It was a seismic moment, for the 1930s, when Kathleen Murphy smashed chokingly social barriers and became the first woman to be legally allowed swim in the Serpentine in June 1930. Perhaps Murphy’s inspiration for this feat could have been thanks to a swimming wager made by an English opera soprano that caught the world’s attention?
Diva Miss Desirée Ellinger
A Noteworthy Swimming Challenge
Prior to Murphy’s achievement, the society talk across London was all about which woman would be the first female Serpentine swimmer. Just a few weeks before Murphy swam through the crusty old barrier, a diva by the name of Miss Desirée Ellinger and her Olympic athlete dinner date got tantalisingly close to making the biggest splash of all.
Ellinger, an entertaining and popular performer on the London boards, had taken up a weekend dinner party wager by an international Olympic water polo player, to a swimming race across the Serpentine.
Imagine the froth of excitement when Covent Garden soprano Ellinger’s swimming challenge was splashed across the pages of the London and national papers in 1930, as she helped bring the eyes of the world to London’s Serpentine Lake where women were prohibited from swimming.
Ellinger’s two main hurdles to overcome were that women were barred from swimming at the Serpentine, and the elite international swimmer who issued the challenge; the charming Ted Temme, a GB Olympic water polo player (1928 & later in 1936). To add to the scale of her challenge, Temme had also swam the English Channel solo in 1927.
Sir Thomas Beecham
The performing artist was the daughter of a Manchester shipping merchant, who was a "discovery" of Sir Thomas Beecham, and had sung unrehearsed in Covent Garden when only 15. And by 18 years old, she was earning £80 a week from singing. She also played the role of Musetta in La Boheme.
The Dinner Party
But back to April 1930, when Ellinger met Temme at the private dinner party, she laid a bet that she could win a swimming race between the two of them.
Temme, an impressively elegant giant of a man swallowed Desirée’s baited swimming hook. “Speed!” said Temme, "Well, I fancy I can swim twice as fast as you!" "Is that so?” said Miss Ettinger. "If you can prove that I'll give £25 to a London hospital." And from the boast at that soirée, they agreed to race a few days later at the Serpentine.
"I'm certain to win," said Miss Ellinger. "I only have to cover one complete crossing of the Serpentine before Mr. Temme has done the return journey. "Since the bet was made I've put in as much practice as possible… and I believe Mr. Temme is taking it seriously too. "He'll get a shock I'm sure. People think of me as a singer; but, really, I'm nearly as keen a swimmer, and I won a heap of medals and prizes when at school."
All of the Monday papers led with the news that the race between the duo would take place at the Serpentine on Wednesday 30 April 1930, at 7.30am.
Paying respect to bureaucracy, both contestants sent signed declarations to Mr. H. E. Ferme, Hon. Secretary of the Amateur Swimming Association, stating that they had never swum professionally. And with incredible haste, Miss Ellinger received a communication on the Tuesday from H.M. Office of Works advising that it was illegal for her to enter the Serpentine.
That note was probably filed appropriately, and the duet made their separate ways to Hyde Park to fulfil the swimming engagement. Temme's car was stopped by the police, but the more wily Ellinger wasn’t going to play second fiddle to anyone, and succeeded in evading the long dry arm of the law and entered the forbidden waters.
Without Temme, she was unable to put the challenge to the test, and following a short swim, Ellinger was arrested by the waiting police as she exited the water and taken to the police station. She also received a summons to appear in Court. [ Sadly, I cannot find reference to the court appearance]
A street car named as Desiree’s would not hit the boy
Later that year in September, Desirée’s strength of character became even more obvious when she purposely allowed a bus to smash into her vehicle.
While driving her motor car on Oxford Street, Ellinger didn’t quaver, as she defiantly allowed a bus to hit her to save a boy’s life.
As she was driving, a boy cycled across her path, and faced with the choice of driving on and hitting the boy, or jamming her brakes to avoid the oncoming bus, she bravely chose personal pain.
In her own words she said, "If I carried on, I would have hit the boy; If I stopped, the bus would have hit me. I jammed on my brakes and waited for the bus to hit me - It did."
After she left the Middlesex hospital, she continued to the theatre to play her part. The show must go on.
On 25 Feb 1930, she divorced her husband, a Canadian colonel who she married ten years earlier. The divorce was granted on the grounds of his infidelity.
She moved out of their home to live in what is now the Landmark hotel in Marylebone.
In 1934, she became engaged, and subsequently married a Wimpole Street ENT surgeon.
Desirée Ellinger was born in Manchester in 1894, and passed away aged 57 in London on 30 Apr 1951.
The ‘discovery’ of this story, resulted from spotting a 1931 GB international cap for auction online.
The cap belonged to William Martin (1906 – 1980) a member of the Great Britain Olympic team that competed in the ‘Hitler games’ in Berlin in 1936. He helped train Temme, his friend and team mate to become the first man to swim the English Channel solo in both directions, from Dover in 1927, and from France in 1934.
Finally, on 16 June 1930, Kathleen Murphy was officially welcomed as the first woman to swim in the Serpentine.
Thank you to David Spinola and his colleagues at the Royal Opera House for confirming that Desirée had performed at Covent Garden.
The only references that were found of Desirée Ellinger performing at the Royal Opera House were during the Beecham Winter Season that ran from 3 November to 20 December 1919 and 24 February to 10 April 1920, and in the Beecham and Grand Opera Season that ran from 10 May to 31 July 1920. We hold an incomplete set of programmes for these seasons, but those we do have list Ellinger as performing 16 times in the following operas:
Madam Butterfly – 1 performance
• 15 Nov 1919
The Marriage of Figaro – 3 performances
• 2 Mar 1920
• 11 Mar 1920
• 20 March 1920
Pagliacci – 4 performances
• 27 Mar 1920
• 7 Apr 1920
• 3 July 1920
• 6 July 1920
La Bohème – 5 performances
• 14 May 1920
• 22 May 1920
• 29 May 1920
• 3 Jun 1920
• 15 Jun 1920
L’Heure Espagnole – 3 performances
• 8 July 1920
• 14 July 1920
• 24 July 1920
If you have read this, and have more information, please contact me at johntierneyswim at live dot com
[John Tierney Twitter: @swimmingdragons ]