9 people you didn’t know made history swimming in the River Thames

Comedian David Walliams made headlines when, in 2011, he swam 140 miles of the River Thames for charity. Here, Caitlyn Davies reveals how swimming in the famous river is anything but a modern phenomenon...

In Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, journalist Caitlin Davies explains how for centuries the river attracted everyone from impoverished schoolchildren to bathing kings. She looks back at the Victorian era, which saw the birth of organised river racing with the launch of the long distance amateur championship of Great Britain, and reveals how by the 1930s the Thames had become a top holiday spot for families, with beaches at the Tower of London, Greenwich and Grays.

The River Thames today attracts numbers not seen for a long time since being declared biologically dead in 1957 – some are drawn by the thrill of wild swimming, others to compete in annual racing events.

Here, writing for History Extra, Davies lists nine surprising people who played a central role in the history of Thames swimming…

 

Jonathan Swift

The 18th-century satirist took regular dips in the Thames around Chelsea, mainly as a way to cool down. In June 1711 he wrote to his friend Esther Johnson: “I am cruel thirsty this hot weather, I am just this minute going to swim.”

He presumably went naked, as he had someone “hold my night gown, shirt, and slippers.” He swam for half an hour and the next night he was back for a dip again, but with “much vexation… for I was every moment disturbed by boats, rot them.”

 

Benjamin Franklin

During a stay in England in 1726, the future ‘founding father’ of the United States showed off his swimming skills while on a Thames excursion with friends.

Franklin stripped off, leapt in the river near Chelsea and swam three-and-a-half miles to Blackfriars, “performing on the way many feats of activity… that surprised and pleased those to whom they were novelties.”

According to one report he demonstrated overarm, breaststroke, backstroke and then overarm again, as people, clearly surprised and impressed in a city where few could swim, stopped to watch. Franklin taught two friends to swim in the Thames and before returning to America he even considered opening a swimming school.

 

Lord Byron

In the summer of 1807, 19-year-old Lord Byron was about to set off for the Hebrides and then, if the weather were good, sail to Iceland. But first he took a swim in the Thames, boasting in a letter to Elizabeth Pigot: “Last week I swam from Lambeth through the 2 Bridges West¬minster & Blackfriars, a distance including the different turns & tacks made on the way, of 3 miles!! You see I am in excellent training in case of a squall at Sea.”

Three years later, Byron would complete one of his most famous swims, crossing the Hellespont inspired by the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. It’s little wonder he’s considered one of the earliest pioneers of open-water swimming.


Lord Byron (1788-1824) English Romantic poet of Scottish descent. © World History Archive / Alamy

 

Captain Matthew Webb

Webb was the first person to successfully swim the English Channel – without using any aids – in 1875. Less well known is the fact he used the Thames as his training ground.

On 22 September 1874 he “plunged immediately under the arch” of Westminster Bridge and ended at the Regent’s Canal Dock, covering nearly six miles in one hour 20 minutes. Webb then made his “first public swim”, again in the Thames, on 3 July 1875, when he swam 20 miles from Blackwall Pier to Gravesend. Then off he went to Dover, to start ‘practising’ for the Channel.

 

Agnes Beckwith

Beckwith was once one of Britain’s most famous swimmers. She completed numerous record-breaking swims in the Thames, beginning on 1 September 1875 when, at the tender age of 14, she dived from a boat at London Bridge and swam five miles to Greenwich. It took her one hour seven minutes, and she ended “almost as fresh as when she started.”

Born in 1861, Beckwith had been swimming and performing since she was a few years old. She later formed her own “talented troupe of lady swimmers” and travelled both at home and abroad giving exhibitions. Soon she was being billed as “the premier lady swimmer of the world”. Her impact was tremendous, yet few have heard of her today, even in the world of swimming.

 

Jules Gautier

Gautier is a prime example of the Victorian exhibitionist swimmer. Born in 1856 and a pianoforte maker by trade, he was known as “the champion of France”, although in fact he hailed from Islington, London.

His breakthrough came on 16 September 1888 when, at the age of 31, he swam three-and-a-half miles from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich, with his wrists and feet tied. He went on to perform trick swimming, such as “smoking, singing, and writing; peeling, sucking, and eating an orange in the water”, as well as sensational high dives.

In 1909 he was still swimming the Thames manacled, only this time he swam the university boat race course from Putney to Mortlake, “towing a boat licensed to carry eight persons”.

 

Montague Holbein

Holbein was a noted endurance swimmer, and on 25 July 1899 he covered 43 miles – the longest Thames swim ever recorded at the time – from Blackwall to Gravesend and back. It took him just over 12 hours, using a slow but powerful stroke described as “half-side, half-back”.

Holbein had already achieved fame for “some marvellous feats on a bicycle”. He was also a cross-country runner and distance walker. “I have never gone in for quick swimming,” he wrote, “staying being more to my liking.” 

Holbein definitely had staying power: in 1908 he managed an incredible 50-mile continuous swim in the Thames.

 

Annette Kellerman

The Australian champion swimmer and Hollywood star revolutionised the world of swimming for women by designing the first one-piece costume. She chose the River Thames for her British debut when on 30 June 1905 she swam 13 miles downstream from Putney. “I shall never forget that swim through the flotsam and jetsam of London,” she later wrote, “dodging tugs and swallowing what seemed like pints of oil.”

Born in 1886 in New South Wales, as a child Kellerman had what she described as “a very distressing” leg condition – probably rickets – and wore leg braces until she was seven. Once the braces were off, and following medical advice, she started her record-breaking career.

Shortly after her Thames swim she set off for France, where she competed against 17 men racing down the Seine, finishing joint third and watched by half a million spectators.

 

Mercedes Gleitze

The first British woman to swim the Channel, Gleitze trained for her historic swim in the Thames. On 18 July 1927 she left Westminster Bridge to swim a staggering 120 miles, down the Thames and around Beachy Head to Folkestone. It was a journey that would take her 12 days and establish her as a trailblazing open water swimmer.

‘The London typist’, as the press repeatedly called her, set off from Westminster just before 6am, but was swept off course near Wapping and drawn under a group of barges, where she had a “marvellous escape from death by drowning”.

A few months later, on 7 October, and on her eighth attempt, Gleitze finally crossed the Channel from France to England in 15 hours 15 minutes. She was now “the most amazing girl in England”.

 

To find out more about Caitlin Davies's Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, click here

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