John K Slater
BLDSA Founding Secretary
Swimmer, Organiser, Family Man
Born in Bradford and raised in Otley in Yorkshire, England, John Slater was a prime force in the development of competitive, open-water, long distance swimming in Great Britain. John was Founding Secretary for the British Long Distance Swimming Association and, in that role, guided it through its first 22 years of development from 1956 to 1978.
Formation of the BLDSA
In 1955, John became the 24th person to swim the 10-mile (16 km) length of Lake Windermere, setting a record of 5 hours 20 minutes and breaking the 5:56 record set previously that year by Channel swimmer Fred Oldman. Prior to that year, the record had stood at 6:22 since it was set by Charles Denton who in 1934 became the third person to swim the lake.
In a letter in 1955 to Fred Oldman, congratulating him on his 14:31 France-England crossing of the Channel that year, John proposed the formation of a British Long Distance Swimming Association that would hold an annual championship on Lake Windermere. Together with another dynamic distance swimmer, Trevor Smith of Huddersfield, the three held a meeting and started the process that led to the formation of the BLDSA. From John’s words (BLDSA Handbook “The first twenty five years”), they met with two other swimmers: jeweller Philip Rising (Two-way Windermere 17:38 in 1952, and English Channel F-E 15:55 in 1951 and E-F 18:38 in 1952); and Eileen Fenton (English Channel 15:31 in 1950). Subsequently, they were joined by Morecambe Bay swimmer and printer, Lewis Craven and Margaret Hinchcliffe. After these preliminary meetings, an inaugural meeting took place in 1956 and the BLDSA was formed. In those early days, there were strict rules to separate amateurs from professionals – just working at a swimming pool could define you as a Professional!
John was the Magistrates Clerk in the Halifax (England) courts and, as members of the BLDSA committee in those early years, we were treated to meetings in the formal surroundings of the court with its associated wonderful woodwork and ornate plumbing.
While John always quoted that “A Secretary is a person of many letters and few words”, he was instrumental in bringing together representatives of many existing swims (e.g. Morecambe Bay and the Amateur Swimming Association of the England) and the establishment of championships at Windermere, Torbay, Loch Lomond, Bala, Trentham, Rathlin-Ballycastle, Dover-Folkestone and others.
In appropriate recognition for his work in the formation of the BLDSA and all of its contributions to long-distance swimming, John was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) in 1980.
Swimming and water were very much a part of John’s life. Apart from support of his local club at Otley, John purchased a plot of land in at Lee Dam, Lumbutts, Todmorden in Yorkshire in 1973. He and his family spent many hours planting trees there and in 1973 he reported having planted over 150 trees. Those of us, who attended the event, will remember in different ways the New Year’s swim at Lee Dam where the swimmers would break the ice with pick axes before taking part in a race to a spot where a wooden trophy had been placed. Originally, this event was formed to help in the raising of funds for an indoor pool in Todmorden, after John became the founding Secretary of Todmorden ASC in 1958. With John’s effective promotion, swimmers would travel up to 200 miles to attend the event. His daughter, Alison, reports in 2005 that the swim still thrives and raises money for charity. A keen camper, John welcomed me many times when camping in the Lake District, particularly at Coniston where he and his friend, Lawrie Jeffs launched the two boats they had built in the basement of John’s house in Skircoat Green, Halifax. Having built the boats, John had to excavate and remove a portion of a wall of his basement to extricate the two boats – a job that they achieved without problem.
John’s boating activities weren’t always conducted from conventional vessels. For many years during the 1960s and 1970s, he was recognized as the guy with the inflatable canoe. Percy Bull (Windermere 1967 in 12:37:46) from Coventry gratefully remembered John accompanying him on the 10-mile race across Morecambe Bay which is dry at low tide. With such a large movement of water in-and-out of the Bay, the water can move at up to 10 miles per hour. Not being one of the fastest swimmers, Perce was challenged with trying to find the channels between the sandbanks in the outgoing tide. Perce recalls that without John to accompany him, through the benefit of the low draft of John’s rubber boat, then he would not have made it to the finish at Morecambe. That same rubber boat came in handy to guide me, in semi-conscious condition, to cross the finishing line at Torbay in one of the early swims of the 1960s.
The 28-Letter Association
A F.M.o.t.A.o.A.F.H.S.o.A.L.D.S.A.C.& C.a.t.t.B.L.D.S.A.
1962 saw John’s formation of a special group that could only thrive in that era. Members of the group described themselves as “A Founding Member of the Association of Active Founder Honorary Secretaries of Amateur Long Distance Swimming Associations, Championships and Clubs affiliated to the British Long Distance Swimming Association” – except that the title was always reported as the 28-letter acronym.
By 1967, this fun-loving group involved three founding members: John as their playful leader; Academic Jim Robinson, founder of the Sandsend-Whity championship, originator of the Shiver Unit (1962 BLDSA annual report) and promoter of the Emoting Stick; and Windermere swimmer Rex Williams who was the dynamic founding Secretary of the Warwickshire Long Distance Swimming Association. By 1967 “Other Members” included; Ian Thompson as Founding Secretary of the Warrington Dolphins LDSA; Jack Somerfield as the Founding Secretary of the Bala Lake championship; Jack Brown as the secretary of the Morecambe Cross Bay Swimming Association; Derek Gill as Secretary of the Bradford LDSA; Jean Bartlett; and Margaret Butcher who is the only person to have swum from Church Bay on Rathlin Island to Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, and BLDSA President, Margaret Smith, 1985-1986 and 2003-2004 . Channel swimmer Fred Oldman (Founding Torbay Secretary) and Stephanie Taylor (Founding secretary of Fairhaven-Langold championship) had both become inactive by 1967.
In the 1963 BLDSA annual report, John provided a light-hearted report of the first social organised by this group and held in the penthouse of the Toby Jug café in Keswick after the annual Windermere swim. The meeting was hosted by Veronica Anderson – the first woman to swim the length of Lake Coniston, and a close friend of John and his wife Marion during their time in Spain.
John’s strength in the formation of this group was in bringing together such a large group of single-minded individuals and having them work as a team in supporting the growth of the BLDSA.
The Last Year
In 1994 John and his wife Marion took part in the World Masters Games in Riccione, Italy. He was particularly enthused about their joint performances – he had moved into the 75-79 age-group and placed 5th in the 3 km and 400 m IM, 8th in the 800 m Free and 200 m IM, 10th in the 200 m Back, and 11th in the 400 m Free.
One of John’s continuing joys was his annual Christmas Newsletter which was very much in the format of the information-packed Annual Reports he produced for the BLDSA during the 22 years he guided the Association. In the 2004 crammed, six-page report, he enthused about the number of high-quality swimmers who were joining them in Spain as expatriate English retirees. He clearly had plans for the formation of a Spanish Masters relay of Super Crocks. John reported “Another ball-and-socket hip operation in January and I now balance nicely with the other of 5 years ago.” – his subsequent performance in Riccione was a good measure of his recuperation from the surgery.
After the World Games, John and Marion travelled to England and renewed old acquaintances with a number of BLDSA friends in Yorkshire. In his Christmas Newsletter, he reported a highlight for him had been a visit to the Lake District to attend the BLDSA Windermere championship. He lovingly reported sitting on benches dedicated to BLDSA builders john O’Hara and Jeff Ingham, while watching the swimmers finish at Waterhead,. Personal material, family facts, and BLDSA reminiscences all presented in detail with humorous touches. He recalled being seated at Waterhead with BLDSA stalwarts, George Owen and Keith Seymour, and mused how the “younger generation” of swimmers probably viewed this threesome, in their 70s and 80s, as part of the cast of “Last of Summer Wine” – a British TV comedy series, portraying the boyish antics of five-or-six incorrigible, retired Yorkshire men..
On 11th December 2004, John suffered a massive heart attack during a 1,500 m Masters swimming race in Barcelona, Spain. He died subsequently in hospital.
The last news was that a gathering and fireworks were planned on the beach at Denia where they would say their goodbyes to John and scatter his ashes in the sea. A tribute to a man who was always an enthusiastic leader, a top-class distance swimmer, a man of humour, and a friend to so many swimmers from around the world.
John and his wife Marion took a big step and moved to Spain in 1987. John enjoyed the warmer waters and, like other swimmers who he trained, Carol Jeffs remembered John’s quotation that he only swam on Slater Days – i.e. Warm and Sunny !
King of the Channel, Michael Read, musingly recalls, after 32 Channel crossings, that it was John Slater who first encouraged him to swim the English Channel.
Past King of the Channel, Kevin Murphy, recalls “John was such an inspiration and driving force for so many of us in long distance swimming. Without him the BLDSA would not have been the success it was and we would not have been set on the paths to our individual achievements. We owe him a lot.”
Margaret Smith (BLDSA President 1985-1986 and 2003-2004) expressed her deep gratitude to John in referring to a severe accident in 1964 from which she took two years to recover. “I am one of the JKS Babes (to borrow the current parlance of politics). John encouraged me not only to swim and compete in those dark days when the Doctors thought I might not walk again, but he also encouraged me to develop my interest in writing reports and getting them published. So started a lot of years, first as Assistant Public Relations Officer for the BLDSA and then as PRO.”
After eight years as the Secretary of the BLDSA, in 2005 Maurice Ferguson noted that, in the ongoing absence of feedback on what you have done right, twenty-five years service is a pure reflection of John’s ability to swim long distances and “stay the course”. There are few with that sort of dedication and stamina.
Montserrat Tressarras (Channel swimmer F-E 1958 in 14:14, and E-F 1961 in 16:25) fondly remembers her 1968 time in the Lake District when she received so much support from John, his father Fred, and John’s wife-to-be Marion Mills.
In the 1970 annual report of the BLDSA, Willy van Rysel (Windermere 1951 in 7:38, and thwarted Channel swimmer) had reported a new world record of 1 min 37.4 seconds for 25 metres Backwards. John recalled a race in Coventry, about 8 years earlier, when he beat me on this same swim (Most embarrassing for me!). After hearing of Wily’s report, John went to the Halifax baths, arranged for three baths attendants to monitor the effort, and proceeded to complete the 25 metres Backwards in 1:34.0. John suggested challengers use the Propellor on their back; however, he actually had a backwards Breaststroke, which is what he had used to beat me (Bryan Finlay).
In 1990, John reported on his trip to Dover and a quote from the Manager of the Berni Inn in Dover who, on hearing that Antonio Abertondo was back, quoted “My God is Tony back in town? We don’t cut up a steak for Tony. You know, he’s a real Argentinian, used to plenty of meat. We catch a bull, cut off its horns, wipe its backside, and drop it on his table”.
Proud of their Yorkshire heritage, at a party in John’s basement in the early 1960s, John and Jim Robinson took down Jim’s “Emoting Stick” and set forth with a poem that has stuck in my mind for all these years – they had the title of “We’re way down in’t Coal Hole”. Thank goodness for the Internet and the BBC to provide a translation for those unfamiliar with the Yorkshire dialect:
We’re down in’t coyle ‘oyle
Where’t muck slarts on’t winders
We’ve used all us coyle up
And we’re rait down’t t’cinders,
But if bum bailiff comes
Ee’ll nivver findus
Cos we’ll be down in’t coyle ‘oyle
Where’t muck slarts on’t winders
Remembering the happy times she spent with John when she was young, his daughter, Alison, lovingly remembers helping with the production of the BLDSA Annual Reports – in the days of offset printing, before the use of photocopiers. She recalls a beautiful memory of their times establishing a wild-fowl habitat at Lee Dam “I have a lovely close-up photo of Dad in his canoe with ‘Emma’ the pet duck on his shoulder.”
John Slater was such a driving force in the development of long-distance swimming in Great Britain, that he was known and respected by swimmers from around the world from the late 1950s until his death. In his memory, we would like to think that the vacant position has been closed for Secretary of the Heavenly Long Distance Swimming Association and we can all rest assured that everything will be suitably organised should we every achieve the honour of registration in that austere group.
Bryan Finlay, Alison Slater, Carol Macdonald, Margaret Smith, Nicki Baker, Montserrat Tresserras, Margaret Smith, Michael Read, Kevin Murphy, Maurice Ferguson