Two Firsts For Charles Steedman

He Was Swimming's First Internationalist, & He Wrote The First Technical Book On "Speed Swimming"


Cecil M. Colwin

In 1867, when Charles Steedman's Manual of Swimming was published in Melbourne, it marked the beginning of swimming's modern era.

The 37-year-old Steedman's 270-page seminal work contained the first descriptions of racing strokes and how to train. Unlike earlier works on swimming, this book was written by a champion swimmer, able to speak with the authority of practical experience. It was the first major technical contribution to the new sport of "speed swimming," and a London edition six years later made it internationally popular.

A Professional Swimmer at 15

Because Steedman's book was based on practical experience, details of his swimming career are noteworthy. He was champion of England in the early 1850s when England was the world's leading swimming country.

Charles Steedman only learned to swim at the age of 13, but his talent was such that by 1845, at the age of 15, he was a professional swimmer who already had won the then-princely sum of ten pounds in a race over 400 yards, the longest racing distance in those days.

At 19, he won the Championship of England from G. Pewters, a master of the sidestroke, the new racing style of the day. (Sidestroke had become very popular because its superior streamlining made it faster than the traditional breaststroke.)

Competitions were infrequent in those early days because, similar to the prize-fighting ring, most races were staged encounters between two matched opponents. Travel was not as easy as it is today; if you were a swimmer of note, and fast enough to be invited to swim for a purse against a leading swimmer in another town, the odds are that you would go either by stage coach or on horseback.

Although a professional swimmer, Steedman had a full-time job and could only train after an arduous 10-hour working day. Nevertheless, in 1852 and again in 1853, he beat Frederick Edward Beckwith, nine years his senior, for the Surrey Club Championship, the event commonly regarded as the Championship of England.

Ralph Thomas (1904) said that, after this defeat, Beckwith declined to swim against Steedman again, and that Steedman took the prize belt with him to Australia, where he kept it as a treasured possession until the end of his life. In Australia, Steedman soon proved his swimming prowess to become champion of the young colony of Victoria, a title he was to hold for many years.

About Charles Steedman's Manual of Swimming

Ralph Thomas, author of Swimming (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1904), the sport's most famous bibliography, said that he was initially puzzled as to how a man (Steedman) "known primarily in England as a professional swimmer, became able to write a scientific and mathematical treatise like 'The Manual,' as Steedman's book was popularly known." Thomas said, "The fact is that Steedman was one of those sturdy clever men who get on anywhere. In epitomising his autobiography sent me in 1898, I have been obliged to leave out all that makes it interesting. He [Steedman] wrote me that he still had the English Championship Belt which he kept inside the huge 'Thirty-five Guinea Champion Cup of Victoria,' which he won in 1859."


In the introduction to his book, Steedman said that there was "no comprehensive book in English" on the subject of swimming. He mentioned that the fact he had "attained the honourable position of Champion Swimmer both in England and Australia, and had maintained that position for several years" was "sufficient guarantee" of his "knowledge and mastery of the subject" that he undertook to teach.

Steedman wrote, "The ability to write well and to swim well are two distinct qualifications, which appear never to have been combined in one individual in an eminent degree. There has been no lack of essays on Swimming by excellent writers, but who were not swimmers. The present treatise by a practical swimmer, who makes no pretensions to literary and scientific merit, it is trusted will be found more useful, if less ornamental, than the essays of superior writers on the same subject."

Steedman on the Need to Bathe Regularly

Large sections of "The Manual" are devoted to the need to bathe regularly, and how to rescue drowning people. This was because few people at that time washed, and few people could swim. It was obvious to Steedman that, before people could be encouraged to learn to swim and become safe in water, they had to be encouraged to like water.

Steedman mentions the high rate of drowning, and how the skilled swimmers of the day each saved a large number people from drowning, more often than not without sign of gratitude or offer of reward, let alone restitution for damage caused to one's clothing or time piece.

Steedman, who had 66 saved lives to his credit, described an incident that occurred while he was training in the sea at Hobson's Bay, near Melbourne, where he "once picked up a man who was rolling about at the surface like a cask. He was intoxicated, and was being brought from Williamstown to Sandrich in a dingy. When the writer first saw him in the water, his mate was deliberately rowing the boat away, intending to leave him to his fate. On being pressed to account satisfactorily or otherwise for his very strange conduct, the man coolly replied that he #39;couldn't stop there all day long a gettin' on #39;im out o' the water.' He went on to say that his mate had fallen in before, and on his helping him into the boat, it had been nearly capsized, and that, as neither of them could swim, he did not wish to be drowned as well as his companion."

Steedman on Streamlining

"The scientific swimmer when at the height of his speed, also presents the least surface practicable of his body to the opposition of the medium through which he is cleaving his way. The figure of the shark, cod, salmon, etc., is said to closely approximate to that which is considered by mathematicians to offer-and, consequently, to receive-the least resistance in its progress through the water. The attitude which the human body assumes in the sidestroke, also more closely approximates to that form than it does in any other style of swimming."

Steedman the Scientist

"The fleet swimmer has to overcome two difficulties which do not obstruct in the same degree the progress of the slow swimmer: 1st. The actual resistance of the medium in which he is moving, which is augmented in the ratio of the square of the speed. 2nd. The increased space which he has to cover in each unit of time, which is increased in the ratio of the speed.

"Now, it has been proved by experiment, that to overcome these difficulties, and to be able to move through the water at twice the speed of a slow swimmer, a rapid swimmer will have to exert an effective power equal to the cube of the power exerted by the other; hence the fleet swimmer, because of his greater expenditure of power, and because of the greater resistance he meets with as a consequence of that expenditure, cannot proceed in the water at a speed more than about double of that of the slow swimmer.

"The resistance which the water offers depends upon the velocity of the stroke, and the impetus which the body receives is regulated by the combined influence of the velocity and direction of the stroke."

Steedman on Fish Propulsion

"The reason why man cannot swim as rapidly as fishes is not because his hands and feet present so small a surface for propulsion as is commonly supposed but because his muscular development is inferior. Land animals require a much greater proportion of bone than the inhabitants of the water. In the former, as the entire support from the ground when standing is received through the feet, a framework of considerable strength and rigidity is required to maintain the body erect. Fishes have their support distributed over so great a portion of the body, that they can dispense with the strong framework requisite for the support of most land animals. Since they can dispense with these passive organs of locomotion, the bones, they have more room for the active ones, the muscles. Therefore, to their superior muscular development, as well as to their shape and great flexibility, is to be attributed their superior speed in the water."

Steedman on the North American Indians

Steedman describes the alternate continuous arm action used by the Mandan Indians, which indicates that these natives of North America were using what was in effect a type of crawl stroke long before it was developed in Western culture. He describes how the Indian swimmer "throws his body alternately upon the left and the right side, raising one arm entirely above the water, and reaching as far forward as he can to dip it, whilst his whole weight and force are spent upon the one that is passing under him; which like a paddle is propelling him along; whilst this arm is making a half-circle, and is being raised out of the water behind him the opposite arm is describing a similar arc in the air over his head, to be dipped in the water as far as he can reach before him, the hand bent inward so as to form a sort of cup and thus act most effectively as it passes in its turn underneath him."

Steedman's Reference to "Crawl" Swimming

The term "crawl stroke" appears on page 194 of Steedman's book, and is the first reference to crawl swimming in the literature, predating any subsequent reference by at least thirty years. However, Steedman's use of the word "crawl" was another way to describe dog paddle, or "dog stroke" (as dog paddle was known then), whereas at the turn of the century, "crawl" was later used to describe the alternate overarm action used by Alick Wickham when he first arrived in Australia from the Solomon Islands.