Saturday, July 18, 2015

Prince Wikyama and His Amazing World Record Dive

Let's be clear before we start.

There was no Prince Wikyama. And he definitely didn't complete a world record dive.

But the title of this piece is in keeping with the the story that I'm going to unfold; a story of one strange afternoon in the city's history, and the colourful characters that took a turn in the spotlight that day.

As unlikely a forgotten tale as you could imagine...

Alick Wickham.
Born in the Soloman Islands in 1886, everything about Alick Wickham was striking. Strongly built, handsome and athletic, Wickham excelled at sports from a young age, showing a particular aptitude for swimming and diving. In 1901 he was sent to Sydney, living with relatives of his father while he finished his schooling, after which he determined to make a name for himself.

Finding work as a house boy, in his leisure time Wickham would swim laps in the sea baths at Bronte Beach. While doing so, he used a stroke that was commonplace in the Soloman Islands, and many Pacific Island nations, but relatively unknown in Australia; freestyle.

And so the story goes: Watching him one day was prominent swimming coach George Farmer, who remarked: 'Look at that boy crawling!' 

The Australian Crawl was born.

Wickham equals the National 100 yards record, July 1903.

What Farmer also saw that day was an immensely strong young swimmer, who he was keen to help hone into a world class athlete. Farmer recruited Wickham for the East Sydney Swimming Club and, under his personal direction,the youngster equalled the national 100 yard record in 1903. The following year, he broke the world record for a swim over 50 yards and, over the next few years, would break still more state and national records.

Alongside his sporting achievements, Wickham made a living performing stunts  and tricks at swimming carnivals and other public events.

Alick Wickham had become a well known, and quite exotic, local identity.

John Wren
Born in Collingwood in 1871, John Wren endured a rugged start in life. Son of a knockabout Irish labourer, Wren left school at 12 and took a number of menial jobs, ending in a manual position in a local lumber yard. A keen amateur sportsman, proficient at cricket and footy, Wren supplemented his modest wages by working as an independent bookie, taking bets on the local sporting comps that he followed avidly.

And so the story goes: in 1890 Wren bet his life savings on Carbine in the Melbourne Cup and, when the Kiwi horse got up, found himself with enough dough to go into business for himself. Wren opened a licensed betting agency on Johnston Street, near where he grew up, which quickly proved lucrative enough to expand into a chain of shopfronts.

As the money poured in, Wren's notoriety grew. 

He maintained links with Melbourne's criminal underground, running illegal totes alongside his legitimate ones, and employed a number of ex-cons in his businesses (Squizzy Taylor was rumoured to be a friend). He was also accused of fixing races and flouting Victoria's gambling laws, but each time charges were laid against him, he was able to beat the case. 

Wren also gave money generously to charities, and the Catholic Church, and fashioned himself as the champion of the underdog. His support for local sporting teams, Collingwood chief among them, and outspoken patriotism meant that he remained popular, as well as infamous.

John Wren had become a colourful, and quite exotic, local identity.

Deep Rock Swimming Club

Among Wren's many sporting interests was the Deep Rock Swimming Club. 

Nestled on a gentle bend in the Yarra, near Wren's house in Kew, Deep Rock was a popular swimming hole for inner city residents. After Wren assumed the Presidency of the club he expanded its activities; overseeing the construction of a concrete swimming pool for kids, instigating lifesaving lessons, and arranging carnivals and competitive swim meets.

After the outbreak of World War I, Wren decided to use the swimming club for a show of patriotic support. He conceived a swimming carnival, capped with a world record high dive into the Yarra from the cliffs opposite the club, with all proceeds going to the Returned Soldiers Fund.

This remarkable event was set for March 23, 1918.

The dive tower, March 23, 1918.
Alick Wickham had performed in Melbourne a number of times during his swimming career, so undoubtedly was well known to a sports fanatic like Wren. But, by 1918, his days as a national sporting champion were over. Perhaps this is what motivated him to accept the dangerous proposal Wren put forward; one final turn in the spotlight for an athlete who's prime was now past. Or maybe he was simply motivated by the thought of helping the war effort; Wickham's younger brother Ted had been killed on duty in France. 

Whatever the reason, Wickham agreed to a one-off high dive into the Yarra from an elevated platform. To add an extra element of spice, he also agreed to be billed as 'Prince Wikyama,' a visiting member of the Solomon Islands Royal family. The local press lapped up this exotic angle and this, along with the patriotic theme of the day. meant a big crowd was a certainty.

In the end, an estimated 60 000 people would cram into the surrounding park to watch the death defying feat, paying 6 shillings each and raising a considerable sum.

The first part of the carnival proceeded without incident; the swim meet was competitive, with the feature 100 yard race being won by a local swimmer ahead of Wickham (who had provided a sporting head start). The crowd built during the day, and by the time of the dive they were spread along both sides of the river, and even climbed trees to get a clearer view.

Around 5pm, Wickham was rowed across the river in a canoe, and then walked up a dirt track to the clifftop. He then mounted several flights of stairs, to the top of the wooden platform that had been erected there. The mood of the crowd was tense, nervous, solemn. As for the diver...

Wickham climbed back down the platform again. He spoke to officials. The crowd waited anxiously, a number now convinced that if he dived he would be killed, or seriously injured.

But after a few minutes he climbed up again, and took position on the edge of the diving platform. A bugler on loan from the local barracks played one long note, which silenced the crowd.

Wickham survived his jump, more or less unscathed, and was rewarded by a gesture of 100 pounds from Wren, who viewed the day as a great success. Wickham's feat was celebrated by the press across Australia, and the successful jumper found himself a minor celebrity again.

Wren also claimed that Wickham had broken a world record, in that the platform was 205 feet (62 metres) above the water. This almost immediately came in for considerable skepticism, as many eyewitnesses felt that the tower had been much lower than this.

But Wren was able to produce Sgt F. Smith of the Melbourne War Council, who had erected the platform for the event. Sgt Smith swore that the height of the tower was 205ft, 9inch, which seemed to set the matter firmly in the record.

Alick Wickham, Prince Wikyama, had set a new world's record.

The local press report the jump.
After the war, Wren's eventful life continued much as it had beforehand. 

His business interests were wide and varied enough that he survived a number of reversals, and he would remain a wealthy man for the rest of his life. As he grew older, he became steadily more involved in the Victorian Labor Party, and he was soon recognised as one of the state's most influential political operators.

Wren was the subject of Frank Hardy's classic local novel 'Power Without Glory,' (under the character name of John West), where he was depicted as a thoroughly amoral individual, corrupted by his thirst for power. Wren sued Hardy for libel but the court, almost certainly swayed by Wren's seedy reputation, dismissed the case.

A sports fanatic to the end, Wren suffered a heart attack while trying to get behind the goals in the final moments of Collingwood's grand final win of 1953. He died a few days later, on the 26th October 1953.

Alick Wickham's fate was more melancholy.

Too old for competitive swimming, Wickham's fortunes took a turn for the worse, and he was reduced to driving a cab in Sydney to make ends meet. In the 1920's he returned to the Soloman Islands to live, where he was married unhappily three times, and worked a variety of odd jobs. 

The cliff Wickham jumped from, present day.
Meanwhile, debate had continued about the height Wickham had jumped from on that remarkable day in 1918. 

To settle the argument, in 1965 the Yarra Bend Park Trust had the Yarra cliffs surveyed. This established their height as 106 feet and this, combined with an estimated tower height of about 30 feet, meant that Wickham's jump was more like 135 feet overall. Still considerable, and still an Australian record for that time, but not the world mark that had been claimed.

Record books that previously carried the story of Wickham's jump now swiftly removed it. 

Wickham himself passed away, penniless, of natural causes on August 10, 1967.

Deep Rock momnument, Yarra Bend park.

The Deep Rock Swimming Club continued to thrive after World War I, but fate seemed to conspire against it.

A flood in 1934 washed away the pedestrian bridge that provided easy access to the club grounds, and the clubhouse itself burned down the following year. And most of the remaining club members enlisted during World War II, many set never to return. New members never materialised, to take their place

By the 1950s the Deep Rock section of the river had gained a seedy reputation, as it was used as a discrete drinking and partying spot after hours. Finally, as pollution of the Yarra increased during the 20th century, people simply began finding alternate places to swim.

The club was finally abandoned at the end of the 1950s. A metal plaque, and stone memorial, are all that remain in the park today, small reminders of a fomer local institution, that once laid claim to an astonishing world record.


  1. Thank you all for remembering our famous great uncle on the 99th anniversary of his famous dive. I knew him briefly before he died of a heart condition in the mid 1960s in Honiara. I paid for his coffin and this was my first contribution to the family.

    1. Would love to find out more about Alick! Especially about his bodysurfing

  2. Thank you for this blog. We walked past the spot yesterday and the info plaque there created some interesting speculation. Now the bits of the jigsaw fit together into a memorable and sad story. Plus I will not call the Aussie crawl the Aussie anymore! Vale Alick Wickham.