Published on June 11th, 2015 | by The Town Crier0
By Carolyn Grey
When Grosvenor Open Air Swimming Baths were open, there was a resident swimming instructor, Mr Luker. The title ‘professor of swimming’ was one used in the early days of swimming instruction, before any rules and regulations were laid down.
John Pearson Luker was born in 1838 in Abingdon, Berkshire. By the 1870s John was a professor of swimming, but Abingdon had no swimming baths – he taught in the open rivers, The Thames and The Ock. He trained Captain Matthew Webb in preparation for his swim of the English Channel in 1875. John Luker moved to Tunbridge Wells at about this time, following the death of his first wife, and there are records of his children being born in the town from 1874 onwards. John was married three times, and had a total of nine children.
In the 1881 census John and his family were living at 42 Quarry Road, and he was giving lessons in the open air Grosvenor baths (this is before the park was open). He died in 1915, and is buried in the local Borough Cemetery.Tunbridge Wells, in grave C13.
The obituary for John Pearson Luker was published in the Courier and gave the following. “He was a highly experienced swimmer and instructed thousands in the art of swimming. Latley he had given lessons at the Tunbridge Wells open bath. His illness hastened only a fortnight ago and his death was due to influenza and pneumonia. Professor Luker’s daughter Miss Annie Luker has followed in her father’s footsteps and has become quite as famous as he was. He was a professor of swimming”.
This daughter was Hagar Ann Luker, better known as Annie, who was born in 1870 in Abingdon, and who moved with her father to Quarry Road, and regularly swam in Grosvenor baths. Annie must have been about 16 when she entered into a professional swimming career. Annie was said to have been a regular long-distance swimmer in the River Thames which had eventually led to her appointment as ‘one of the graceful swimmers’ at Captain Boyton’s Water Show, where she earned £1 a week.
The next stage of Annies career involved her acts at the Royal London Aquarium, also known as the Royal Aquarium Westminster. These were floating baths situated on the River Thames by Charing Cross and Cleopatras Needle. On Saturday 20th January 1894, Annie performed a high dive into the whale tank, a feat considered a great novelty for a female, and earned her a pay rise to £20 a week, in comparative spending power that is now £1,987.00 a week!
By June, 1894 Annie Luker was declared to be a ‘Lady Diver, Champion of the World’. She had quickly become part of a twelve hour continuous show at the Royal Aquarium which was declared to have ‘The Greatest Shows and the Biggest Shillings Worth’ – she shared the June 1894 billing with: a boxing kangaroo, a talking horse, performing dogs, as well as comedians, singers, acrobats, ventriloquists, conjurers and dancers. The entertainments were declared to be ‘Unprecedented for Magnitude, Variety and Magnificence’.
The Aquarium closed in 1903, and Annie continued to perform until it’s closure, although there are records of her also touring with “James Pain’s Touring Fetes and Entertainments” during the 1880s and 1890s. Pain was a pyrotechnist who put on shows and displays, mainly featuring fireworks, they would also include swimming displays. In the 1901 census Annie owned a boarding House in Islington and gave swimming lessons in Islington, but her date of death is unknown.
Credits: Penny Luker. Edward James Gilbert. allabouttunbridgewells.com and further photos can be seen online fogh.org.uk