STALYBRIDGE has honoured one of its most famous sons with the unveiling of a blue plaque to honour champion swimmer Joey Nuttall.
And George Bailey ended up being guest of honour after travelling more than 5,000 miles to see his grandfather immortalised.
All this on his 84th birthday!
The plaque for Joey, known as ‘The Lightning Merman of Stalybridge’ after winning an astonishing 14 world titles, was revealed after a long campaign by members of Stalybridge Swimming Club and is sitting close to Tesco supermarket, the site of the town’s old baths.
However, the ceremony turned into a family reunion as members travelled from all corners of the country and George from his home in Harare, Zimbabwe.
“I’m extremely proud of him and his achievements,” said the man who remembers being pushed around Blackpool in Lancashire in a pram by his grandfather.
“I knew my grandfather won trophies and some of his medals have been given to me, including one that was presented to him by councillors on behalf of the people of Stalybridge.
“It’s a remarkable story. He was a quiet man and didn’t tell me what he did when I was a little kid
“It all started when Keith Myerscough from Blackpool and Fylde College contacted me as he was doing a thesis on granddad and it’s gone from there.
“He’s given me a lot more information I didn’t know but it was amazing to be there.
“I only decided to come over about six weeks beforehand and it was certainly a different way to spend your birthday.”
Joey 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, receiving a silver pencil case.
“It was first suggested about 15 years ago,” said Stalybridge Swimming Club’s Brian Ward of the move to get the man described as ‘the greatest, straightest, most unassuming champion the world has ever produced,’ honoured, which first started way back in 1987 but only gathered pace after a chance encounter with Stalybridge councillor Liam Billington.
“We tried to get Tameside Council to get one for about seven years to no avail. So everyone at Stalybridge Swimming Club is delighted that after all these years that Joey has been honoured for all his successes.
“In this day and age, Joey would be a superstar – he was the Michael Phelps of his era – and seeing the plaque unveiled is a huge honour.”
Joey was born on August 31, 1869 and the family came to live in Stalybridge after moving from the Hulme, Manchester, in 1870.
In a five-year period, he 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 1888, he swam in his first professional race and 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 and as George said: “He was already dressed and in his clothes by the time he finished.”
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.
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 and died on June 1, 1942 aged 72 where he was buried in an unmarked grave.
He left 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.
Mr Myerscough gave a talk about Joey’s life, achievements and how he first got interested in him after spotting a programme from Blackpool at the ceremony at Stalybridge Library, which was attended by Tameside mayor Cllr Leigh Drennan and leader Cllr Brenda Warrington.
George lived in Blackpool before moving at first to South Africa in 1948 as his Conservative-supporting father could not bear the thought of living under a Labour government.
“He had a business and sold that within 10 days,” he added. “So we went to South Africa and stayed there for eight-and-a-half years before moving to what was known back then as Rhodesia.”
George was joined by Joey’s great-niece Carol Lusted, who travelled from Tonbridge, great-great niece Karen Service, who lives in Mossley and great-great-great nieces Danielle and Samantha.
But the swimming ‘bug’ has stayed. George told how his brother and eldest son both swam competitively and Samantha works at a swimming pool in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Karen, who had never met George before the ceremony and was joined by her father Alan Lidyard, said: “I’m very proud to see the plaque. Joey is part of our family. It was a really special moment.”
And Carol, whose father was called Joseph Nuttall, added: “When I first learned about him after my sister sent me all the paperwork, I was amazed.
“When you see blue plaques you think, ‘He was important,’ but he’s part of our family.”