Charlie Olsen : one-legged champion swimmer

The State Library of Queensland has a large collection of photographic images, many of which have been digitized and made available online through Picture Queensland.  One image that caught my eye earlier this week features a group of serous looking swimmers, the muscular chap in the front missing his left leg above the knee.  He is identified as Charles Olsen, champion Queensland swimmer.

Competitors at the Australasian Swimming Carnival, Queensland, 1914, , John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg:39253

Further investigation revealed several more pictures but who was Charles Olsen?  A short notice in the Courier-Mail of November 2 1948 gives us some information.

Mr. Charles Olsen, one-legged city newsvendor, has died in the Mater Hospital, aged 59. His paper stand was at the corner of George and Queen streets. He leaves a widow, a son and a daughter.

Other, earlier articles suggest that Olsen, in addition to various athletic endeavours, worked in the news vending business for most of his adult life.  In 1909, Sydney sporting newspaper Referee describes an unusual contest that took place in Brisbane.

A novelty event between Olsen and Roughsedge followed. Both lads are one-legged news-vendors, and their bout created roars of laughter. Roughsedge was declared the winner after three short rounds had been contested, and they were rewarded with a very liberal shower.

So we know that Olsen was working as a news-vendor in 1909.  This is not the only occasion that Charles Olsen took to the boxing ring, although he was chiefly known for his swimming.  The Brisbane Courier reported on a similar event in 1923.

A most novel boxing contest will be staged at the Stadium on Monday, when the well-known athlete, Charlie Olsen, will meet E. Holmes in a four-round bout to determine the one-legged boxer's championship, of Queensland. Olsen is a fine all-round athlete, and Holmes has had wide experience of the boxing ring. Some little time ago a similar contest was held in America among disabled soldiers. A large and varied programme of amateur challenge four-rounders, professional ten-rounders, and vaudeville items will also be presented. Harry Holmes will give an exhibition of skipping. The proceeds will be devoted to the Queensland Olympic Fund, and his Excellency the Governor has extended his patronage to the function.

A report after the event tells us that the match was declared a draw after the scheduled four rounds which caused much amusement.

As a swimmer, Olsen competed in many carnivals in Queensland and several interstate championships.  He mostly competed in handicap sprint events against able bodied swimmers, being described as an 'expert' or 'crack' swimmer.  In 1914 he travelled to Adelaide and Perth to compete in the Australasian Championships with a Queensland team.  In Perth he won the Consolation Handicap over 50 yards as reported in the Perth Sunday Times.

This was a close race, Olsen, the one-legged Queensland crack (who was giving the limit man a second start) being first, with very little to spare, after a stubborn struggle with Knox.

Olsen also competed in the Australasian Championship in Brisbane in 1914 which was the occasion that the photograph that first caught my eye was taken.  This event was held, as were a number of other major swimming events over the years, at the South Brisbane Dry Dock, now the site of the Queensland Maritime Museum.

Brisbane River Dry Dock, ca. 1913, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 69253

Although mainly specializing in short sprint events, Olsen also took part in a three mile marathon event held in the Bremer River.  Olsen won the handicap event in 1915, no doubt in a field reduced by many men serving overseas, but also including one other one-legged swimmer.  This event was also reported in Referee.

The winner of the race was C. Olsen, who is well known in this and other States as a very fine one-legged swimmer. Olsen is a regular visitor to the championship carnivals for the handicap racing. He had a good start, and made the best of, it, and the result shows that he possesses no small amount of grit. Another swimmer who has only one leg also competed and swam the whole distance on his back. He is a fine exponent of backstroke swimming, and the distance of three miles covered by means of this method only seems surely a record. Two one-legged swimmers in the one race and accomplishing such good swims provides quite a unique happening. The event drew a big field, and the second prize was gathered by A. Wood, who is only 13 years of age.

Olsen took part in tours of regional Queensland with teams of Brisbane swimmers, not only competing in swimming races but also putting on exhibitions of fancy swimming and diving.  Olsen is mentioned in The first 100 years : a history of the Queensland Swimming Association 1898-1998 as having a key role in promoting diving in Queensland.

A diving troupe under the leadership of Charles Olsen was formed in the 1916-17 season and the Valley Ladies Club was given permission for them to give a "Fancy costume" display at the Club's carnival.  This troupe was also called on for a display at the Australian Ladies Championships in Brisbane in February 1917, and they performed on a fairly regular basis after that.

Perhaps developing from the diving troupe, Olsen seems to have been part of an acrobatic troupe in the 1920s.  We have several photographs of Charles Olsen performing with this group including this picture of Olsen balancing on a stack of chairs.

Charles Olsen performing an acrobatic manouvre, Brisbane, ca. 1924, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg:39257

I expect that I was drawn to this picture because my own Great Grandfather, George Tobitt, was also a keen swimmer despite losing an arm in an accident.  He was a leading light in the Bunbury Amateur Swimming Club of Western Australia and was described in the Bunbury Herald in 1900 as the one-armed champion swimmer of the  world although I don't know the basis of their claim.  I have tried to build a portrait of Charlie Olsen beyond the sketchy details that are included with the few intriguing photographs in the collection.  Perhaps there are readers out there, possibly descendants of Charles Olsen who can fill in some of the many gaps.  For the story of a fast man on two legs see my blog story about Arthur Postle, The Crimson Flash and for a fast mover on four legs Gunsynd : The Goondiwindi Grey.

Swimmer Charles Olsen, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 38530

Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland

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