Daisy Belle is a novel about love, betrayal and swimming, inspired by the career of Agnes Beckwith, a champion Victorian swimmer who was once world famous but is now largely forgotten.
The novel opens in Margate in 1864, where two-year-old Daisy first learns to swim. When her father Jeffrey is appointed Swimmer Professor at the Lambeth Baths, the family move to London where Daisy makes her debut in Professor Belle’s Family of Frogs.
At the age of 14 she becomes the first female to swim the Thames, her father capitalizes on her fame and she begins to perform in a whale tank at the Royal Aquarium, a palace of amusement in Westminster. But after a near death experience and the realization that her father is not the man she thought he was, Daisy escapes his swimming kingdom and flees back to Margate.
Here she saves Dob McGee, a celebrated sports journalist who almost drowns during a boating trip. Dob becomes her husband and manager, and together they set off to America where Daisy will attempt to make history by swimming across New York harbour.
But Dob has his own motives for the tour, and he persuades her to perform ever more dangerous feats. Daisy Belle will have to fight for her right to the title of Lady Swimmer of the World, aided by her brother Billy, her love for American long distance swimmer Johnnie Heaven, and her heartbreaking battle to keep her baby daughter, Hettie.
Daisy Belle is a story of courage and survival and a tribute to the swimmers of yesteryear.
I first came across Agnes Beckwith nine years ago when I saw a poster advertising one of her performances at the Royal Aquarium in 1885. She stands dead centre, resplendent in a white satin costume, while behind her in the water a man is in the process of drowning.
Then I read a passing reference to an 1875 swim in the Thames and the moment I finished writing Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames, I knew I had to write her fictionalized life story.
Born in 1861, Agnes Beckwith started swimming and performing as a small child. Her father was professional champion Frederick Beckwith of the Lambeth Baths, and his ‘family of frogs’ started giving public displays in the early 1860s. Agnes completed several record-breaking swims in the Thames, formed her own ‘talented troupe of lady swimmers’ and by the time she set off to tour the United States she was ‘premier lady swimmer of the world’.
She was still holding exhibition swims in the early 1900s, performing with her son William ‘the youngest swimmer in the world’. She died in 1951 in South Africa.
The novel also draws on the exploits of Marie Finney who in 1889 leapt from London Bridge, and high diver Annie Luker who thrilled London audiences on a nightly basis diving 70 feet into a shallow tank at the Royal Aquarium. It was their daring deeds that made it possible for women – and men - to swim today.
London, September 1st, 1875
Down at Westminster Pier the air was sharp and clear, the river as calm as if oil had been poured upon the water.
‘This is it, Daisy,’ said father, as he drew his arm around me to lead me on. ‘Look, there’s quite a crowd.’
And he was right, for already onlookers were gathering along the embankment having heard the announcement that a lady would swim the Thames. I felt a rumble in my stomach; I had barely eaten that day and while father had made me take a pork chop at lunchtime I’d pushed it around my plate, my eyes only on the clock. I had been allowed no exercise at all, told to keep warm and comfortable, even to stay in bed if I liked. But it had not been restful at home. Mother was beside herself, ever since she’d heard the news. She said I would die from the filth in the Thames, to which father replied ‘not if she keeps her mouth shut’. ‘What good will that do?’ she asked, and then she’d refused to say a word for two days.
But as usual father had his way, and when he’d told her to make me a new costume she had; a beautiful rose pink bathing-dress trimmed with white braid and buttons, which I was to keep covered until my swam began. Mother wouldn’t say goodbye to me when the time came. She hugged little Minnie close, said she could smell roses in the room and that someone would die and I tried my best to ignore her as I tied up my hair with a ribbon and put on my cloak, not wanting to listen to any of her premonitions.
Shortly before four o’clock the steamboat the Volunteer arrived at Westminster Pier, puffing like a locomotive, the sides decked with flags, the band all dressed in smart blazers. ‘What is that girl doing?’ I heard someone cry as I climbed on-board and saw the captain standing on the bridge, wearing a top hat like an undertaker. He nodded at us and I felt a little stab of fear then, but it was too late to turn back and when I looked behind me the embankment was thronged with people, leaning over the walls and climbing up the street lamps. I had no choice; once the steamer pulled off I would be on my way.
Then the crier sang out, ‘Passengers for Greenwich and below!’ and at last the steamboat cast off, slowly heading towards London Bridge so I could show myself to the crowds before I began. I stood on the deck; the vessel filled almost to overflowing, and tried to calm my breathing.
‘How old is she?’ a man demanded. ‘Does she really know how to swim?’
Father didn’t reply, only gave a curt nod of his head.
‘Will she make it all the way to Greenwich?’ asked another passenger, ‘Look at her; she’s a mere child. She doesn’t look strong enough to me.’
And I stood there, not saying a word, only conscious of my wonderful costume beneath my cloak.
Then the call boy shouted down the hatch to the engine room, ‘full speed ahead!’ and I saw the crowds on the opposite bank waving hands and hats and handkerchiefs, and for a moment I couldn’t believe it, that my dream had come true; they had all come here to see me.
When we reached London Bridge the sides were dense with people, while on the broad stone stairs leading down to the river there was no room to stand. Then we pulled off from Old Swan Pier and steamed slowly through the arch of the bridge, before the engines stopped and I was told to go below deck to ready myself. I was growing more nervous now, worried by all the passengers’ questions, and as I went past the refreshment room and into the cabin, again my stomach rumbled.
When I re appeared on deck, father asked everyone to step back and then slowly he removed my cloak, peeling it from my shoulders and letting it drop on the floor. For a second I felt awkward standing there for everyone to see, but then a great cheer rang out and I felt only pride and eagerness to begin. Father put his arms around my waist, picked me up and passed me over the side of the steamer and down into the referee’s small rowing boat.
‘Oh good gracious she’s getting into the boat!’ called a man leaning over the steamer’s rails. I felt the wooden slats tremble under my weight as the referee put out one hand to help, he was a cool-headed, grey haired gentleman whom I knew from the Lambeth Baths and he looked me over cautiously and said, ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing?’
‘She’s going to swim,’ shouted a woman, ‘a girl’s going to swim down the Thames, did you ever?’
On and on came the comments as I took my place in the starboard bow, waited as Father and Robert Winkle got on board and checked we had everything we needed, blankets and rugs, my favourite hoop, a basket with bacon and bread and port wine. Billy took his position in the stern, also in his bathing costume, with a belt around his chest and a lifeline attached, ready to dive in should anything go wrong.
‘Half a crown she swims the Thames,’ I heard a man cry.
‘Sixpence she doesn’t,’ came the reply.
I stood quite still for a moment, looking ahead at the forest of masts and the mazy windings of the yellow rippling tide. Any moment now I would be in there myself, I would be at one with the water. I felt Father begin to rub me with his hands; his rough palms warming my neck, working their way down each bone in my spine, and my body glowed and came to life.
‘Take your time,’ he said, as he gave a final rub.
I shifted forward until my feet were on the very edge of the boat.
‘Slow and steady,’ he cautioned, ‘look up to sight and don’t be distracted by the noise.’
I felt the boat lurch as the referee stood up, heard him shout ‘Go!’ and then, to the cheers of the assembled thousands, in I plunged.
A huge THANK you to all new Daisy Belle supporters, your wonderful, generous pledges mean the project has now reached 53% in two weeks! Please share it with anyone you think might be interested.
Today I’m introducing you to the real life figure behind Daisy Belle’s brother, William Beckwith, pictured below. Sister and brother swimming acts were popular in Victorian times, and Agnes and William…
THANK you to all the new supporters for Daisy Belle, for pledging, spreading the word and generally being brilliant. In just a week we’ve reached 36% of the total target!
Today I wanted to introduce you to the real life figure that inspired Daisy Belle’s father - Fredrick Edward Beckwith, swimming professor extraordinaire, pictured below. He was born in Ramsgate in 1821 and was a renowned sidestroke…
A massive THANK YOU to everyone who has supported Daisy Belle so far!
This is scarier than I’d imagined, I’ve never gone direct to readers before and it’s brilliant seeing that people do want to pledge. In just 24 hours we’ve reached 18% of the overall target!
I’ll be updating the crowdfunding process here, and posting background stories on the real life people who inspired the novel, please…
These people are helping to fund Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World.