swimming the waterway.

He was the star of the Chadderton Swimming Club and at the age of 21, his success got him noticed nationally, when he was selected for the Intercalated Games in Athens in 1906 – an unofficial multi-sports event, held to mark the tenth anniversary of the first Modern Olympics, which saw athletes from all over the world take part.

It wasn't expected that Henry would be amongst the medals, but his canal training must have paid off as he took gold in the one mile freestyle.

The stadium at the 1906 Intercalated Games (c) Getty Images

The stadium at the 1906 Games

That success, coupled with him setting the world record for the 880 yards later that year, meant Henry was an obvious pick for the British 1908 London Olympics team.

Henry's glorious Olympics

No-one could have predicted just how well the Games would go for him. He was one of 100 swimmers from 14 nations attending the swimming at London, competing in three out of the six titles on offer at the outdoor pool at the White City Stadium.

It was the first Games to have a specially constructed pool, the previous three had seen swimming events conducted in open water, and the conditions suited Henry, as he took gold in all three  of his events – the 400m Freestyle, the 1500m Freestyle and the 4x200m Freestyle Relay – though he didn't have it all his own way.

The White City Stadium in 1908 - the pool is on the left (c) Getty Images

The White City Stadium in 1908

Powering through the heats of the 400m Freestyle, he finished second in his semi-final, half a second behind Austria’s Otto Scheff. That result was soundly overturned in the final though, as Henry touched home in gold position nearly ten seconds ahead of the Austrian, who had to settle for bronze behind Frank Beaurepaire of the combined Australasia team.

Both the 1500m Freestyle and the 4x200m Freestyle went more smoothly, with Henry finishing first in all heats and semis, and the papers proclaimed him 'Britain's Greatest Amateur Swimmer'.

Swimming for victory

London wasn't the only Games at which Henry tasted Olympic success. Four years later, he joined the team in Stockholm, where he anchored the 4x200m Freestyle Relay team and helped them win a bronze medal.

HMS St Vincent in 1908

HMS St Vincent in 1908

The First World War saw the 1916 Olympics, due to be held in Germany, cancelled and Henry sign up for the Navy. He took part in the most famous sea battle of the War, the Battle of Jutland, where his ship, HMS St Vincent, was sunk.

Henry and the crew were in the water for two hours before being rescued and it's reported that the Olympic champion put his talents to good use, swimming around encouraging his fellow sailors to keep afloat and not despair.

After the War, Henry attended his last Games, the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, where he once again found himself on the medal rostrum, repeating the result of the 1912 4x200m Freestyle by helping the team to a bronze.

On dry land

Henry continued to swim competitively until 1926, when at the age of 41, he called time on his career - his final haul of honours totaling over 35 trophies and 300 medals.

A 1908 Olympic gold medal (c) Getty Images

A 1908 Olympic gold medal

From his heroic Olympic highs, Henry's life after his retirement took a sad turn. Never the best with money, he found himself in financial difficulties after the pub he owned in Dobcross went bust.

His lack of money forced him to sell the majority of his prizes but even this didn't alleviate the problems and in 1951, at the age of 65, Henry died penniless.

His achievements were commemorated many years later, in 2002, with the dedication of a blue plaque on the side of Chadderton Baths - a small acknowledgement for the man who can still claim the title of Britain's greatest Olympic swimmer.

last updated: 20/08/2008 at 11:59
created: 20/08/2008

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