Born in Warwick in August 1871, small in stature (5ft 4½ in) and slender in build (9st 3lb), Henri Lawton nonetheless became a renowned gymnastic, boxing and fencing instructor, the author of 2 small books on exercise and fitness, and in 1895, World Champion Indian club swinger. To claim the title, which had almost always gone to an American before this, Henri Lawton had to swing his 2½ lb clubs continuously for 25 hours – an almost unimaginable feat of endurance.
Warwickians were so proud of his achievement that they presented him with a blue velvet belt (just visible in the photo at the top) with the Warwickshire crest in silver and enamel as its clasp, and engraved silver medallions showing the bear and ragged staff on either side.
Henri had begun club swinging as a young teenager, talent-spotted and mentored by Professor Hubbard of Birmingham Athletic Club. He gave many displays, and was soon in demand all over the country. Sam Lockhart, the famous circus proprietor was so impressed that he tried to persuade Henri to join the circus for a Continental tour, but family circumstances and a burgeoning business at home made that impossible.
Henri ran a gym from his home in Archery Road, taught gymnastics at Warwick School, and ran evening classes for both ladies and gentlemen at Clapham Terrace School. He was acclaimed in the national press as “a splendid teacher”, and acknowledged as the leading authority in the field. He and his pupils gave regular displays, at gatherings such as testimonials, charity and fund-raising events, prize-giving ceremonies at the Winter Hall in Leamington, and at other national venues.
Henri even gave a demonstration at the Paris Exhibition. Henri maintained his early links with a wide range of sports. He was a member and secretary for a time, at Warwick United Football Club. He ran a sports shop at no 1 Regent Grove, Leamington, next to the Town hall. A local newspaper lists all the major sports, – golf, hockey, football, polo, boxing, fencing, tennis, gymnastics, billiards, fishing, physical culture and, curiously, wood turning. However, there is no mention of rugby!
Even in old age, Henri could still string a ‘gut’ tennis racquet, – and taught the skill to his grandson (me!). Henri retired to Kenilworth, where according to 1950s press reports, in his eighties, he still kept fit by club swinging. “It helps to keep my muscles loose”, he said. He died aged 93, and it wasn’t until long afterwards that his book of press cuttings, photographs and testimonials came to light amongst other family papers.
Derek Billings, Summer 2012 (Images courtesy of Derek Billings)