Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World
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.
What a shock the water was, never had I felt anything as cold! It was nothing like the tepid Lambeth Baths; there was no porcelain bottom, no pretty tiled sides, while the temperature quite took my breath away. This was more like the sea than a pool, only salt less and smooth, almost slippery to the touch and with a strong pungent smell. I felt my heart tighten from the cold, told my body to breathe, not to panic; I must be fearless, I could not let anything go wrong. I came to the surface and struck out using breaststroke, careful not to swallow water, traveling in the wake of the referee’s boat and giving quick glances up to see where I was heading. I could hear the loose flapping of sails as the wind picked up, the laughter and singing from people on the smaller boats. Oh the freedom of the thing! To swim in the Thames, in the wild openness of a mighty river; never had I been more certain of my success.
But then I felt the water swell as a boat pulled up too close beside me and then another; and within moments I was hemmed in by a crowd of small craft that seemed to be coming from every direction, oars splashing, men, women and children shouting as loud as a flock of wild geese. I felt like a pea in a bowl of soup, bobbing in the water, as still the boats clustered around me until there were fifty or more and I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know which way to go, any moment I would be hit and dragged under. I heard the dashing of paddles, the hoarse cry of a seaman and the shriek of an engine boy. The air around me darkened and I thought I could hear the great solemn bell of St Paul’s.
‘Take her out!’ someone shouted, followed by snatches of orders for the boats to clear a route, calls for the river police to intervene. But no one paid any attention; such was the deafening noise. I couldn’t see where I could take a stroke; I would kick my feet against a boat if I did; and as I stayed there treading water I knew it was over, I was failing before I had even begun, it was impossible for me to swim. I felt my body growing heavy, the belt of my wonderful new costume too tight around my waist, the sodden cloth dragging down on my legs as if I were wrapped in weeds. I was vertical in the water now, gasping for breath, squeezed in on either side.
Again I heard the dreadful words, ‘Take her out!’
I opened my mouth to say I would not get out, that if only the boats would move I would swim, as an oar splashed by my head and I took a mouthful of river water and began to cough and then to retch.
‘What sort of father would let his daughter do that?’ asked the shrill voice of a woman.
‘She’ll drown herself!’ shouted a man. ‘Throw a rope!’
In desperation I glanced up to my right; Billy was there in the bow of the boat, one hand resting on the belt around his waist, the other holding up the lifeline. I saw him lean forward, any moment now he would throw the line and dive in.
‘Don’t!’ I wanted to cry, ‘Don’t rescue me!’