were they early ‘female emancipators’?

Text in purple is information added since the original posting

This blog outlines what I’ve discovered, thus far, concerning the leadership that women, and in particular women from Rochester / Medway provided in shaping amateur swimming – confounding the 19th century view of what women were capable of. I also found stories that showed that local women more than equalled men when it came to long-distance swimming. 

A small but determined group of Rochester women took advantage of the opportunities for ‘healthy exercise’ through swimming that increasingly became available in the late 19th century. In turn they challenged the strictures placed on women during the Victorian era. Through excelling in long-distant swimming and in life-saving skills, they helped define the ‘new woman’ who came to prominence during and after the Great War.

I also introduce two Rochester women – Gladys Wright and Hilda Willings – who were exceptional long-distance Medway swimmers. Through their achievements they undoubtedly inspired many girls & young women to participate and excel in a challenging sport.


I was surprised, when researching ‘Life in Rochester during the Great’ to come across news reports of wounded soldiers being invited to watch women give a demonstration of swimming in the Watts Baths on the Esplanade, Rochester, Kent. I thought if a ‘glimpse of stocking was so shocking’ how much worse it should have been in the early 1900s to see women cavorting in a swimming pool in their night-attire – and in front of young men, to boot! (7 Sept 1918, Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News. My reports on ‘Life in Rochester in Rochester during the Great War’ were published in the City of Rochester Society’s newsletters over the four years from 2014 to 2018.)

The fact that the news reports were neither condemnatory or titillating, and the opposite to what I expected, caused me to ask “why?”. Although the war challenged many of the perceptions of women this didn’t convince me as being a good enough explanation. I therefore thought there may be an interesting backstory to be found on a future ‘rock-pooling expedition’ into our history – which I’m now starting …. and contributions would be welcomed.

In the course of this ‘expedition’ I’ve thus far found that:

  • Rochester had one of the earliest Ladies Swimming Clubs – set up sometime between 1880 & 1884
  • That in the early 20th century before main drainage had been installed, the River Medway was used for long-distance swimming races
  • Rochester women were amongst those championing local and national training in lifesaving skills
  • That amongst the female members of the Medway Swimming club, The Medway Mermaids, were some exceptional swimmers  
  • That at least two Rochester women were exceptional long-distance swimmers – one of whom became one of the earliest women to attempt to swim the English Channel and
  • That races and aquatic entertainments organised from Rochester were not trivial – they were a means for swimming teachers (or swimming professors) to showcase their skills and thereby recruit pupils. {It appears that the ‘entertainments’ were also important in drawing in fee-paying spectators to contribute to the running costs of the pools, and, during the war, to raise money for for charities.}  

Swimming for Women  – Women spot an opportunity – and take  it

During the Victorian era medical men with no scientific evidence pronounced on the frailty of women when it came to physical exertion; and the cultural etiquette of the time had a definition of femininity that was restrictive and probably non-competative.

Men could debate what constituted a women’s rights, and women what constituted appropriate feminine behaviour – but none could reasonably question a woman’s right to be able to save herself from drowning. (6 Mar 1875 – Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle.) With the increase in recreational boating and the use of rivers for transport, the risk of drowning accidents was real. {This is evidenced by the number reports in the press concerning boating accidents on, and drownings in the River Medway.}

The case for women to be ‘encouraged’ to swim was strengthened by the growing view that swimming brought many health benefits – again should women be deprived of these benefits? The social mores at the time also ‘discouraged’ men from engaging in conversation concerning women’s clothing. 

The case had been made for women to be taught to swim – particularly by other women – and the way was clear for women to decide for themselves on the right sporting attire.

It seems that women spotted and took this opportunity to take control of this sport / recreation for themselves. Very quickly they became advocates for the teaching and demonstration of life-saving skills, and soon showed themselves as exceptional long-distance swimmers.

Swimming – an important part of the curriculum for both sexes

By the 1880’s learning to swim was accepted as being an important part of the curriculum for both sexes. Whereas it was actively embraced in girls’ public schools, impoverished children were not so fortunate in Medway.

Watts Baths
The original Richard Watts’s Baths

Watts Charity refuse use of their pool by pauper children

In 1880 the Guardians of the Medway Union were “unanimously of the opinion that the art of swimming should be part of the education of the children of both sexes”. Coinciding with the anticipated opening of Watts Baths at Rochester, they wrote to the charity’s trustees asking for permission to use the baths for this purpose – confirming that competent persons would have change of them (17 April 1880 – East Kent Gazette). Much to the amazement of the Guardians the Watts trustees refused permission for pauper children to use their pool. The Medway Guardians believed that the exclusion of workhouse children would have been contrary to the wishes of the “pious founder” of the charity who only wished to exclude ‘rogues and proctors’ from benefiting from his charity. (25 Sept. 1880 – East Kent Gazette). {It appears that this decision caused considerable indignation and the trustees quietly relented.}

The ‘Exclusive’ Rochester Ladies Swimming Club

{Although there is limited reference to the Rochester Swimming Club after 1915 – references moving to the Medway Swimming Club, it appears that the Rochester Club was still in existence in 1920 when Gladys Wright (referred to below) is described as a “well-known long-distance swimmer and organiser of the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club. (31 Aug 1920, Portsmouth Evening News).}

In 1855 the Charity Commissioners directed the trustees of the Richard Watts’ Charity to provide a public bath at Rochester. This requirement was finally delivered in 1880. 

To deal with a wide range of prejudices and probably their comfort, women began to establish their own swimming clubs. One of the first is believed to have been in Rochester, “In the Swim – The Amateur Swimming Association from 1869-1994”, Ian Keil and Don Wix 1996.” The Rochester Ladies Swimming Club was certainly well established by June 1884 with its headquarters at the “Esplanade Baths, Rochester Bridge”, as it was described at this time as being “the most successful of its kind in the county of Kent”. (June 1884 – Swimming Notes & Record). {In all probability the club was formed soon after the opening of the baths as a number of the early female members shared the same family name as some of the Watts trustees of the time. Could prejudice have been behind the initial refusal to allow pauper children to use the pool?}.

The club days at the baths were Mondays and Thursdays from 12 o’clock till 2. The club subscription was half a guinea {10s 6d} (for the season) on top of which there was an entrance fee of 2s 6d.

In 1884 the committee of the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club was made up off: Mrs Tuffill, President, Miss Edwards, Vice President, Miss Cole, Honorary Treasurer, and Mrs John E Gill as Honorary Secretary. The committee was made up of Miss Durham, Mrs Edwin Gill, Miss K L Haymon, Miss Hellyar, Miss Homan, and Miss Ada Woodhams. The swimming mistress was Mrs Nellie Easton. Membership of the club was limited to 40 members and  no young lady under the age of 14 was eligible for election”. (June 1884 – Swimming Notes & Record).

Valuable items offered as prizes

Not only was the committee made up of women from notable families the prizes awarded for various swimming events also appear to have been valuable. {Limited access to competitions at which valuable prizes could be won was a concern for some women’s swimming clubs – see Swimming Attire below.}

In October 1884 the following prizes were awarded for various swimming events – Mr W W Foord presented a gold medal to Miss Ada Woodhams for winning the 120 yard race. Miss Panteney, aged 14, was awarded the club committee’s prize of a silver pencil case for the short distance race for beginners, and Miss F Hellyar won a gold watch, given by Mrs Haymen, for winning the obstacle race.

It is quite clear that this was an exclusive club. The fees were high which would have prevented many women from joining, and if they could afford the fees and subscription, membership was both limited and controlled. However, most importantly, the club organised swimming events and created the position of ‘Swimming Mistress’ – a unique professional role for a woman at this time.

After the prize giving of 1884, Mrs Easton, the swimming mistress, put on a highly entertaining exhibition of swimming. Apart from its entertainment value this demonstration would have helped her recruit pupils. What is not clear is whether she was ‘on the staff’ or she worked ‘freelance’. The latter is quite possible as she would have earned money through her teaching, and I have found reference to her and her “talented pupils” giving demonstrations of “ornamental swimming” at other pools. (29 Oct 1895 – Sporting Life). Nellie Easton was clearly amongst a growing profession of swimming teachers, often referred to a ‘Professors of Swimming’, who would list amongst their credentials the schools and institutions who had appointed them to teach swimming.

Maidstone provides a pool for the exclusive use of women

In 1895 a new swimming bath was opened at Maidstone. Rather than demolish the old baths they were remodelled and given over for the exclusive use of women. (21 June 1895 – The Courier). The benefits of this was shown at Maidstone’s Aquatic Fete, held in the October of that year, at which the ladies section of the Life-Saving Society gave a demonstration of their skills. {It is perhaps also worthy to note that the prizes offered to male and female competitors seem to have been of similar value – and not necessarily sexist. The winner of the main event for men received a pair of fish carvers, and winner of the women’s race, a silver keyless watch and case.} (24 Oct 1895 – Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser).

Maidstone Swimming Baths 1895
The new Maidstone Baths 1895
Old baths near Fairmeadow
The old baths at Maidstone that we given for the exclusive use of women

Women should teach women

For various and obvious reasons women preferred to be taught swimming by another women. In addition to reasons of modesty circumstances also necessitated this as swimming baths tended to have dedicated times for women – and in the case of Maidstone, a pool for the exclusive use of women.


Woman bathing with rope
Note woman on left with rope – the teacher? 

In addition to the times when the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club had exclusive use of the Watts pool, the tariff list for 1883 appears to show women had exclusive use of the Watts Baths on Mondays between 6am and 12 noon, and 12noon and 9:30pm on Thursdays.  (A History of the Richard Watts Charity. Hinkley 1979.) This would have meant teaching within these times would probably/preferably have been undertaken by a woman teacher.

Another factor that would have favoured ‘women teaching women’ to swim was the concern that women should be taught a style of swimming that was appropriate to preserving their femininity. However I suspect this was not a concern for the long-distance women swimmers that I introduce later, who would have been more focused on speed and efficiency of style, than decorum! 

Whatever the validity of the reasons, propriety enabled female swimming to become an activity over which women had control, within which they had standing, and for some, provided an independent income.

Swimming Attire – fashion, modesty and functionality

Until the creation of swimming clubs and competitive swimming, people of both sexes probably skinny-dipped in private areas on the river or beach.

Woman swimming at Margate
“A Woman swimming in the sea in Margate” – Thomas Rowlandson c1800.

This needed to change when the swimmers were likely to be viewed by both genders such as at competitions, exhibitions and galas.

With men it was a simple decision – just cover up. For women a distinction needed to be made between ‘bathing costumes’ and ‘swimming costumes’. {The following ad from May 1914 showed a range of styles – of which, perhaps, only two would have been suitable for competitive or long-distance swimming.}

Bathing Costumes

In 1898 the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), to which 50 ladies swimming clubs were affiliated, convened a “conference of ladies” to agree the regulations that were to be applied to what they should wear when participating in competitive swimming. {I do not know if the Rochester club was present but as it was held in London it would have been a possibility.} 

The concern of the women members was one of ‘inclusivity’ as it was felt that many women were deterred from competing for the “handsome prizes …. because of a lack of agreement as to what constituted a perfectly decorous and seemly dress, in which to take part in races and matches in the presence of the opposite sex”.  

The conference heard that “it would be as impossible to go through a gymnastic display in a fashionable gown and hat, as it would be to swim long distance in a much trimmed tunic, shoes, stockings and a bonnet” – a style that was essential to looking “pretty and dainty … and to avoid criticism on a crowded beach” (20 Sept. 1898 – St. James Gazette).

It was recognised that various ladies swimming clubs had agreed on a style of swimming costume but it was clear there were variances, they varied in length, style, and material. As these variances would affect speed and endurance it was agreed there needed to be some standardisation. 

The style that was most approved of was the ‘Birmingham Model’. Although the need for functionality was recognised there were still demands within the delegates for fashionability – “stout ladies objected to the use of close-fitting stockinette” and “youthful delegates appealed for a design without sleeves”. 

It was finally agreed to adopt a modified version of the Birmingham costume – “The costume should be cut straight under the neck, across the back and bust. It should be buttoned on the shoulder, and not less than three inches here, whilst underneath it should be shaped to the arm. Red, any blue, or black should be the only colours permitted, but liberty as to trimmings would be sanctioned. As to length it should reach within at least 3 inches of the knee”. (27 Sept 1898 – North British Daily Mail).

Swimming ‘takes-off’ in Medway

Although Medway had had a swimming facility – the floating baths – from before 1831 – it was not until the Watts Baths opened in 1880 and the creation of the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club shortly after  it opened, that swimming ‘took-off’ in Medway. I have not found any reference to a men’s swimming club for Rochester or Medway at this time. This may have been because it had always been possible for men to informally use the river – which they did based on the number of reported drownings of men in the Medway!

Floating baths
Notice from  South Eastern Gazette – Tuesday 31 May 183

{The 1831 baths appears to have been moored off Bath Hard, Rochester. Although there were three separate baths no mention has been found of one being for the exclusive use of women. In 1836 new floating baths were opened near the Esplanade.}

Medway’s Exceptional and Notable Women Swimmers

As elitist as the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club may have been it raised the local and national profile of women swimmers, it enabled women to demonstrate their aquatic skills, and organised competitions. 

As the competitive races held on the Medway started from or ended at Rochester Bridge I’m inclined to think they were organised or hosted from the Watts Baths.

What is clear from the following accounts of races in which men and women competed against each other, is that women proved themselves to be stronger and more enduring swimmers than their male competitors.

However, even in 1917 there were still those who were firmly of the view that women could only expect to “harm to their constitution” if they participated in long-distance swimming races. The writer of the piece in The Swimming Magazine (Oct. 1917) goes on to proffer the view that the inclusion of women in a 25 mile race on the Thames was to only egg on the other – presumably male – competitors. {I mention this at this point as I believe it provides further evidence of the determination that Medway’s champion women swimmers demonstrated.} 

Miss Gladys Wright

Gala: In September 1915 Miss Gladys Wright, diplomatist, {probably ambassador for life-saving} and other lady members of the Medway Swimming Club organised a swimming gala that was held at the Watts’ Baths to raise funds for wounded soldiers. A demonstration of the “art of natation” was given by Mrs. Gerald Newcombe and Miss Wright. Their feats included plunging and turning somersaults in the water. (2 Oct 1915 – Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer.) {I’m currently not sure whether the Medway Swimming Club was a rebranding of the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club or was a new club.}

Race Victory: In August 1916  Gladys Wright, “diplomatist of the Royal Life Saving Society”, WON the Medway Swimming Club’s annual long-distance swimming race from Aylesford to Rochester Bridge – a distance of 10 miles. Of the 17 competitors she was the only women, and only three entrants finished the race.  Amongst the male competitors were a number of Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) from the army. Gladys’ victory was decisive – she finished the swim in 3 hours and 6 minutes, 30 minutes ahead of a Staff Quarter Sergeant who came in second. It was dark by the time the third and last competitor to complete the swim, left the water.(2 Sept 1916 – Kent Messenger, 31 Aug 1916 – Pall Mall Gazette.) 

Gala: In September 1916 Miss Gladys Wright and Mrs. Gerald Newcombe organised another ladies swimming gala. In the report of this event Gladys Wright was termed “an expert swimmer”. Both Gladys and the Mayoress of Rochester were cheered on their arrival by the servicemen. The event raised £28 (around £2,800 today) for the Strood VAD (WW1 Hospital). (7 Oct 1916 – Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer.) {In this report and again in the report of the 1918 gala, the pool was described as Rochester Mathematical School’s swimming bath. I’m grateful for input and from Rob Flood, Allan Moss of the City of Rochester Society, and to Barrie P and Mike L. 

The Maths School purchased the land shown as a cricket pitch on the map in 1910. The school then had a pool constructed that eventually opened in 1914. This clearly would have been a better venue during August for the holding of fundraising galas – particularly if soldiers were to be invited as there would have been a lot of them.

Rochester Baths


Gala: By 1918 it seems the annual gala ladies swimming gala that “delightfully exemplified the natatory art”, had grown in prominence. It was opened by Lady Watson Cheyne who in her opening address was “pleased to observe that ladies were now taking part in a great many things”. The gala took place in the company of a large number on onlookers including a party of wounded soldiers. As with previous galas it had been arranged by Miss Gladys Wright, “the local lady expert in the water”. A noteworthy feature of the gala was a tableau afloat an improvised raft with the “ladies attired in various costumes representing the Allies”, and a nightdress competition. (7 Sept 1918 – Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News.) 

Although details of the nightdress competition were not given other sources suggests it could have been a fun obstacle race. The women wore a nightdress over their swimming costume and had to swim a distance and negotiate obstacles, whilst carrying a lighted candle – presumably the great and amusing challenge was to keep it alight? I can only speculate as to why Lady Cheyne – wife of a noted surgeon and bacteriologist who was a pioneer of antiseptic surgical methods in Britain – was invited to open the gala. She was a member of a committee set up by the War Office to look into the creation of a “Nursing Service for the Territorial Force in London” in 1909. {She may well have been on a scheduled visit to the Strood VAD that coincided with the gala?}

Hero: If you fell into the river you would have certainly wanted Gladys Wight nearby!

By 1920 Gladys Wright was no longer being reported as participating in swimming races but she still served the community well. The papers reported that Miss Gladys Wright, “long-distance swimming champion of the Medway”, attracted by the screams of a child’s companion, dived fully clothed from the pier at Rochester, and succeeded in rescuing five year old Albert Gilbert who had fallen from the pier. (7 July 1920 – Pall Mall Gazette.)

A few weeks later she saved Mr A Burgess from the river. She had been cruising with some friends in a yacht when Burgess who was helping them moor fell into the water. He was unable to swim and a strong tide was running. Miss Wright jumped into the river fully dressed, caught Mr Burgess as he came to the surface, and supported him until a rope could be thrown from the yacht. (31 August 1920, Portsmouth Evening News.)

Hilda Willing

Hilda from Rochester and a local swimming teacher, made one of the early attempts by a woman to swim the English Channel. {Hilda was a war widow. Her husband was killed in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland, on board the HMS Indefatigable. See biographical info at the end.}

By 1919 Hilda Willing was the Captain of the Medway Swimming Club (Medway Mermaids) where it was reported she had instructed hundreds of pupils each year {The report made no reference to gender but the caption associated with the original posting of this picture, suggest they were all girls. I’ve discovered other Medway groups who are currently calling themselves the ‘Medway Mermaids’ – but could the women in this photo have been the originals?} 

Hilda Willing + Mermaids
Medway Swimming Club “Medway Mermaids1920. Hilda Willing in centre. It was reported that she had taught over 2,000 ladies to swim

Hilda was also the official instructress in life-saving at the Watts Baths at Rochester (4 Dec 1919 – Western Morning News). She was also celebrity in swimming circles and made a number of guest appearances – such as at the opening of the first mixed sex swimming session at Tonbridge in June 1920. (18 June 1920 – Kent & Sussex Courier.)

In September 1919 Hilda Willing set a new record for a woman swimming from Rochester to Sheerness – a distance of 16 miles that she covered in 6 hours. In fact it would seem that she was the first woman to complete this swim. (15 Sept. 1919 – Channel Swim, and 19 Sept, 1919 – The Vote.)

Hilda Willing trains to swim the English Channel

In search of a further challenge Hilda Willings declared in 1919 her intention to attempt

Hilda Willing in water B&W
Hilda Willing

to swim the English Channel in the following summer (August 1920) – pointing out that “it [was] a big job you know”. When asked about how she was going to prepare she replied that she did not believe in ordinary gymnastic exercises as “the mechanical element greatly distracts from its value”. Instead, she said, she set herself regular walking and cycling tasks – “two natural exercises that she had found to be satisfactory in the extreme” (2 Dec 1919 – Globe). It was later reported that she also included skipping in her training regime (2 Aug 1920 – Daily Herald).

Hilda’s preparations were often reported in the press and she began to attract a lot of support. A farmer from near Rochester offered her all the eggs she required, free of charge, during the six months of her training, and two pilots, one French and one English offered their services. Although she had an association with the Watts Baths Hilda undertook her indoor swimming training at the Chatham Naval Baths, with the intention of moving her training into the Medway and the open sea at Dover, when the weather improved. (21 Feb1920 – Globe.)

One of her training sessions in the Medway caused the police great alarm. She was swimming up the Medway approaching Rochester bridge when the police tried to stop her. They warned her that she would never be able to swim through the whirlpools under the bridge. Hilda insisted on completing her course and to the astonishment of the police she successfully fought her way against the current and through the whirlpool, to reach the safety of Rochester Pier. (17 July 1920 – Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, 13 July 1920 – Dundee Evening Telegraph.)

Hilda Willing went to Dover in July to make final preparations for her Cross Channel swim, and to await favourable weather and sea conditions. Her plan was to make her attempt on the 7th or 8th August (19 July 1920, Lancashire Evening Post.) At the same time another woman Mrs Arthur {Violet Antonia} Hamilton, wife of Lieut. Col. A. Hamilton was also going to make an attempt. (See Rivalry and Controversy below.)

Hilda Willing and Hamilton
This photo of Hilary Willing and Mrs Hamilton may have been taken at the time of Mrs Hamilton’s first attempt to swim the Channel in August 1920. Hilda is wearing the white skirt

After a number of delays Hilda Willings set off from Shakespeare Beach on her Cross-Channel attempt at 12 noon on 3 September 1920. Her father saw her off with “Good luck my girl”. She throughout adopted the breast stroke and was fed every half hour with beef tea and later chicken mince. 

HW with father
Hilda Willing with her father George Peckham – father measuring the temperature of the water
Hilida Willing with father
Hilda Willing + Father

Although the weather conditions were good, there being no wind, the water was 58oF (14.4c) which was two degrees (1oc) colder than in years considered good for Channel swims. Those in the know were also of the view that the tides and currents made Hilda’s success unlikely. 

Part way into the crossing Hilda developed sickness due to ingesting too much salt water. Fortunately the sickness wore off and weather conditions remained good. However, after she had been in the water for over ten hours, and it being dark, her father become anxious for Hilda’s safety. It was therefore decided she should leave the water at 10:35pm. {NB – she spent 10hrs + 35mins in the water.} 

Hilda at this point was about six miles from the French coast and had covered 30 miles of swimming and drift. Although she failed in her attempt she did set two new records – one for staying in the water longer than any other female Channel swimmer, and the second by swimming across three tides. (10 Sept 1920 – Dover Express, 5 Sept 1920 – Sunday Post.)

Rivalry and Controversy – leading to a challenge from a very confident Hilda Willing

In the 1921 there seems to have been a controversial claim by Mrs Hamilton to have swum the Channel in 21 hours and 45 minutes. There were however no records of the crossing. 

The independent pilot confirmed her claim but also added that she was secured by a rope during food stops. This followed on from the controversy in 1920 when on a failed attempt to complete the crossing on 21 August 1920, 13 days previous to the attempt by Hilda Willing, Mrs Hamilton claimed to have spent 11 hours in the water whereas her boat crew said it was only one hour. {This was significant as it would have meant that Hilda Willing had not established a the record for staying in the water longer than any other woman Channel swimmer. In fact none of Mrs Hamilton’s ‘records’ were recognised because of a lack of evidence.}

Could doubt about the integrity of Mrs Hamilton’s claims have led to Hilda Willing issuing in August 1921 a Channel-race challenge to Mrs Hamilton –  over any distance up to 40 miles. (24 Aug 1921 – Lancashire Evening Post.) {I’ve found no record as to whether the challenge was taken up – or indeed of a Channel attempt by Hilda after this date – so I suspect not.}

Those who Gladys Wright and Hilda Willing probably inspired

Both Gladys Wright and Hilda Willing were respected and well reported local swimmers who coached many in swimming and life-saving skills.

The Pathe film of 1928 linked below is from 1928. The woman receiving the cup at the end looks like Hilda Willing – and the women swimmers quite possibly part of the Medway Swimming Club of which she was the Captain. To view the video click the link below the image.

1928 Swimming Contest
1928 Long distance swimming championship

1919: Ena Saunders aged 14 and member of the Medway Swimming Club, of which Hilda Willing was the captain, swam the 10 miles from Aylesford to Rochester in less that four hours. It was pitch dark when she landed. (17 Sept 1919 – Sheffield Daily Telegraph.)

1921: Iris Martin, from Rochester, who was only 12 years old, performed

Iris Martin
Iris Ivy Martin aged 14, 1923

the remarkable feat in of swimming from Rochester to Sheerness, a distance of 16 miles. She was in the water for 6 hours 7.5 minutes. Three older girls, Miss L McGown, Miss D. Daniel, And Miss L. Coates accomplished the same feat. All were pupils of Mrs Hilda Willing who accompanied them in a motor launch. (9 Sept 1921 – The Vote.)

In 1911 Iris lived with her family at  40 Cecil Road, Rochester. Her parents were Mr & Mrs Francis Martin

In 1923 her father was running a pub in Dover when Iris swam from the Admiralty Pier, Dover, to Deal Pier a distance of 12 miles, in 3hrs and 20 minutes. Her mother is reported as saying it was part of Iris’s preparations to swim the Channel.  {No record of her making an attempt has been found.} In 1939 Iris was a State Registered Nurse working at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Rochester. In 1949 Iris married Pieter Verduyn from Holand, at St. Johns in Chatham.


1922: Three young women who participated in the 1922 annual 10 mile swimming race from Aylesford to Rochester, in the past won by Gladys Wright, excelled themselves. The race was between 14 competitors, eight of whom were women. Only three competitors finished the race – and they were all young women. The winner was Dorothy Daniels (16) who competed the course in 3hrs 26 mins, second was Miss G Hughes (17) who was 17 minutes behind Dorothy, and third was Kathleen Isteed who only had one leg – the other being amputated when she was a child.  (11 Sept 1922,  Daily Herald.)

Kathleen Emma Isteed was born in Gravesend in 1896. In 1911 she was living with her parents William Isteed, a general labourer, and Eleanor Isteed at 7 Bank Terrace,

Kathleen Isteed
Kathleen Isteed – from Ancestory

Rochester. In 1911 Kathleen was an ‘inmate’ of an orphanage, run by the John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls Mission, in Great Clacton – which took in fatherless girls aged between 2 & 14 who had a physical infirmity. One assumes she was ‘accepted’ because she only had one leg as she was not fatherless. At the time of undertaking the Aylesford/Rochester swim in 1922, when she would have been aged about 26 years, it appears she could have been living with her parents at 133 Rochester Ave., Rochester. In 1939 Kathleen was living in Enfield, working as a bookkeeper and cashier. On the 1949 electoral roll she is listed as living with her father in Enfield; he died that year. Kathleen died in 1971 in Chatham.

A Concluding thought

Quietly it seems that swimming took-on prejudicial Victorian views that restricted what women could, should and were able to do. Indeed, respect of swimming, women seem to have used the social mores of the time to their advantage.

It is clear that Gladys Wright and Hilda Willing by example did much to champion women’s rights and to demonstrate that women were more than equal to men when it came to competitive long-distance / endurance swimming. What’s more I’ve found no criticism of this, or their femininity being called into question; quite the opposite in fact as it was their achievements that widely reported around the country. 

Could they therefore have been early female emancipators? Should they join the ranks of other local women who through political campaigning or personal endeavour, were significant woman’s-rights influencers of the early 20th century?

It may not have been their intention but their stoicism and skills, probably enabled by the competitions arranged by the Rochester Ladies Swimming Club, made sure that women’s swimming was recognised and respected. Also, through their example and mentoring of girls they must have made a contribution to raising the ambitions and determination of many of Medway’s young women.

Biographical Information 

I’m grateful for the diligent research of Maria Kelly of Rochester for the additional information that in turn helped to reveal further interesting information. I’m now in no doubt that Gladys Wright should be added to the Medway list of women emancipators

If there are any genealogists / family historians who can provided any biographical information concerning the women mentioned in this blog I would be very pleased to include it. There is a possibility that the potential of the younger women may not have been fully realised as a consequence of two World Wars – but they were all certainly, in the words of the time, ‘plucky’ – so who knows – do you? If so email me – address at bottom

Gertrude Hilda Willing nee Peckham

I have found a news report of a businessman who swum the Channel as part of a team in 2003. The report states that he was inspired by his aunt Gertrude Hilda Willing who swum the Channel for charity in 1920. Seems this could be the same Hilda Willing as reported above. (See Descendent of Hilary Willing).

A Gertrude Hilda Packman a married Samuel Sherwell Willings from Chatham at St. Mary’s at Chatham on 5 Aug. 1912. A man of this name died on HMS Indefatigable on 31 May 1916, aged 27.

Hilda was born in 1890 or 1891 at Minster Sheppey where her birth was registered. The 1911 census shows her living at Military Road, Chatham, with her parents.

Hilda went to India in 1922 to marry Harry Wallace a mill manager. They were back in England by 1939 and living at Hove. Hilda died in Poole on 28 Oct 1980 – quite possibly her 90th birthday!

One girl that Hilda was probably coaching to swim the channel was

Gladys Wright 

I have found a Gladys Wright who lived at 25 Medway St, Chatham, Kent in 1911. She was aged 19 at the time. The age could be right – but is this the same Gladys? This Gladys was described as a Grocers Cashier – not a swimming instructor. 

Maria was able to confirm that Gladys Wright, the young woman swimmer from 25

Gladys Wright
Gladys Wright – as Principal of Nonington College

Medway Street, Chatham, went to become the Principal of St. Alban’s Court, Nonington / Nonington College of Physical Education that specialised in training women as teachers of physical education / fitness instructors. {For more of the college history click  – Nonington College.}

Gladys Frances Miriam Wright was born in 1891. Her father was a grocer, and her mother Clara nee Hunter was born in Australia. Gladys was baptised in 1905 at St. Marys, Chatham. She died on 19 June 1980.

Around 1920 Gladys attended a gymnastics course at Silkeborg, Denmark. (31 Aug 1920, Portsmouth Evening News) Here she was inspired by the recreational approach that was being taken in the Scandinavian countries to physical fitness. Taken with the approach, and recognising the need to improve the fitness of the English she founded in 1923 the English Scandinavian Summer School for Physical Education. From Milner Court, Sturry, Kent, she organised annual summer schools which soon gained an excellent international reputation. {Although she is reported to have been concerned for the fitness of everyone, these summer schools seem to have been just for women.} In 1933 women from 10 nations attended, in 1938, women from 18 nations participated.

The link associated with the photo is of a gymnastic display put on during one of her summer schools – pre 1938 as it was at Milner Court. The report in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald – 26 August 1933, could well of the same event:

The display took place on “the lawn in front of the Old Tithe Barn, which had been converted into a modern gymnasium. Women of ten different nationalities took part in the display…..the most complicated moments were carried out by all taking part in absolute simultaneity without any hesitancy or falter … a piano accompaniment helped maintain perfect rhythm and movement.”

Gym display
Click for video of ‘Gladys Wright’ gymnastic display Milner Court – c1933

The approach seems very much about ‘music & movement’. In addition to synchronised routines there were displays of folk dancing by women wearing their national costumes. {There seems a lot of similarity between these gymnastic displays and the swimming galas that Gladys put on during WW1. The displays must have led new members / supporters and the costumed folk dances and not dissimilar tho the costumed tableaus that she organised in the galas.}

In 1934 Gladys set up {or a branch of} the the English Gymnastics Society (EGS), which had a partner organisation in Denmark. The size and strength of the movement grew and eventually Gladys / EGS was able, with no Government and only with donations from supporters / participants in her summer school, were able to acquire Albany’s Court, Nonington, Kent.

Although initially Gladys and the EGS only had sufficient funds to acquire Albany’s Court it soon acquired enough for a large gymnasium to built. It was the largest all-timber building in England, and was only equalled in size by the famous Oberammergau theatre (Dover Express – 29 Jul 1938). {The architect was Miss Jocelyn F Adburgham.}

St Alban's gym
The Swedish Gymnasium – later Swedish Dance Hall – 1938. Cost £4,000. Now a listed building

Gladys envisaged the college running two-year residential course “from which will emerge fully qualified women teachers teachers of physical training”. In addition she hoped that the new facility would provide shorter courses for men – particularly local miners – and instruction in leadership for boys & girls who were still at school. (19 November 1937 – Dover Express.)

When the college opened in 1938 it was named the “Nonington College of Physical Education“. That year there were nearly 200 ‘delegates’ for the summer school and with 30 on the teaching staff the mansion was as comfortably full as it could be. After the summer school, 100 Canadian girl students were expected attend a course to “learn something of our outlook and methods.”

St Albans Opening
Girls from Brentford High School gave a display after the opening ceremony – 1938

Gladys Wright – the great influencer

In the speeches given at the opening of the college there were indication of Gladys ‘personality’ and philosophy. The representative of the Finish delegation is reported as saying – “Miss Wright, the principal, was a lady who had sudden and alarming acts of faith. Taking St Alban’s had been one one of these and it had ben admirably justified.It was a great powerhouse from which would go out a band of people whose powers would be exerted not only on mussels but on the minds and spirits of those whom they trained”. (29 Jul 1938, Dover Express.)

Gladys Wright retired as the principal of Nonington College in 1952 when it was taken over by KCC. Her last address was 4 South Close, The Precincts, Canterbury. She died on 19 June 1980 – the same year as Hilda Willings/Wallace both aged 89/90.

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler

7 May 2020. Additional info 11 May 2020