Royal Aquarium Westminster Agnes Beckwith, the greatest lady swimmer in the world Patronized by their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales and family. Daily at 5.30 & 9.15. Admission 1s/- from Aquarium or annexe, children half price c 1885, shelfmark Evan.339 The British Library, London. © The British Library Board, London (Evan.339 Royal Aquarium, Westminster)
A transnational network of women’s sporting interest expanded in the second half of the nineteenth century with croquet, cycling, golf, mountaineering, skating, lawn tennis and field sports particularly fashionable. Newly established access to elementary education for the working classes from 1870 onwards and further and higher education for middle class girls were particularly influential. Sport could help to create social bonds, a collegiate spirit and healthy students.
Social health provision like the building of more swimming baths could have unintended links with fashion and entertainment. Bathing was an activity that could be done very cheaply or at great expense. Morality constantly found itself confounded by market forces. The music hall and entertainment industry also expanded after 1870. A vogue for competitive and endurance swimming events followed in addition to scientific, or synchronized performances. Theatre and music halls covered both high and low culture, enabling sporting performers to explore links with display, fashion and consumerism.
Individual entrepreneurs and performers were significant in both Britain and the US. Kate Bennett and her sisters taught middle to upper class women to swim in New York but also earned money through tuition at public baths, displays, open-air ballets, aquatic concerts and by sponsoring competitions attended by a paying public at which the victor would win a gold locket or earrings. Kate, who had lost her father to drowning, was driven both to teach people to become proficient in the water and to provide a viable income in a challenging market. (Lisa Bier Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women's Swimming 1870-1926 (New York: McFarland and Company, 2011 p. 33).
Revealing a toned figure as part of sporting spectacle had its own Sports Luxe versions, even in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Professional female ‘natationists’ included Agnes Beckwith and her half sister Lizzy, who both combined entertainment performance, coaching and teaching. Agnes swam five-miles in from London Bridge to Greenwich in The Thames in 1875, at the age of fourteen, in a time of one hour nine minutes. Agnes also exploited private audiences who paid to see a rehearsed act in music halls and other venues such as the Royal Aquarium, Westminster. Billed as ‘The Greatest Lady swimmer in the world’, Agnes and her entourage wore considerably less than most women sea-bathers, to swim ‘decoratively’ in a glass tank filled with many gallons of water each night and which toured nationally. Agnes married a theatrical agent, William Taylor in 1882, although she kept the Beckwith name, for public performances. Her show was patronised by the Prince and Princess of Wales and she swam in a costume du bain; an elaborate black costume, emphasising Agnes’ bare legs and shoulders, with red decorative swags and ruches.
Later female swimmers like Australian Annette Kellerman, born in 1886, used their physiques to form their own brands. Kellerman wrote guides on health and fitness, as well as swimming manuals and moved to Europe before settling in Hollywood, appearing in films like Neptune’s Daughter (1914); A Daughter of The Gods (1916) and Venus of the South Seas (1924).
However, the first female British swimmer to cover the Channel after Gertrude Ederle in 1926, Mercedes Gleitze, pioneered new levels of commercial sponsorship. Mercedes embraced these opportunities as her income from long distance swimming was a fragile means of supporting herself. During her career she signed contracts to advertise various products in the media, and to promote swimwear, including caps, in department stores such as Brown, Muff & Company (Drapers & Furriers), Bradford; George Halls (Wolsey Bathing Suits), 20 King Street, Huddersfield and D. Kellett’s Store (Outfitters & Drapery), South Great George’s Street, Dublin.
More significant though, was Mercedes Gleitze’s role in launching the new Oyster Rolex watch, of the Geneva-based manufacturer. Rolex made contact through Messrs S.T. Garland Advertising Service of Brook Street, London W1, and asked Mercedes to wear a prototype watch on her planned Channel crossing on 7 October 1927. She agreed to carry it on a ribbon around her neck, and when she left the water after crossing from France to England in fifteen hours and fifteen minutes, the watch was still working perfectly. The following month Rolex placed a whole front page advertisement featuring her in the London Daily Mail to introduce their new product, the Rolex Oyster, and so Mercedes pioneered Rolex’s establishment as a global household name. I would like to thank Mercedes’ daughter Doloranda Pember for the information on her mother’s career and acknowledge the picture credit for The Daily Mail advertisement to her book manuscript.
So well before the recent Sport Luxe trend, so evident in Vogue and other fashion magazines, sports women helped to promote luxury goods and health-related products to the mass market. To read more, see Jean’s latest book A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport Part One 1850-1960.