The following is an extract from a book by Thomas William Sheffield* titled Swimming and published in 1909 when the author was considered a leading authority on his subject. It’s a wonderful story about his joint attempt with Tommy Burns to set a long-distance swimming record in the Mersey.

A Long Swim

By T. W. Sheffield

T. W. Sheffield
T. W. Sheffield

THIS was in the summer of 1895, when Tommy Burns, the crack all-round swimmer of England, was at the height of his fame. He had previously dived from Runcorn bridge, some 100 feet high, and swam to the Liverpool landing stage, a distance of over 20 miles.

I became acquainted with him, and after having several long swims with him in the Mersey, he proposed making a long-distance record, a feat not quite as common in those days as at the present.

Several gentlemen wanted to make a wager, but, owing to the strict laws governing the qualifications of amateurs, I was debarred from joining in such a scheme, as Tommy Burns was a professional, so we decided to swim for the record, of course, Burns having all his expenses paid.

We dived off the steam tug Swallow, which had a good crowd of spectators on board at 11 a.m., on leaving the Liverpool landing stage. We swam steadily with the tide towards New Brighton. We went out on a full tide, which would be running about 5 knots an hour.

First difficult point

The first difficult point was when reaching the lighthouse, where there seemed to be a strong back current running to the entrance of the Queen’s channel, for try as we could we seemed to just keep abreast of the lighthouse. After being in this position for about 20 minute, we headed towards Seaforth, and evidently had struck the channel, having been in the water one hour and twenty minutes.

There is no doubt had we had a pilot on board we should not have been so exhausted at this point. We could feel the tide, which seemed to encourage us, and as the log was thrown overboard we realized our task had begun. We both swam the breast stroke until facing the mouth of the Dee, after which Burns used his favorite side stroke and I changed to the over-arm stroke.

We passed the bar lighthouse at 12.30, having then been in the water one and a half hours. At this point a rope was thrown to us and we partook of refreshments, Burns having two bottles of Bass’s beer (which to my mind was a doubtful stimulant), whilst I had chicken sandwiches and hot milk. We then swam with a steady breast stroke until 3 p.m.; the tide was setting in, making it hard going, and the paddle-wheels seemed hardly to be going round.

Still going strong

There is no doubt Burns was still fairly strong; personally, I was feeling very hungry, but thought it best to keep on. The calls of the captain, after reading the log, seemed to be less frequent, and when he called 25 miles I was quite ready to signal for a rope.

Allowing for the 23 miles by the log and the 4 miles from Liverpool landing stage, we had covered 28 miles in the six hours, being just after 5 o’clock when I got on board. The only part of my body that gave me any pain were the knees; however, after a good rub down and an acceptable stmulant, I felt all 0.K.

Burns, by the way, continued his swim, and came on board after swimming 30 minutes longer. He was game to the last, and tried to hoist himself up the rope, but his strength failed him half way, and he was hauled on board apparently very fresh, as he soon got over the exertion of his climb, which is the hardest thing to do after being in the water for any length of time, as all long-distance swimmers well know.

*Sheffield listed the following qualifications in the preface of his book:

  • Holder of King Edward’s Trophy, World’s Competition, 1905
  • Champion, Bedford County College, 1889.
  • Honorary member, Royal Life Saving Society.
  • Vice-president, Toronto Swimming Club.
  • Honorary member, Hamilton YMCA Swimming Club.
  • A late member, London Amateur Swimming Club.
  • A late member, Manchester Swimming Club.
  • Captain, Birkenhead Swimming Club.
  • A late member, Durban Swimming Club, Durban, South Africa.
  • Founder, Hamilton Swimming Club, Hamilton, Canada.
  • Founder, Hamilton Centre Royal Life Saving Society.
  • Founder, Lindsay Centre Royal Life Saving Society.
  • Holder, One Mile Certificate of the Southern Counties’ Swimming Association.
  • Award of Merit, Royal Life Saving Society.
  • Holder of Proficiency Certificate and Medallion, Royal Life Saving Society.
  • Member executive committee, Canadian Amateur Swimming Association.
  • Organising Secretary and Hon. Instructor, Hamilton Swimming Club.