Girl dubbed ‘biggest dunce in the school’ outshines everyone to win Olympic gold medal

Posted on 15/08/2019 in Press Coverage

The first ever Olympic gold swimming medal won by a British woman for an individual event in 1924 is expected to sell for thousands at auction.

It has been uncovered along with 39 other gold and silver medals won by Lucy Morton (later Heaton) in the early 1900s together with an archive of her life which shows how her success was born out of one of the biggest put-downs any child could receive.

In Lucy’s handwritten memoirs, she explained: “At the age of 10 I was at Christchurch School in Blackpool and Mrs Phillips, the headmistress, sent a note to my father stating that I was the biggest dunce in the school and suggested swimming might brighten my ideas up a bit.”

Swimming certainly paved the way to glory for Lucy. Some 15 gold medals and 25 silver medals, with an overall estimate of £30,000-£40,000, will go under the hammer at Hansons Auctioneers’ Sports Memorabilia Auction on August 22.

They include her Olympic gold medal, estimate £10,000-£12,000, and a bracelet made out of five gold medals awarded for breaking world records between 1913 and 1920, estimate £15,000-£20,000.

Lucy, who was born in New Tatton, Cheshire, in 1898 but spent most of her life in Blackpool until her death in 1980, achieved so much success that a 'Pioneer' plaque honours her in The International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, America.

After retiring from competitive swimming, she became a coach and supported others in pursuit of their sporting dreams for the rest of her life. Among swimmers she worked with was Anita Lonsbrough who won an Olympic gold in 1960.

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons auctioneers, said: “This archive tells the story of one of Britain’s greatest but, perhaps, long forgotten and overlooked Olympians.

“That school put down more than a century ago must have hurt but Lucy bounced back and showed the world what she was made of. She went on to make Britain proud and proved that, no matter what anyone else may think, we all have the ability to excel.

“She was stunned by the rapturous reception she received when she got back to her home town of Blackpool after winning the 200-metres breast stroke in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. She received a civic welcome at St Anne’s Station with a band, bouquet and banners emblazoned with ‘Our Olympic Victor’.”

As well as her medals, the archive includes her Olympic Victor’s Vase, estimate £6,000-£10,000, her handwritten memoir containing that school put-down, framed diploma certificate for winning her Olympic gold, swimming photos, scrap books, autographs, swimming certificates, stop watches and black and white images of British swimmers who paved the way for the champions of today.

Lucy’s granddaughter, Julia Routledge, 60, a retired civil servant from Evesham, Worcestershire, who is selling the collection together with her sister Annette Judge, 56, from Farnham, Surrey, said: “My grandmother was a swimming pioneer who broke five world records in breast stroke and back stroke and held world records in 1913, 1916 and 1920.

“No-one expected her to win the Olympic gold in 1924 as the Americans had been winning everything – plus she was involved in a car accident shortly before the race.”

“After training, Lucy and some other British swimmers jumped in a cab to return to their hotel but another taxi ran into the side of their car.”

ucy describes the crash in her memoirs: “I don’t know how it happened but I found myself on the pavement. I picked myself up and along with two other girls, walked back to the hotel. I remember climbing a few stairs then I am told one of the girl’s fainted and the other two were on top of her. When I awoke 24 hours later my mouth was cleaned up but I had lost five teeth … I continued to train and won my heat …”

Lucy also described that Olympic final: “On the second turn I lost Irene Gilbert (fellow British swimmer) but felt I had her to thank for the length for she seemed to go like the wind … I finally finished and looked round to ask who won … all the bath seemed to be teeming with British swimmers trying to pull me out of the water. ‘You’ve won’, they cried.

“We waited for the flag to be hoisted but nothing happened…. The reason for the delay was that all week the Americans had swept the board and both the American anthem and the flag ‘Stars and Stripes’ was pure routine. I upset the applecart – Britain first, USA second, Britain third. Consternation!

“They couldn’t find a British flag so had to run up a small one in the centre with a large USA one in second position and a small British one on the other side.”

Mrs Routledge said: “Lucy was 26 when she won her Olympic gold medal which was quite old to be a champion but her competitive career was broken up by the First World War.

“She started swimming in 1909 and by 1913 was breaking records. She won one medal for a race in the River Mersey and became involved in long distance swimming.”

By 1924, Lucy’s swimming regime involved training from 6am-7am before going to work as a telephonist, training again from 5pm, followed by a massage and bed by 9pm.

Mr Hanson said: “Times were very different then compared to the swimming champions of today such as Adam Peaty or Rebecca Adlington. It would be wonderful to show this archive to those stars.”

Mrs Routledge added: “We’re incredibly proud of our grandmother. We recently found out how much her medal archive was worth and it was quite a shock. It’s so valuable it would have to be stored in a safe where no-one would be able to see it.

“For that reason, we hope a museum, sporting organisation or perhaps, the town of Blackpool, where she lived for most of her life and which honoured her with a blue plaque, could buy it for public display.”

The Lucy Morton medal and swimming archive will be sold on August 22 at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, DE65 6LS. To find out more, or to arrange a free valuation of sporting memorabilia email [email protected].