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Agnes Beckwith

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Agnes Alice Beckwith (24 August 1861 – 12 July 1898 in south London) was an English open water swimmer. Born in 1861, her swimming professor father had her performing in aquatic displays by the time she was 4 years old. At 14, wearing a “tight bathing costume of rose-pink lamé, trimmed with lace”, she swam from London Bridge to Greenwich with a cheering crowd lining the banks and bridges. A sporting woman was a real rarity, so she served as an inspiration to other young women – perhaps the original This Girl Can.

Aquatic Career[edit]

She was the daughter of Frederick Edward Beckwith, a noted open water swimmer who was 'professional English champion' and swimming professor at the Lambeth Baths. By the age of four or five she was performing as a swimmer in shows organised by her father, and by 1861 she and her brother Willie's swimming skills were being shown in Paris. Her father had billed himself as the "Greatest Swimmer in the World" in 1851 and her brother was "Baby Beckwith the Wonder of the World" when he was five.

Her father "Professor Beckwith" had backed Matthew Webb to be the first person to swim the English Channel. Beckwith organised a spectacle by showing Webb swimming miles in the River Thames. Webb completed ‘nearly six miles’, but the poor public interest meant that her father lost money. Her father lost his protege to another.

In August 1865 Matthew Webb became the first man recorded to have swum the English Channel. Professor Beckwith and Agnes built on the public interest by swimming five miles down the Thames. On 1 September 1865, at the age of 14, she made swimming history by diving off a boat at London Bridge and swimming five miles to Greenwich. The journey took her 1 hour 6 minutes and according to the press she ended ‘almost as fresh as when she started', arriving at Greenwich Pier to the reported comment of “See, the Conquering Hero Comes!” No one had succeeded in a Thames swim of this distance, except Captain Webb.

Agnes Beckwith completed numerous record-breaking swims in the Thames.

  • In 1865, she swam from London Bridge to Greenwich with a cheering crowd lining the banks and bridges.
  • Her 20-mile swim in 1868 received huge press coverage. This time she swam from Westminster to Richmond and back to Mortlake, dressed in a shape revealing amber suit and a stylish little straw hat.
  • In 1869 she undertook a challenge against Laura Saigeman who was employed to teaching swimming in Eastbourne. There were three races in Lambeth, Birmingham and Hastings. These "naiads" attracted 1,200 spectators at their final race; which Saigemann won by two races to Beckwith's one.
  • She formed her own troupe of 'talented lady swimmers' and toured both home and abroad.
  • In 1885 she was appearing at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. She was billed as "The Greatest Lady Swimmer in the World" and her poster boasted of appearing for the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Literature[edit]

  • Beckwith appears in Caitlin Davies's book about swimming in the Thames.
  • Davies is writing a novel based on Agnes Beckwith's life, 'Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World that was published by Unbound in 2018
  • Beckwith appears by name in a recent biopic of Webb, but the imagined romance between them ignores the fact that Beckwith was a champion in her own right, and that she was fourteen at the time.

External links[edit]