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    From Lambeth to Niagara: Imitation and Innovation among Female Natationists

    Day, D (2015) From Lambeth to Niagara: Imitation and Innovation among Female Natationists. Sport in History, 35. ISSN 1746-0271


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    The development of English swimming throughout the nineteenth century relied heavily on the activities of swimming professors and their families who promoted the sport through challenges and competitions and established classes for the teaching of swimming and lifesaving. Like many of their contemporaries, the leading swimming family of the period, the Beckwiths, expanded these activities beyond their Lambeth base to include summer seasons at seaside resorts as well as appearances in crystal tanks on the stages of variety theatres and music halls. Female members of the family proved particularly popular and Agnes Beckwith became the most recognized and acclaimed natationist of the period, particularly after her visits to America in 1883 and 1887. A year later it was being reported that a Clara Beckwith was due to appear in a tank scene at the Providence Museum and advertisements began appearing in 1893 for a Cora Beckwith, ‘Champion Lady swimmer of the World’ and demonstrator of the ‘famous Beckwith Backward Sweep’. This paper explores the lives of these two natationists who appeared regularly on stage and in travelling fairs in America over the decades following Agnes's visits. In newspaper advertisements and interviews, both women emphasized their British roots and their connections to the Beckwith dynasty as well as claiming credit for outstanding swimming feats. In announcing her intention to swim Niagara Falls in 1901 Cora, born Cora MacFarland in Maine in 1870, asserted that she had previously swum the English Channel alongside Matthew Webb. Clara, born Clara Sabean in Nova Scotia in 1870, was even more forthcoming about her entitlement to the Beckwith name by stating in her 1893 autobiography that she had been born in Lambeth in 1867, and identifying her father as William Manning Beckwith, Champion Swimmer of England. Both women not only appropriated the Beckwith name but they also annexed the Beckwith routines, including endurance floating and ornamental swimming, and this paper highlights these similarities before reflecting on some generic commonalities in these natational careers.

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