Catherine Jones ‘s debut was inspired by the confluence of two things: her own wild swimming and the discovery of some compelling associated material concerning the heroic swimming feats of two early-twentieth-century women. In an article written specially for bookoxygen she explains how she gathered the material for her revelatory story. There’s newsreel footage too…
The mood in the small Welsh seaside town was one of bemused disbelief when 21-year-old Kathleen Thomas stepped into the Bristol Channel at 4.15am on September 5, 1927.
Her plan, announced in the local newspaper, was to swim the 11 miles of chill, grey water between Penarth in South Wales and Weston-super-Mare in the south-west of England, though the distance was considered closer to 22 miles once the perfidious currents were taken into account.
Cynics had been swift to make their feelings known by visiting the newspaper offices to complain about the perceived error in suggesting a young woman should attempt such a treacherous stretch of water. Having trumpeted its scoop of female derring-do, the editor was obliged to run a follow-up story.
Miss Thomas Confirms Echo Report, said the headline.
‘Miss Kathleen Thomas, the Penarth lady swimmer, whose decision to attempt the Bristol Channel was exclusively reported in yesterday’s South Wales Echo, reaffirmed in an interview today that our report was correct in its entirety.’
Reared by an aunt after the rest of her family emigrated to Canada, Kathleen swam every day at dawn in the baths on the seafront, but facing down a channel with the second highest tidal range in the world was another matter altogether. A slip of a girl in a stylish Wolsey bathing suit and submarine cap succeeding where men with arms the size of her thighs had failed? Women might be wearing baggy trousers and cutting their hair in bobs but this was ridiculous, surely.
The dissenters had good reason to doubt courageous Kathleen would ever get to the other side. The Bristol Channel remains deadly on account of vast volumes of tidal water being funnelled through narrow spaces between headlands, further pushed about by sandbars and islands, creating ever-changing tides. Spectators would have been aware of the so-called Severn Sea’s greed for taking lives. They thronged the beach.
Some seven hours and 20 minutes later, the newspaper got their scoop and the sneerers a slap in the face. Fortified by Bovril and chocolate, Kathleen had arrived on the shores of the West Country, the first person and first woman to swim the Bristol Channel.
‘She needed no assistance from the water,’ said one report. ‘That final 100 yards demanded the last pound of her strength. The terrific struggle against the currents had called for all her reserves. But she kept up to the last…’
Headlines from the time describe England as ‘in a fever heat’ to congratulate her and thereafter, Kathleen became an ‘It Girl’ of her day. Plaudits stressed the achievement’s importance for a ‘mere woman’ including letters from the Cardiff Women Citizens Association, the Cardiff Union, the Red Cross, and one from a lady apologizing for writing so late due to having had ‘such a lot of business to do and a lot of worry with maids’.
In December 1927, the ‘smiling-faced Welsh heroine’ was the subject of a lengthy, gushing report in the Wolsey Magazine, which detailed how hundreds were turned away from her guest appearance at a gala where it ‘took five police and an inspector every ounce of strategy and skill to control [the] vast multitude’.
‘More than wonderful,’ wrote the correspondent in praise of Kathleen. ‘Many critics tried to turn you against your heart’s desire… more than glad to think that they must be feeling rather small… in my heart I call you “the world’s heroine”.’
It took 80 years for Kathleen’s achievement to be marked by Penarth when, in 2007, she was finally acknowledged, thanks to the efforts of her children, by a plaque (promised by the council many years before) erected on the town’s seafront.
As a wild swimmer and writer, I was impressed and intrigued by Kathleen’s story. I knew how dangerous the Channel was after phoning the coastguard to ask if it was safe to swim parallel to the shore on Penarth beach. ‘You need your head examining if you go in that water,’ was the gist of his reply so when, shortly afterwards, I heard about another ‘lady swimmer’ from the 1920s, Edith Parnell, I couldn’t let go.
Two years after Kathleen’s triumph, 16-year-old Edith made the same crossing. The photographs I found suggested a determined young woman. In one shot, she remained slightly apart from her father who had his hand in a tin of lanolin, ready to grease her before she entered the water. In another, Edith – who stood less than five feet – kept a defiant distance from her mother, a woman who looked none too pleased her daughter was making an exhibition of herself down on the prom.
At first, I could find very little information on Edith – after completing her swim in 1929, she was headlined in the Penarth Times as The Wonder Girl and then seemed to disappear beneath the surface – but what I gradually uncovered further inspired me to write Wonder Girls, to explore the challenges faced by women in the 1920s and to see where their ambition might take them.
My research brought me into contact with the widow of the late Lord Cudlipp – Hugh Cudlipp, the esteemed journalist who was instrumental in introducing scantily-clad women to newspaper pages. It transpired Edith was Hugh Cudlipp’s first wife though you have to look quite hard to find what happened after they married.
Edith’s story seemed to me very much one of its time: a determined young woman whose ambition, strength and talent were thwarted in an era when women were expected to aim for marriage and motherhood. I was shown private correspondence, brought out after many years of a sore subject being hidden, and when I ordered Edith’s death certificate, intriguing details further suggested why The Wonder Girl had been airbrushed from history.
There may be no plaque on the pier for Edith but I hope Wonder Girls stands in some small way as recognition of what she achieved, and I have included a note on the real-life swimmers at the back of the book.
Fortunately, a Gaumont graphic clip remains as testament to Edith’s achievement and you can see her in action here.