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

Captain Webb at Scarborough Aquarium

Swimming has, unsurprisingly, proved to be a popular theme here at Stories From Scarborough. From the epic sprawling slides of Atlantis to the glamour of the South Bay Pool in the 1920s, water sports of various kinds have long been a part of Scarborough’s enduring appeal.

Above: Even surfers come flocking to Scarborough (source)

Whilst pictures of the North and South Bay bathing pools (and of course the sea!) are plentiful, those of Scarborough Aquarium (later to become Gala Land) are harder to come by. Not initially known as a swimming venue, the aquarium’s early appeal (following its 1877 construction) came from its collection of sea life.

However, one bold swimmer changed this.

Above: Captain Matthew Webb (source)

Captain Matthew Webb was a famed swimmer – his list of achievements includes being the first to swim the English channel without artificial aids – a feat that took him 21 hours and 45 minutes.

Above: Crowds greet Webb at Calais (source)

Following several unsuccessful attempts, an unrelenting Captain Webb, smeared in porpoise oil, dived off Dover Pier on August 24th, 1875. He endured jellyfish stings and strong currents before reaching the shores of Calais.

Never shall I forget when the men in the mailboat struck up the tune of Rule Britannia, which they sang, or rather shouted, in a hoarse roar. I felt a gulping sensation in my throat as the old tune, which I had heard in all parts of the world, once more struck my ears under circumstances so extra-ordinary. I felt now I should do it, and I did it.

(source)

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Matthew Webb was born in 1848; son of a surgeon and eldest of seven children. He grew up in Shropshire and learned to swim in the River Severn.

Above: The River Severn is the longest river in the UK (source)

At the age of twelve he embarked on a seafaring career, and at fifteen he saved his younger brother from drowning in the Severn- the river where his love affair with swimming began.

Above: The rescue took place near Ironbridge, Shropshire (source)

Years later Captain Webb added further exploits to his growing reputation – he dived under his ship in the Suez canal and also receiving a medal for attempting to rescue a fellow crew member who fell overboard near Russia. In a bid to further his swimming career, he abandoned life at sea for training at Lambeth Baths. Webb had heard about a failed attempt to swim the channel, and was determined to have a go.

Above: Lambeth Baths – specially designed pools and bathing houses started to replace so-called ‘wild swimming’ for many during the late 1800s (source)

Following his successful channel swim, Matthew Webb was highly sought after and competed in numerous challenges both at home and abroad – usually for a significant fee. As part of his whistle-stop tour he allegedly spent 74 hours in the Scarborough Aquarium, in August, 1880. With only a four minute break he swam virtually non-stop for the entire duration – an incredible feat which must have been exhausting to watch, let alone swim!

An 1880 print by John Jellicoe depicts a similar feat (60 hours) at Westminister Aquarium – click here to see it.

There are some minor disagreements as to the exact nature of this water marathon – some sources say he swam, others say he was treading water. Even the length of time has been debated, for instance the San Francisco Mail and other publications argued (or perhaps misreported) that the swim lasted 60 hours.

Above: An apt motto for a memorial in Webb’s birthplace – Dawley in Shropshire (source)

Only three years after the struggling aquarium opened, one can only presume that Webb’s presence was designed to attract much-needed visitors; a ploy which ultimately failed in the long term – the aquarium was sold only years later due to low visitor numbers.

captainwebb

Above: Extract from the Times, 1880 (source)

Captain Webb’s pursuit of danger, fame and fortune sadly led to a premature death. Aged just 35 years old, an afternoon swim near Niagara Falls ended in tragedy after Webb was sucked into a whirlpool, hit the rocks and subsequently died. He had been pursuing a princely sum of £12,000, which would be awarded following a successful swim through the tempestuous waters. Tragically he appears to have underestimated their power.

Above: Niagara Falls in Canada (source)

In 2012, as part of an arts project in Scarborough , people were filmed treading water for a film/projection entitled ‘74 Seconds’ – a nod to Webb’s 74 hour stunt in Scarborough Aquarium. Indeed, Captain Matthew Webb has certainly not been forgotten, although is understandably best remembered for his pioneering Channel swim, rather his subsequent celebrity appearances.

Sources

Shropshire Mining Website

The Times Digital Archive

Heroes of Swimming (The Guardian)

Dawley Heritage

Culture 24