John James Collier was a champion, open-water swimmer and won many trophies and monetary prizes, mainly in north-west England.
He was born in 1860 in the Greengate area of Salford. His career as a swimmer began with winning a prize at the Blackfriars Baths, Salford on 9th June 1880, and this brought him to the attention of Mr R.M. Whitehead. The two became prominently identified with the sport and it was Whitehead that gave John the opportunities to compete.
In 1883, John showed exceptional form when he competed for the One Mile Championship of the World at Hollingworth Lake (near Rochdale) against J.Finney, A.S.Robinson of Leeds and J.M.Taylor of Rochdale. In this race, John swam the first 220 yards in the fastest time on record for open water (2 min 54 seconds). However, he slowed toward the end and was overtaken by Finney to finish second. In 1884, John again met Finney at Hollingworth Lake for the one mile championship with a prize of £25. This time he was successful in a record time of 28 min and 20 seconds. He travelled south and won all the principal prizes at the South West Coast Championships. Finney challenged John in 1885 for a £50 prize and the Championship Cup at Hollingworth Lake on 16th May 1885. It was a bitterly cold day and the water temperature was only 43 degrees F. This appeared to affect John more than Finney and he lagged well behind. However on the last lap Finney suddenly seized up and John caught up and supported him until he was rescued, then John went on and finished the race as winner, 10 minutes slower than the previous year.
Two weeks later, John swam at the Royal Aquarium, London in an American One Mile Handicap Tournament. He won first prize of £50, beating such notable swimmers as Willie Beckwith, Charlie Beckwith, A.S. Robinson and W. Beaumont. Willie Beckwith wanted a rematch and convinced John, J.Finney and E.T.Jones to stake £25 each. To this a Mr Robert Topping added £100 and the race became known as the "Topping Race" held on 23rd October 1885 at Lambeth Baths, London. During the race, John James Collier established a new record for 1,000 yards in 14 minutes 56 seconds. He also won the race, beating Finney by 60 yards.
In 1886 a new rival came onto the scene, J.Haggerty of Stalybridge. A sweepstakes was arranged between Haggerty, Jones and John, each man putting £50 down. The race was swum at Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park, Leeds in May 1886 over a distance of 200 yards. John won in the record time of 2 min 38 seconds. Having lead at 100 yards, John thought he could beat Haggerty at that distance, but in a match at Hollingworth Lake, the Stalybridge man proved the victor. In 1887, John challenged any man in the world over a mile and offered a 30 second start. Finney accepted and beat him narrowly. Finney was again the victor in the 1,000 yard Championship at Lambeth.
In 1889, John was the indirect cause of the founding of the Northern Counties Amateur Swimming Association as he forgot to register his benefit gala with the Great Britain A S A. He was not allowed it and there was a great revolt amongst northern members. John's last match of note was against J Haggerty at Bolton over 150 yards for £150. However, the Stalybridge man won and John retired from competitions, choosing instead to give exhibitions. It was whilst giving an exhibition at Blackpool in early 1898 that he began to feel unwell. He thought that it was only a cold, but unfortunately it was the first signs of liver cancer. He died at Salford Royal Hospital on Wed 18th January 1899, aged only 38.
John's funeral was held on Monday 23rd January at Weaste Cemetery, where some hundreds of people assembled to pay their last respects. It started from the residence of his sister's, Mrs Young, 104 Lower Broughton Road, around which gathered a large number of spectators. At several points along the route to the cemetery, people gathered. This was particularly so at the corner of Cross Lane and Trafford Road. Those in attendance were Mr H. Collier (brother), Mr and Mrs Thornton (sister and brother-in-law), Mr and Mrs Young (sister and brother-in-law), Mr and Mrs Parry (sister and brother-in-law), Mr and Mrs R.M. Whitehead (Superintendent and Matron of Salford Baths), Mr R.J. Sanders and Mr George Robison (Manchester), Mr Peter Atherton (ex-captain of Bolton SC), Mr E.H. Bishop (Osborne SC), Mr J.H. Tyers (ex amateur champion), Mr J.H. Derbyshire (Osborne 100 and 200 yards amateur Champion), Mr Derbyshire (superintendent Manchester Baths), Mr Fred. Wright (hon. treasurer Osborne SC), Mr E.T. Jones (Leeds, ex-champion of the world 1875 to 1881), Mr J.B. Johnson (ex-champion 1868 to 1881), Mr J. Haggerty (Stalybridge, ex 100 yards champion), Mr Joey Nuttall (Stalybridge, current champion of the world), Mr Nuttall Snr. (Blackpool), Mr North (hon. secretary Stalybridge SC), Mr Hall, (hon. treasurer, Stalybridge SC), Professor Faraday (Blackpool), Mr William Evans (ex-amateur sprint champion of the Mersey), Mr Wilson, Professor Scott, Mr A.E. Horton and Mr J. Frost (Salford), Mr Fred Dinning (Blackpool) and other friends from a distance. The service was conducted by Rev W.L.Hugill and John was interred in plot 31 of the C of E portion.
Many thanks to Roy Bullock for information about J J Collier.