OLYMPIC swimming champion Andrew “Boy” Charlton was born 110 years ago this week and although lasting memorials have been erected in the city of his birth, few people today are aware of his strong connection to the Gunnedah district.
A good starting place to find out more about this unassuming young man is the Gunnedah and District Historical Society’s Water Tower Museum, where his Australian cap from the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles is on display.
Born at Crows Nest on August 12, 1907, to Oswald and Ada Charlton, “The Boy”, as he was known, came to Gunnedah in 1925, the year after his gold-medal triumph in the 1500 metres at the Paris Olympics.
He worked for seven years as a jackaroo on the Namoi River property, Kurrumbede, owned by the family of famous Australian poet, Dorothea Mackellar.
Although he was unfamiliar with country life, Charlton soon learned to ride a horse and settle in to life on the land.
Country towns like Gunnedah did not have the luxury of a swimming pool so the reluctant hero trained in a popular swimming hole near Cohen’s Bridge. Many local young youngsters proudly boasted that they had trained with Boy Charlton after jumping into the water during an exhibition swim.
A child prodigy, Charlton stunned everyone by swimming 19 seconds inside the world record in the NSW half-mile senior title when he was just 15 years of age.
Swimming officials were keen to test the youngster against Europe’s finest swimmer, Arne Borg, of Sweden, and a number of exhibition swims were set up in Sydney. Borg at the time held four world records but the emerging young star beat him each time.
A few days after his 17th birthday, Charlton defeated Borg on the national stage, finishing in world record time 40 metres in front of the Swede and the rest of the field in the 1500m. In the 400 yards, both Borg and Charlton were defeated by Johnny Weissmuller, who later went on to movie stardom as Tarzan.
Although he too was offered a chance to star in the movies, the public adulation made Charlton feel uncomfortable and he was quite happy to live in relative anonymity at Kurrumbede.
In 1927, he was pressured into making a comeback to competitive swimming and with only the Namoi River as his training pool, he beat Japanese champion Katsuo Takaishi in world record time over 880 yards at Sydney’s Domain Baths.
He returned to Kurrumbede after the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam with silver medals in the 400 and 1500 yards events. In 1932 he set new Australian records for 440 and 880 yards, but dogged with influenza, he was unplaced in the events at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
By the end of his career, the young jackaroo from Gunnedah had won five Olympic medals, set eight Australian records and five world records.
In 1934, The Boy left Kurrumbede to enter a pharmacy business with a friend in Canberra. In the NSW championships in Sydney in January 1935, he beat the French and Australian champions, Jean Taris and Noel Ryan, in the 880 yards, in one of his greatest swims and the last race of his amazing career.
The following year Charlton took up a successful sheep grazing property near Tarago in the Goulburn district and married Jessie Hyles in 1937. The couple raised a son and a daughter.
He shunned publicity and refused offers to turn professional saying: “I would never be forgiven by the Australian public … I am not in the sport for what I can get out of it.”
In 1968 the new Sydney Domain baths were named after Charlton and in 1972 he was honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the US.
He died suddenly at his Avalon home on December 10, 1975, but his spirit will live on in the flowing waters of the Namoi River at Gunnedah.
The Water Tower Museum is open on Saturdays from 10am to 2pm and Monday mornings while volunteers are working.