The ‘Lightning Merman’ finally honoured with a blue plaque

A CHAMPION swimmer from Stalybridge is to be finally honoured with a blue plaque after being buried in an unmarked grave.

Joey Nuttall won an astonishing 14 world titles after learning to swim in the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and at the publicly owned ‘Penny Scrub.’

At just nine-years-old, he won his first competition at the old Stalybridge Baths, winning a silver pencil case.

Now after an astonishing career, Joey is to be finally honoured with a plaque at the site of the old baths, where Tesco supermarket now stands, in September.

It also marks the end of a long campaign by Stalybridge Swimming Club to make sure one of the town’s most famous sons is recognised, which even saw them offering to pay for it.

“It was first suggested about 15 years ago,” said Brian Ward of Stalybridge Swimming Club of the move to get the man described as ‘the greatest, straightest, most unassuming champion the world has ever produced,’ honoured.

“We’ve been trying to get Tameside Council to get one for about seven years to no avail but then Councillor Liam Billington heard about it and things started moving.

“In this day and age, Joey would be a superstar – he was the Michael Phelps of his era – and seeing the plaque unveiled will be a huge honour to a man the town should recognise.

“We may even bring out a coveted medal that he bequeathed to the swimming club. It’s currently kept in a vault in Manchester as it’s that priceless.

“Unfortunately, his distant relatives live in Zimbabwe but it will be a really emotional day.”

Joey Nuttall was born on August 31, 1869 and the family came to live in Stalybridge in 1870.

At the age of 14 he earned a living as a coal hawker during the day entering swimming competitions in his leisure time.

He was a leading exponent of the ‘Trudgeon stroke’. As early as 1884 he was gaining a reputation as the ‘Boy Champion’ in amateur competitions often appearing on the same bill as professional swimmers.

In a five-year period he had met and defeated every amateur of the day, travelled more than 6,000 miles and won 18 championship races out of 20, amassing over 150 prizes.

In 1884, he won the 150 yards championship, open to the whole of Great Britain at Rochdale Baths.

The following year he carried off the North of England 100 yards Championship at Hollingworth Lake.

On October 6, 1886 Joey claimed his first world title at the age of 17, when he became the 500 yards champion at Lambeth Baths in London.

In 1887, Stalybridge Swimming Club held its opening gala with one of the events a 100-yard swim for the captaincy. It was a foregone conclusion and Joey won with ease.

In 1888, he swam in his first professional race, the 100 yards Topping Challenge Cup at the age of 19

Joey became the acknowledged champion swimmer of the world on his 21st birthday in 1890 when he defeated James Finney in the mile championship at Brighton in a time of 28 min, 7.5 secs.

In 1893 at Hollingworth Lake, Joey notched one of his most famous wins by easily defeating JL McCusker, the American challenger for the mile championship of the world, beating him by more than 200 yards.

During his professional career from 1888-1911, he earned a living racing in swimming baths and the open sea throughout the country for wagers and valuable trophies that could be sold on.

In 1894, he embarked upon a new phase in his career by appearing in the aquatic entertainment show at the newly opened Blackpool Tower, Aquatic and Variety Circus.

This was a seasonal commitment from April to the end of August. His exhibition of speed swimming was just a part of an extensive show performed by a host of the most famous professional swimmers in Britain, displaying ‘the art of swimming.’

Joey was known as the Lightning Merman to the crowds who paid to watch his skills in the flooded ring of tower circus.

By 1907 Joey had retired from competitive swimming and his life took a turn for the worse.

He opened The Greyhound pub on Hully Street, off Market Street in Stalybridge and was landlord from 1907-1910 when it shut down.

It is said that Joey was in considerable debt to the brewery who claimed most of his trophies in part payment of his debt.

Joey moved from Stalybridge to Blackpool but in November 1925, Stalybridge Swimming Club held a testimonial gala at Stalybridge Baths in Joey’s honour, where he did an exhibition swim in front of more than 1,000 people.

He made his last appearance at Stalybridge Baths on October 19, 1937 when Stalybridge Swimming Club held its golden jubilee gala.

Although he had by then passed his 68th birthday he swam two lengths of the pool – 50 yards in 44 seconds.

Joey died on June 1, 1942 at home in Blackpool aged 72 where he was buried in an unmarked grave.

He left a wife, Gertrude but his legacy in the area he died has not been lost and Brian hopes to recognise him by paying for a proper headstone.

He added: “We know he’s buried in Layton Cemetery and we know whereabouts the grave is.

“We’ve been liaising with the Friends of Layton Cemetery group to find out how we can do it and things like the cost.

“But Stalybridge Swimming Club is happy to pay for a proper headstone for such a brilliant man.”

2 Replies to “The ‘Lightning Merman’ finally honoured with a blue plaque”

  1. Joey is the Great great great uncle of my 2sons and my nephew ,and there granmar also did exhibition swimming in Oldham park lake until she’s had too give it up due to it effecting her eye sight . I would be very great full if you could let us know what date in September so we could attend the ceremony Thank you Mrs Ann Hall

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