In April I went to a talk by Caitlin Davies about her book “Downstream. A History of Swimming the River Thames.” It’s a beautiful book and a timely accompaniment to the renaissance in Thames swimming that is blossoming this summer.
But more than that, Downstream tells the story of the British Capital ‘s river and the fantastic female swimmers whose mind blowing swimming feats along it, leapfrogged society’s imagined and real parameters of gender; were a training ground for global swimming endeavours; and helped pave the way for women everywhere to enjoy the freedom of the water.
Putney Bridge is the focal point of a number of these swims. In 1905, Annette Kellerman swam from Putney through the “Flotsam and Jetsam” of the Thames, and on to a variety of international swimming achievements and global recognition. She also designed what is regarded as the first modern swimsuit for women, and fought for the right of women to wear a fitted one piece bathing suit .
Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the Channel also used the Thames as a training ground and swam 27 miles from Putney to Silvertown in 1923.
It is a powerful coincidence that feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “Vindication of the Rights of Women”, threw herself from Putney bridge into the River Thames back in 1795. “How desperate she must have been, and how ideal the Thames would have seemed as a place to end it all for someone who couldn’t swim,” writes Davies. Miraculously Wollstonecraft survived.
As Davies describes, the liberation of these swims is juxtaposed with the social norms that they were swimming against. Downstream provides a home for the collective achievements of the female swimming pioneers, who it appears until now, have received only a patchwork of recognition or whose achievements have been lost in the passage of time.
Not to spoil what is a must read for any open water swimmer (or anyone really) the Downstream Swimming Hall of Fame includes the following incredible women, many of whose swimming stories you may never have heard of:
The Long Distance Lady Swimmer of the World Eileen Lee; The Smiling Swimmer Lily Hawke; and more recently in 1985 Alison Streeter the Queen of the Channel, swam the tidal Thames and in 2013 Ness Knight became the first woman to swim the length of the non tidal Thames – I know – it’s not just David Walliams!
Agnes Beckwith, the original #ThisGirlCan
The woman who inspired Davies to write the book is Agnes Beckwith who in 1875, at the age of 14, ‘plunged into the Thames’ and swam from London Bridge to Greenwich. I was born just down the road in Woolwich and hearing Davies talk about Agnes I was so inspired. She is the original #ThisGirlCan of openwater swimming and thoughts of Agnes and these other wonderful women have flickered through my mind throughout this summer of swimming.
As part of her father “Swimming Professor Beckwith’s” swim troop, Agnes performed various swimming feats but separately accomplished a variety of groundbreaking endurance swims, she also had plans to swim the Channel (thwarted by a lack of finances) and paved the way for British Women to represent their country in the 1912 Olympics. 
I was really excited to see Agnes appear in her famously pink frilled swimming attire as one of the lead characters in the new film Captain Webb, which tells the story of Captain Matthew Webb the first person to swim the English Channel. The 140th Anniversary of his historic swim was yesterday, 25th August.
It’s a nice film, but despite her obvious passion for swimming and strength of character, the film falls short of representing Agnes Beckwith as the swimming pioneer and talent that she was.
A love story also develops between Agnes and Webb. So much so, that when Agnes believes Webb’s rival in the race to swim the Channel, American and showman Paul Boyton will sabotage Webb’s swim, she offers herself to Boyton in exchange for him staying out of the way of Webb’s swim (Boyton declines).
Clearly I’ve never met Agnes but I’m just not sure she would have been up for getting her baps out on Webb’s behalf. It sounds like she would have been more likely to jump in the Channel ahead of them both (if she’d had the funding to do so), leaving them to fight it out for second place.
Nothing wrong with a bit of artistic licence of course (and after all I realise in 1875 at the time of Webb’s swim Agnes was actually just 14 years old, swimming to Greenwich and perhaps inspired by Webb), but it feels like having chosen to give a prominent role to Beckwith, an opportunity was missed to represent her more strongly as a pioneer in parallel to Webb.
That unease wasn’t helped in the Q&A after the film screening, when having briefly mentioned Agnes was in fact an accomplished endurance Thames swimmer, one of the panel then quipped that Agnes was a “tank”.
Not quite the respect Agnes Beckwith deserves and hooray for Caitlin Davies and Downstream, for providing an accurate reference point and mnemonic for these female pioneers of swimming.
The Pioneers Continue
Coinciding with the 140th anniversary of Captain Webb’s swim yesterday, BBC Woman’s Hour featured an interview with Davies and Doloranda Pember, the daughter of Mercedes Gleitze (the first British woman to swim the English Channel) about Gleitze and some of these other pioneers.
It’s a wonderful listen, and includes anecdotes about how many of the female swimmers liked gramophones to be on their support boats, so they could have a musical accompaniment to their swims. It reminded me of my friend Lisa who recently swam the Channel with “Rule Britannia” booming out of the support boat speakers as she headed into shore after an epic 17 hours of swimming.
And so the female pioneers continue…
Just a couple of weeks ago, from 8-10 August, we witnessed a truly extraordinary weekend for women’s open water swimming:
Also in the Channel that day was Sam Mould, a relative novice to open water swimming who was Flying to France the hard way as part of the world record butterfly relay team; following on from Annabel Lavers*, who had kicked off the whole weekend with her Channel success on the 7th and whose Channel Swimming journey is one of the most inspiring I know.
On a different part of the French coast Wendy Trehiou was also busy making history as the first person to swim 36 miles from Jersey to St Malo; and on the other side of the globe, the awesome Kim Chambers became the fourth person and first woman to complete the “toughest swim in the world’ the Farallon Island swim.
Here’s the trailer for the film about Kim’s swim, that will be released shortly. Historic times!
Back in the river, that weekend me and my mates also followed in the footsteps of the pioneers, joining hundreds of other swimmers in the 14k Bridge to Bridge swim from Henley to Marlow…
Who knew Thames swimming could be so beautiful? Well probably Caitlin Davies…Thank you for inspiring us Caitlin* and hooray for the Women Champion Swimmers of the world: past, present and future!
At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and marathon swimming.
Many more inspirational stories, advice and adventures can be found on our Blog, and Facebook page and please don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!
*Annabel Lavers finished kicked off the weekend completing her solo swim on 7th August.
*Davies’ next book is a novel about a Lady Champion Swimmer of the world – we can’t wait!
 Davies, Caitlin. Downstream. A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames, page 197
 Davies, Caitlin. Downstream, page 191
 Davies, Caitlin, Downstream,
 Davies, Catilin. Downstream , page 280