Harry Gurr, champion swimmer of England in the 1860s, was also known as the Man Fish and was famous for his underwater acts, often performed in glass tanks.
Born in Bethnal Green, London, in 1847 he was described as a ‘pocket Hercules’, five foot tall with well developed muscles, a ruddy complexion and fair hair.
He reportedly discovered swimming while working as a shoeblack, when one day he ‘strayed’ into Endell Street Baths in Holborn.
In 1863, he won the ‘world’s championships’ during a race in the River Thames, and held the cup for three years. His swimming style drew plenty of attention, as he ‘went through the water with a screwlike motion’, his legs held together like ‘the blades of a pair of scissors’.
It’s likely that Harry knew Agnes Beckwith, Champion Lady Swimmer of the World, who rose to fame in the 1870s, and they may have performed together at Barnum & Bailey’s.
In July 1867, Harry raced another champion swimmer, David Pamplin, in the Serpentine. The course was 1000 yards, and Harry completed it in 17 minutes, 1 second. His umpire was Frederick Beckwith, Agnes’s father.
Pamplin can be seen in the 1866 illustration above (in the process of taking his coat off), while Frederick Beckwith (centre) chats with Harry Gurr.
In 1867, Harry set off across the Atlantic ‘to astonish our American cousins,’ having been hired by the Brothers Hanlon, who had a troupe of acrobats and gymnasts. Harry toured the States as a trapeze artist, performing with his wife Mary Bapstein, and the couple had four children.
Mary, who hailed from Philadelphia, died in 1875 and Harry went back on the road, leaving the children with a foster family and sending money for their upkeep.
But then Harry had a fall and was laid up for several months, and when the money stopped arriving the foster family turned the children out to ‘shift for themselves.’
Some thirty years later, in 1903, one of Harry’s daughters tracked him down in Toledo, Ohio. She asked a carnival entertainer – also called the Man Fish – if he’d ever come across her father. A few days later, they were reunited.
Harry Gurr appears to have stayed in the United States, and died in 1935 in his nineties.
Thank you to Harry’s relative who recently got in touch after reading Downstream and sent some brilliant images and clippings, and to researchers Geoff Swallow and Keith Myerscough who kindly provided further biographical information and photos.