In 1912 Jack Hatfield returned home to Middlesbrough from the Stockholm Games to a hero’s welcome. At Darlington Railway Station he was by a crowd of 20,000 people whilst a band played ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’.
The whole of Teesside celebrated the achievements of a man who had won not one but three Olympic medals – two silvers in the 400m and 1,500 m freestyle and a bronze in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay – in the swimming events.
Selected for the Stockholm Olympic Games despite not having secured success in the British National Games, Jack broke the world record in both the 200 and 1500 metres in qualifying for the final in both events.
In the final of both the 400 and 1500 metre events, Jack was sandwiched between gold medallist George Hodgson of Canada and Harold Hardwick of Australia. Hodgson was a swimming phenomenon. After winning the 1,500 metres he continued swimming to achieve the amazing feat of breaking three world records – 1,000 metres, 1,500 metres and 1 mile – in a single event! Until 1984 Hodgson was the only Canadian to win an Olympic swimming gold medal. The bronze medallist Harold Hardwick later became the professional heavy-weight boxing champion of Australia in 1915!
However, Jack was able to return home from Stockholm with three medals – two silvers and a bronze.
Jack Hatfield took part in a further three Olympic Games, although he never again achieved medal success. In 1920 (when he narrowly missed out on a podium place), 1924 and 1928 he participated as a swimmer, and in 1928 he was also part of the Great Britain water-polo team.
There will always be a question as to whether, but for the intervention of the First World War, Jack Hatfield might have achieved more Olympic success. In the two-year period following the 1912 Olympics, Jack won ten English Championships and broke five world records with the then revolutionary Trudgen Crawl (front crawl).
However, the outbreak of World War I meant that all championships were suspended for seven years, including the 1916 Olympics. Jack became Gunner Hatfield in the Royal Artillery and spent four years in the trenches in France, only to be brought back in 1915 for the Army Navy Championship, which he duly won.
After the war Jack resumed his sporting career. As well as taking part in the Olympic Games, he also took part in the European Games in Budapest in 1929 and in 1930 he was asked to captain the English team in the Empire Games (the first ever Commonwealth Games) held in Hamilton, Canada, at the age of 37.
Jack led the water polo team to victory and as England’s centre forward he played against every country in Europe between 1920 and 1932. His swimming career spanned two decades, during which time he won every title from the 300 yards to the five-mile Championships held in the River Thames – 42 titles in total.
John Gatenby “Jack” Hatfield was born in Great Ayton in 1893. His father Tom Hatfield was Baths Superintendant in Middlesbrough.
Due to a premature birth, Jack was physically weak. His father encouraged the weak Jack to take up swimming to develop his physique.
Jack started swimming at the age of five. By the age of 12 he had won his first title, Senior Champion of Middlesbrough. At 16 he won the Yorkshire Quarter Mile, knocking 11 seconds off the previous best time. By 17 he had stamped his mark indelibly on the world of international swimming.
In the modest swimming pool in Gilkes Street an Olympian was moulded. He was also known to train in the River Tees, Smith’s Dock, in a flooded quarry in Great Ayton and the boating lake in Albert Park. At the height of his fame it was not uncommon for crowds of two to three thousand people to come and watch him train.
Success followed at the 1912 Olympic Games.
Following the 1912 Olympics Jack’s father set him up as the proprietor of a sports shop on Newton Street in Middlesbrough. The ‘Jack Hatfield Swimming Costume’ – the first for men to be made without sleeves and legs – found an international market. The shop later moved to Borough Road and the family-owned shop became part of the sporting fabric of Middlesbrough, with many youngsters taking their first steps to sporting success with kit purchased at the shop.
Jack was also closely connected with Middlesbrough Football Club all his life and counted the likes of Sir Matt Busby and Brian Clough as personal friends. He became a Director of Middlesbrough Football Club in 1952. As well as bringing many top name players to Middlesbrough, he also played an instrumental part in bringing three World Cup Games to Ayresome Park in 1966 even though they were played a year after his death.
Jack Hatfield died in March 1965, aged 71, but his name lives on internationally – his name is included in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale – and locally. In Middlesbrough he is recalled in the name of the sports store (albeit no longer family-owned) and in ‘Jack Hatfield Square’, which was opened on Fry Street in Middlesbrough 15 years after his death.
In 1998 an exhibition was held to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth at the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough which included the display of the ‘Illuminated Address’ given to Jack by the people of Middlesbrough in 1924 in recognition of his swimming achievements. And as the twentieth century closed a special plaque in commemoration was unveiled in Captain Cook’s Square, fittingly the site of the former Middlesbrough Swimming Baths, where he first learnt to swim.
For many years there was one other local swimming event that Jack excelled in.
The annual Tees Swim began in 1930. It involved competitors swimming from Victoria Bridge in Stockton to the Transporter Bridge. It is perhaps no surprise that the race was won on a number of occasions by a certain Jack Hatfield, swimming phenomenon and Middlesbrough’s very own Olympic legend.
Jack Hatfield was, arguably, Teesside’s most successful Olympian, and certainly one of the most successful British swimmers ever. To put Jack Hatfield’s achievement at the 1912 Olympics in context, it is worth noting that no other British swimmer succeeded in winning an Olympic medal until the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo when Bobby McGregor won the silver.
Suggested Places to Visit:
Captain Cook’s Square