In the early Victorian era (1800s), swimmers were generally from a class of people who had leisure time; rich folk who did not work ie: gentlemen. Swimming was not common as swimming pools were rare and not many middle class people had time to spare to take up leisure sports. There was no leisure for lower class; ever.
However throughout the world it emerged by british expansion that swimming was skilfully performed by indigenous people who learned the art of swimming in nature.
Rail transport made holidays affordable, so that began to bring middle class to holiday spots by the sea. Soon the increasingly wealthy middle class people began to swim or at least wished they could swim. Additionally the middle class of the era were staunchly Christian and a muscular christianity was becoming a vogue ideal. Muscular christianity was the philosophy where it was felt that physical strength lead to moral strength and fitness to do Christian works. Sport was also seen as a good way to burn off steam. It is in this era that YMCAs were formed to draw men and boys into sport but to additionally minister Christianity to them.
Swimming lessons were rudimentary. Some accepted methods were using a fishing line but many literally got thrown in the deep end. In the genteel class the acceptable style of swimming was smooth breaststroke and certainly no splashing or uncontrollable thrashing. Middle class of the era set standards of masculinity trying to reach standards of upper class. Calmness and being in complete control was an important impression a gentlemen must portray. Gentlemen must control their brutish maleness but still show off their strength and fitness.
A stroke which was far faster was demonstrated at various times in the 1800’s by natives of various far-off lands. But it was considered unrefined and un-‘gentlemanly’. An overhand stroke was performed by a two North American Ojibwa native swimmers called Flying Gull and Tobacco, demonstrating in 1844. Although the stroke was far faster than breaststroke it was windmill-like; splashing and thrashing, it was called barbaric in a revue of the event in The Times of London. So the barbaric thrashing and splashing stroke was ignored by middle class and gentlemen swimmers who wanted to look graceful.
This barbaric stroke was seen again in 1868 when John Trudgen was travelling in South America in Buenos Aires. He observed natives swimming an overhand stroke in the sea. He subsequently demonstrated this style in 1875 in London. His swimming style was faster than breaststroke but generally ignored due to its splashiness. Breaststroke adherents did begin to experiment with a sidestroke style to try to swim faster gracefully without getting your face and hair wet but the barbaric over arm stroke was not popular so it was still ignored. The new side-style adopted stroke became known as the Trudgen Stroke.
When Australian Richmond ‘Dick’ Cavill, an Australian swimming instructor watched Solomon Islander; Alick Wickham, swimming at Bronte Beach, he began to develop this style that became known as the Australian Crawl. It has also been noted that swim coach George Farmer saw Wickham swimming and said ‘look at that boy crawling’. It is possible he wasn’t being complementary. This rendition of the Solomon Islanders stroke in 1898 was the barbaric splashy over-arm stroke that began to become more popular and became known as the Australian crawl.
Swimmers in the Sydney area were regularly swimming faster than the unofficial world records using Cavill’s methods. Including Cecil Healy who in 1904 was faster than the unofficial world record until he raced in 1912 but came second to Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku.
The breaststroke was not the fastest stroke but popular with the gentlemen or wanna-be middle-class gentlemen. It took almost a century to overcome the bias of barbarian front-crawl. Even though three sets of native swimmers, or their styles, had proven faster than graceful breaststroke, the splashy Frontcrawl (freestyle) became more common. Duke Kahanamoku would win 100 freestyle events at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, again at the 1920 Olympics (and most likely would have won in 1916), and then won silver to Johnny Weissmuller in 1924. Maybe it wasn’t just ironic that our future hero Tarzan was swimming a barbaric stroke.
It could be argued that from 1844 until 1920 natives of North America, South America, Solomon Islands and Hawaiian islands were the fastest swimmers in the world using a barbaric splashy stroke while the generally white population swam a slower but more gentlemanly stroke. Eventually everyone began to swim ‘the crawl’ when a differentiation was made between strokes.