‘Swimming is the best sport in the world for women,’ so wrote legendary open-water swimmer Annette Kellerman in 1918. Thirteen years earlier, in the summer of 1905, she had arrived in the UK from Australia to make her international debut in the River Thames, covering thirteen miles from Putney to Blackwell.
Annette wasn’t the first woman to swim the Thames; back in Victorian times thousands had gathered to watch teenage champions like Agnes Beckwith, ‘the youthful water sprite’, Emily Parker, the ‘heroine of the Thames’, and famed diver Marie Finney. At the beginning of the twentieth century women formed their own clubs and in 1907 Lily Smith became the only woman to compete in the first Richmond to Blackfriars race alongside 32 men.
Yet although there’s a rich tradition of girls and women swimming the Thames I knew virtually nothing about this until I started researching Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames. That’s when I realised that this great river was where women proved not only that they could swim but that they could successfully compete in what was a male arena. Women were ‘the weaker sex’, but here they were as early as the 1870s completing dare devil dives and swimming long distances in often terrible conditions.
Below are just three of their stories:
On 27 September 1889 The Graphic reported, ‘A LADY’S LEAP FROM LONDON BRIDGE’. It was none other than seventeen-year-old Marie Finney, already known for her aquatic performances in a glass tank.
‘Of course the act was an illegal one,’ noted the press, ‘and arrangements for the performance were kept secret. A number of steamboats and tugs were passing at the time, and it was not until three o’clock that the signal was given to the fair diver.’
After pausing for a few seconds to take her bearings, Marie dived from the first arch of the bridge on the Middlesex side ‘striking the water beautifully’ and waving to her friends.
The following spring she wasn’t so lucky. About to dive from O’Connell’s Bridge in Dublin into the River Liffey, Marie was seized by a policeman and arrested. She was charged with obstructing the thoroughfare and fined £1.
Another champion seventeen-year-old was Annie Luker. In August 1892 she set off from Greenwich intending to swim eighteen and a half miles to ‘establish claim to the female championship of the world’.
By London Bridge, the press reported, she was showing signs of tiring but ‘struggled on with the utmost gameness’. However, after nearly five hours and having covered sixteen miles with ‘no refreshment at all’, she was helped on to the accompanying boat.
While Annie started her career as a river swimmer she went on to become a famous high diver. One newspaper described her as ‘the sort of girl one would expect to scream at a black beetle’, yet now she was thrilling London on a nightly basis diving 70 feet into a shallow tank at the Royal Aquarium.
In the summer of 1915, nineteen-year-old Eileen Lee swam from Richmond to Tower Bridge, and a few weeks later she repeated the course, only this time upstream.
Eileen left Tower Bridge a little before 9am and using the ‘right arm over stroke’ swam twenty-one and three-quarter miles in six hours and thirty-eight minutes. There were loud cheers from soldiers on Tower Wharf, while at Westminster she received an ovation from convalescing soldiers at St Thomas’ Hospital. Just before reaching Fulham Railway Bridge she ‘took a few tablets of chocolate, laughingly inquiring if it was lunch time’, then ended her swim at Kew Bridge ‘without much sign of fatigue’.
In June 1916 she ‘eclipsed all records made by men as to time’, swimming twenty-three and a half miles in seven hours from Greenwich. Then, on 19 August, she topped that by showing ‘wonderful endurance’ and swimming a staggering thirty-six and a quarter miles from Teddington in ten hours seventeen minutes. Her mother accompanied her, sitting in the stern of the boat ‘in charge of the culinary department’.
At twenty-five miles she confessed to feeling ‘a bit tired’ but announced her determination to ‘see it out’. By the end of the swim Eileen Lee was ‘long distance lady champion of the world’.