George Wilkinson (1879-1946)
Olympic Water Polo Player
A pioneer of British Water Polo, at a time when only the British really played the game, George Wilkinson is regarded as the world's first great water polo player. He was born in the Gorton district of Manchester on 3rd March 1879, where from an early age he demonstrated that he was a keen and enthusiastic swimmer at his local Gorton Baths. Although a top class swimmer, he never won any straight swimming championships outright, but could only achieve runner-up in the Amateur Swimming Association's championships. At the age of 15, Wilkinson took up Water Polo, and was playing in the third division of the Manchester League when he was spotted and invited to join the Hyde Seal team in a friendly match against the local champion Osbourne Swimming Club. His role was fundamental in the first defeat of Osbourne in seven years, and as a result he was recruited for the national Olympic Team by John Derbyshire, superintendent of Osbourne Street baths, and a powerful figure in Manchester swimming organisation. Wilkinson was a powerful and versatile player who played in left-forward position. His shooting accuracy was legend, as was his strong two-handed power drive and his speciality backhand flip.
Soon after the 1900 Olympic Games, Wilkinson moved to live in Hyde, and continued playing for the Hyde Seal Club at its home base in the Union Street Baths. He was captain of this team for some 22 years, achieving many top awards for himself and the team. These included 22 Northern Championship wins and 9 National Championships. Hyde Seal were also World Champions for 3 successive seasons under his captaincy. He captained both the Lancashire and Cheshire County Teams, gaining 24 English caps between 1900 and 1922. He personally gained a second Olympic Championship Medal in 1908, and captained the winning British Team at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. In 1925, now aged 46 and virtually retired from active participation, he was award a large purse and Testimonial Award, to which over a thousand local supporters had contributed. On retirement, he became a licensed publican, and, with his wife ran various Manchester pubs, including "The Sportsman" in Hyde, "The Hen & Chickens" on Deansgate, "The Mess House" in Oldham and "The Wheatsheaf" in Hyde, where he remained until his death. His son, Harry, was to follow in his father's footsteps, and also became a Hyde Seal Player. After his health began to fail, George died, aged 67 on 7th August 1946, and is buried in Gorton Cemetery. A memorial to his memory also honours him in the Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the United States of America.
Source: James W Bancroft Archive