Sport Focus: Sir Peter Heatly - The Path to Gold in Auckland 1950

April 24, 2019

As part of Team Scotland’s sport focus on Aquatics, the University of Stirling’s Richard Haynes dips into the Commonwealth Games Scotland archives for the story behind Scotland’s most successful Commonwealth Games diver and his journey to his first gold medal at the Auckland 1950 Games:

Sir Peter Heatly is one of Team Scotland’s most successful Commonwealth competitors, winning gold medals for Diving in three consecutive Games in Auckland (1950), Vancouver (1954) and Cardiff (1958) as well as bronze and silver medals. His story in sport is captured in his personal archives given by his family to the University of Stirling archives following his death in 2015. His early years in Diving and the journey to his first British Empire Games gold medal in Auckland 1950 is captured within his scrapbooks and photograph albums, which provide a fascinating insight in to one of Scotland’s all-time great Commonwealth Games champions and administrators.

Born in to a prodigious Swimming family in Leith in June 1924, Heatly seemed destined for success in the pool from an early age. He was inspired to pursue Diving after being taken by his father to see an exhibition by the 1928 Olympic diving champion, American Pete Desjardins, at The Pond in Port Seton. Inspired by what he saw, he joined Leith Swimming Club, then subsequently Portobello Swimming Club, and dived at Portobello Open Air Pool, which had opened in 1936 at a cost of £80,000, at that time the largest pool in Europe. The lido included a ten-metre diving platform and Heatly soon displayed his talent for the sport, winning the Eastern Counties diving championship in 1937, aged just 12. He would hold this title for three consecutive years until the competition was suspended at the outbreak of war. He was also a talented swimmer, between 1943 and 1948 he won every Scottish Free-style championship from 50 to 880 yards and set Scottish records from 440 to 1000 yards, which led the Edinburgh Evening Times to proclaim: ‘For his age Heatly is, perhaps, the best all-round swimmer in Scotland, if not Britain’.

In the 1930s Diving was a relatively new sport in Scotland. With little coaching available Heatly was self-taught, according to another report in the Edinburgh Evening Times learning ‘his dives from a book by photographing in his mind like a cine-camera record, consecutive pictures and descriptions of each highboard dive’. His diving came to wider public notoriety when he won his first Scottish diving titles for ‘graceful diving’ and Springboard in 1946, titles he kept for twelve successive years. In 1947 Heatly impressed at the Amateur Swimming Association event in New Brighton beating the then British Springboard champion Charles Johnson, and was soon invited to train with other British divers in Portsmouth, going on to compete internationally in Monte Carlo and Holland. Heatly won the British Springboard title in 1948 ahead of representing Britain in Springboard and Highboard competitions at the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

Prior to selection for the Scotland team for the Auckland Games announced in autumn 1949, Heatly had maintained his British titles in the Highboard, the 3m Springboard, and the 1m board Pete Desjardens trophy. He therefore left for New Zealand in ebullient mood. An eighteen-strong Scotland team – accompanied by team manager Colonel Dougie Usher and his wife acting as female chaperone – left the port of Southampton on 16th December 1949. Travelling in the S.S. Tamaroa, on the Shaw Saville and Albion Line, it was a five-week journey to Auckland, stopping off to refuel in the port of Willemstad on Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, before travelling through the Panama Canal on Christmas Day, with another stopover in Panama City, before heading south across the Pacific to New Zealand.

Heatly’s photograph album of the journey provides amazing snapshots of the Scotland and other British teams on board the steamship, including the 18×12 feet ‘swimming pool’ made from wooden planks and tarpaulin for the swimmers to practice their leg kicks and turns, but little else. Scotland had sent three female swimmers – Margaret Girvan, Elizabeth Turner and 16-year-old Helen Orr ‘Eleanor’ Gordon who went on to win gold in the 220 yards Breaststroke – as well as Albert Kinnear who, as a P.E. instructor, ran physical training classes on the deck to keep the team in good shape. Kinnear would capture a bronze medal in the 110 yards Backstroke. Heatly himself used a steel girder on which to hang and practice his diving tucks and maintain his upper-body strength, but it would not be until the short stopovers in Curaçao and Panama that he could practice his diving effectively.

5000 local residents welcomed the Scotland team as they arrived at the port in Auckland, and as the team stepped off the gangway they were greeted by a dozen Māori women performing a Haka. As the team travelled to the Athletes Camp in Ardmore, situated 23 miles outside Auckland, they received further welcome on crowded streets from New Zealanders including a Caledonian pipe band keen to extend their hospitality to what they still considered the ‘home’ British nations. In 1950 more than 60% of immigrants to New Zealand were British, a high percentage of them Scots. Indeed, boxing coach Ken Shaw, a former Scottish heavyweight champion, used the opportunity of travelling to New Zealand to emigrate to the country.

Heatly trained twice a day at the Newmarket Pool in Auckland, which accommodated 5000 spectators in its open-air arena. The official report of the Games recalls the divers ‘trained from six to eight hours daily, undeterred by sunburn, cracked lips and peeling noses.’ However, in his report to the Scottish National Sports Federation, the forerunner to Commonwealth Games Scotland, Heatly noted the depth of the pool designated to diving didn’t quite reach international standards. ‘Consequently’, he wrote, ‘in executing certain dives, the point of entry into the water is made at places where the depth is below the limits of safety.’ Regardless, Heatly’s diving from the highboard, against his main rival George Athans of Canada, was imperious and he comfortably won the gold medal with a combined score of 156.07. In the 3m Springboard the tables were turned as Heatly flunked his final dive to enable the Canadian victory by 0.41 points, the smallest of margins.

The hosts New Zealand had entered five divers in to the men and women’s competitions ‘all capable of executing dives of the standard required for international competition’. Heatly lamented the state of Scottish diving which at this time persisted with the concept of ‘Graceful Diving’, unfashionable internationally, and concluded: ‘Until such time as these events are erased from the list of Scottish Championships, Diving in Scotland will continue to remain in its primitive state.’

Sir Peter did more than anyone to modernise Diving in Scotland, going on to compete in two further Commonwealth Games as well as the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He subsequently became Team Manager in the 1960s and was integral to the delivery of the first Commonwealth Games held in Scotland in 1970, employing his knowledge of pool engineering to assist the design of the Edinburgh Commonwealth Pool. The pinnacle of his administrative career in sport came as Chairman of the Commonwealth Games Federation between 1982 to 1990. In his albums, scrapbooks and assorted collection of official Team Scotland blazers, ties and ephemera, Heatly has left a remarkable archival legacy of Scotland’s participation in the Games. The family heritage in aquatic competition was passed on to his grandson, James Heatly, who dived for Scotland in the 2014 and 2018 Games. James’s bronze in the 1m Springboard in Gold Coast was Scotland’s first Diving medal since his grandfather 60 years previously.

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