Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘Glide gently, thus for ever glide,
O Thames! that other bards may see,
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair river! come to me’
William Wordsworth, ‘Lines written near Richmond’, 1790
The town of Richmond, from where Eileen Lee set off to swim to Tower Bridge in 1915, is situated in London’s most attractive borough, at least according to the town’s website, and is among the wealthiest areas in the UK. Outside the railway station, however, as I walk past upmarket chain stores on my way to the local studies collection, I see a man on the pavement with a handwritten cardboard sign which reads ‘Homeless’. I’ve come to see a scrapbook belonging to the Richmond Swimming Club, founded in 1883, and covering nearly fifty years of the history of Thames swimming. The collection is housed in the Old Town Hall, close to the riverside where the Thames glitters in the sun, the broad promenade overlooked by affluent buildings that rise up from a manicured lawn. The Thames runs through the borough for twenty-one miles and it was the beauty of the river here that inspired Wordsworth’s 1790 poem, where ‘in thy waters may be seen/The image of a poet’s heart’.
It’s a sunny day and people are already lining up for boat rides near Richmond Bridge, completed in 1777 and once an ancient ferry site. Horace Walpole, writing to a friend a few years before the bridge was finished, complained, ‘It has rained this whole month … the Thames is as broad as your Danube … The ferry-boat was turned round by the current, and carried to Isleworth.’ Charles Dickens often stayed along this stretch of the river. In the summer of 1839 he rented Elm Cottage in nearby Petersham for four months, writing to the artist Daniel MacLise, ‘Beard is hearty, new and thicker ropes have been put up at the tree … swimming feats from Petersham to Richmond Bridge have been achieved before breakfast, I myself have risen at 6 and plunged head foremost into the water to the astonishment and admiration of all beholders …’ But while Dickens may have loved a swim, there were soon bathing regulations in place. In 1844 a letter writer to The Times objected, ‘I have myself gone to Richmond for a river bath, but found numerous ill-natured announcements on boards, that I must be taken into custody … if I attempted it before so late an hour that would prevent my getting a conveyance to town the same evening.’
As with other Thames-side towns, there is little on swimming at the local museum, but for an electro-plated nickel silver cup engraved, ‘Won by Tom Ward, 16th Sept. 1871, Swimming Match Richmond to Kew’. Unfortunately, explains curator Sue Barber, there are no details of the event and the man who donated the cup found it in a skip in the Isle of Wight.
The atmosphere inside the local studies collection is friendly and relaxed, the low-ceilinged attic room crowded with books and pamphlets. Archivist Felix Lancashire has the scrapbook ready for me, a large blue hardbound document including handbooks and annual reports, which together provide a potted history of the evolution of swimming in England. The book begins with an 1885 programme for the annual entertainments held by the club, which was amalgamated with the Kew Bridge Swimming Club, at the Richmond Baths. This was the headquarters of the club, and its president was the MP Thomas Skewes-Cox. A few years later the Life Saving Society was demonstrating ‘rescuing and resuscitating the Apparently Drowned’, while club members were competing in a lighted candle race, attired in nightdress and nightcaps.
The Richmond Club also swam in the Thames. In 1895 fixtures included a half-mile handicap held in June, with the club using the ‘dressing barge’ belonging to the Surbiton Swimming Club, while three years later a quarter-mile river race was introduced. As with the Otter club, the venue for the river races changed over the years; the half-mile was sometimes held at Walton, and the quarter-mile at Petersham, Staines or Walton. In 1902, the Richmond Club’s president was now a JP - he was knighted a few years later - and another river race was launched, a two-and-a-half-mile scratch race for the Holbein Shield, between Teddington and Richmond locks, ‘on the ebb tide’.
The three river races soon acquired formal titles. The Majority Challenge Cup for the half-mile was inaugurated in 1903 to commemorate the club’s ‘coming of age’, and the Wishart Challenge Cup started in 1907 for the quarter-mile at Walton.
Club members were clearly established swimmers. In 1906 they were competing in the 150 yards championship of London, where they practised ‘the “crawl” stroke’. Two years later they had ‘some of the fastest swimmers in the south’ and one member, S. Parvin, reached the semi-finals of the 100 metres backstroke in the Olympic Games. But the number of people entering the river races was beginning to dwindle. In 1909 ‘inclement weather completely spoilt’ the half-mile, while only six entered for the Holbein Shield. In 1911, again with bad weather, it was down to just three men.
I turn the page to find a letter written in 1915 explaining there were no fixtures arranged for the current year and no handbook had been published. And while I know what’s coming, it’s still a shock as I come to the club’s report for the spring of that year. It makes bleak reading: gone is the usual page-long account of successes in swimming and water polo; instead there is a list of members who have joined His Majesty’s Forces - as privates, lieutenants, troopers and gunners. Church bells begin to chime ominously outside the attic room as I turn to the next year’s report. Now the men are missing, wounded, killed in action. Soon these young men, former champion swimmers, are invalided, gassed and prisoners of war, while some were awarded medals such as the Military Cross.
But while there were no fixtures because of the war, the club began to promote races at local schools and in 1916 there is the first mention of girls, with ‘prizes for Boys and Girls Races’ included in the list of expenditure. The next entry is for 1926 when its patrons are HRH the Duke of York and the Most Honourable the Marquis of Cambridge. The fortunes of the club had changed again, just as they did with other Thames clubs like those at Reading. Now there were a large number of junior members and the river races, still at Walton, were underway. But attendance wasn’t as good as it had once been. In 1924 the races were ‘deplorably supported’ despite the ‘considerable time and expense’ they took to organise. In 1927, the year of the General Strike, there was still a ‘poor number of entries’ to the Thames races. The scrapbook ends in 1931, but the club still operates today at the Teddington Swimming Pool and since 2009 it has incorporated the Richmond Ladies Swimming Club. It describes itself as ‘a friendly, non-competitive club’, which, just like its Victorian forebears, offers ‘a wide range of activities’ with swimming sessions, snorkelling, synchronised swimming, water polo and water volleyball.
It wasn’t just the Richmond Club that swam on the Thames. In September 1907 the Daily Mirror reported on ‘the most important swimming race ever held in England’, under the auspices of the ‘Weekly Dispatch’. Thirty-three people swam fifteen and a half miles from Richmond Lock to Blackfriars in what became an ‘annual through London swimming contest’. This was not promoted by the ASA, but drew swimmers ‘from nearly every one of the Continental nations’ and would continue until 1939. In the first year John Arthur Jarvis, the painter and paper hanger who would become English long-distance champion, won, followed by Dutch champion Pieter Lodewijk Ooms. Jarvis, then in his mid-thirties, had begun racing at sixteen, and had been the leading world middle- and long-distance swimming champion between 1898 and 1902, winning numerous ‘world championships’ at European events. At the 1900 Olympiad in Paris he won the 1,000 metres in the River Seine. But by the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens he was ‘past his best’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and his Richmond race was therefore ‘perhaps his most satisfying and most publicized achievement’.
Competitors line up for the start of the inaugural Richmond to Blackfriars race in 1907, ‘the most important swimming race ever held in England’.
Just one woman took part in this race, and that was Lily Smith. The Mirror devoted its front page to a pictorial coverage of the event, showing Smith, appropriately ‘wrapped in sackcloth’ waiting for the race to start, Richmond Bridge packed with spectators and the Thames full of men thrashing about in the water. In 1908 Smith again took part, as a member of the Ladies Perseverance Club, at a time when many of the Mirror’s pictorial features were now focused on suffragettes being released from Holloway Prison. While the first Woman’s Suffrage Bill had been presented to the House of Commons back in 1832, the fight for the right to vote had now become militant. In 1907 the Women’s Freedom League had been formed and the year of Smith’s swim there was a mass suffragette rally in London, while the following year the first hunger strikes started.
The British women’s Olympic swimming team of 1912, their towelling robes on the poolside. From left to right: Bella Moore, Jennie Fletcher, Annie Spiers, Irene Steer. Chaperone Clara Jarvis, whose brother John Arthur Jarvis won the first Richmond to Blackfriars race, stands behind.
The 1908 Richmond swimming race doesn’t appear to have been segregated, although the winners were, as in this case Smith came second, with the ‘lady’ winner I.B. Armstrong of the Kingston Ladies Club. Overall, fifty-seven people started the race, only eighteen finished (of which, it appears, six were women), and Jarvis won the men’s race, fighting off competitors from Holland, Belgium and France.
As with her successors Eileen Lee and Ivy Hawke, Smith was an established long-distance swimmer; that same year she swam sixteen miles in the Channel, and a photograph from around 1910 shows her next to Lee’s trainer, Walter Brickett. She won the ‘ladies half-mile championship in the Thames’ for three years from 1907 (the location isn’t stated) and was also a noted water polo player. In 1911 she attempted a round trip of the Solent, but hit a submerged barrel on the way back and, such was the loss of blood, she had to stop.
In 1912 ‘London’s best known lady swimmer’ Lily Smith set her sights on the Channel in order ‘to put a stop forever to all this twaddle about the weaker sex’.
By 1912, when Smith had set her sights once more on the Channel, she was ‘London’s best known lady swimmer’. The daughter of the superintendent of the City Fire Station and the Thames fire floats, she’d now swum twenty miles from Dover to Ramsgate. Nineteen twelve was the year women swimmers and divers first competed in the Olympics, and it also marked the launch of a window-smashing campaign by suffragettes in London’s West End, leading to sentences of hard labour and solitary confinement for ‘outrages’ and ‘acts of insubordination’. Smith was very clear about the political significance of her upcoming swim, although whether she was asked her views by the press or volunteered them isn’t clear. ‘I am going to swim the Channel in order to demonstrate that woman is the physical equal of men,’ she said. ‘I am going to put a stop forever to all this twaddle about the weaker sex. Yes, I am a firm believer in woman suffrage.’
This must have been a daring statement to make, for the idea of women’s suffrage was threatening the very foundation of ‘civilisation’. MPs had been warning for years that it simply wasn’t fitting for women to enter the arena of politics or engage in public affairs; their proper sphere was the home. During debates in the all-male House of Commons in 1912 some said it was ridiculous to regard women as ‘a sort of china doll in a sacred hearth’, but others saw the vote as a badge of difference, a ‘difference of masculine character and coercive power’ which was necessary for the safeguarding of empire. The ‘mental equilibrium of the female sex’ was not as stable as that of the male; they had a tendency to hysteria, an argument that was seen to have full scientific backing. It was ‘not cricket’ for women to use force as the suffragettes were doing: would we end up with ‘masculine women’? If, as many believed, men were superior mentally and physically, how startling it must have been when Lily Smith entered the male sporting arena - and actually swam alongside men in the River Thames from Richmond to Blackfriars. But as with Eileen Lee, I can find very little on her life, except two images, both from between 1910 and 1915. In one she stands with Brickett, while the other is a portrait of a powerfully built, clear-eyed young woman with long flowing hair, the top half of her costume covered entirely with medals.
In 1907 Lily Smith accompanied Jabez ‘Jappy’ Wolffe for four hours during his Channel swim. He tried the crossing twenty-two times.
Despite debates about women’s mental and physical abilities, the press were hopeful when it came to Smith’s plan to swim the Channel, pointing out that she had swum for over four hours with Jabez Wolffe in his Channel attempt in 1907. In all Wolffe would try, and fail, to cross the Channel twenty-two times, although he did complete several marathon swims. He also coached a number of successful Channel swimmers, but controversially disqualified American Gertrude Ederle on her first attempt when he ordered another swimmer to take her out of the water. Wolffe claimed she’d collapsed, which was disputed by several eyewitnesses, as well as Ederle herself. But in 1926 the ‘Queen of the Waves’ would become the first woman to swim across the Channel and the fastest person yet.
Despite repeatedly failing to cross the Channel, Jabez Wolffe completed several marathon swims, and was an accomplished walker, cyclist and rower.
When it came to Lily Smith’s attempt, the press believed ‘there is no reason why a woman with her splendid physical endowments, grit and staying power’ should not manage it. Her diet during training included plenty of cream and meat; while in the water she ate dry toast and sponge cake. She was ‘a magnificent specimen of English womanhood’ who already had ‘between 70 and 80 medals’. The fact that American swimmer Rose Pitonoff was also about to try the Channel may have had something to do with the tone of the reports, with the New York Times promising an ‘Anglo-American contest of a novel kind’. But, sadly, Smith was forced to abandon the Channel after six hours, and gave up again the following year in a state of collapse when her near ‘lifeless form’ had to be pulled on to the accompanying boat. By 1914 she was topping the bill, along with her sisters, at theatrical aquatics displays. Six years later a Pathé clip shows her swimming with two others in the sea; she’s then seen sitting on the steps of a beach house or bathing machine, laughing, before striding down the steps and across a pebbled shore to the water. What happened to her after that I have no idea, because, like so many other champion Thames women, she just disappears. Pitonoff also failed in her 1912 Channel attempt, but did accomplish ‘a fine performance in the Thames’ when she swam sixteen miles from Richmond to below Tower Bridge.
In August 1910, meanwhile, the winners of the annual through London ‘swimming Derby’ from Richmond now received £100 and a gold cup. Forty-nine people started the race, and this time fourteen of them were women. Among these, and of particular interest to the American press, was sixteen-year-old Elsie Aykroyd (sometimes spelled as Akroyd), ‘the New England lady amateur, who by a fine burst of speed at the start led the field in the early part of the contest’. She was the first to pass Hammersmith Bridge but ‘lacked stamina’ and by halfway was ‘hopelessly out of the race’. This was a disappointment to the New York Times, who’d been eagerly following Aykroyd’s progress, promising she was ‘expected to prove more or less of a sensation to the Britons’. She had been swimming ‘almost since she was able to walk’ and after arriving in England she ‘broke the time record’ for eight miles between Barnes Bridge and Chelsea Bridge. Other American newspapers called her the ‘sixteen-year-old mermaid’ and the ‘best girl swimmer this country, if not the world, has ever produced’. She was the first woman to complete the Revere Beach-Nahant Beach swim in Massachusetts, greeted by 150,000 enthusiasts, using the ‘space-devouring underhand Australian stroke’. Her motto was ‘Do or Die!’, which she shouted out at the beginning of each swim. The problem with the fifteen-mile course from Richmond, however, was cramp; ‘at the start she was kicked in the stomach but she did not feel any effect until later’. But the following year Aykroyd won the Boston Light Swim, from Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light, competing against three professional male swimmers. She was the only one to finish the nine-mile race, fighting strong tides for over seven hours.
While Richmond was a spot for some seriously competitive races it was also, like other Thames towns, a place for fun. Pathé News made two films during the First World War believed to have been shot at Richmond. In one, titled ‘The Heat Wave, London children solve the problem of how to stay cool’, a mass of children jump off a narrow pier into the Thames. They appear all to be boys, most of them naked, as they dive-bomb, topple and fall into the water, which quickly becomes a soup of splashing bodies. Another film shows the ‘London Scottish’ crossing the Thames during a route march. Three men are helped out of their kilts, then dive off a punt in shorts and costumes, watched by women in a nearby rowing boat as they swim across the river. After the war a temporary lido was built on the Thames; a postcard from the 1920s shows it near Richmond Bridge, a structure similar to the floating pontoon at Kingston in the same period, with a large raft for bathers, both men and women, steps down to the water, a slide and a diving board.
In 1929 a temporary lido was built on the Thames at Richmond with a raft, slide and diving board.
Some sixty years later Richmond was again the starting point for a memorable swim when Kevin Murphy covered forty-two miles through the centre of London, all the way to Gravesend. Today Kevin is known as ‘King of the Channel’, having completed thirty-four Channel crossings - more than any other man. He is also the honorary secretary of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation and president of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
In 1970 Kevin had become the first Briton to complete a double Channel crossing. The year of his Thames swim he had already made two double and six single Channel crossings. ‘I had never swum in the Thames before,’ he explains today, ‘but I had a habit of doing long swims early in the season as training for the Channel. My plan was to do a three-way swim in July and we were looking for a sponsor, and in June the sea is cold whereas rivers are warming up. It was quite cold, though, it was a horrible wet day, with diabolical conditions.’ He was then thirty-one and working as assistant news editor at the London Evening News. ‘The Thames was on my doorstep; I was living in Harrow, and working on Fleet Street. I dreamed it up because I thought it was a good challenge. I chose Richmond because that is the last point where there is a lock and I wanted a continuous swim, while Gravesend is as far as you can get before it becomes an estuary. There was a lot of difficulty arranging permission. The person helping me and training me at the time was Will Smith; he was a tugboat skipper at Gravesend and through him I met Don Able. Able was my pilot and he was a Thames waterman and very helpful. We had to get permission from the PLA, and I ended on their jetty at Gravesend. Smith knew the right people and got their permission, I think because it was a time when the Thames was a lot cleaner and the PLA thought it was a good idea to prove it. I don’t remember people saying the Thames was dirty, but I would have ignored them anyway. It tasted slightly muddy, it wasn’t too bad, although when I got to Gravesend it became brackish and salty.’
Kevin started at three o’clock on the morning of 14 June 1980. In pouring rain he swam three miles against the last of the incoming tide, then picked up the tide and shot through central London, passing Big Ben at 7.40 a.m. He reached Gravesend, having swum front crawl the entire way, in seventeen hours twenty-five minutes, three hours earlier than he’d estimated. And was he wearing a wetsuit? ‘Wetsuits are for wimps,’ he laughs, ‘I just had trunks, goggles and a hat. Endurance swims you start at one end and you don’t stop until you get out at the other, you don’t do it in stages wearing a wetsuit. A wetsuit is a rubber ring.’ The Thames is on a par with the Channel, he says, perhaps even more difficult because most of his Channel swims are around fifteen hours, and the logistics of a Thames swim are considerable. He ate and drank ‘whatever was handed to me, it would be high-carb drinks now, back then it was probably a biscuit and a cup of coffee’, and followed Channel rules that forbade him to touch anything. ‘Marathon Man Murphy swims his way to record,’ trumpeted the Evening News, reporting that he was ‘nearly run down by a cargo ship on the Woolwich-Gravesend leg as he swerved to avoid another vessel’, but he ‘will be back at his desk tomorrow’. So would he do the Thames again? ‘I’m a little past it now,’ says the sixty-five-year-old, ‘I have lots of injuries. My shoulders are buggered. But I’m still going to do another Channel swim. The recent by-law stopping people from swimming through London is a great shame. I set a record and there’s no point setting a record if no one can beat it.’
But five years later Channel champion Alison Streeter - who has swum the Channel forty-six times, more than anyone else in the world - did beat Kevin’s record, in fourteen hours twenty-eight minutes. She was also the first recorded endurance swimmer in the Thames to raise money for charity. Born in 1964, Alison’s first Channel crossing was made two days after her eighteenth birthday. Today she has retired from swimming (her shoulders are ‘shot to pieces’), and won’t give interviews. But her mother, Freda Streeter, describes her Thames triumph: ‘in 1985 Alison was raising money to swim from Ireland to Scotland but the weather was atrocious and she didn’t do it, so she did the Thames from Richmond to Gravesend. The PLA said the swim couldn’t be done, and not by a woman. We found a Thames waterman who knew every inch of the Thames. But there were difficulties, like the wind in the lower Thames before Gravesend. I was on the big boat and a friend was on a dinghy that was at the mercy of the wind, it blew him away from her and under a pier. The tide was so fast he was in danger of being swept away.’ Alison also ‘fell over a shopping trolley, she was in the shallows because the tide was so strong, and she caught her foot on a submerged trolley’.
It was Freda who taught her daughter to swim. ‘She was a bad asthmatic and by the age of seven she’d never managed a week at school. What could we try? We were told rowing, swimming or singing. Well, singing was out of the question and I couldn’t send a seven-year-old to row, but she could swim and swimming kept the asthma at bay. She said one day she’d like to try the Channel and we just laughed. When she was twelve on came the news about the youngest girl to have swum the Channel and she said, “that’s one record I can’t have”.’
But Alison went on to break many records of her own and is the first and only woman to have swum the Channel three ways non-stop, in 1990. The press, always alert to a woman’s physical appearance, described her as ‘5ft 4in and stocky with it, Streeter is built for battling the waves’. A currency trader, she was known to field phone calls from her employers during Channel crossings, saying, ‘it gives me something to think about’. Ninety per cent of an endurance swim is down to mental strength, she explained, and the remaining 10 per cent is physical.
Freda says her daughter was not aware of the tradition of women swimming in the Thames: ‘Alison didn’t know their history, women’s swims have been wiped out.’ They might once have filled the sporting pages of the national press, but at some point the chain that linked her to Lily Smith, Eileen Lee and Ivy Hawke was broken, so when Alison set a Thames record in 1985 she didn’t know about the women who had come before her or the way she was building on their legacy.
As for swimming in Richmond today, the local newspaper carries the usual warnings and reports of fatalities. In August 2001 a licensed river ‘waterman’ pulled a man from the Thames at around 1 a.m. ‘I have worked on the river for 25 years,’ he told the press, ‘and I have seen a number of bodies pulled from the river. This guy didn’t have long to go.’ But locals such as TV personality and author Bamber Gascoigne still enjoy river swimming. His first time in the Thames was during his schooldays at Eton in the late 1940s: ‘it was a tributary, a sluggish backwater, and a normal place for the boys to swim. There were lots of weeds and an unpleasant beastly feel, and it was rather dangerous, two boys got polio so it wasn’t done after that.’ Bamber moved to Richmond about thirty years ago and one day he saw Fred Hauptfuhrer, London bureau chief for People magazine, ‘who lives in a magnificent house by the river’, swimming. ‘The Thames was still pretty dirty,’ he says, ‘but we thought if an American can do it surely we can too.’ So on a hot day he took the plunge.
The seventy-eight-year-old still swims today and says there has been ‘a massive change in the Thames, there used to be nothing in the water but eels and nothing on the surface but mallards, now there are herons in the trees and crested grebes on the banks. I don’t do the macho Christmas Day swim, I wait until it’s hot.’ The furthest he’s swum is half a mile upstream and back: ‘you very much feel the current on the way back, swimming at high tide is the nicest. Once a seal popped up next to me, and looked at one with some curiosity, it spent a week in Richmond where there was easy fishing and then it got bored and swam off.’
According to the Teddington lifeboat service, since 2002 they have only been ‘turned down twice’ when setting out to rescue someone, once when there was a report of ‘a man in distress in the water at Richmond. The man was Bamber Gascoigne, a regular swimmer in the river, who assured the police that he was OK.’ Bamber doesn’t recall this incident, but says ‘the PLA police boat know us and give us a wave’. He often swims with his wife, Christina, and a group of around ten friends at Richmond and Twickenham: ‘swimming is a noticeable activity, so we cross the river and swim the other side, it’s an informal thing, if it’s a hot day and high tide in ten minutes then we will have a swim. A few years ago there was a motor boat, with an open roof, and around ten extremely drunk young ladies on board, one recognised me and asked if I was me and I said I was. I asked if they were a hen party and they said if they gave me a glass of champagne would I toast the bride? So I trod water and toasted her and on they went.’
He says swimmers do have to be careful of boats around Richmond: ‘it is busy. I wear my specs so I can see. Once I saw a sculler and I shouted, “swimmer ahead!” and he stopped at once. It can be dangerous and we discourage people from swimming if they don’t know about the river. On Saturday nights people are drunk and they jump in and their mates cheer them on, then the tide carries them and the state they are in they want to get back to where they started instead of crossing the river. Some years ago three people died in different parts of the Thames and the headline in one of the newspapers was “Killer River”. A week later I was there swimming and a police officer called out, “are you coming in, sir?” I said, “yes, soon, officer”, and I swam on a bit longer. As I got out the police officer said, “are you aware, sir, that this is a killer river?” Well, I told him it wasn’t and we had a chat and we left the best of friends.’
‘Killer river’ or not, the Thames at Richmond has long been beloved of swimmers, from Dickens’ joyful head-first plunge in 1839 to the formation of the town’s swimming club in 1883, from record breakers John Arthur Jarvis and Lily Smith at the turn of the century to Kevin Murphy and Alison Streeter’s endurance swims in the 1980s. Now that I’m about two-thirds of the way through my journey downstream, having travelled some 150 miles from the source in Gloucestershire to Richmond, I’m wondering how many other forgotten champions I have still to find as I catch the train to nearby Kew, a place I often went to as a child, but never as an adult, on the hunt for Thames swimmers.