In the annals of sporting history there have been many competitors across many sports who have missed what could have been the zenith of their career. Sometimes it has been because of injury, on occasions politics has intervened as with the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The sad tale of Hilda James is that she was robbed of her probably Gold-winning appearance at the 1924 Paris Olympics because of her own family. A jealous and petty-minded mother and a weak-willed father were the villains in her missed historical moment.
Hilda Marjorie James was born on 27 April 1904 in Garston, the daughter of postal worker and odd-job man John James and his wife Gertrude (Gertie – née Acton). The James’ had five children, although one son, Tommy, sadly died in infancy. At the time of Hilda’s birth the family were living in rooms above a shop at 124 St Mary’s Road, later moving to their own house at nearby 39 Moss Street.
Attending the Victoria School in Garston, Hilda began using Garston swimming baths on a regular basis and soon showed considerable promise as a competitive swimmer. On her 14th birthday in 1918 she was presented with a complimentary swimming pass for 12 months in recognition of her prowess. Under the guidance of the Garston club coach Bill Howcroft Hilda’s swimming achievements steadily mounted and at just 16 years of age she was selected to be part of the Great Britain team at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. As a member of the 4 x 100 metre relay team she won a silver medal.
Her growing national fame brought an unexpected bonus for her family when John James was given the post of resident caretaker and manager of the newly opened open-air baths at Parkgate. The job came with a rent-free house and represented a major boost the family’s status and comfort. However, there seems to have been little gratitude forthcoming from her family. Her mother, also, had benefitted from trips on Cunard liners accompanying her daughter in her amateur role with the shipping line. Hilda was chosen for the 1924 GB team at the Paris Olympics but when the Olympic Committee refused to pay for her to accompany her mother to accompany her she refused to give permission for Hilda to attend. It seems to have been born out of nothing more than petty jealousy and resentment at her daughter’s success. John James was incapable of standing up to his wife on any issue and would not overrule her diktat. But worse was to come; when Hilda had the temerity to vent her anger at his cowardice he gave his 19 year old daughter a vicious beating with his belt. The James’s were Jehovah’s Witnesses and ran their life with all the trappings of religious fervour but it is clear that there was little if any true Christian kindness in their hearts.
Hilda stoically bore another 18 months living with her parents but broke free when she was 21. Thereafter she took on a professional role with Cunard, organising sporting activities on their trans-Atlantic voyages seeing the world and enjoying the absence of her tyrannical parents. Amongst the people she met and became friends with on her American travels was the swimmer and film-star Johnny Weissmuller.
Whilst working with Cunard she met a radio officer named Hugh McAllister and they were married in 1930 and had a son Donald. She died in 1982, aged 78. Her grandson, Ian Hugh McAllister, has written a very moving and detailed account of her career, Lost Olympics: The Hilda James Story.
At the time of Hilda's birth the family lived in rooms above this shop
The James family moved to this house from the rooms in St Mary's Road
A Cunard promotional post card featuring Hilda James from 1925.
Her grandson, Ian Hugh McAllister, has written a very moving and detailed account of her career, Lost Olympics: The Hilda James Story [emp3books 2013]. There is an interview with him about the book on YouTube. There is also an old Pathé newsreel on YouTube of her in 1927 giving a swimming demonstration. There is a reasonable Wikipedia entry.
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