From 1936 Hitler's Berlin to walking off with the wrong trousers, with much in-between.
440 yards (400m) for a cup crafted by Bill Phipps from a single piece of hand-forged silver
A man of many talents and many, many experiences
To describe Bill as "interesting" is akin to describing the Tower of London as "nice" and the crown jewels as "pretty". Bill joined the club in 1982 and soon had us all in fits of laughter and merriment with his musical virtuoso performances on the nose flute and bicycle pump as well as his unique diving style (sideways-on, after two or three stutters). He was never one to brag or embellish his background, but the more you spoke to him over the years the more you began to slowly understand the fantastic history that built this fantastic character. A character that, unsurprisingly, fitted in seamlessly with fellow members of the Serpentine Swimming Club.
Born in Berlin on 21 April 1936 where his father Sir Eric Phipps was the British ambassador, Bill was bounced on Adolf Hitler's knee as a baby. It was Sir Eric who had early observed the threat from the Nazis and reported this back to London. Sir Eric was transferred to Paris in 1937.
Bill served with the Royal Marines from 1954 to 1956. On leaving the Marines Bill briefly dallied with studying biology at the University of San Francisco. Waking from a drunken spree in British Columbia, Bill found he had joined the Royal Canadian Navy. Whilst serving Bill became a deep-sea diver. Bill used to recount Serps-side that this was nothing like the romantic James Bond tropical waters frogman, but involved walking around cold, dark and filthy harbour floors salvaging wrecks and looking for mines. Bill recalled that he at first suffered from claustrophobia, but “down there nobody can hear your scream, no matter how loud”. Though he did enjoy his navy life Bill was keen to come home and marry and tried various ruses to convince the Canadians he should be sent back to Blighty. At one time, when “tipsy” he threw a champagne cork at an officer and jumped overboard into the icy waters off Newfoundland. Fished out just in time, he was court-marshalled and placed in solitary confinement. Despite such escapades, Bill was eventually awarded an honourable discharge in 1960. Soon after he married Henrietta, a landscape architect and daughter of artist Henry Lamb.
When home, Bill undertook an apprenticeship as a silversmith, after which he worked from his garage before moving to a workshop in the Clarkenwell Road and, in 1963, was recommended to the Art Workers’ Guild. Bill’s skill and reputation led to many commissions and exhibitions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Goldsmiths’ Hall and the Design Centre. For many years Bill also acted as club engraver of our race cups and trophies.
Bill was a competent musician, having played the fife at school and then moving on to the flute and piccolo. But it is his skill in producing a tune from an adapted bicycle pump and also from a nose flute that provided the magical musical memories for the many attendees at Serpentine parties over the decades.
Sadly, Bill died on 1 October 2009 aged 73. An obituary in the Daily Telegraph reported that at Christmas 2008 “…he found himself short of breath in the water. When mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, was diagnosed, he submitted to treatment with more amusement than hope, and greatly enjoyed sharing macabre jokes with a former boxer in his ward. His doctor described him as a ‘heart-lifting’ patient, as opposed to the more common ‘heart sinking’ variety”. Those that knew Bill would not be at all surprised by this tribute.
Bill joined the club in 1982
January 1986, race over, time to get out (quickly)
November 1992, emerging from the chilly waters with a push from Alan Titmuss and a pull from Bill Harman
With Ray Sutton, Christmas Day 1996
January 1997, on the ice
January 2001, more ice. With Cyril Wood.
1992 winner of the Jock Fee cup
Three friends - Gordon Brodie, John Sextone and Bill
Bill was at the centre of The Times 1998 Christmas Day photo
Christmas 2001, Bill and Mike Olizar following Tony Cuthbert out at the finish
1991, Bill's leather trilby was a recurring feature of the All Clothes Race
2001, same hat, different decade, new century. That year Yoko Reid celebrated her recent wedding with an appropriate outfit for the race.
Bill's musical talents stretched to the nose flute and an adapted bicycle pump
2002, multi-tasking. Nose flute with duck quack whistle accompaniment.
1995 Serps party. This time the instrument is more formal, but not the outfit (note the leather trilby made another appearance)
Bill could also add the trombone to his repertoire. Seen here providing musical accompaniment to Tony Cuthbert's "In the Duck Poo".
2006, Bill playing the bicycle pump at the post race presentation
Wrong trousers infamy never to be repeated until it was
The Bill Phipps race was introduced to the club fixture calendar in 2004. Bill handcrafted the cup himself out of a single piece of silver. The first winner was "the other Bill" - Bill Deeley.
Bill, along with Louis Schendler, managed to somehow walk off from the changing room early one morning wearing each others' trousers. It was not until Bill got to the car park and felt in his pockets that he noticed his car keys and wallet were not there. A moment of panic ensued before he realised he was wearing the wrong trousers. This was the mid-nineties. Such an occurrence would, you might think, be a one-off. Not at the Serpentine. Nearly 20 years later and the feat was repeated by two current members. Ask around and you may discover the names of the culprits who revived what we hope will not be a continuing tradition.
2004 Bill Deeley first winner of the Bill Phipps cup
2000, Bill recounting the story of the wrong trousers at the presentation of the Louis Schendler memorial bowl. In the presence of Louis' daughter, Bunny.
2018. A very dapper George Cselko won the cup, presented by Bill's daughter Theresa.
Hayden Turner, 2017 winner
2012, Henrietta and daughter Theresa presented the cup to winner Andrew Fuller
Matt Titmuss (Alan's middle grandson) was amongst the prize winners in 2012
A sunny May morning for the start of 2012 race
Henrietta and Theresa
Henrietta, Bill's widow, died in May 2016 after a very short illness.
Daughter Theresa raced with the club all-the-year-round for a number of years after Bill died. She moved down to Abergavenny about six years ago and is now married.