Charles Whyte: Champion swimmer and ‘professor’ of swimming
by Bob Davenport
On 16 September 1865 an unusual contest took place in the river Thames when the London Swimming Club offered a gold medal valued at £50 (equivalent to about £5,600 today) to whoever could swim the furthest ‘without touching anything, and without taking any stimulant or refreshment’. Fifteen swimmers took part, with ages ranging from 15 or 16 to 40 or more. ‘Stripped to their slight bathing drawers, which [were] retained for the sake of decency’, they started from Teddington Lock and dropped out one by one until at Mortlake only three were left in contention: E. Rowley, C. Whyte and W. Wood.
Whyte had a fine lead, and from his being in the habit of bathing all the year round in the Serpentine, and being considered capable of bearing cold, his chance was thought to be exceedingly good. Wood of Huddersfield, though far in the rear, was swimming strongly, and being by far the fattest of the competitors [he weighed 18 stone], had a great deal in his favour. Whyte, on the contrary, was exceedingly spare [about 9 stone], and therefore likely to suffer soonest from the long immersion. About half a mile on the Middlesex side of Strand-on-the-Green, Wood was seized with cramp and had to call for assistance, but before it could be rendered he went on again as gamely as ever. Before reaching the Railway Bridge at Barnes Whyte and Wood had the race to themselves; the former was far ahead, but when about half a mile on the Hammersmith side of the bridge his powers gave out and he was got ashore in a fainting condition after swimming between 7 and 8 miles, and being in the water 3 hours 20 minutes. Wood, who was still strong, came gallantly up, and after passing about 20 yards beyond where poor Whyte was being rubbed on the bank, was hailed by the referee as the winner.
Charles Whyte, who is buried in Islington Cemetery, was born in Marylebone on 31 July 1835, the son of William and Maria Whyte. William was a carpenter, and in the 1861–1901 censuses Charles gives his own profession as ‘Fret Cutter’ – i.e. he cut wood into ornamental designs with a fret saw. But he was also a professional in the relatively new field of recreational swimming.
From the 1830s, swimming in England developed from an activity practised by only a few individuals (mainly men) into a pastime in which millions of people took part. In 1828 St George’s Baths in Liverpool became the first indoor municipal swimming pool in England. In the late 1830s and early 1840s various London-based societies were formed to encourage swimming – notably, from 1836/7, the National Swimming Society, which organised races and offered some tuition and apparently in 1841 became the British Swimming Society, which aimed ‘to promote health, cleanliness, and the preservation of life by the practice of bathing and by teaching and encouraging the art of swimming’.
Swimming in the Serpentine was so common in the 1840s that the Royal Humane Society had boatmen stationed there to help those in difficulty in the water. The RHS estimated that over 8,000 people used the lake on very warm days in 1842 and 1843.
From 1846 the Baths and Washhouses Act allowed local authorities in England to establish indoor baths and washhouses, laundries and open bathing places, and often led to the building of ‘plunge baths’ which were used for swimming. An amendment to the act in 1878 permitted the construction of indoor swimming pools, and access to these at affordable prices enabled swimming to become much more widespread.
In the 1850s and ’60s many swimming clubs sprang up, at first in London and seaside towns, but later in almost every town of any size. Among those in London, the Elephant Club was based at the St Pancras Baths in King Street in Camden Town, where in the 1860s Whyte was the resident ‘professor’, or coach, advertising himself as ‘prepared at any hour of the day to teach pupils’. He also taught swimming at Harrow School, where the 500-yard-long ‘Duck Puddle’ had been excavated in 1810/11, though it was not until 1857 that swimming competitions were held in it, and until 1876 that a swimming test was introduced.
Whyte continued to swim competitively, and, two years after losing to Wood in the contest to swim the furthest, in September 1867 he was similarly unsuccessful in a 5-mile race from Battersea Bridge to London Bridge against Ephraim Goodwin for a prize of £20: he had to be helped from the water near Hungerford Bridge. ‘Some slight solations’ for his defeat were offered by a benefit held for him at the North London Baths a couple of weeks later. But he no doubt derived more satisfaction from a return match in the following year.
Goodwin, a sawyer, was then 38 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, and nearly 12 stone in weight. Whyte, 5 years younger, was about the same height but some 2 stone lighter. Rain was ‘descending in torrents’ when the race began at 6.47 a.m. on 22 August. The two men struck the water together, but Whyte rose first and was soon leading by 10 yards, which he had increased to 20 yards by the time he reached Cadogan Pier. ‘Gaining at almost every stroke’, he passed under Chelsea Suspension Bridge in exactly 13 minutes, Goodwin taking 24 seconds longer. Goodwin then ‘put on a tremendous spurt and decreased the gap wonderfully, but just past Pimlico Pier he was taken into the slack, while his opponent, who went outside of a sailing barge which lay moored off the Stone Wharf, went rapidly away’ and Whyte was 40 seconds ahead at Vauxhall Bridge and 68 seconds ahead at Lambeth Bridge. Goodwin now made another desperate effort to catch up, but as an ‘immense crowd’ cheered them at Westminster Bridge – the 3-mile mark – Whyte’s time was 38 minutes 40 seconds to Goodwin’s 39 minutes 35 seconds At Waterloo Bridge Whyte’s lead was the greatest so far, but as he approached Blackfriars Bridge he made for the same arch as two barges, whose eddy ‘held [him] as in a vice’ and Goodwin pulled up to within 30 yards. But Whyte’s pilots directed him back on course, and at Southwark Bridge he was 30 seconds in front. Although Goodwin made several more valiant efforts to overtake, Whyte eventually won by 32 seconds, with a time of 1 hour 3 minutes and 38 seconds. Goodwin attributed his defeat to a severe cold from which he was suffering.
On 18 July 1870 Whyte took on Henry Coulter, a fellow member of the Serpentine Club, over the 5 miles from London Bridge to Greenwich Hospital for a prize of £50. Four years earlier Coulter had won £100 in a race with publican Ikey Coody from Sheerness Garrison Point to the Nore lightship, covering the 3¾ miles in an hour and three-quarters. He was 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighed 9 stone 10 pounds, and was 28 years old, whereas Bell’s Life in London regarded Whyte – 5 pounds heavier, slightly shorter, and almost 35 years old – as ‘now approaching the sere and yellow leaf as an athlete’, albeit ‘in excellent trim, considering’.
When, at 7.24 a.m., the two men stepped on a plank stretched across the bows of the steamer Falcon, ‘they were loudly cheered by the multitudes who covered the bridges, the shipping, and in fact every spot that commanded a view of the start, whilst the river was thickly studded with small craft, most of which were as full as they could be consistently with the safety of their occupants’. Before the race Sporting Life had announced the handkerchief colours for supporters: a white ground with blue spots and a blue border for Coulter, and a white ground with a ‘delicate scarlet border’ for Whyte. The referee gave the signal to start, and the men dived simultaneously.
Coulter first rose to the surface, and held the lead for about 20 yards, when Whyte shot past him and led at a tremendous pace for the first quarter of a mile. Coulter then by a well-timed spurt drew in front amidst the most tumultuous cheering, and thus early gave indication of the brilliant struggle that was to ensue. Whyte, however, would not let him have any rest, and at half a mile again resumed the lead, each evidently trying to race the other down, Whyte, to the surprise of even his warmest admirers, seeming to show fully as much speed as his opponent. A hundred yards farther on Coulter again dashed to the fore and showed the way by a yard until the first mile had been completed, this portion of the distance having been swum in the unprecedented time of 11 minutes 43 seconds!
Nearing Cherry Garden Pier [Whyte], urged on by his partisans’ cheering, showed slightly in front, but was soon forced to give way to Coulter, who coming with a long swinging side stroke led at a mile and a half by 3 yards. Time, 17 minutes 13 seconds.
Continuing to swim on his left side Coulter had increased his lead at the entrance to the Surrey Canal Docks to 5 yards. The Champion now began to decrease the gap, and at 2 miles Coulter was only a couple of yards in advance. Time, 23 minutes 26 seconds, an unparalleled performance.
Off the King and Queen Dockyard, about 100 yards farther on, Whyte gave his opponent the slip, but was almost immediately repassed by the Paddingtonian. Rounding the point by Canary Wharf … [Whyte] soon got into the full strength of the tide, and showed with a clear lead. By a desperate effort Coulter drew level with his antagonist at 3 miles, in the marvellous time of 35 minutes 28 seconds.
In a few more strokes the Paddington man again took the premier position, and passing the East India Railway Depot led by 10 yards, this being the greatest advantage Coulter ever gained. Coulter’s friends were now in ecstasies, but their hopes were soon blighted, for Whyte, through admirable steering, reached the Commercial Dock Pier a yard in advance. Time, 40 minutes 39 seconds.
Gradually increasing his advantage, despite the game efforts of his opponent, the Champion completed the fourth mile in 48 minutes 19 seconds, leading by 3 yards … A brilliant struggle now ensued and they passed Millwall Pier nearly abreast. Time, 49 minutes 50 seconds.
The fine staying powers of Whyte now proved of service to him, as passing Messrs Penn’s works he drew rapidly away from his game antagonist and for the first time in this magnificent contest held a decided lead of 10 yards, while at Pontifex’s he had increased it to a dozen. Just before reaching the Dreadnought Hospital ship Whyte turned to look at his opponent, who thereupon made a desperate effort and reduced the gap several yards.
Charley now swimming as strongly as ever, made his final burst, and went past the goal Champion of the Thames nearly 20 yards ahead of Coulter, who was dreadfully exhausted, and would have fainted had it not been for opportune assistance. Time, 1 hour 4 minutes and 23 seconds!
In 1874 Whyte became the swimming master at the new Paddington Public Baths in Queen’s Road, Bayswater, and on 5 June, at a ‘monster fête’ to celebrate the opening, he ‘went through a number of feats, as undressing on the surface of the water, swimming with the hands and feet tied, and performing what was termed the Monte Christo [sic] sack feat, besides showing the best methods of rescuing persons from drowning’. Rescuing persons from drowning was something of which he had practical experience: in 1865 and 1867 he had received testimonials from the Royal Humane Society for saving a woman from the Serpentine and a boy from the Regent’s Park lake, and in 1869 he was awarded the society’s bronze medal for rescuing someone in difficulty in Hampstead Ponds; he went on to win another bronze medal and another RHS testimonial for his life-saving activities.
In 1867 he had been a member of a deputation headed by George Cruikshank which met Sir Francis Goldsmid to discuss proposals to allow public bathing in the portion of the ornamental lake next to the grounds of Goldsmid’s residence, St John’s Lodge, in Regent’s Park, and in 1881 he sat on the first committee of the Professional Swimming Association.
For many years he organised annual swimming entertainments at the Paddington baths, sometimes involving members of his family. In 1853 he had married Emma Stone, a gardener’s daughter from Rickmansworth, and they went on to have 12 children, of whom Emma Jr and Charles Jr both taught swimming.
When his wife died, in 1906, she was buried in St Pancras Cemetery with six of the children who had predeceased her. The 1911 census shows Charles living with his daughter Emma and her solicitor husband, Thomas Crocker, in North Kensington, and Charles now finally gave his occupation as ‘swimming instructor’. When he himself died, on 31 May 1917, aged 81, there was presumably no space for him in the same grave as his wife, for he is buried in Islington Cemetery in a grave next to his wife’s and children’s just across the invisible boundary between the two cemeteries, and it is on the headstone on the St Pancras grave that his death is recorded – his own grave has no headstone, only plain edging stones, as far as can be judged from what is visible beneath the ivy.
• Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 28 September 1867 (‘Swimming: Whyte’s Benefit’), 29 August 1868 (‘Goodwin and White [sic], for £20’), 20 July 1870 (‘Coulter and Whyte’s Gallant Race for £50 and the Championship of the Thames’), 30 July 1870 (‘Elephant Club’)
• F. E. Dalton, Swimming Scientifically Taught: A Practical Manual for Young and Old (New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1918)
• Dave Day, ‘London Swimming Professors: Victorian Craftsmen and Aquatic Entrepreneurs’, Sport in History, 30:1 (2010), 32–54
• John Latey, Jun., ‘About Swimming: No. 1 – Great Swims’, in The Round Robin: A Gathering of Fact, Fiction, Incident and Adventure, edited by Old Merry (London: Frederick Warne, 1872)
• ‘Life Saving Medal Rolls and Citations’, Life Saving Awards Research Society website
• Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 19 May 1867 (‘Bathing in Regent’s-Park’)
• London Daily News, 28 July 1869 (‘Rewards for Saving Life’), 6 June 1874 (‘London Swimming Club’)
• London Evening Standard, 29 September 1887 (‘Rewards for Bravery’)
• Christopher Love, A Social History of Swimming in England, 1800–1918: Splashing in the Serpentine (London: Routledge, 2008)
• Morning Advertiser, 1 September 1841 (‘Prize Essays of the National, Now the British Swimming Society, on the Art of Swimming’)
• The Observer, 17 September 1865 (‘Novel Swimming Match’)
• Penny Illustrated Paper, 10 July 1869 (’Swimming and Drowning’), 24 December 1870 (‘A Christmas Morning Swim’)
• Sporting Life, 21 September 1867 (’Five Miles Swimming Race in the Thames’), 16 July 1870
• The Times, 6 June 1874 (‘London Swimmers’)
• Yorkshire Gazette, 24 March 1885 (‘Bravery Rewarded’)