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Percy Courtman (1888-1917)


Trafford's Forgotten World Record Swimmer by Mr John C Mather

Percy CourtmanPhotograph supplied by the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) (16).

It seems appropriate at the time of the 2012 London Olympics to tell something of the life of Percy Courtman, Olympic medal winner and world record holder.

He was an outstanding breaststroke swimmer whose potential was cruelly dashed by an untimely death in the First World War.

Percy, who was born on the 14 May 1888 in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, represented Great Britain in both the 1908, London and 1912, Stockholm Olympics as well as gaining three World Records.

He also held the Amateur Swimming Association championship for 200yards breaststroke in five of the seven years between 1907 and 1913 (4). The note on his Commonwealth War Graves Commission record makes fascinating reading:
“…Son of James and Percy Ann Courtman, of 261 Stretford Rd., Manchester. International (Breaststroke) Record Champion Swimmer. Native of Old Trafford…”(1)Percy was born on the 14 May 1888 in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and was brought up in 261 Stretford Road, Manchester with three sisters and two brothers (2). His father, James, was an Estates and Insurance agent; his mother’s unusual Christian name of Percy, was an acknowledgment of her connection with the Northumberland Percy family (3).

Percy attended William Hulme Grammar School (1898 to 1903) (5) and swam, with considerable success, for the Old Trafford Swimming Club (2), becoming their first champion (6). He won his first Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) championships in 200 yards breaststroke on the 16 September 1907 at Birmingham in a time of 2.55.4 4.

He seemed poised for great things in the 1908 Olympics held in London. Alas it was not to be. Conditions were basic, to say the least, with all the swimming events held in an open 100m pool located in the centre of the athletics stadium. Although Great Britain swimmers literally “swept the board” at these Games, winning four of the six races on offer, Percy did not even progress beyond his heats of the 200m breaststroke race (8).

Undaunted by his failures, Percy returned to Manchester and continued to train and win races, whilst employed at his father’s estate agent business (2). He certainly kept busy! Reports in local newspapers describe, for example, his attempts at breaking the Olympic record in Bacup Baths; beating European all comers invited to Manchester’s Victoria Baths and even giving an exhibition of swimming at Heywood Corporation Bath’s annual gala! (9)

There was no doubting Percy’s ability and he was again selected to represent Great Britain at the 1912 Olympic Games, held in Stockholm. All the races were held in a 100m long course located in Stockholm harbour. Although these Games proved a huge disappointment for most of Great Britain’s swimmers, Percy finally delivered! According to a contemporary report in the “Manchester Evening News” (10): “….Other teams have come along so rapidly that that we cannot even claim to be second rate, and one cannot look at the results without feelings of the deepest disappointment…our recognised champions have been hopelessly beaten…”

At least, the readers were made to believe that there were some crumbs of comfort, in the guise of: “…Percy Courtman, the Manchester representative, (who) made a valiant effort to retrieve Great Britain’s failures, but in the 200 metres and 400 metres breast stroke he was up against a very warm opposition, and he really did well to secure (bronze medal) third place in the latter.”

Praise indeed! The winner of both races was Walter Bathe of Germany (11).

Great Britain’s only swimming gold medal of the Games came from the Women’s 4 by 100m freestyle relay. This was the first games were women competed in swimming (11).
Later that same year, Percy set world records in the now obsolete 400m and 500m breaststroke distances in Manchester (4).

Percy’s most impressive achievement came in 1914, when he gained the World Record, for 200m breaststroke. This was achieved at Garston Baths, Speke Road, Liverpool on the 28 July 191412. His time of 2.56.6 was the first recorded swim for 200m under the three minute barrier and lasted until 1922 when Erich Ridemacher of Germany reduced it to 2.54.4 (4).

The significance of this record should not be underestimated, as it took 59 years for another British swimmer, David Wilkie, to regain the record. Percy now seemed destined to become one of the greats in swimming. And the irony of Percy’s fate is that just as endless opportunities would seem to lie ahead, war clouds loomed. Imagine how he must have felt; torn between personal ambition and duty.

The declaration of war signalled the end of a glorious era. Percy duly swapped his swimming “cossie” for army khaki in the jingoistic call to arms. His service number, 3012, indicates that he joined the 6th (Hulme) Territorial Battalion of the Manchester Regiment in the autumn of 1914 (13).

Many of the 6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment held “white collar” positions employed by the city’s legal, financial and stock broking practises, or worked for major organisations trading and manufacturing cotton goods (14).

The majority of pre-war Territorials who volunteered for overseas service formed the 1st/6th Battalion. They were posted to Egypt, setting sail in September 1914, as part of the 42nd East Lancashire (Territorial) Division (14).

Percy appears to have remained in England training with the recently formed 2nd/6th Battalion. He used the opportunity to co-write an article entitled “Breast stroke” with fellow Manchester Olympian, Robert A Crawshaw.(15) This was included within the booklet, “Swimming by Champions of the World”, published by the Amateur Swimming Association in 1915 (16).

Their article on breaststroke swimming includes what may be possibly some of the earliest photographic aids to swimming instruction ever published. It specifically mentions the modification to the arm movements made by “the speed merchants on the Continent”. This required a more rapid arm recovery rather than the circular surface sweep which had been previously executed.

The article shows something of Percy’s tenacity; his preference for training in the open air, “as this is immeasurably superior to bath swimming” and his insistence for “training at least twice per week, winter and summer, (which should involve swimming)…. 500 yards or more each week, devoting the other visit for sprinting short distances, say, from 50 to 100 yards.”

After 8 months of training and garrison duties, the 1st/6th Battalion finally left Egypt and took part in the second wave of landings at Gallipoli on the 2 May 1915. The Battalion was soon in action and quickly made at name for itself at the 3rd battle of Krithia on the 4 June by advancing through six lines of Turkish trenches. Unfortunately, it later suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of the Vineyard on the 6 August for desperately little gain (14).

Percy was one of a large draft of nearly two hundred replacement troops to arrive at Gallipoli on 18 August 1915, having embarked from Plymouth on the 2 August aboard Cunard’s “Franconia”. This classic cruiser had been commandeered as a troopship at the outbreak of war (14).

It must have proved quite a baptism of fire for Percy, as his Battalion now returned to the front line on the 19 August, taking over trenches in the most northerly position, around Helles, near Fusilier Bluff (14).

Although there would be no more attacks for the 1st/6th Battalion, the unhygienic conditions of a front line at the height of a Turkish summer were made worse by crippling outbreaks of dysentery and jaundice (14).

The proximity and significance of the Hellespont cannot have escaped Percy. This narrow mile width constriction of the Dardanelles was first swum “in modern times” by Lord Byron, the English romantic poet, in 1810 (17).

The East Lancashire Division returned to Egypt on the evening of 20 January 1916 and stayed for fourteen months. History books record the 1st/6th Battalion’s involvement in the Battle of Romani and its desperate march across the Sinai desert in pursuit of the retreating Turkish Army (14).

Necessity ensured that this now battle hardened East Lancashire Division should finally be ordered to France in March 1917 to help prepare for a “big push” on the Western Front14.

After the heat of Egypt, they now had to cope with rain and snow almost on a daily basis. The Manchester’s were based at Chavagnes, some 20km east of the city of Amiens in the Somme sector. The men were charged with undertaking daily working parties building and repairing those damaged roads that the Germans had attempted to destroy as they had retreated to the well-defended Hindenburg lane at the end of 1916 (14).

On the 19 May 1917, the 1st/6th Battalion moved to a new sector, taking over positions at Havrincourt Wood, about 14 km south west of the town of Cambrai. The beginning of June was spent in reserve positions and undertaking yet more working parties (14).

It is interesting to study copies of the Manchester Evening news for the time. War seemed inescapable and pages were filled with lists of casualties. However, the editorial had taken opportunity of a welcome “lull in fighting” following the recent successes at Arras and Vimy Ridge to adopt a semblance of normality.

It's scathing comments on the Whit week’s “…dreary, drenching rain and discomforting, chilly winds…” make all too familiar reading! No matter, over in France, the 1/6th Battalion was taking heavy casualties from almost constant enemy artillery (14).

Lance Corporal Stanley Cooke of D Company, 1/6 Battalion noted in his diary for Saturday, 2 June 1917, of shells dropping around their positions all morning. “… Poor Percy,” he added, poignantly, “-blown to bits by one about breakfast” (18).

A special tribute to Percy Courtman was carried in the Manchester Evening News of the 11 June 1917. It was headed, “Percy Courtman Killed: A Famous Swimmer” and featured his photograph and list of his world records.

Percy Courtman’s remains now lie buried in the Neuville-Bourjonval British Cemetery. It is a small cemetery of two hundred graves situated in a remote location a few kilometres south east of Bertincourt. He lies alongside 24 known soldiers from his Regiment (1).

Tragically, Percy’s older brother, James Ernest, fell less than five months later in the Passchendaele offensive. He also served with the Manchester Regiment (19).

As a lasting tribute to Percy’s contribution to swimming, the “Percy Courtman Memorial Cup” was subsequently donated to the Old Trafford Swimming Club and awarded, annually to the winner of the 200yards breaststroke race. This was regarded as the principal event at the Club’s annual gala for many years and was open to “…youths under 18, resident in the northern counties…” (20).

His name is also remembered on the William Hulme Grammar School war memorial (21).

Who knows what Percy Courtman could have achieved if war had not intervened: Olympic Champion? How dare we predict? Of course, it is far too easy to speculate in hindsight. Like many millions of his compatriots, he paid the ultimate sacrifice. And yet, it seems regrettable that we seem to have completely forgotten all about him and his considerable accomplishments.

Domestic Titles (ASA Championships)

200 yards breaststroke 1907 09 16 Birmingham 2.55.4
1908 07 08 Manchester 2.47.2
1909 09 23 London 2.46.2
1910 Sheffield 2.47.8
1913 09.13 Weston s Mare 2.43.0

British Record

200 yards breaststroke 1914 07.28 Garston 2.41.0

World Records

200 metres breaststroke 1914 07 28 Garston 2.56.6
400 metres breaststroke 1912 12 12 Manchester 6.14.2
500 metres breaststroke 1912 12 12 Manchester 7.51.0

Olympic Results

200 metres breaststroke 1908 London Second in Heat 7 3.18.4
1912 Copenhagen Fourth in Finals 3.08.8
400 metres breaststroke 1912 Copenhagen Third in Finals 6.36.4


  1. CWGC: Private 3012/250755 of D Company of the 1st/6th Battalion, Manchester Regiment.
  2. Link to External Website
  3. Courtman family tree
  4. ASA Library Item on Percy Courtman
  5. Taken from: “A centennial history of Stretford ASC”, by Doug Francis:
    “….Old Trafford Baths were sited in Northumberland Road and opened in May 1904. The Old Trafford Swimming Club (OTSC) was co-founded by J.H. “Rob” Derbyshire and FM Nawell in the following year (0). “Rob” Derbyshire had previously left Manchester’s prestigious Osborne Swimming Club. These Baths were destroyed by German Bombing in the Second World War. Afterwards, the OTSC shared Stretford’s Cyprus Street Baths along with host Stretford Amateur Swimming Club until the baths were closed on 31 March 1982….”
    Addendum: Stretford Telegraph dated 6 May 1904
    “…..J H Derbyshire was appointed the Baths Superintendent….”
  6. The second was Margery Hilton (1915-1996). She was also a 200m breaststroke specialist and her chief claim to fame was being the youngest Olympian to represent Britain. She represented her country in 1928 at the Amsterdam at the ripe old age of 13 years and 1 month! This has never been bettered! She also represented GB at the following two Olympics in 1932 and 1936; her best finish was fourth place in 200m breaststroke final in 1932.
  7. ”Manchester Guardian” dated 9 July 1908
  8. Various local newspaper articles.
  9. “Manchester Evening News”, dated 16 July 1912
  10. “Manchester Guardian”, dated 29 July 1914
  11. Conversation with G. Smith, Curator, Manchester Regiment Museum, 29/11/11
  12. “Not a Rotter in the Lot”, Official history of the 6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, by John Hartley
  13. Robert Arnold Crawshaw (1869-1952) won a Gold Medal in Water Polo at the 1900 Paris Olympics. He also swam in the finals of 200m freestyle and 200m backstroke. He was born in Bury and employed as swimming teacher by various organisations in the Manchester region.
  14. “Swimming by Champions of the World”, ASA, published 1915, page 48.
  15. Lord Byron (George Gordon) 1788-1824 was an English romantic poet and noted for his passionate and disastrous love affairs. He spent most of his life abroad and died while fighting for Greek independence. It is recorded in Greek mythology that Leander swam these same waters of the Hellespont, “twice nightly” in an attempt to woo his lover, Hero. She was a priestess of Aphrodite, in the Temple of Venus, situated on the far shore at Sestos.
  16. “Not a Rotter in the Lot”, Official history of the 6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, by John Hartley, page 178.
  17. CWGC: Private 47833 of Z Company, 23rd (Bantam) Battalion, Manchester Regiment.
  18. “Manchester Guardian”, dated 29 September 1924.
  19. Old Hulmeians Association website