The story of Daisy Belle

03rd July, 2017

Contrary to expectations, women raced for miles in Victorian times, with Agnes Beckwith swimming from London Bridge to Greenwich at 14, and forming her own ‘talented troupe of lady swimmers’ and travelling the world. Inspired by Agnes’ story, author Caitlin Davies has put a Victorian swimmer at the centre of her new crowd funded novel, Daisy Belle. 

OSS Arts Correspondent Anna Morell found out more 

Who on earth, or in the water, is Daisy Belle?

Daisy Belle is a fictional character, but she’s based on several female swimming champions from Victorian times, and particularly Agnes Beckwith, once Britain’s most famous swimmer.

How did you find her?

About nine years ago I was researching the history of swimming for a book about bathing on Hampstead Heath in north London, Taking the Waters. I became interested in how women swam in Victorian times; the common idea seemed to be that women and girls didn’t really swim and that they only rarely had the chance to compete. But I discovered that in fact they raced for miles, whether in the sea or the River Thames.

In September 1875, Agnes Beckwith was just 14 years old when she dived from a boat at London Bridge and swam to Greenwich. I was amazed that a teenage girl was swimming in a filthy waterway dressed in a heavy Victorian costume. Then, when I started researching Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames, I had the chance to further research Agnes’ life. The moment I finished that book, I wanted to write her life story because fiction gives me the chance to imagine what her groundbreaking swims were really like.

What was the spark that took you from ‘she’s interesting’ to ‘I absolutely have to write about her’?

When I read that she swam the Thames in 1875 I thought that was interesting, I thought the fact she swam in a whale tank was interesting too. But when I read that she formed her own ‘talented troupe of lady swimmers’ and travelled abroad as ‘the premier lady swimmer of the world’, then that was a story that had to be told.

What’s your favourite thing that she did? Why?

It has to be the Thames swim in 1875, because no one had done a public swim of that length before, not even Channel champion Captain Webb. With every newspaper report I read, I just kept on thinking, but what was it actually like? What did she feel and see and hear on this five-mile swim? And was it her idea, or her father’s?

Do you think she was a victim of other people’s wishes for her, or a protofeminist executing incredible feats in a difficult time to be independent?

What always intrigued me was the relationship between Agnes Beckwith and her father, a renowned swimming professor from Ramsgate called Frederick Beckwith. Agnes started performing at the age of four, her father was a savvy promoter and I’m sure it was his idea. He also made money from her swims. But Agnes kept on swimming and performing into her 40s, so I’m guessing she loved it too. What was her father’s role, how did he train her, did she ever rebel, and what did her mother think? That’s what I wanted to explore in the novel.

Why do you think there is a gender bias when it comes to remembering Victorian superhumans?

There is gender bias throughout our society, so it’s not that surprising. But swimming was one of the few sports women and girls were – eventually – encouraged to do. It broke several taboos, women appeared in public wearing little in the way of clothes and demonstrating physical and mental strength. It’s not unusual that such women got wiped out of history, women who defy restrictions often do. Also professional swimmers tended to be working class, like Agnes Beckwith, and were looked down upon by upper and middle class amateurs and, until recently, sports historians. There was something very daring, wasn’t there, about women exhibiting skill and endurance?

Where are the Daisy Belles of today?

In some ways they are everywhere, the Daisy Belles of Victorian times fought for women’s right to swim, anywhere they liked, and wearing what they liked. Now, in a lot of places, we can. Recently I took my nieces, aged 8 and 9, for their first ever swim at the Mixed Pond on Hampstead Heath and as they struck out over the pond I thought, they are my own little Daisy Belles.

What drew you to Unbound as a platform for getting the book published?

Daisy Belle tells the story of a Victorian swimmer, and Unbound is a 21st century version of a publishing model that was popular during Victorian times. In the 19th century authors gathered support from subscribers, while Unbound is a crowdfunding publishing company that allows readers to decide what books they want to see published. Supporters ‘pledge’ in advance for the book – in other words, place a pre order – they then receive a beautiful copy of the finished product, as well as their name printed in every edition as a patron.

I’ve been reading about Unbound since they launched five years ago and I like the idea that you go direct to potential readers. I wanted to prove there are enough swimmers out there who would support a book like Daisy Belle. It is a story of courage and survival and a tribute to the swimmers of yesteryear and I’m hoping that with the support of swimmers today, I can make this project happen.

Its such a visual story, when will we see the film?

Funnily enough, I’ve just been contacted out of the blue by a very well known actor who is excited about Daisy Belle; I can picture him playing her father Professor Belle, so fingers crossed…..

July 2017

WANT TO READ THIS BOOK? Be part of the crowd-funding. Enter the code ‘OSS’ to get £5 off – the code expires on or before (if crowd funding target reached earlier) Sunday 23rd July.