1885 Poster (British Library)
A few months ago I wrote a post about John Trudgen a champion swimmer in the 1870s, whilst researching that post I was sidetracked by the career of another swimmer at the time whose story was just as remarkable, her name was Agnes Beckwith.
Agnes Beckwith was the daughter of a celebrated Swimming Professor Frederick Beckwith, the title Professor usually denoted someone who made their living from teaching swimming. Frederick Beckwith certainly held teaching sessions however he was also a showman who organised aquatic entertainments which often featured Agnes and other members of the Beckwith family. These aquatic entertainments tended to be organised around classical themes to avoid the accusations that they were a kind of peep show with scantily clad young ladies.
However when Captain Webb swam the channel in 1875, long distance swimming became the craze and it was to this that the 14-year-old Agnes turned to in 1875 by swimming from London Bridge to Greenwich in one hour seven minutes . This swim and the swim by 15 year old Emily Parker from London Bridge to Blackwall ten days later caused a sensation.
Both became instant celebrities and were widely applauded for their endeavours , however there were those who were shocked that young Victorian ladies in skimpy outfits were swimming in public.
Both were in demand for further aquatic entertainment usually organised by Frederick Beckwith, but there was little doubt that Agnes was the star of the show, considered by many a “Mermaid” who bewitched the audience with her swimming, floating, diving and water gymnastics.
For all the success of the aquatic entertainments, Agnes also concentrated on coaching swimming to other young ladies and promoting swimming for fitness and life-saving.
(Photograph courtesy of The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography)
In the following newspaper interview Agnes explained how swimming could help women to keep fit and healthy.
Swimming says Miss Agnes Beckwith, is the best exercise I know for girls and women. Primarily; it acts as a cure to narrow-chested people, developing the figure, in the case of women, to a marvelous degree. Many ladies, indeed, take the pastime up solely as a means of obtaining a presentable physique, for it improves the chest and arms wonderfully. But, besides making muscle, the sport promotes the circulation, and on this account it has been found excellent for the woman of bad complexion, as a concomitant giving also a healthy appetite.
For strengthening the digestive organs there is nothing better than back swimming, using the arms above the head. The ordinary breast stroke, however, is, I should say, the best for a woman, whose shoulders it improves beyond exaggeration. . For those who desire to cultivate pure muscle the overhand method is the best to pursue. The back stroke is the second best for girls. Strangely enough, swimming has a fattening effect, and many of us find a difficulty in keeping down flesh. One of its little known advantages lies in its being a preventive of rheumatism, and I don’t know any swimmer who is troubled with that malady. It it also quite invaluable as a cold cure.
After the Greenwich swim Agnes continued to break long distance records, in 1876, she swam from Battersea Bridge to Greenwich (10 miles) in 2 hours 43m. In 1878, she swam the greatest distance ever swam by a lady swimmer, 20 miles, in the river Thames, in 6 hours 25m. In 1879, she beat Miss Saigeman (2 miles) for a silver cup at Lambeth Baths. In 1880, she successfully completed her task of swimming 100 hours in six days.
Her fame was such that she travelled to swim in America, France and Belgium.
Part of the Bill from the Paragon Theatre Mile End 1892
However by the 1890s the novelty of aquatic entertainment was waning and Agnes would appear further down the bill. Nevertheless Agnes still put on shows until 1910, and was widely acknowledged as one of the most famous swimmers in the world.
Although mostly forgotten now, she was undoubtably a pioneer of women’s swimming in a time when it was not considered a suitable pastime for ladies. Her strength of personality and considerable swimming skill were important factors promoting Swimming as a sport and as a healthy and acceptable pastime for everyone.