Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World
By Caitlin Davies
A tale of love, betrayal and swimming based on the true stories of champion Victorian women.
Publication date: September 2018Buy
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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.
Caitlin Davies is a novelist, non-fiction writer, journalist, and teacher. She’s also an outdoor swimmer, whether in the Hampstead ponds, the mighty River Thames or the glorious sea in Margate, and all three settings feature prominently in Daisy Belle.
Caitlin was born in London in 1964, and after training as an English teacher she moved to Botswana where she became a journalist for the country’s first tabloid newspaper, the Voice. While working as editor of the Okavango Observer she was arrested for ‘causing fear and alarm’, and also received a Journalist of the Year award. Many of her books are set in the Okavango Delta, where she lived for 12 years, including the critically acclaimed memoir Place of Reeds.
After returning to England she became a regular feature writer for The Independent, and for the past three years she’s worked as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Westminster, Harrow.
Caitlin’s main interest lies in the buried lives of women from the past, and her five novels include The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on a true case of Edwardian baby farming.
She is the author of six non-fiction books, including Bad Girls: A Century of Women and Crime at Holloway Prison, to be published by John Murray in March 2018.
Reviews for Downstream (Aurum 2015)
‘Armed with Davies’ fascinating book, it is time for Londoners to rise and reclaim the river,’ Philip Hoare, The Guardian
‘A fascinating cultural history of swimming,’ Liz Hoggard, The Independent
‘A joyful historical and geographical frolic,’ Iain Finlayson, Saga Magazine
‘A story of remarkable individuals who fought against time, tide and prudish attitudes in a bid to conquer the river,’ Matt Brown, Londonist
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.
- 31st August 2018 PUBLICATION DAY!
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, the day has come!
Tomorrow, September 1st, the anniversary of Agnes Beckwith's daring 1875 swim in the River Thames, is publication day for the novel that could NOT have happened without all of your support.
Thank you so much for the encouragement that has continued over the 456 days since the book was first launched on Unbound.…11th July 2018 Daisy Belle has gone to print!
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, a very quick update to say the novel has now gone to be printed, hurrah! Books should be in the Unbound warehouse by the end of next week, and by the end of July they should be on their way to all you wonderful people who supported it. I so hope you ENJOY it.15th June 2018 Daisy Belle goes Live
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, the proofreader’s queries have now been dealt with and things are on the final road to publication, hurrah!
I launched the crowdfunding campaign on Unbound exactly a year ago, and it’s a huge relief to know that Daisy Belle will soon see the light of day.
I’m thrilled to have two wonderful endorsements for the cover.
The novelist Maggie Gee, who is also Professor…28th March 2018 Daisy Belle goes Audio
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, spring has brought good news….Unbound have sold the rights to an audio book version of Daisy Belle, and the proof stage of the production process has nearly been completed, hurrah!
The manuscript has now been read by a proofreader, and she has thrown up a few queries. You would have thought that by now any problems would have been sorted out, but it’s amazing what a…4th February 2018 Cover Reveal!
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, we now have a cover! This isn't the absolute final version, there might be some tweaks, but I wanted to share it here and see what people think. Very much hoping you will like it!16th January 2018 Copyediting: the book is almost ready!
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, a belated Happy New Year!
Here’s an update on how the production of the novel is going. Last week I received the copyedited manuscript, which looks something like this:
Mostly the corrections are in terms of punctuation, spelling, and changing awkward phrases or sentences. But the copyeditor, Alison, has also flagged up…19th November 2017 Starting the Cover
Dear Daisy Belle supporters – the novel has now been edited, a major hurdle has been crossed and before too long it will be a BOOK!
This is the 7th time I’ve completely re worked the novel and oddly enough, I still haven’t grown tired of Daisy Belle and her aquatic exploits. I hope you will love her too.
My editor at Unbound, Claire, pointed out several things that needed work on over the past…10th October 2017 The manuscript arrives!
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, I’ve just received the manuscript back from the Unbound editor, hurrah! Thankfully she thinks the novel is fantastic, and she has made a number of excellent suggestions about how it can be further improved.
Right now the manuscript (all 246 pages of it) looks like this:
Some of the comments are about plot – such as, how to keep the tension going – others are…2nd September 2017 Swimming setting No.3 - The River Thames
Dear Daisy Belle supporters, things have been quiet on the update front – the novel funded so quickly that I decided to take the opportunity to do a longer re write. At the end of the 3-month campaign, we’ve now exceeded the target with 113%!
I’ll be sending the manuscript to my editor at Unbound any day now, then I sit back and bite my thumbs waiting to see what might need to change. A structural…29th July 2017 Swimming setting No. 2 - Margate
CELEBRATION TIME! Daisy Belle reached 100% of the crowdfunding target this week. Thank you pledgers, your support has been amazing. I’ve started editing the novel now, and soon it will wing its way to Unbound so the publishing process can begin.
There are four weeks left of the campaign, so there is still time for people to pre order a copy of the novel and get their name in every edition as a…14th July 2017 Swimming setting No1 - the Mixed Pond
Amazingly Daisy Belle has now reached 90%! She is ecstatic, and so am I. Thank you to everyone who has pledged, this literally couldn’t have been done without you. Now we just need a few more pre orders and the publication process will get underway…
There are three main swimming places that inspired the novel, and one is the Mixed Pond on Hampstead Heath, north London. Daisy Belle opens at the…30th June 2017 Meet Annie Luker, Champion Diver
DAISY BELLE supporters, you are brilliant – the novel has reached 74% of the target in just 4 weeks! Thank you for your support and enthusiasm, and please keep sharing the project with friends.
This week I want to introduce you to Annie Luker, pictured below.
Victorian champion Agnes Beckwith was a swimmer more than a diver, but there were several…15th June 2017 William Beckwith and Captain Camp
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…8th June 2017 Meet Professor Beckwith
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…2nd June 2017 Day One
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.
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