Ralph Thomas (GBR)
Honor Pioneer Contributor (2004)
FOR THE RECORD: Swimming’s First Historian, Biographer and Bibliographer; Author of Swimming (1904) (first issue 1868).
Ralph Thomas, a little-known man who seems to have shunned the limelight, was swimming’s first historian. With great dedication, he researched everything written or illustrated on swimming from antiquity to the end of the 19th century. He described in detail every item on swimming that he could find, whether it was a book, an artifact, pamphlet or even a postcard. In doing so, he established himself as swimming’s first historian and one of the sport’s greatest contributors.
His first book, Swimming: A Bibliographical List of Works, (1868) was “compiled at the expense of much time and labour” and only 125 copies were printed. At the time, the book was considered to be “a publication of valuable service to any student of swimming lore.” (Sinclair and Henry, 1893)
Thirty six years later, in 1904, now in failing health and not satisfied with his effort, Ralph Thomas published his highly-detailed 488-page book, Swimming, which over the years was to become a much-prized gem for the rare book collector. When he started work on the book, he thought it would be possible to begin where he had left off in 1868, but he soon found it necessary to cover the whole ground again. Not only had his own ideas grown, but so had those of swimmers and others in the sport. He tackled this task with the intention to review all over again everything that had been written of swimming. He believed that most authors were unaware of the great amount that had already been written on the sport and that even if a writer owned a number of recent swimming books this was no guarantee that he knew what had been written by earlier writers, “nor indeed as to which works were original and which [were] plagiarisms.” On finishing this second great text, Thomas said that it was impossible to do a work of this kind quickly and that many of the articles had involved “years of study, thought and quiet deliberation.” Thomas said, “I have often spent hours in verifying a single fact, for it is impossible to say what influence it may have on a writer who may want just that very fact accurately told.”
As far as the bibliography of swimming is concerned, Swimming is the most important work in the English language, if not in the world. His work is a pillar of research and devotion. Archibald Sinclair, a noted English authority on swimming, wrote an appreciation of Ralph Thomas in the “Swimming Magazine,” London, January 1915, in which he says, “This book is a mine of wealth, and it is a pity that it is not better known to the student of swimming and swimming literature, for it contains a record of every known book on the subject up to 1904.”
Swimming contains lists of books published in English, German, French and other European languages as well as critical remarks on the theory and practice of swimming and resuscitation. It is a biography, history and annotated bibliography, with upwards of one hundred illustrations.
Few have contributed more to the sport during the course of a lifetime than Ralph Thomas, but the most remarkable thing about him is that he does not appear to have been an active competitive swimmer, an official, or a coach, but just a keen swimmer with an intense interest in practicing new techniques so that he could write authoritatively about them.
*Edited from the Writings of Sports Historian, Cecil Colwin.