Celebrating Kathleen Thomas – first woman to swim the Bristol Channel

NINETY YEARS AGO TODAY, a scrappy lady named Kathleen Thomas became the first person to swim the Bristol Channel between Wales and England. She set off from Penarth at 4.15am, and the crossing took her 7 hours and 20 minutes. Although the distance is 11 miles, it’s actually calculated to be 22.5 once you factor in the brutal currents.

Kathleen Thomas Penarth swimmer climbing into a boat

(Photo from History of Wales)

Plenty of men had tried and failed before her, but Kathleen wasn’t bothered by that, saying: ‘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.’

It wasn’t a thing anyone thought a woman could do – or should do. The South Wales Echo had to print a clarification because no one believed the original article: ‘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.’

The story reads:

‘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. After the swim 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.

‘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.’

(Portrait of Kathleen Thomas)

You can see a plaque commemorating her achievement on Penarth Pier.

The second person to swim across the channel was another woman – named Edith Parnell, aged 16. She completed the swim across two years later.

So today, we celebrate our women swimmers!

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