Hot Coffee by Moonlight: the Birth of Marathon Swimming. Part 3 – Agnes Beckwith & Captain Webb’s First Channel Attempt

Kathy Watkin’s book The Crossing, (reviewed here), is the only currently available biography of Captain Matthew Webb. It is required reading for any English Channel Aspirant and certainly for anyone interested in the history of the sport of swimming as a whole, not just Channel swimming. Yet those of us who are familiar with detailed accounts of solo swims, (which by now some of you are from the various accounts I’ve covered here), find that the details of Captain Webb’s actual swims were disappointingly brief.

Nick Adams, for a long time the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation President, and a swimmer of great accomplishment himself, having, at time of writing, notched up 12 successful English Channel solos, (his twelfth most recently with a PB of 10 hours), and numerous relays and many other swims, is also well-known in the community as a dedicated Channel crew. (I have actually been looking for Nick to write a Guest Post for the blog for years). Amongst his many interests Nick is also a student and collector of memorabilia of English Channel history and we share many values about marathon swimming.

Such a passion as Nick’s is vital in preserving the accounts of contemporary events that never make it into the better known or more widely read “official” history books. So-called “amateur historians” are always ultimately the most important people in humanizing history in their devotion to single subjects, and the collection of detail as it was viewed by or presented to the general public.

I think we all owe Nick thanks for his dedication in preserving these works.

At the end of 2015 Nick showed me some finds of his from the early 20th century magazines Fry’s Outdoor Magazine, The Tatler, Illustrated London News, Vanity Fair and The Pictorial World. The articles excited me enormously (I’m easily excited!) with their contemporary viewpoints, illustrations and colourful descriptions. Nick is happy for me to share his scans of the long defunct magazine. We really hope that this gives you the same level of pleasure that Nick and I derive from it. Apart from Webb’s swim, other aspects of the early sport are covered such as Johnson & Burgess and other’s attempts to emulate Webb.

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Also unprecedented at the time, teenage sensation Agnes Beckwith’s 5 mile river swim in the Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich (in a mere one hour and seven minutes on the dropping tide), Occurring after Webb’s successful Channel swim, this brought many spectators out to line the river banks and a naval gun salute as the 14-year-old passed the docks. The coverage includes the style of her swimming costume! Beckwith’s tide-assisted swim goes nowhere near the minimum now accepted for marathon swimming, but it was important in the growth and acceptance of the sport, which could be seen as far more egalitarian than its pool counterpart, which even in 2016, still only has 800 metres as the maximum pool distance for women.

Early 20th century magazine illustration of Agnes Beckwith's 5 mile river swim

The column about Agnes Beckwith is more difficult to read.

Scan of early 20th Century Pictorial World coverage of Agnes Beckwith OW swimScan of early 20th Century Pictorial World coverage of Agnes Beckwith OW swim

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Of great interest is the coverage of Webb’s first Channel attempt. For a less than thumbnail sketch of the time, the idea of swimming the Channel was in the public eye. Paul Boynton, a flamboyant Irish-American had patented an inflatable rubber lifesaving suit and he crossed the Channel earlier in the summer of 1875 but then, unlike the press of today, the public and media understood there was a significant difference, and the Channel, pun intended, between what we now call “assisted” and “unassisted“.

Indeed there is one unsourced reference in Watkin’s The Crossing which claims that Boyton visited Dublin that year and 18,000 people turned out to watch him faff about in his “rubber dress” in the river Liffey.

Scan on early 20th Century London Illustrated news coverage of Captain Webb's first Channel attempt

Scan of early 20th Century London Illustrated news coverage of Captain Webb's first Channel attemptScan of early 20th Century London Illustrated news coverage of Captain Webb's first Channel attempt

items of particular note to marathon swimmers are

  • That Webb swam in the nude
  • The start was from the Admiralty Pier, (whereas the start now is usually from Shakespeare beach, or Samphire Hoe about a kilometre further away from France).
  • The use of “porpoise grease” as lubricant which an article of mine about the Channel from over four years ago echoes
  • The incorrect belief that lasted about 75 years within the sport and to this day amongst the general public that any grease protects the swimmer from cold
  • The distance swimmer’s still-continuing love of coffee
  • To my mind, the single most important thing, especially when discussing recent frauds such as Diana Nyad and Ripley Davenport, is the presence of two independent observers
  • Of almost equal importance is the role of the Captain (pilot) in calling the end of the swim on safety grounds. This collaboration of swimmer and pilot is still fundamental to the sport, and make certain pilot’s derogatory comments about stupid dreaming swimmers all the more lamentable.

The final comment though, is telling of the general opinion of the impossibility of the task of swimming the Channel; “…it is to hoped he may be dissuaded from again attempting so hopeless and utterly useless a task“.

Yet he did.

Scan of London Illustrated News drawing of Captain Webb's first English Channel attempt Scan of London Illustrated News drawing of Captain Webb's first English Channel attempt

 

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