How inspirational Agnes swam against the tide
Pema Monaghan talks to Caitlin Davies, whose first work of fiction is a novel inspired by a Victorian lady swimmer
24 August, 2018 — By Pema Monaghan
Agnes Beckwith, the inspiration for Daisy Belle. Photo: Ian Gordon
DAISY Belle was born to swim. Born in Victorian Margate to a family of aquatic gymnasts, she took to the sea like a “tadpole… sleek and wet and stout”.
From a very young age she was adamant in her ambition to become “champion lady swimmer of the world”, and her father, keen to profit from such a novelty, stirred his daughter ever onward into increasingly dangerous demonstrations of her skill.
Daisy, however, had her own ambitions and convictions.
As a woman born into a world that believed in female inferiority, she knew she must negotiate the men who wanted to exploit her talent.
Caitlin Davies, no stranger to taking the plunge herself, says that in writing her new novel, Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World, she was inspired most by the life and career of Victorian swimmer Agnes Beckwith.
Having written two non-fiction titles about open-water swimming – Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames and Taking the Waters: A Swim Around Hampstead Heath – Caitlin wanted to fictionalise the stories of some of the women she’d found in her research, so their lives would be remembered.
“So often,” she says, “when women have broken records and been the first person to do something, they get wiped from the history books.”
Daisy Belle highlights the histories and achievements of Victorian athletic lady-swimmers. However, the novel also reflects upon the history of swimming in London, and, implicitly, its continued importance to life in a big city.
Caitlin observes: “In London, we do have a glorious history going back hundreds of years. If you look at the 1800s, when people really started using the Thames, whether they were racing or building lidos and pontoons, the Victorians came up with all sorts of ways of using waters. At the ponds you would have people year round, swimming all through winter while the icicles were hanging off the diving board.”
And they swam, she says, for the same reason we do – “it’s an escape”.
Caitlin believes that central London would benefit from a public swimming place, perhaps in the Thames.
“To give people a place to swim in central London is important, as long as it’s not very expensive because it has to be accessible. Parliament Hill Lido opened in 1938 because it was seen as a civic duty that local authorities provided safe places to swim.
“The idea was that in London no one would have to travel more than two miles.”
Caitlin believes that the city is rediscovering the value of public swimming spaces.
“In the last decade, lidos that had been closed down are being reopened again,” she says.
It’s clear that Londoners love their public ponds and lidos. This summer, pools have been closing due to overcrowding as temperatures reached their hottest in London since 1976. Parliament Hill Lido alone had 18,000 swimmers visit over the weekend of July 16-17, causing them to shut their doors early.
Given that temperatures may be permanently on the rise, it may be time for the City to consider its civic duty to let the people swim.
• Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World. By Caitlin Davies, Unbound, £10.99.
• Caitlin Davies will be selling copies of Daisy Belle at the 80th anniversary of the Parliament Hill Lido on Saturday. For tickets visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lidos-80th-anniversary-party-tickets-47896468627?aff=