Sensational Swimmers and Daring Divers

From the Turkish Baths to the South Bay Pool, Scarborough has long provided visitors with places to swim, bathe and even watch aquatic acrobatics.

South Bay Bathing Pool

Above: The South Bay Pool (source)

The Scarborough Aquarium had its very own subterranean pool, and the North Bay Pool was once compared to a mediterranean paradise, before being transformed into an oasis of slides and fountains.

Waterscene

Above: Waterscene – later Water Splash World and Atlantis, formerly the North Bay Bathing Pool (source)

Nor must the pool at Scarborough Zoo be forgotten, although it is now acknowledged to be less than adequate in size for the dolphins that performed there.

Dolphins at Scarborough Zoo

Above: A dolphin emerges from the pool at Scarborough Marineland and Zoo (source)

Swimming and diving have never been purely recreational – indeed, the South Bay Pool was redeveloped in 1935 to accommodate growing audiences for aquatic shows, and the North Bay Pool opened only a few years later with a grand display of diving and acrobatics.

South Bay Pool

Above: Note the diving board and seating for audiences at the South Bay Pool (source)

Featured in this article are the stories of three exceptional female swimmers, all in some way connected with Scarborough, famed for their mastery of the water and noted for their athleticism.

Miss Gertie Perkin (active late 1800s, early 1900s)

Gertie, short for Gertrude, was a swimming instructor, pier diver and competitive athlete, who performed, taught and competed at the beginning of the twentieth century. She is described in the Yorkshire Evening Post as follows:

…a well-known expert and instructress in swimming and physical culture. Miss Perkins holds the Royal Humane Society’s certificate and medal for “life-saving” efficiency and will also be recollected as one of the chief competitors in the All-England Beauty Contest.

(from The Yorkshire Evening Post, Friday November 23, 1904)

Before the North Bay Pier tragically succombed to a storm in 1905, Gertie was pictured diving from the structure, into the turbulent North Sea.

pier

Indeed, pier diving was a form of entertainment during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and saw a range of brave (or foolhardy, depending on your opinion!) men and women perform dives from ornamental piers across the country.

North Bay Pier

Above: The North Bay Pier prior to destruction (source)

Gertie competed in swimming contests and provided displays of ornamental aquatic displays for venues across Yorkshire and the North West. She also made glowing endorsements for a cream called Zam-Buk:

I have found Zam-Buk very efficacious for a chafed skin. When the ZamBuk arrived I was in despair about my face. I have an exceedingly fine skin, and the recent wins played havoc with my face. The skin all dried and I looked a pitiable object. I had tried about half a dozen creams, but had derived no benefit. I applied Zam-Buk to the affected parts, and much to my surprise, i found my skin quite smooth the following morning. So I think I have discovered a boon in Zam-Buk, as I could not find anything to produce the same good effect until I used Zam-Bu. When I have had an engagement for pier-diving at seaside places the effect of the salt water on my skin has smites been maddening. I now known that Zam-Buk will be a remedy for this. After the benefits I have derived from Zam-Buk I shall be pleased to recommend it to my physical culture and swimming pupils, as well as to my friends generally.

(Gertie Perkin, quoted in The Yorkshire Evening Post, Friday November 23, 1904)

It has been difficult to locate sources about Gertie or her life, but it’d be fascinating to know more about her pier dive at Scarborough.

Ada Webb (active late 1800s, early 1900s)

Miss Ada Webb has already been mentioned here at Stories From Scarborough, for having performed at the Scarborough Aquarium in the late 1800s. Like her sister Louie, Ada was a renowned natator (another name for a swimmer), champion diver and able to perform all kinds of feats underwater, including eating, drinking, and, supposedly, smoking.

Miss Webb attracted many grand titles, including ‘Empress of the Sea ’ (after Britannia), ‘Champion Lady High Diver of the World’ (following her impressive diving from heights of up to 56 feet) and ‘Queen of the Crystal Tank’ (after her customised performance space).

A report described how she ‘rescued’ a number of ladies who were apparently in danger of drowning at Bromley Swimming Baths. Apparently such rescue feats were commonly used as publicity by professional swimmers, divers and aquatic acrobats at the time, making it difficult separating fact from fiction.

misswebb

Ada performed across the country – she opened Latchmere Road Baths in 1899 and regularly appeared at London venues.

You can see an advert for one of her performances by clicking here.

However, professional swimming and aquatic performances were a young person’s domain, and, as her own prowesses diminished,  Ada began to comandeer her own group of performing lady swimmers, and became a successful manager. Ornamental swimming of this sort peaked in popularity between the late 1800s and 1910s, although aquatic feats of endurance and acrobatics continued to draw audiences well into the twentieth century.

Eileen Fenton (1928 – present)

Eileen Fenton, a Religious Studies teacher from Dewsbury, is perhaps the most remarkable of all three ladies mentioned here, given her incredible achievement of swimming the English Channel in 1950, at the age of just 22.

On the Stories From Scarborough Facebook Page, John remembers her training for the event:

Remember when Fenton was the superintendent there and his daughter Eileen trained morning and evening for a cross channel swim.

Interestingly enought, the first swimmer to make the 22 mile crossing was Captain Matthew Webb, who also famously swam for 74 hours in Scarborough Aquarium’s pool in 1880. After Webb’s successful Channel swim in 1875, only nineteen swimmers had successfully made the crossing between then and 1950, when Eileen entered a new competition, organised by the Daily Mail, to complete the feat.

At first the competition organisers were doubtful of her suitability to participate. Reportedly a slim lady of only 5ft tall, she was deemed ‘too small’ although eventually proved her ability by swimming across Scarborough Harbour in temperatures close to freezing. She later swam for up to ten hours at a time in the town’s North Sea, in order to build up her endurance and tolerence for the cold.

Of the Channel swim, Eileen made the following comments:

It was pitch black and very cold. We could see nothing but the light on the boat we needed to follow. When I got to nine hours I could see Dover harbour, but my arm stopped working and I had to do a front crawl with one hand. I was too weak to get over the tide and I was pushed back by the current. It took me over six hours.

(Quoted in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 19 August, 2010)

Only nine out of twenty four competitors finished the race, and Eileen was one of them. Not only that, but as first lady, she received a huge prize of £1000, then enought to purchase a small house!

You can watch a video interview with Eileen here, and see footage of the rapturous reception she recieved when returning home here.

She remarked that after the freezing cold waters of Scarborough’s North Sea, the Channel waters were pleasantly mild! Eileen later went on to train a number of Channel swimmers and recieved a number of awards for her winning 1950 performance.

Do you know any more about these inspiring ladies? Or do you have any stories about swimming or swimmers in Scarborough? Any comments and/or corrections welcome!

Sources

Gertie Perkins

Yorkshire Evening Post – various articles

Lancashire Daily Post – various articles

Ada Webb

British Sporting Legacies

Latchmere Road Baths reference

Louie Webb

Eileen Fenton

Huddersfield Daily Examiner

My Yorkshire

Video of Eileen Fenton

British Pathe – video

Open Water Swimming Article

The Armless Wonder And The Empress Of The Sea

When enterprising businessman William Morgan took over Scarborough Aquarium in 1887, the venue was widely viewed as a colossal waste of money. In spite of the grandness of this underground palace – designed by legendary architect Eugenius Birch – its extensive tanks and sea life specimens were failing to draw in the crowds.

williammorgan

Above: William Morgan, temporary saviour of the Scarborough Aquarium (source)

Morgan, described affectionately as “portly, bespectacled and bewhiskered”, saw great potential in the Aquarium. People, he argued, “would rather see a juggler than an uncooked lobster”.

Above: Apparently Victorian Scarborough didn’t want to see live lobsters (source)

In 1887 he oversaw the conversion of a number of tanks – glass and seawater were replaced by shops, stalls, a Japanese theatre, teahouse, monkey house and aviary. However, more importantly, Morgan saw to it that some of the biggest names in music hall were performing at the aptly named People’s Palace and Aquarium, also known as the Palace of Amusements.

DSCF7926

Above: The entrance to the Aquarium, depicted on an old postcard (from the author’s collection)

The following post will consider two of these stars, whose legacies have endured into the present day.

1) Miss Ada Webb

Along with the team of “lady swimmers and high divers”, she frequently performed with, Miss Ada Webb was an accomplished athlete and acrobat.

Above: Miss Ada Webb (source)

Known as an ornamental swimmer, this term perhaps undermines Miss Webb’s incredible athleticism, which drew great praise from audiences and critics.

Miss Ada Webb shares with Britannia the title of “Empress of the Sea”. She has dived into the sea from a height of fifty-six feet, and therefore claims the distinction of being the champion lady diver of the world. Her underwater feats in the tank are those to which music hall audiences have become accustomed, and her symmetrical form lends grace and attractiveness to her various posings in the crystal tank.

(sourcethe original reference is listed at the bottom of the page)

Although the feats of male swimmers, such as Captain Webb (no relation) were generally regarded with greater respect and gravitas, both men and women performed some strange aquatic tasks, much to the delight of onlookers. One of Webb’s was his 74 hour swimming marathon in Scarborough Aquarium. His namesake Ada engaged in various water-based activities across numerous venues:

in October 1889, Ada Webb, ‘Champion Lady High Diver of the World and Queen of the Crystal Tank’, appeared at the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties where her underwater feats included eating, drinking, smoking, peeling an apple, answering questions, sewing, singing, taking snuff and writing.

(source)

Rumour has it that Miss Webb also saved the lives of three female swimmers at Bromley Swimming Baths in 1890, diving in whilst fully clothed. She was also an accomplished acrobat who performed aerial stunts. However, inevitably her athletic abilities eventually waned, prompting a move into theatrical management. Her time in Scarborough was presumably only a small part of a whirlwind tour of music halls and entertainment venues.

2) Unthan – The Armless Wonder

Prussian-born Carl Unthan reputedly escaped being smothered by the midwife who delivered him, having been born without arms. Remarkably he grew up to become a serious musician, after being encouraged by his father to use his feet for everyday tasks. He even performed for renowned composer Johann Strauss in Vienna.

Above: Carl Unthan plays the violin with his feet (source)

Although Unthan performed with classical orchestras as a violinist, he also developed further tricks to showcase his other remarkable abilities, which included shooting a rifle with his feet. He appeared a silent film, called Atlantis and typed up an autobiography – again with his dextrous feet.

Above: Shooting a rifle (source)

Unthan’s story depicts a man who was independent and shrewd – he knew how to exploit his unique skills, and is rumoured to have arranged for strings on his violin to break, mid-performance, just so that audiences could witness him fixing and tuning them with his toes.

Maybe he played this trick on Scarborough audiences during his Aquarium visit?

Unthan died in 1929, aged 71, by which point Scarborough Aquarium had been rebranded as Gala Land.

galaland

Above: Gala Land operated between 1925 and 1966 (source – unnamed newspaper or magazine article in Scarborough Library; see bottom of the page for details)

Many of the music hall stars who visited the Aquarium, however, are difficult to track down.  Mr Walter Wode, lady impersonator; Miss Flo Everette and her Clever Canine Pets; Zasma the acrobat, and perhaps most intriguing of all, the Clock-Eyed Lady. Who were these fascinating characters? Stories From Scarborough hopes to find out more about the stars of the Aquarium and it’s later reincarnation – Gala Land. Keep checking back to read all the new stories!

Are there any music hall history buffs out there? Does anyone know anything about the acts mentioned? Please do comment or get in touch.

Sources

British Sporting Legacies Blog

The Human Marvels

Article by Dave Day

Assorted newspaper articles and materials kept at the Scarborough Room in Scarborough Library