The Serpentine, London’s gracious lake a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace, is the venue for the Open Water Marathon Swim at the 2012 Olympics and a very different setting to the one faced by two female swimmers in the 1920s.
Eighty-five years ago this summer, 21-year-old Kathleen Thomas (pictured) announced her intention to swim the treacherous Bristol Channel between Wales and England – a distance of 11 miles as the crow flies but more like 22-and-a-half once the currents are taken into account (more than 36km compared to the 10km Olympic marathon).
Two years later, in 1929, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Edith Parnell, declared she would do the same. It was a battle of strength and stamina that would test any Olympic medallist, but did either of these young women succeed in a stretch of water notorious for taking lives? The Bristol Channel - which separates Penarth from Weston-super-Mare - retains a fearsome reputation due to the headlands and islands which cause huge volumes of tidal water to be funnelled through small spaces, creating lethal currents. I found it a compelling subject, and researching their stories inspired me to write my first novel, Wonder Girls - an exploration of ambition and where it might take women in an age when the expectation for many was marriage and motherhood.
At 4.15am on September 5, 1927, Kathleen Thomas stood on the beach at Penarth, a small seaside town just outside Cardiff, intent on swimming from South Wales to Somerset. The Suffragettes were campaigning for women’s rights, but nobody thought a girl could cross to the other side - many men had tried and failed. After a story announcing Kathleen’s intention, the local newspaper had been obliged to print the following clarification. 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.’
Crowds lined the beach to watch Kathleen wade into the chill grey waters, accompanied by a launch containing representatives from the Welsh Amateur Swimming Association and a rowing boat carrying her uncle Jack in a bowler hat. Seven hours and 20 minutes later she reached the shores of Somerset; fortified by beef tea and chocolate, Thomas received a rapturous welcome from the West Country. She was the first person, as well as the first woman, to swim the Bristol Channel. Compelling images from newspapers of the time show her exhausted, slumped in a boat, before she was taken to a hotel where she had a warm and cold bath, a half-hour rest in bed, and a good fish lunch before returning to Wales a celebrity.
Mr Lord, the local ‘swimming impresario’, wanted her to become part of the Olympic water polo team, though having moved to London to teach swimming Kathleen was no longer deemed an amateur, and was unable to take part in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Many wished her triumph to be remembered. A rousing letter from a J. Mitchell was printed in the newspaper demanding a memorial – ‘something to commemorate this great achievement that generations yet to come may know about it. Miss Thomas,’ it continued. ‘A splendid descendant of the old British pluck, daring and the unquenchable spirit which enabled our ancestors to do such deeds which made our nation the greatest the world had ever seen.’
Not until 2007 was Thomas's achievement marked by a plaque on Penarth seafront, but what of Edith Parnell in 1929? It took her ten hours, 17 minutes and 10 seconds, and when she returned to Penarth, a police constable escorted her through cheering crowds to the tune of ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes.’ At a reception in the Pier Pavilion, the council’s chairman told the audience they were especially proud of Miss Parnell who had displayed ‘amazing pluck in enduring for over ten hours one of the biggest trials that could be demanded of any athlete, man or woman’.
Finding a photograph of Edith in a bathing suit, with her bobbed hair and a sullen expression, inspired me to write about a girl aiming high to escape small-town mores. Reading old newspaper reports, I could see the mood was against this defiant teenage swimmer and when I discovered Edith’s tragic real-life story, I became focused on examining the flip side of success - how triumph might bring a freedom of sorts, and where that then might lead. I created Ida Gaze, a fictional young swimmer wanting to leave her life behind, and against this moulded a modern-day character, an elderly narrator, a voice for all that is lost in time.
There is no plaque for Edith Parnell but this original Gaumont Graphic clip of her in action survives.
Wonder Girls by Catherine Jones is out now, published by Simon & Schuster.