Female natationists were an essential ingredient in the provision of swimming as a commercially organised spectator event in the late-Victorian era. Young women and girls performed in aquatic shows typically as members of a family-based act. They were proficient in displaying feats of exhibition and ornamental swimming, and high diving in a variety of aquatic venues throughout the country. This, despite Victorian notions of the status of women behaving with propriety; young female natationists entertained audiences under the broad banner of popular amusements. Elite female natationists performed spectacular feats that were aesthetically appealing, combining kinetic proficiency with physical power.

Blackpool: Prince of Wales Baths and Aquatic Theatre, 1890.

The historiography of female involvement in commercial swimming is a relatively new branch of scholarly research. Victorian attitudes towards females in the playing of sports and their participation in recreational activities are an enigma. On the one hand the Victorian prude, encapsulated in the moral opprobrium espoused by the stereotypical prig Mrs Grundy, portrays women as the weaker sex, having to be defended from the evils of society. On the other hand, Victorian seaside haunts allowed working-class women to adopt an appropriate disreputable guise of their own making. The act of sea bathing or paddling provided ample opportunities to reproach any female who indulged in such behaviour. However, by the end of the nineteenth century traditional gender roles were vacillating, the age of the ‘new woman’ was evolving. So, what of the professional natationist?

Female natationists tended to insulate themselves from the worst accusations of impropriety by performing within family groups. They also gave themselves names based upon mythological figures from folklore: mermaid, river sprite, naiad, and nymph were most common. Ignorance and falsehoods on the causes of ill-health and premature death in Victorian England perpetuated the notion that elemental spirits should be respected. Folklore in Britain placed water at the centre of many cultural beliefs, perpetuating a conviction that water-based deities had the ability to cure and prevent ill-health. Hence, the growth of spa towns and seaside resorts where internal and external treatments were promoted and bodies of water were to be treated with reverence. For example, British sailors believed in the existence of mermen and mermaids, sea nymphs, and naiads; inland rivers and lakes were thought to be the home of fresh-water sprites and nymphs.

Agnes Beckwith: ‘Naiad’, 1885.

It was against this background that female natationists adopted a mantle of social respectability for their performances. Elite female aquatic entertainers were often advertised as mythological deities because they represented images of the ‘ideal woman’ in that they were a force for good, mirroring a desire for eternal youth, beauty, joy, and vitality. Second, they were a personification of nature in that they were otherworldly, untouched, healthy, and immortal. Third, they were viewed as being able to demonstrate special abilities; they provided escapism, entertainment, and amusement in an era when the majority of the British population could not swim. It was against a background of social constraints and financial efficacy that female involvement in commercial swimming flourished. Hence, elite female natationists were decidedly influential in the growth and development of commercial swimming in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

[Left] The Billington’s: ‘Water Nymphs’, 1890s
[Right] James & Marie Finney: ‘Merman’ & ‘Mermaid’, 1887.

A demand for female aquatic performers grew in line with the demand for more variety in popular entertainments. Female entertainers were much sought after, plying their skills as natationists often in partnership with a male member of the family. Before the nation-wide provision of municipal public baths from the 1850s onwards, water shows took place at open-water venues. As clean rivers became rare, reservoirs, lakes, and canals were much used. It was not until the 1860s that closed-water venues accommodated female commercial swimmers. Local councils slowly adopted the Baths and Wash-Houses Act of 1846, making public baths provision more affordable and convenient as leisure and recreation facilities. Day and Roberts [Swimming Communities in Victorian England, 2019] are leading researchers in this field; their work has led the way in examining the contribution of female swimmers and baths employees in the nineteenth century.

Flo Tilton: ‘Natationist and Baths Attendant’

A mutually beneficial partnership between municipal authorities and local swimming clubs promoted commercial swimming as an essential adjunct to their swimming galas. Exhibitions of competitive racing and ornamental swimming by the countries elite natationists made galas financially viable concerns. Seaside holiday resorts produced grand water shows, employing elite swimmers throughout the summer season. Variety theatres employed tank performers, displaying their skills in glass-fronted water tanks that could be rolled on and off the stage. From c.1890 to 1914 many of the new theatres built a water tank into the stage. The finest example of incorporating a water tank is at the Blackpool Tower Aquatic and Variety Circus.

Marie Finney: ‘Blackpool Mermaid’, 1895.


[Left] Annette Kellerman: Neptune’s Daughter, 1914
[Right] Esther Williams: ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’, 1952.

Aquatic fantasies based in mythology and folklore enabled working-class females to establish legitimate credentials in swimming. By the late-Victorian era female natationists were an integral part of swimming as a sport, leisure, and recreational activity. As a popular entertainment, aquatic shows provided an opportunity for working-class female participants to earn a living and establish a career. In 1906 Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman, experienced the decline in commercial swimming in England, noting that her career lay in the cinema. Kellerman appeared in numerous silent movies as a mermaid. She was the first female to appear fully nude on screen in a film that cost one million dollars. Esther Williams played Kellerman in the 1952 film, ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’. Alas, the aesthetic qualities of female aquatic performers continued to take precedence over displays of skill.

Article © of Keith Myerscough