Posted by: wildswimmers | July 7, 2014

Book review: “Swimming” by Montague A Holbein 1914 Bloomsbury Press

This lovely book, a gift from fellow swimmer Lottie, is reviewed by enthusiastic swimmer Fraser MacIver AKA The Polar Bear:


‘Everyone ought to know how to swim.  We are a nation of sailors, are proud of everything that appertains to the seas that wash our shores, and yet swimming is an art, even today, which is strangely neglected.’

Readers may be astounded to learn that Montague A Holbein wrote these words one hundred years ago in his practical ‘How To’ guidebook: ‘SWIMMING’, from Bloomsbury Press.

The short book is a delightful window onto the vanished ‘can do’ world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with its growing passion for outdoor ‘physical culture’.

One hundred years later it’s a gem-like addition to the libraries of anyone interested in the current resurgence of ‘wild swimming’ … (a somewhat ‘louche’ term now used to describe any form of swimming not done in a chlorinated heated pool as opposed to ‘open water’, lakes, rivers, canals, reservoirs and the sea.  Holbein makes no great distinction, probably because, from time immemorial, most ‘swimming’ was done in the outdoors, and only latterly in public indoor swimming facilities (excluding of course the famous indoor baths of the ancient Roman Empire).

Holbein takes the novice swimmer through concise step by step guidance on: ‘making a start’, ‘floating’, ‘treading water’, ‘swimming like a dog’, among many other (twenty-one) chapters in total.  Informative, and sometimes inadvertently humorous; his chapter on ‘Long distance swimmers and their feats’ attests to Holbein’s public renown at the time as a long distance Channel swimmer in his own right and in training for it himself.

His frank inclusion of two failed attempts in August 1902 to break the 1875 record (then held by Captain Webb) are published here in the form of two separate eye-witness accounts from the Daily Express and The Sportsman respectively from August 1902.

On both of these occasions the tides defeated him and on his second attempt he remained in the water for nearly 22 and a half hours, but had to be pulled from the sea within 2 miles of the Dover shore, ‘suffering intense agony’ with the huge effort required in adverse tidal conditions, despite not achieving his goal (no small feat in an age of no wetsuits, against cold, and wearing primitive goggles made of mica ‘affixed with collodion to his face’).

The book is illustrated with charming drawings of the time, showing basic swimming postures and movements; these are accompanied by Holbein’s idiosyncratic prose style, which often gives pause for a chuckle… – as in ‘even when one has become a good swimmer, floating is always a useful, enjoyable and graceful pastime’.  Or upon… ‘entering the water, turn your face to the shore, grip your rope tightly, and suddenly bob down, immersing yourself completely.  Don’t shirk it – go right under.’

In Chapter Six we learn that what we might today refer to as a variation on ‘front crawl’ is quaintly referred to as the ‘over hand stroke’.  Holbein warns that, ‘on no account seek to acquire it before you have a thorough knowledge of the side stroke’ and that … novices ‘if they do attempt it, suffer the penalty of loss of speed and a slovenly style.’

In Chapter Nine: ‘Underwater swimming’, we are informed that ‘in underwater swimming, in whatever direction the head is pointing the body will follow.’  …. ‘and, do not forget, too, before starting, to empty and thoroughly refill the lungs.’

In his Chapter on ‘Training’ Holbein tells us that he trains three times a week, swimming for a total of 13 hours altogether.  He informs us that, ‘Constitution is Everything’, and warns us to… ‘smoke very little, if at all’, and to ‘give up the use of alcohol gradually’…. !   ‘Be out of bed at 6am – a cold tub with a big sponge and lots of water, followed by a severe rubbing with a rough Turkish towel ought to be the first item of every swimmer’s daily programme.’  Along with numerous other tips of sound avuncular advice, he says ‘keep your hair cut short, or colds may be caught’, and, ‘if your practice is being taken in a bath, swim!  Do not play about.’

As the book progresses, the more entertaining it becomes.

In “Water Tricks’, Chapter Fourteen, the reader is instructed on how to successfully perform certain feats of skill in and under water:

The Spinning Top‘, ‘The Fugitive‘ and ‘The Pendulum‘ among other tricks, are all described in graphic detail.  Likewise, ‘Smoking Underwater‘, wherein we are instructed to ‘smoke a cigar until it is well alight, then take up your stand on the diving board.  Inflate the lungs, and just on the instant of diving, rapidly thrust the light end into the mouth’!!  Though surely he knows we may by this time be gasping for air, he says to ‘use the breast stroke beneath the water, and whilst doing so blow gently at the cigar, care being taken on no account to draw inwards.  This action causes the smoke to issue from the other end of the cigar and to ascend to the surface of the water in curls.  The smoke can be distinctly seen by the spectators, and “how it is done” excites much speculation.’

In the Chapter on ‘Sea Swimming’ Holbein confidently asserts that, … ‘even in fairly calm weather, the force of the breeze at the seaside is often sufficient to lift a man off his feet and throw him down at full length into the water.’  But, that … ‘to those who are conversant with entering the water properly, there is no danger in swimming even in very rough weather.’

‘The best time for sea swimming is undoubtedly in August’, he says … ‘Nobody should swim in the sea before June or after October, for the night frosts are about and are dangerous to the health of a naked person’ though, ‘there are many men, of course, in residence around our coasts who indulge in a daily swim all the year round.’

The book nears its close with a listing of ‘Long Distance Swimmers and their Feats’.  Byron, Captain Webb, J B Johnson, Agnes Beckwith and Emily Parker are all noted, among others.  One, Dr Bedale of Manchester,  in ‘Doctor Bedale’s Enjoyment’ is recorded as having ‘once swum from Liverpool to Runcorn in 1837… and on another occasion from Bangor to Beaumaris, and up the Menai Straits.  The doctor was frequently seen floating in the River Mersey, having attached to his body a light mast and sail secured in a belt, by means of which he enjoyed himself for hours’. (!)

This early intrepid willingness to brave adverse conditions is everywhere evident in Holbein’s book.  One hundred years on, in an age of stringent ‘health and safety’ regulations and mass desensitization from much of the natural world on numerous levels, this modest offering from a little remembered risk-taker and open water athlete is an inspirational and entertaining read for anyone who knows or feels the magical primal allure of swimming; for freedom, health, physical recreation and the exhilaration of the soul.



  1. Great review Fraser! Holbein would have loved your canal swimming.


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