The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: The success of swimmer Eileen Fenton

Helping hand: Eileen Fenton is pictured when she was secretary of Dewsbury Swimming Club with one of her star pupils Jean Oldroyd, who took part in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958. Also pictured the then Mayor and Mayoress of Dewsbury, Councillor and Mrs Tom Tarney. Picture kindly loaned by Catherine Tarney.
Helping hand: Eileen Fenton is pictured when she was secretary of Dewsbury Swimming Club with one of her star pupils Jean Oldroyd, who took part in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958. Also pictured the then Mayor and Mayoress of Dewsbury, Councillor and Mrs Tom Tarney. Picture kindly loaned by Catherine Tarney.

AT LAST Channel swimmer Eileen Fenton, from Dewsbury, has been honoured for her remarkable achievements in the world of swimming.

She was awarded an MBE – long overdue – in the Queen’s Honours List for her voluntary services to long distance and competitive swimming coaching in Yorkshire and Great Britain.

The announcement was made last Saturday – the day before her 91st birthday, and was warmly welcomed in this district and further afield.

Much has been written in these columns about her epic channel swim but little of the run up to it or what followed afterwards.

This week I am publishing one of the letters sent to the Nomination’s Board requesting Eileen be considered for an award.

It came from her niece, Mrs Eileen Hollinshead, of Mirfield, who has kindly given me permission to reproduce it:

It states: “It was daunting seventy years ago for a young girl from a working class background to achieve what Eileen did, with little or no professional training.

“There was no equality among men and women in those days, and looking back it really was incredible what she achieved despite this.

“When she tried to enter the channel swim in 1950, she was only 22, standing five feet tall and weighing under eight stone.

“The organisers feared she would not be physically capable and would not be able to withstand the cold.

“To prove them wrong, she went to Scarborough where her great uncle Tom lived, and swam for periods in the sea.

“She only had one swimming costume, but Uncle Tom stitched velvet into the arm holes to stop it rubbing whilst she trained.

“When she was finally accepted as a contestant, her family gave her all the support they could.

“Food coupons and rationing were still in evidence after the war, but her family made sure she got more than her fair share of meat to ensure she was as fit as possible for the race.

“Her dad grew fresh vegetables in the garden so she could always eat well.

“The people of Dewsbury raised enough money for the entry fee, and when she was the first woman home in the race, the townspeople gave her an overwhelming reception.

“She never forgot this, and decided she wanted to give something back for their generosity, and she continued coaching young people from Dewsbury for nearly 40 years afterwards, all unpaid.

“She has remained grateful all her life, and continues to support the town in any way she can, attending charity functions and promoting the town whenever needed, and she remains very proud of her roots.

“When it came to entering her first long distance swim across Torbay, the organisers insisted swimmers had to wear swimming goggles or they could not take part.

“So she borrowed motor cycling goggles, and raised some laughter when those watching the race saw her.

“It was around this time Eileen saw in the Swimming Times that the Daily Mail were organising an international cross channel race.

She became keen to enter, feeling strongly that she could do it, even though the organisers felt she could not.

“Training methods were not sophisticated in those days but she did what was needed in order for her to have any chance of completing the 21 miles swim.

“This meant swimming for up to ten hours, non-stop in a 25 metre pool, going to Scarborough whenever she could and swimming in the open air pool at Roundhay Park at weekends.

“It was inevitable all her nieces and nephews would be introduced to swimming at an early age, and we were, trained by Auntie Eileen, who gave swimming lessons every week and ran the Dewsbury Ladies Swimming Club at the old Dewsbury Swimming Baths.

“I was one of many who hung on to her every word, and soon realised that to carry on you had to work hard.

“My earliest recollections are of Auntie Eileen standing on the poolside demonstrating stroke techniques in a very exact and precise manner.

“After that it was a case of improving times, training schedules, competition and achieving success.

“Auntie Eileen was always there, in control of everything, supported by family and parents.

“It is only since growing up and becoming a teacher myself that I realised the time and dedication my aunt put into helping so many achieve recognition at local, county, national and international level, in both sprinting and long distance swimming. She did all this as well as having a full-time teaching job.

“She has always been an inspiration to all her family, especially the younger ones. Her confidence and determination to succeed was infectious, and even now, in her ninetieth year, her energy and zest for life are remarkable.

“Now, we are able to watch film clips of her channel swim on YouTube and we can show these to the youngest generation of our family. They watch in amazement and cannot quite believe it!”