Sunny Lowry MBE

Ethel ‘Sunny’ Lowry, 1911 – 2008

The daughter of a fish wholesaler from Levenshulme, Sunny Lowry became a pioneering long distance swimmer.

Sunny Lowry showing off her swimming muscles,1930s

Sunny Lowry showing off her swimming muscles, early 1930s

The 1920s saw the start of a English Channel swimming craze, with attempts by British and international swimmers reported in the national press.

When the teenage Sunny announced her aim to conquer the channel, the head teacher at Manchester High School for Girls was far from impressed and dismissed her from the room. Luckily her family were supportive of her ambition. She swam regularly in local pools and open water, winning many competitions. Aged 14 she saved the lives of two girls who’d got into difficulty bathing off the coast of North Wales.

In 1932, Lowry beat 300 other applicants to win a prestigious training position with channel swimming instructor Jabez Wolffe. To bulk up for her calorie burning mega-swim Sunny ate 40 eggs worth of omelettes a week. She trained in the water for four hours a day, ditching the traditional long woollen swimming costume in favour of a more streamline, but risqué, two piece outfit. Sunny recalls the reaction her daring outfit provoked:

“We were training once at Margate and I kept having to come out of the water and I was showing about an inch of flesh all the way round. A lady came to me and she said ‘I’ll report you to the police, you are indecent!'”

In August 1933 Sunny finally fulfilled her channel swimming dream, crossing over night from France to England in fifteen hours and 41 minutes. Her skin was smeared in wool grease and chilli, and she had to contend with jellyfish stings. From her support boat she was fed coffee, cocoa and beef tea; a bagpiper played to help keep her stroke rhythm regular; and carrier pigeons were released at intervals to send updates on her progress back to dry land.

Ad in The Manchester Guardian, 9 September 1933

Ad in The Manchester Guardian, 9 September 1933

The Channel Swimming Association record her as the 15th person, and the 7th woman to swim the channel.  Mancunians were proud of Sunny’s success: she was mobbed by crowds on arrival at Manchester Central Station; invited to meet local dignitaries; and made personal appearances in local nightspots.

Sunny’s love of swimming continued throughout her life. She worked as a swimming and life saving instructor and married fellow swimming teacher Bill Anderson.

Sunny Lowry memorial window at Victoria Baths

Sunny Lowry memorial window at Victoria Baths

Active to a ripe old age,  Sunny was President of the Channel Swimming Association from 2000 to 2007. During this time she was also at the forefront of the campaign to restore Manchester’s Victoria Baths, the local pool she’d learnt to swim in as a child.

In 2006 Sunny was awarded an MBE for services to swimming. Her achievements are commemorated in a stained glass memorial window at Victoria Baths.


Further information on Sunny Lowry

The Sunny Lowry Story video made by Manchester High School for Girls gives some great insights into her channel swimming exploits and harsh training regime.

Sunny Lowry obituary in the Guardian, 27 February 2008.

Victoria Baths have a great selection of Sunny Lowry memorabilia on show, and are fundraising for a dedicated Sunny Lowry archive.