Hills, Miss Zetta (Lillian Annie)
Lillian Annie Hills was born in Richmond, Surrey, on 9/3/1895 and baptised at Barnes Church, although the family moved to Islington soon after. Her father Frederick James Hill was a colour oilman
Frederick had a musical talent and decided to make his living as a musician. He moved the family to Southend-on-Sea in the early 1900s, to work in the seaside pier, cinema, music hall and theatre orchestras. About 1912 they moved to Folkestone where Fred had gained a similar position.
Under the name Zetta Hills, she made two attempts on the Channel and has the distinction of being both the least-dressed aspirant and the most-over-dressed aspirant; in 1923 she intended to swim nude but in the end wore a loin-cloth for modesty until the cold forced her to don a regulation costume; in 1924 she devised an anti-cold suit comprising a rubber-impregnated linen full-body suit which weighed 12lbs – after a few miles the neck seal failed and the suit began to fill with water, dragging Zetta underwater and forcing her to abandon the swim.
There is one report that her 1923 swim was not a Channel crossing attempt as such but an attempt to beat the record time of Clemington Corson’s 15 mile distance swim
She had been briefly married at Folkestone to Sidney Haimes in 1916 and they had a son Sidney James that year but they separated very quickly and later divorced. Zetta and her son were estranged – he was brought up by his father’s family in Cornwall
She had become well-known locally from diving for pennies off Victoria Pier in Folkestone and then devising other tricks, such as sack-diving, to entertain holiday-makers
However, her main fame came from promoting the water cycle invented by her and her father Frederick Hills in 1913. On August 13 1920 she tried to cross the Channel from France but the bike collapsed 4 miles off Deal. She did succeed the same year in cycling down the Thames, Richmond to Charing Cross Pier in Central London. Her father built six ‘Zetta-Hills’ water cycles for hire on the beach at Folkestone for the 1921 season. In 1920 he had contracted Wells-Forde Ltd of South Kensington as sole manufacturers of the ‘Zetta Hills Water Cycle’. She was still riding one in Portsmouth Harbour as late as 1949
In 1924 she left Folkestone to make her fortune, having got the job of a swim performer at the Temple of Neptune exhibit in the British Empire Exhibition, where she became known as “the Mermaid of Wembley”. The British Empire Exhibition was a huge colonial exhibition held at Wembley from 23 April 1924 to 31 October 1925
In late 1925 she took her Wembley show on the road, appearing mainly in the midlands, such as at Hanley Park in Stoke-on-Trent
In 1926 she got the job of trainer to Bonzo, a remarkable performing Sealion at Bostock and Wombwell’s Travelling Circus and toured with them all over for 3½ years
In 1930 she left Bostock’s and joined the ‘Death Riders’ wall-of-death motorcycle display team and again toured the country, although by 1930 they were a regular summer attraction at Butlins Amusement Park in Skegness; “The Death Riders are led by Slim Stamford, a prominent speedway rider who has performed at Luna Park, Berlin, and also at several of the Midland speedways. He is supported by Bob Lang and Mickey Walker, who are described as well-known Australian riders, and by Miss Zetta Hills, who has the distinction of being the first lady to water-cycle across the English Channel”.
In 1934, when the Death Riders were appearing at the Clarence Pier, Portsmouth, Zetta met Frank Southby. Originally from Hendon-on-Thames, Southby had been in Portsmouth since 1914 when he joined the Royal Marines followed by the Royal Navy in 1919 and then the Merchant Navy in 1929. They married in Portsmouth in the spring of 1935 and Zetta retired from show-business to settle in Portsmouth. They had a daughter Frances Letitia in 1937. Zetta trained as a nursing auxilliary in the war
She continued to work, under her ‘stage’ name Zetta Hills, as a swimming and roller skating instructor/pool supervisor, until her death
She died as Lilian Annie Southby in 1960 at Portsmouth
Portsmouth Evening News 06 June 1949
Mrs Zetta Hills of 392 Commercial Road Portmouth age 52…former water cyclist, a lifeguard and nurse at the children’s bathing pool…has accepted a challenge from a Swindon man to race across the Channel from Calais to Dover on bicyces fitted with floats.