Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘Miss Eileen Lee’s Remarkable Effort. All Thames’ Records Eclipsed’
Surrey Comet, August 1915
Teddington Lock, a couple of miles downstream from Kingston and the point at which the Thames enters the London Borough of Richmond, marks the beginning of the tidal river. It’s here that the Thames comes under the control of the Port of London Authority (PLA), as it has done since 1909. For swimmers a tidal river is an obvious challenge; swimming with the tide gives speed, swimming against it is incredibly difficult, and so timing is of the utmost importance. Sea levels rise and fall because of the gravitational forces of the moon, sun and the rotation of the earth, with tides highest around a full and new moon. The PLA provides tide tables, giving high and low water times, as well as water heights. But these are only forecasts, based on past measurements and the positions of the sun and moon in relation to the earth. What can’t necessarily be predicted is the weather and wind, atmospheric pressure, and heavy rain in the Thames Valley can all affect tide times and heights.
Arriving at the start of the tidal Thames has been eventful for several noted endurance swimmers. For Lewis Pugh, after days spent swimming in a heatwave in 2006 with virtually no flow at all, ‘I got to Teddington, the water cooled down, and heaven arrived. There are two high tides and two low tides every day, so every six hours the tide changes. If you’re swimming from Teddington to London, it is impossible to swim against an incoming tide. Even kayaking is tough work when the incoming tide is at its fastest. So when the tide was coming in, I would climb out and sleep on the riverbank for the six hours. Then one hour after high tide, when the water started flowing out to sea again, I would jump in, and literally fly with the outgoing tide. Myself and Nick flew past buildings, quays, moored boats and under bridges. It was quite magnificent!’ Likewise, when David Walliams arrived at Teddington, ‘I really sped up. I had to wait a while but the flow is quicker. You get a bit outside London as well, if the river is narrow and if there’s been rain, but it didn’t help that much. At Teddington Lock I did accelerate.’
In Victorian times the lock was the site of two significant swimming events. In September 1865 the London Swimming Club organised a race at Teddington which the press described as ‘who could swim the longest as well as furthest without touching anything and without taking any stimulant or refreshment’. This was for many years regarded as ‘the longest and most famous swim in England’ and the winner won the championship and a gold medal, valued at five pounds. Fifteen of the ‘leading swimmers’ of the day started from Teddington Lock; only two reached Barnes and the winner was a Mr Wood, who completed eight and a quarter miles with the tide in three hours sixteen minutes. The men ranged in age from fifteen into their forties and ‘probably even older’, all wearing ‘slight bathing drawers’. One competitor from Coventry did well up to Mortlake, ‘when the poor lad was handed in half dead’. Many ‘struggled on until they were dead beat’ and were hauled out of the water ‘in a very exhausted condition’. Similar races, commented the press, ‘are not likely to become popular’.
The following year three races were staged from Teddington Lock as part of Britain’s first National Olympian Games. The National Olympian Association (NOA), the world’s first national Olympian association, was formed in 1865. One of its founders was Ernst Ravenstein, president of the London Swimming Club and former president of the German Gymnastics Society. The idea was to have a national, multi-sport event of ‘manly exercises’, held over three days in three different locations, with medals (rather than money) as prizes. At 6 p.m. on 31 July 1866, the opening event of the National Olympian Games began on the River Thames, with one-mile, half-mile and quarter-mile races starting from a barge moored a mile above the lock, all for ‘gentlemen amateurs’. Heavy rain and wind meant some competitors dropped out; the three winners were all from London although there were entries from Southampton, Brighton and Liverpool. The NOA held another Olympian Games in Birmingham in 1867 and then a third in Shropshire in 1883, before winding up.
There appear to have been few major swims from Teddington in the following decades until, half a century later, Eileen Lee, whose father was the lock keeper, set a new world record. In July 1915, she had swum from Richmond to Tower Bridge, and then she repeated the course, only this time heading upstream. Then nineteen years old, she left Tower Bridge a little before 9 a.m. on 23 August and, using the ‘right arm over stroke’, swam until half past three, covering twenty-one and three-quarter miles in six hours and thirty-eight minutes. According to the Surrey Comet there were loud cheers from soldiers on Tower Wharf as she began her swim and cries of ‘good luck’. At Westminster she received an ovation from wounded convalescing soldiers at St Thomas’ Hospital, which she ‘acknowledged with a wave of her arm’. Just before reaching Fulham Railway Bridge she ‘took a few tablets of chocolate, laughingly inquiring if it was lunch time’. The paper described her ‘graceful motion in the water, which she only slightly disturbs in swimming’, adding that she had considerable power in her right arm, was an enthusiastic boxer and ‘an expert with the foils’, and intended to swim the Channel.
In August 1915, nineteen-year-old Eileen Lee (right) covered nearly twenty-two miles between Tower Bridge and Richmond and went on to set a world record in the Thames.
Eileen Lee’s plan was to swim to Richmond and then return with the tide to Putney, but at Richmond the tide was ‘still running’ so she switched to a slow breaststroke and continued upriver. She paused in the water ‘opposite the Pigeons’ for six minutes where she ‘partook of food’ before continuing to Hammerton’s Ferry at Marble Hill. There she waited for the tide to turn before beginning her return journey.
The Thames Valley Times reported that she was ‘frequently cheered by different groups on the riverside at Richmond’ but it was then announced she would finish at Kew Bridge. She had experienced ‘much discomfort from the bright sun at Chiswick’ and by Kew her eyes were so ‘inflamed by the sun’s rays’ that she was advised to ‘relinquish her object of going down river’. She also experienced a strong headwind and had to dodge bits of floating boxes. At Kew she was helped into a boat by her instructor, Walter Brickett, the coach and trainer for the British swimming team during the early 1900s, having ‘wound up with a good strong spurt’ and walking along the landing stage ‘without much sign of fatigue’.
Lee had only started swimming at the age of fifteen and the paper noted that, while many had completed long-distance swims, they had done so on tides, and ‘no swimming of any importance has been recorded as starting from the lower reaches of the river and finishing up stream’. The Sportsman added that Lee’s feat would ‘stand as a record for some time’.
The Daily Mirror printed photographs of Brickett feeding her during the swim, at one point spooning food into her mouth and later offering her a piece of chocolate. A Gaumont newsreel of September that year opens with Lee swimming a speedy front crawl followed by a boat laden with people, Walter Brickett standing up at the back dressed all in white, furiously waving his arms to urge her on. Moments later she can be seen swimming equally fast in the other direction, now doing breaststroke and between two rowing boats. Then she’s striding on to the dock, dressed and wrapped in a coat, arm in arm with Brickett and surrounded by beaming friends. The final shot shows her with a large towel wrapped round her head posing with Brickett, still talking animatedly, next to whom is her father, Teddington lock keeper Patrick Lee.
In June 1916, now described as the ‘women’s world record holder’, she ‘eclipsed all records made by men as to time’, swimming twenty-three and a half miles in seven hours from the Naval College at 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, thus setting a new world record for women. She started at Teddington at seven in the morning, diving from the stern of a boat in which sat her mother, ‘in charge of the culinary department’, as well as several London journalists ready to attest to the authenticity of the swim. Lee caught the ebb tide, reached Wapping Pier after six hours, nine and a half minutes and returned ‘on the flood’ to Kew Bridge.
Conditions were said to be ideal, with the water between Putney and Mortlake so smooth it resembled a mirror on the downward part of the trip. For nearly three hours she maintained a ‘perfectly even twenty-six strokes per minute’. Described as ‘invariably cheerful’ and regarded by Brickett as ‘the most docile swimmer it would be possible to have charge of’, at twenty-five miles she confessed to feeling ‘a bit tired’ but announced her determination to ‘see it out’.
The tone of the press report is one of utter admiration: ‘All records were being pulverized. The swimmer herself was in the happiest of mood.’ She had beaten the previous record holder, ‘an Austrian lady’ who had swum twenty miles in ten hours. This was Madame Walburga von Isacescu (her name is spelt in a variety of ways), presumably in the Danube where, in 1902, she had swum for twelve hours between Melk and Vienna. Two years earlier she had become the first woman to ‘attempt to rival Webb’ by swimming the Channel. She was then thirty, of medium height and ‘powerful physique’. But, twenty miles out of Calais, she was forced to give up.
Yet despite her being ‘long distance lady champion of the world’ in 1916, I can find very little on Eileen Lee but for a handful of newspaper clippings. What happened to this young woman who had only started swimming at the age of fifteen and a few years later covered more than thirty-six miles from Teddington, through London and back to Kew? Why does she disappear from the sporting pages after 1916? Was she perhaps a casualty of war? I had given up trying to find out more about her, when, one evening I received an email from someone I’d never heard of, Jill Morrison. The message window was blank and I was about to add it to the spam folder when something made me click on it. The email came from Seattle, Washington State, and began with the words, ‘I am Eileen Lee’s granddaughter.’ Jill had read on the internet that I was writing a book on Thames swimming and wanted to put me in touch with her cousins Barbara Allan and Cathy Stroud who live in Hamilton, Ontario, and have researched the family’s history, because ‘I think Granny was quite the amazing woman and it still boggles my mind that she did what she did’.
Now, at last, I was to find out more about her grandmother’s life. Eileen Lee was born in Sheffield on 27 October 1895, the second eldest of thirteen children. Her father, Patrick, was a naval officer who was awarded several medals during the course of his career, including a Silver Medal and Certificate from the Royal Humane Society in 1892 for heroism on HMS Audacious. He also served on HMS Inconstant where one of his shipmates was Prince Philip’s grandfather, Prince Louis of Battenberg. Patrick had joined the Royal Navy on his fifteenth birthday, retiring after twenty-three years as chief petty officer. He qualified as a naval diver, and after leaving the navy worked for the River Thames Conservancy; he rejoined the navy in 1917 before reaching the rank of sergeant major in the army, serving until 1920.
When I contact Barbara Allan, she sends me two photos of Patrick Lee. In the first he looks dashing in his Royal Navy uniform, a row of medals on his jacket; in the second he appears decades older, a pipe in his mouth and a sou’wester on his head. ‘Granny was having her portrait taken by a professional photographer (I don’t remember why) and her father stopped by the photographer’s studio to pick her up on his way home,’ explains Barbara. ‘As soon as he walked in the door of the studio, wearing his rain gear, the photographer yelled “DON’T MOVE” and took the photo of Patrick Lee. This photo then appeared on packages of Skipper Sardines!’ Her great-grandfather also achieved local notoriety when, in 1910, while working as the assistant lock keeper at Teddington, he was ‘summoned for detaining a parrot’ that he was keeping in a cage outside his house at the lock and which apparently belonged to someone else.
Eileen’s father Patrick Lee, pictured here in his Royal Naval uniform, was the lock keeper at Teddington.
His daughter Eileen, meanwhile, appears to have won her first race in 1912 and Barbara sends me a letter dated September 1913 in which her grandmother is offered ‘our very hearty congratulations on your excellent swim at Liverpool the other day’. It’s only when I look at the letter heading that I realise Eileen must have been a member of the Kingston Ladies Swimming Club. It is signed by Vera Offer, honorary secretary, sent with best wishes for Eileen’s future success, noting that ‘if the distance had been greater you would have done better still … you did credit to your club and instructors’.
As to why Eileen never attempted the Channel, Barbara believes ‘financials were part of the decision, but the bigger obstacle was the war. It was deemed far too risky for all involved for her to be in the Channel for the length of time the swim would have taken when war ships including submarines were doing battle.’ And the reason I couldn’t find anything about her grandmother after her triumphant Thames swim in 1916 was because Eileen Lee moved to Canada. In 1919, along with her husband Maxwell Rowley Morrison, she left England and after several moves settled in Hamilton, Ontario. She was still famous enough to have been invited to meet the Prince of Wales, then travelling through Canada, at a drawing-room reception at ‘the Armories’ on 22 October 1919. But it appears that Eileen did not accept the invitation: ‘maybe she didn’t go since the reception was held on a Wednesday night from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., so maybe a bit late for a mother?’ suggests Jill.
But she continued her swimming career, and in the mid-1920s, now the mother of five children, she entered the annual Canadian National Exhibition swims in Lake Ontario which Jill describes as ‘quite a gruelling swim. Granny did continue to have an amazing life. She taught swimming, ran a dance studio where one of her students, Frank Augustine, went on to become a principal dancer with the Canadian National Ballet, and in 1942 she started schools for the education of children with special needs in Hamilton. She also ran summer camps for special education kids and adults. Granny’s youngest child and daughter was born mentally handicapped as a result of the doctor who came to the house to deliver the baby being drunk and the cord was wrapped around the neck, cutting off the oxygen supply during the birth. She had a personal interest in these children as a mother of one.
‘Granny was a natural-born teacher,’ adds Barbara, ‘but her life was a hard one after marrying and having seven children.’ It was made harder by the fact her husband, a graduate of Sandhurst, had been a victim of mustard gas during the war: ‘the pain was excruciating for him and he turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Once his youngest child was born, he could no longer take the pressures and returned to England to seek compensation in the courts for the mustard gas. He died a few months before I was born.’ Eileen Lee remained in Canada, however, with her seven children, eighteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She died on 20 April 1976.
Her grandchildren always knew about her record-breaking swims, particularly the one from Teddington lasting ten hours. Two of her sisters, Delia and Doris, also swam the Thames and ‘earned recognition in their own rights, but Granny’s swim became the most famous of the Lee children as it set a world record,’ says Barbara. ‘She certainly could have taken gold at the Olympics given the opportunity.’ Both her granddaughters, Jill and Cathy, were competitive swimmers, Cathy competing in Canada and the United States, winning ‘many first-place ribbons and medals’, while Jill changed direction and began instructing and examining children for the Red Cross and Royal Life Saving Society swimming programmes.
Barbara sends me a photo of her grandmother taken around 1915. She’s standing on a beach with another young woman, both in bathing costumes as if about to start on a swim. Eileen has a regal bearing, her face full on to the viewer, while the top of the photo is pitted with holes from where it’s been proudly pinned to Cathy’s bulletin board for forty years.
In 1967 Barbara went on a family trip to England to visit relatives and it was then that she finally saw the site of her grandmother’s famous swim. ‘We stopped at Teddington and chatted with the current lock keeper who permitted me to actually work the same lock that Grandpa Lee did, located just across the river from their house. I was eleven years old, and the thought of turning that big wheel to open the lock was very intimidating to say the least! The lock keeper was quite surprised that he was chatting with a former lock keeper’s granddaughter, one all the way from Canada, and offered to me, the eldest of five little girls there and standing shyly by my mum, the opportunity to work the lock. I really didn’t want to, it looked so heavy, but the gentleman encouraged me and actually helped me get the wheel to start. I was right, it was sooo heavy! The entire time I was turning the wheel, only one thought was in my head, here I am, touching something that Grandpa Lee touched so many years ago and I will never forget doing this for the rest of my life!’
And what did she think of the River Thames? ‘I thought it was very small at Teddington, as we had already seen it up in London, and I was amazed that this little lock was holding a river that became so big further upstream. The thought that Granny swam here was lovely, as in Teddington the river is very charming. But thinking of her swimming further upstream was not so pleasant as the river turned into a highway!’
The family have certainly treasured Eileen Lee’s memory and sporting legacy. While they are disappointed to have lost letters from Noël Coward, born in Teddington in 1899 and a close friend of their grandmother’s, they have a silver challenge cup from the Kingston Ladies’ Club engraved with the words, ‘Sunbury Lock Hampton Court Bridge to or below Molesey Lock or below Kingston Bridge for long distance swimming’. There’s a list of names, dates and distances, beginning in 1905 with Claire Parlett, who swam to Richmond Lock, and ending with Eileen Lee swimming from Hampton Court to Hammersmith in 1912.
The family also has newspaper clippings, three medals (including one from a Crystal Palace fête in 1915), a set of their grandmother’s dumbbells and a carved statue of Eileen Lee in wood and bronze, her hands held above her head in a diving position. But, best of all, Barbara tells me she has her grandmother’s swimsuit and, when she asks if I’d like to see it, I email back YES! The next day she sends the picture and my first impression is that it looks so flimsy, this one-piece costume with capped sleeves and a Union Jack on the front. It’s a hundred years old, faded to a dull grey, a little ragged below one arm, as if eaten by moths. I think of the Lycra costume I normally wear, and how heavy and waterlogged Eileen’s must have become after hour upon hour swimming in the Thames. Was this the one she wore in August 1915 when she swam between Tower Bridge and Kew, struggling against a strong headwind, dodging pieces of floating boxes, her eyes so inflamed by the sun that she had to stop after nearly twenty-two miles? And did she wear it the following summer when the press reported ‘all records were being pulverized’? Whether or not she did, ‘Granny’s swimming costume is a hoot!’ says Barbara. ‘How she swam in a suit with capped sleeves, buttons and legs that went down the thigh a bit just boggles the mind.’ While the cloth is very thin, ‘it’s not too bad for something that had a lot of use, was greased, oiled and had who knows what else from the river on it,’ adds Cathy, who keeps it in a towel in her dresser with her own costumes and swimming meet t-shirts.
Not only did Eileen Lee continue to swim in Canada, but she set about teaching others as well, at the school she founded in Hamilton in 1942. ‘She wanted people to know how to swim so that they could save themselves,’ says Barbara. ‘These children never knew that they were being taught by a world champion. She was simply “Mrs Morrison”. There may have been drownings in the river that she knew of as a child. With her father being a naval officer and diver, I’m sure swimming had something to do with that as well. One of Granny’s sisters mentioned to us that, when they were small, Grandpa Lee just took them and threw them into the river and said “swim” so they did! Rather an odd thing to do but they did manage to figure it out. What a character! She rarely spoke of her swims as she considered it bragging, which appalled her. If she started bragging I’m sure all her siblings would have knocked it out of her in a hurry! We are so thrilled that not only Granny’s story but the stories of so many who swam the river are finally being shared. The focus always seemed to be on the Channel swims and the river swims largely ignored.’
‘Granny really never talked about her great feats,’ says Cathy, ‘in our family the deed was/is always more important than the glory. The British stiff upper lip, never complain, never explain, was always there to an extreme with her. She was very brave for swimming in a place that still, 100 years later, can cause gastrointestinal issues. Maybe I am just putting my twenty-first-century values, ideas and knowledge on an era that didn’t have the same, but it still wouldn’t make me want to ever swim in the Thames! If she didn’t want the accolades she shouldn’t have swum a world record. She also has grandchildren who think the world should know how wonderful she was.’