Written and presented by Odd Salon Fellow Barbara North. Barbara is an enthusiastic reader of basically everything. She is especially fond of maps and mapmakers.
“These naiads, circus swimmers, and swimming showmen and women showed off an amazing range of swimming skills and underwater feats – everything from smoking pipes and drinking milk under water to holding one’s breath for as long as 70 seconds. ”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Barbara North looks at the colorful world of competitive and performative swimming ladies in the Victorian era.
When we think about 1800s London, “ladies swimwear” is not typically the first thing that comes to mind. What if we told you it was such a hot topic it was brought up for discussion in the House of Lords? Call them naiads, mermaids, teachers, or scandals – the lady swimmers of Victorian England were in the water.
The crowd on the shore at Hastings, England emitted a roar of excitement as the contestants emerged. Having split the best of three contests one and one so far, this final race was the deciding factor: the victor took the spoils. The contestants shed their outer coats and, one tall and wearing blue, the other short and dressed in pink, the athletes took their marks to begin the contest.
Over twelve hundred people gathered on September 22nd 1879 to witness a competition of physical prowess between Agnes Beckwith and Laura Saigeman- the third in their series of swimming races. That’s right – a swimming race, between women (wearing swimming costumes) In Victorian England. Looming large amongst the crows were Agnes’ father, the promoter of the race, and swimming instructor Frederick Edward Beckwith and Laura’s brothers Charlie and Ben who were also swimming professionals, but the lady swimmers were the draw of the day.
I am Barbara North, and I am here to tell you how this swimming race and these racers were all part of a growing movement of professional and amateur swimmers, including women swimmers competing and performing in the same skills and spaces as men.
The 1870s in England were a time of growing fascination with swimming – both as a sport and as an exhibition performance.
In the current era of swim teams, high dives, and polar bear plunges exhibition swimming might seem like a fun thing to watch when the olympics roll around, but not as much fun as participation swimming. in the 1800s however swimming was not a common skill in many communities and the ability to hold one’s breath under water for any length of time was quite impressive, and something of a spectacle in and of itself – swimming performers would do tricks like reading the newspaper or drinking a glass of milk all while holding their breath underwater. While bathing, or floating around in water, had long been seen as a restorative and a healthy part of cleanliness culture, swimming as a sports activity required different skills and was an opportunity to demonstrate physical prowess. This was in an era of spectacle and sport – throughout the course of the 1800s amateur and professional sports were rapidly growing as past times for the expanding middle class- bicycling, skiing, swimming, baseball, soccer, and more all became part of popular culture. International sports competitions begin to grow. At the same time. Performers like PT Barnum were growing their spectacles as another way to capture the time, attention, and money of the general public.
While the idea that Victorian England was remarkably prudish has been widely debunked, cultural expectations around class and gender norms were commonly held, and, especially for middle class women, the idea of women’s family lives was treated as a very sentimentalized role – there were a number of expectations about how a woman should behave within society, within a marriage, and within a family and for the most part these did not involve participating in sports though many women were able to engage in activities that involves limited perception of physical activity – Both Bathing and Swimming not only met this criteria they found a way to become part of the expectation of women and motherhood.
For women, especially middle class women, swimming was often framed as part of their ability to care for children, a woman who was trained in swimming could save any children at risk of drowning. Swimming also was presumed to help build strong bodies for child bearing and was seen as a wonderfully hygienic and low impact activity for women to use to build strength in muscles they didn’t commonly use in their other womanly activities. For most middle class women, personal health, skill, satisfaction, or their own safety was not the priority in their swimming abilities, but the lack of prioritization of their own desires or self retaliation did not, in this case, exclude them from participation in the sport. And everyone who could afford the price of a ticket could equally enjoy the naiads and other swimming entertainments being performed in theaters and other venues. Additionally, as women students queued up to learn swimming many of them and their families preferred that they be taught in women only environments meaning that increased interest in women learning to swim lead to increased opportunity for women to be employed as swimming instructors in addition to their employment options as swimming performers.
Swimming as an employment opportunity most directly impacted the lives of working class women. Suddenly, instead of 12 hours a day on their feet on the hot shop floor women had the opportunity to learn a performance skill that would earn them up to two pounds per week (equivalent to over 256 pounds or 320 dollars a week in 2022) for a few minutes of work per night, making performing as a “naiad” lucrative work if you could keep employment in that field. General swimming instruction may have been a bit less lucrative but was significantly more respectable and often still a good income business – Laura Saigeman who was often promoted as the best ladies swimming instructor in England once boasted of having led over 50 individual swimming lessons in one morning.
Colorful poster after poster that has been preserved from the time show performance swimmers pulling off elaborate tricks – detailed illustrations of swimming strokes, fanciful costumes covered in ribbons, and half mer-people decorate the posters. Agnes’ father Fred Beckwith claimed to have invented the idea of the “traveling aquarium” , an easy to move performance tank for touring swimming activity that appears to be a largish box full of with a glass wall. Swimming performers did have more permanent residencies in addition to their travels, such as in the Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden near the river Thames in London. Swimmers were regularly described as magical, wondrous, and glamorous and compared to frogs, seals. Mermaids and more. The lady swimmers carried extra glamor both with their exploits and their fantastical costumes. They commonly performed on bills with their families billed under names like “the Beckwith Frogs” or “The Mermaids and Merman, the Misses Johnson”
These naiads, circus swimmers, and swimming showmen and women showed off an amazing range of swimming skills and underwater feats – everything from smoking pipes and drinking milk under water to holding one’s breath for as long as 70 seconds. They also exhibited swimming strokes including the new strokes being introduced for competitive swimmers, and swimming life saving techniques including staged drowning rescues – these exhibitions were often used to help drum up work for swimming schools and classes featuring either the performers themselves for members of their family who were also involved in swimming sports.
Lady swimmers often worked alongside their fathers and brothers just like Agnes and Laura did – performing as part of a “swimming family” or as part of a brother/sister team like the swimmers Harry and Emily Parker. Most of these women had siblings, children, and temporarily adopted friends or colleagues who also became part of their swimming families increasing the appeal of the larger group acts. In some cases the lady swimmers toured extensively as part of their swimming families, or started swimming related business with their husbands after marriage – even having children did not stop many of these lady swimmers from using their skills to continue earning some income by swimming. Swimming had economic value for a number of women in England in the late 1800s but there were still double standards in expectations around their behavior vs the behavior of male swimmers.
As the Sporting Times called out in May of 1892 “With the notable exception of the Beckwiths who, father and sons are a credit to themselves and their sport, for some peculiar reason professional swimmers are, a as a rule, The dirtiest dogs in the world. Physically you would expect them to be clean, but with a maximum of water they manage to combine a maximum of dirt, and as for their behavior, mud-larks are in it for blackguardism” – men who were swimming professionals were not always the most well behaved individuals in London society in the 1800s. Lady swimmers however were expected to act with some decorum. In 1893 Violet Mitchel lost a lucrative job as a swimming performer for, among other things, supposedly “[lowering] the moral tone of the show” – the court found in violet’s favor and she won 30 pounds (just under 5k dollars) in lost wages.
One of the ongoing concerns about the lady swimmers and their impact on the morally upright public had to do with the outfits they wore in the water.
What on earth should women wear for bathing? Bathing costumes (for taking the waters or floating around in calm water) were originally designed for modesty and were essentially large sacks with arm and leg holes. While functional for floating, sitting, or standing in water these were not only not helpful for swimming they could be actively dangerous as a source of accidentally drowning. Men at the time often swam entirely naked which would not do for lady swimmers so some accommodation had to be made. The naiads and performance swimmers often had roots in the circus and took many costuming notes from the circus performers around them – experimenting with closer fitting wools, silks and flannel in bright colors. Cotton was absolutely out of the question as it became quite indecently clingy when wet. The question of swim costumes was so difficult to resolve that a “bathing bill” was put forward in the house of lords to try and regulate this, though it was ultimately determined that this should be handled at the municipal level. The Salford Baths Committee passed a local ruling in 1906 that required both men and women to wear appropriate bathing costumes, though the Salford Council would provide the bathing costume free of charge keeping swimming accessible in that community. Lady Swimmers ultimately landed on costumes made from Stockinette knit as the most effective for sport swimming and the university conference for sport swimmers ultimately determined that these should be navy, red, or black with a sleeve and a straight cut along the neck and back. Women engaged in competitions were to wear a coat or robe at all times they were not in the water. While the naiads continued to don showier customers for their performances, swimmers learning the skill stuck primarily to the approved styles.
Returning to our lady racers: Agnes Beckwith began her swimming career at a young age and was pulling off astounding feats by the time she was fourteen such as swimming five miles up the river Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich. This was a shocking event at the time and Penny Illustrated declared “no one who had witnessed the event could doubt Agnes’ ability, but it was questionable whether either good taste or judgement had been shown by her guardian in permitting her to perform so arduous a feat.” Prior to Agnes’ swim only Matthew Webb, first man to swim across the English Channel (and former student of Agne’s father Fred) held such a record on the Thames, demonstrating that women were able to compete at the same level as men for swimming feats. Agnes, like her father, was a performer, athlete, and instructor teaching swimming to young women, teaching at her fathers school at the Lambeth Baths, touring with the other Beckwiths as part of their underwater production, and training for an ongoing series of physical feats, including her three race match against Laura Saigeman.
Laura also appeared as both a swimming performer and as a swimming instructor – competing in a number of feats of swimming power and racing against other competitors. Whole Agnes was, in many ways mostly a show-person – her father prevented her from racing against several highly rated competitive swimmers at the time to preserve her image in solo feats but Laura was an athlete who would take on all racers.
Agnes lost the race at Hastings in 1879. Laura Saigeman won best two out of three and went back to her regular role as a swimming instructor for women. Agnes went on to years of swimming performance billed as “The Greatest Lady Swimmer On Earth”. This included a tour of the United States, ongoing engagements in Europe, and appearing for the Prince and Princess of Wales Laura went on to run a bathing machine company with her husband and continued to teach swimming to students including her daughter who was winning swimming contests by the age of five.
As we are often told, imitation is the purest form of flattery, and this was also true for the lady swimmers of England, especially Agnes Beckwith and her sisters. Women using the name “Agnes Beckwith” and other assorted Beckwith sisters and daughters including an Annie, an Alice, a Cora, and a Clara began to appear in swimming exhibitions around the world especially in the US and Australia. Some of these women were able to build careers, or make a quick buck, but they all continued the visual and cultural presence of women in swimming. This ongoing presence of women in swimming led to an ongoing expectation of women in swimming, and a normalization of the idea of women competitors appearing in apparel appropriate for the physical activity of swimming.
Women as skilled swimming competitors became so normalized that women’s swimming and diving were included in the 1912 olympics (The same year that decathlon and pentathlon were also introduced to the competition). Of the 48 women competing in the 1912 Olympics, 40 of them competed in swimming and diving events (this was out of 2,408 total competitors). Women were first involved in the Olympics in 1900, with only 22 women (out of 1226 total competitors) participating only in golf and tennis – other low impact sports. In the water women were able to compete in the same activity as men, and their inclusion in these sports at this time (including with the knit swimming costumes that were still in favor) was likely heavily influenced by the persistent cultural idea that swimming was not only a healthy sport for women, but a good draw for spectators.
The brother of Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, erected a monument to his brother after his passing that read “nothing great is easy,” and this seems especially true for the working class women trying to make a living teaching and demonstrating swimming in Victorian England. At the same time, they were fighting cultural norms on engaging in proper physical activity, acceptable wardrobe, and trying to hold their own in a performance field where men carried a large draw.
At the same time, the swimming schools trained generations of regular people – including women – how to swim, saving lives and creating a culture of swimming that included women as athletic competitors. As the amateur swimmers associations grew in England and Europe, the culture of professional swimming professors and performing swimming troupes declined, though their legacy remains in the ongoing enthusiasm for the sport and accessibility of training for water safety, and the inclusion of women as swimmers.
The lady swimmers of Victorian England weren’t heroes. They didn’t band together to advocate for some great achievement for women, Often, when represented in modern media, their stories are fictionalized – there isn’t as much zing in a story that ends “and then she got married and raised her children to swim as well.” That said, these women made lives for themselves- they earned good wages to help support their families and, inadvertently perhaps, they created opportunities for the women who followed them.
Professor Dave Day, Professor of Sports History at Manchester Metropolitan University who has done extensive research on the topic of the development of swimming culture in the 1800s is explicit about the impact of these lady swimmers, “The rapid expansion of female swimming (rather than bathing) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was often attributed to the examples set by professional swimmers such as Agnes.”
In closing, in Odd Salon tradition, I’d like to raise a toast to the lady swimmers of Victorian england. Not only did their efforts save countless women and children from drowning due to their lack of swimming ability, they helped pave the way for womens ongoing participation in swimming as a sport and an income generating activity.
Ladies, let’s hit the pool
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Barbara North and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
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