A British American Champion: The Rosemary Beresford Story

Theresa Weld Blanchard and Rosemary Beresford at the 1918 U.S. Championships

When you look back through lists of past women's U.S. Figure Skating Champions, you see some pretty fabulous names - Ashley Wagner, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill among them. If you look at the very top of the list, you will see a name you probably aren't familiar with at all - Rosemary Beresford. 

Joan Rosemary Graves-Sawle was born in July of 1890 in London, England. She was the daughter of Dame Constance Mary (Daniel), the daughter of an Army general, and Sir Charles John Graves-Sawle, a retired Rear-Admiral and Baronet from Cornwall who was invested as a member of the Royal Victorian Order. 

Rosemary was raised with a silver spoon in her mouth in 'the best kind' of Victorian family. Her family were direct descendants of King Edward III and considered part of the Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal. They owned Penrice House, a three hundred year old Cornish estate in Porthpean, but spent much of their time in a mansion at Queen's Gate, South Kensington during Rosemary's youth. The family of five employed no less than ten servants. If you're a fan of "Keeping Up Appearances", you'll get a kick out of the names of Rosemary's very proper English siblings - Hyacinth and Richard.

When you have more money than you know what to do with and nothing but time on your hands, you need a hobby. Rosemary's diversion of choice was skating at Prince's Skating Club in Knightsbridge, a members-only skating club regularly frequented by no less of a role model for any aspiring young skater than Madge Syers. After taking a few pointers from her accomplished training mate, young Rosemary travelled to St. Moritz, Switzerland in 1914, where she won an international competition for junior skaters held in conjunction with that year's World Figure Skating Championships. That same winter, she won also won an international junior event at Prince's Skating Club.

The Great War began in July of 1914. That same month, Rosemary's brother Richard was married and sent off to the front lines in Europe. Just three months later, he was killed by a sniper's bullet in Ypres. In 1915, Rosemary married the Honourable Seton Robert 'Bobby' de la Poer Horseley Beresford, a shipper with business interests on Wall Street who was twenty-three years her senior. The couple took up residence on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Bobby was an interesting character. He had been involved in an irrigation scheme in Peru, fought in the Boer War and won the world trap-shooting title from 1901 to 1904. He also excelled at boxing, ice hockey, cricket and steeplechase. Rosemary was Bobby's second wife. 

Bobby Beresford and Dowager Lady Decies

With the International Skating Union opting to cancel international competitions due to the War, Rosemary would not have had many opportunities to pursue skating had she stayed in Europe. New York City, on the other hand, experienced a skating boom during the War - largely due to the popularity of visiting German skater Charlotte Oelschl├Ągel. Rosemary joined the prestigious Skating Club Of New York and entered the 1917 Hippodrome Challenge Cup, losing to Theresa Weld Blanchard, Nathaniel Niles and S.M. Lynes. Thus began a short-lived and very healthy rivalry between two talented young women. Theresa Weld Blanchard was from Boston; Rosemary from England.

In 1918, Rosemary returned to challenge Theresa Weld Blanchard for the Hippodrome Challenge Cup once again but withdrew early in the event due to illness. Reporters, eager for a story, spread the rumour that her withdrawal was due to her husband's dissatisfaction with the result. Her husband issued the following statement which was printed in the February 10, 1918 issue of the "New York Sun": "There is not one particle of truth in Mr. James Cruikshank's statement that I had notified him that I withdrew Mrs. Beresford's entry from the Hippodrome Skating Cup contest on Friday because I was dissatisfied with the judges' decision in Wednesday's figure skating contest. I in no way or manner joined in the comment on Cruikshank that I understand was aroused by certain irregularities in the progress of the competition. Mrs. Beresford was unable to leave her bed on Friday, and Mr. Cruikshank is very well aware of her illness. She sent a most courteous message of deep regret at being unable to be present, at the same time stating her great pleasure in looking forward to her next meeting with Miss Weld in the championship next month."

Rosemary and Theresa Weld Blanchard had their rematch at the St. Nicholas Rink the following month at a competition in the International Style of figure skating later recognized as the 1918 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The March 7, 1918 issue of the "New York Tribune" reported, "There was a freedom about her execution of the intricate figures and a certain dash in all her movements on the ice that impressed the spectators greatly... Mrs. Beresford's execution seemed more clean-cut [than Weld Blanchard's] to the layman, at least." Theresa Weld Blanchard won the free skating, but Rosemary's strong lead in the school figures was enough to carry her to the title... the first and only time a non-American woman won a U.S. women's title. The only other woman to have claimed a U.S. title in figure skating that wasn't a U.S. citizen was Canada's Jeanne Chevalier, who won the 1914 U.S. pairs title with partner Norman Mackie Scott. In 1920, Rosemary returned to win the Tenstep title at the U.S. Championships with Irving Brokaw.

Shortly thereafter, Rosemary returned to England and took up residence in the village of Walton-on-the-Hill. After Bobby's death on the French Riveria in 1928, she remarried the following year to Colonel Ralph Patterson Cobbold, a major from the Cobbold brewing family who served in the Boer War and with the King's Royal Rifle Corps in India. She took over the Sawle estate when her father passed away in 1932.

Rosemary and Bobby Beresford 

During World War II, Rosemary drove an ambulance, volunteered with the Red Cross and organized holiday parties for evacuated children, ensuring each children received a little gift from Father Christmas. Her mother refused to leave her home during the worst of the air raids in London, devoting her time as a needlewoman in "the service of men in the fighting forces." 

Rosemary was a deeply religious woman and was involved in dozens of philanthropic causes. She raised thousands of pounds for the National Lifeboat Institution. She was resident of the District Nursing Association until the National Health Service was founded and delivered gifts and food to seniors at Christmas. She donated a spire to the Charlestown church and was known as one of St. Austell Hospital's most generous benefactors. She worked as founder and President of the League Of Friends and was the President of the women's section of the Royal British Legion, organizing poppy collections for many years. She also captained the Cornwall Ladies golf team and was President of the County Ladies' Association. 

When Rosemary passed away on December 14, 1971 without an heir, Penrice House was left to "provide elderly people with a home for the rest of their lives in pleasant surroundings". She also left land to establish a rugby ground, to the Roman Catholic church and Penrice Hospital. At her funeral, a local MP named Piers Dixon said, "The numerous local causes which had her patronage know now that there is a void which no other person or institution can fill. Above all she was a person of joy. She would have been the first to dismiss sombre obituaries with gay laughter, insisting always with a look of almost girlish innocence that she had done nothing out of the ordinary to help other people. If humility was personified in this world, it was Rosemary Cobbold-Sawle." 

Photo courtesy Parish of Charlestown

A testament of Rosemary's humility is the fact that her obituary didn't even mention that she won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships - let alone the fact she was the only British woman in history to claim the title. 

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