Harriet Elphinstone-Dick

On the 9 September 1875, in rough open water Harriet Elphinstone-Dick swam seven miles from Shoreham Harbour to Brighton’s West Pier.

She completed the distance in a record making 2 hours and 45 minutes. It was regarded as one of the greatest swimming feats of the time.

carte-de-visite image of Harriet Elphinstone-Dick from Australian archives. Credit: Charlemont & Co, c.1889-c.1898.
carte-de-visite image of Harriet Elphinstone-Dick from Australian archives. Credit: Charlemont & Co, c.1889-c.1898.

Born in Brighton in 1852 as Harriet Elizabeth Rowell, she rejected Victorian societal norms by remaining unmarried and teaching swimming. She used the name ‘Elphinstone-Dick’ in order to compete on equal terms in swimming competitions. 

West Pier, Brighton, 1880s
West Pier, Brighton, 1880s

Sea bathing grew popular during the 18th century. Lewes born physician Dr Richard Russell in 1750 published a paper advocating both the consumption and bathing in sea water for numerous complaints. Brighton being the nearest coastal town to Lewes drew visitors to ‘take the waters,’ contributing to the growth and popularity of the place. 

Charles Brill inherited what was to be established as Brill’s Baths in 1840 from his uncle Mr Lamprell. The original amenities built in 1823 on the south-east corner of East Street, brought in fresh sea water from Hove (actually) where it was warmed. It was expanded in 1861 with a Ladies only baths built on the west-side of Pool Valley, followed by a grand scale centrepiece circular domed Gentlemen’s baths that was 20 metres in diameter built between 1865-1869. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott known for grand scale architecture such as the Albert Memorial. 

It was at Brill’s Baths Ladies swimming facilities that Harriet established herself as a swimming instructor. With swimming friend Helen Saigman, they set out to prove their ability and reputations as accredited teachers by attempting a long-distance swim. Due to changing wind and weather, the original Rottingdean to Brighton course was changed, starting west from Shoreham Harbour traveling east to the West Pier. 

The Brighton Gazette reported on 9 September 1875, that the first mile was completed in about 13 minutes. Within another half an hour more than half the distance had been undertaken. Unfortunately, Helen was to suffer severe cramp during the feat, forcing her to leave the water. The newspaper observed that, ‘Miss Dick, still being fresh and undaunted continued on her journey. These young ladies have accomplished the greatest swimming feat of the present day with the exception of Captain Webb’s Channel trip.’ 

With her lover Alice Moon (1855-1894), Harriet sailed to Melbourne, Australia in December 1875. There she taught three hundred women and girls to swim at St. Kilda Baths. She returned to England in 1878 to study physiology, anatomy, and medical gymnastics at the London Institute for the treatment of Deformities. On returning back to Melbourne in 1879, Harriet and Alice opened the first gym for women.

Demolition of Brill's Baths, Brighton. 1929.
Demolition of Brill’s Baths, Brighton. 1929.

Harriet died suddenly at home in South Brighton, Australia from heart failure in 1902. Her 1875 swimming feat is remembered in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery exhibition, Queer the Pier, with an interactive automation machine. In 1929 Brill’s Baths made way for the art deco Savoy cinema, which evolved into what many local people may remember as the ABC cinema. 

Lisa Hinkins

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