Colwyn Bay Watch
When we arrived in Llandudno we initially ignored the thrills of the excellent tramway; we did that in the afternoon. In the morning we went up the Great Orme by car because we were looking for a grave. It is what we do. We went to the graveyard of St Tudno’s Church in its spectacular but rather exposed location, high above the sea, looking out towards the Lancashire coast. It took a while but we found where Walter Beaumont is remembered, up in the top corner next to the boundary wall. It is small and unassuming, a neat panel mounted on a piece of rough stone.
Professor Walter Beaumont. Died August 1924. Aged 69 years. Natus es Natandum Mortem ex undis rapuisti.
It means ‘Born to swim – Death snatched from the waves.’
A fine epitaph for a life-saver.
Walter was born in London in 1855 and showed an early proficiency in swimming. At the age of ten he rescued two brothers who fell into a canal and so found his vocation. He first went to work in the merchant navy as a ship’s engineer but appears to have spent much of his time keeping the unfortunate afloat in the oceans of the world. Not all of us find out what we are good at, but he was lucky. He did.
By 1880 he had become a professional swimmer and in addition to working as a lifeguard in Llandudno, he developed a career as an entertainer touring the world with his own troupe of female swimmers, which included his own daughter Alice. Like manic goldfish, they provided thrills and spills inside a glorified fish tank.
The lucky residents of Rockhampton in Australia were thrilled in October 1892 by the crystal glass tank, ‘heated and illuminated,’ in which Walter – the ‘Man-Fish’ – sat at the bottom and played a game of cards whilst smoking a cigar. ‘The cards over, Lily Vane, ‘The Amphibious Queen,’ did some fancy work, and then Little Alice went through some very clever tumbling feats. Professor Beaumont was immersed for 3 mins. 28 sec.’
His act on other occasions might involve drinking a bottle of milk underwater, or he might escape from a weighed sack in which he had been tied or he might pick up over forty coins from the bottom of the tank, store them in his mouth and then surface to count them out in front of the astonished audience. How you wish you could have been there.
Eventually Walter claimed to hold five world records. He said he held the record for saving lives from drowning, the world record for picking up coins from the bottom of a tank, ‘the best record in the world for scientific and ornamental swimming’ and he said he was the fastest swimmer in the world, holding the I00 yards record. Oh yes, and he also claimed another world record by staying underwater for 4 minutes 35 seconds at the Alhambra Theatre in Melbourne in December 1893. Afterwards he was examined by a doctor who said that the circulation had stopped in his head above the ears, a condition which didn’t seem to trouble him much. Walter said that he felt fine and went straight to his dressing room after lifting his tired daughters out of the tank.
Exciting as this was, life didn’t always go swimmingly. In 1888 he was summoned in a paternity case by one of his swimming troupe, Lily Mason. She was nineteen and was demanding maintenance for a child. He denied it was his, though he had send his brother to try and buy her off. She told the court that his behaviour was a little unsettling. He could sometimes be found hiding under the beds of the girls in the swimming troupe, which generally is not conducive to a restful night’s sleep. He explained his difficulties by telling the court that he was concerned that the diving tank was cracked and he was worried about how it could be replaced. The judge smiled sympathetically and ordered him to pay maintenance of five shillings a week.
Of course as a performer you live and die by your publicity and his schemes sometimes got him into trouble. In 1890 his ten year old daughter Alice was detained on a charge of disorderly conduct when she began to undress prior to jumping into the Thames from London Bridge in a publicity stunt. Her parents were charged with aiding and abetting by Detective Roper who had intervened, announcing rather grandly, ‘I am a police officer and shall stop her going over this bridge.’ A crowd had gathered and the Beaumont’s argued, quite convincingly, that any obstruction had actually been caused by the policeman arresting them. And anyway what was the problem? Alice was a professional swimmer who had been throwing herself off Llandudno Pier for years.
The judge was less charitable. He could not understand how they could endanger Alice’s life ‘simply for the sake of notoriety or pecuniary advantage.’ They were bound over to keep the peace for six months. But launching themselves off bridges was what the family did. Walter himself once dived from a height of 82 feet from the top of Conwy Bridge to raise money for the families of four boatmen who drowned in the estuary.
Walter Beaumont eventually gave up touring and settled in Llandudno in 1895 where, in addition to acting as the ever-alert lifeguard and offering swimming lessons, he and Little Alice gave afternoon exhibitions of ‘ornamental swimming’ in the sea and high diving from the pier. He would treat the crowd to his ‘Handcuff Dive’, when he would dive into the sea secured in police handcuffs like Houdini, and then surface with his hands free. His ‘Fire Dive’ was performed at twilight. He would be wrapped in a sack which was set alight and then thrown into the sea .He would then emerge like Neptune from the depths. He continued to amaze the public with his underwater displays in the glass-sided tank in the Egyptian Hall at the Pier Pavilion where he sometimes challenged young men in the audience to submerge themselves in his tank and then peel an apple underwater in a race against the clock – or presumably drowning.
He was given the rather grand title of ‘Rescuer of the Beach’ by the Town Commissioners of Llandudno in 1903 when he was presented with an illuminated scroll for saving of 113 people from drowning in his lifetime, including, in 1897, a sheep which chose to run into the sea rather than continue its march to the butchers. How grateful the sheep was for the Professor’s intervention isn’t recorded. He was also official keeper of the town dog ‘Jack Brown’ though he was prosecuted for allowing it to wander around Llandudno unattended. He eventually became a member of the Urban District Council but he could do little to improve his finances.
There was little money to be made by holding your breath for long periods and as Walter became older he moved into hotel management. He took over the Kings Head pub in 1898 but he was not a businessman and bankruptcy proceedings for debts amounting to £596 were eventually brought against him in 1910 by the brewers Ind Coope. Bankruptcy cannot have come as a surprise, as it was revealed that ‘he kept no books or accounts and had been aware of his insolvency for six or seven years.’ Walter blamed his problems on ill-health and was bemused by the laughter in court when he told them that he bet large sums on horses but only when the horse told him it was going to win.
When he died in 1924, Walter was living quietly as the licencee of the Ferry Hotel in Tal-Y-Cafn in the Conwy Valley. He also operated a small pleasure craft on the River Conwy and they say that on the day it ran into difficulties, Walter made sure that everyone was returned safely to the river bank. However he was in the cold water for much too long. He caught a chill and died. He was 69.
How can you sum up such an unusual life, the sort of life that it would be so unlikely today?’ He found a vocation which suited him perfectly. Not everyone manages to do that but Walter was never so happy or so comfortable as when he was in the water. Everybody, he said, should learn to swim, for swimming was just as easy as walking. If he had a journey to go he would rather swim it than walk.
Perhaps though I should leave the last word with the people of Llandudno. ‘A more useful life’s work than that of Professor Beaumont it would be hard to find.’
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