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Digital Subscriptions > Outdoor Swimmer > February 19 > The Lady Champion Aquatic

The Lady Champion Aquatic

From Les Enfants Poissons to matriarch of natation, Agnes Beckwith inspired a generation of female swimmers. By Elaine K Howley
“Professor of swimming” Frederick Beckwith

“The agile Agnes all proclaim The lady champion aquatic And warm admirers hold her fame To equal that of heroes attic”

An ode to Agnes Beckwith, 1879

Born on 24 August 1861 in Lambeth, Agnes Alice Beckwith didn’t need much time to become a swimming superstar. Her father, Frederick Edward Beckwith, was a noted swimmer and swimming teacher, who listed his profession in the 1871 census as “professor of swimming.” At the time, this was a title claimed by a handful of swimming instructors and performers across the English-speaking world. A celebrated sportsman who also staged elaborate demonstrations of swimming for enthralled Victorian-era audiences, Frederick naturally brought his children into the act with him, and by 1865, his four-year-old daughter Agnes was swimming professionally in a stage act Frederick dubbed the “Beckwith Frogs.”

Alongside her siblings Lizzie, Willie and Charles, Agnes grew up performing regularly at the Royal Aquarium in London “demonstrating swimming strokes and life saving techniques as well as preforming aquatic stunts such as smoking, drinking milk, and eating sponge cakes underwater,” the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reports. A Royal Aquarium theatre programme from 1884 also lists “imitation of porpoises,” somersaults and “a comic boat sketch, an attempt to show the many accidents that happen through persons being allowed in Boats who do not understand them,” as being segments of the 22-part act that concluded with an “imitation of bad divers and swimmers.” In another act, dubbed Les Enfants Poissons, Beckwith performed with her younger brother and showed that swimming and water safety could be child’s play.

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About Outdoor Swimmer

In this issue we explore cold water swimming and ageing in ‘The Tonic of Longevity’; Lindsey Cole, the Urban Mermaid, tells the story behind her swim of the length of the Thames collecting litter; we have psychological tips to help you deal with cold water; Elaine Howley celebrates pioneering Victorian swimming heroine Agnes Beckwith; and coach James Ewart explains how to swim faster by swimming slowly: it’s all in the maths! Plus, event reviews from Norfolk to Bermuda, warming winter recipes, swimming from Corsica to Sardinia and comprehensive UK and international event listings to help you plan your summer swims.