You can’t get further from the sea in England than Leicester the place of my birth, the city in which I have lived throughout my life.
Leicester’s relationship with bathing extends over more than two thousand years. Its history is not celebrated, rarely is it mentioned, yet the history of Leicester holds the key to our understanding of why the swimmer has been hung out to dry, and to our understanding the revolution in British culture for which the swimmer is responsible. Changes experienced here reflect what has taken place all over the country; changes in thinking and attitude that now affect not just swimmers but every individual throughout the nation.
Bathing, once celebrated by the Romans, fell from grace due to deteriorating morals. Throughout the Empire, baths came in for condemnation by the Church as attempts were made to stem the tide of hedonism. They came to be viewed as ungodly, as the dwelling place of evil spirits. The Church taught that nakedness leads to sin; washing was seen as ungodly, even demonic. Swimmers also found themselves being disapproved of – for after all wasn’t it witches that floated on water? It was in Leicester that the last official ‘swimming of witches’ was recorded, in 1717. The unfortunate mother and daughter swam like empty barrels floating upon the water though they tried all they could to sink, thus their ‘guilt’ was supposedly confirmed.
The 16th century saw a moderation in Church teachings and although the records of history remain silent on the use of the river until 1741, a map of Leicester labels a field in this region as: ‘The Bath’, showing the return of swimming interest. Daniel Lambert (1770-1809 pictured left) a well-known personality in the town, taught boys to swim here in the river Soar. Lambert was an excellent swimmer and such a celebrity in the town that all of Leicester’s youngsters would look to him for instruction. Due to his tremendous size (he weighed over 52 stone when he died and measured 9׳ 4״ around his waist), he could float with ease; in fact it is said that he could swim with two men lying on his back. If some of his charges seemed a little timid, he would carry them across to the bank opposite their pile of clothes and leave them to struggle back. They would then either have to sink or swim!
Leicester’s first indoor pool was built in the 1840s on New Walk. Warm water fed the sizable pool from the owner’s factory. It was some forty feet long by twenty-one feet wide and was originally available only for private swimming. Things changed, however, when in 1847 the Corporation agreed to pay Mr J P Clarke one hundred pounds towards his expenses and Clarke’s baths were opened to the public. This was in response to the government’s 1846 directive to provide public baths and wash-houses. Leicester then could boast a swimming bath in response to the ruling well before a London pool opened in 1849! Bathers (men only) were charged ‘per penny, per person, per swim,’ and were given a clean towel into the price (costumes were unheard of).
Then an explosion of swimming interest hit the nation, with the successful crossing of the Channel by Captain Matthew Webb in August 1875. Throngs of naked boys plied the waterways in response and it all became too much to bear. This same year a new bye-law for the park and St Margaret’s pasture was enacted reading: “No person shall bathe in any water in the park or recreation ground except in such place or places specially set apart by the Corporation and may be identified by notice ‘Subject to compliance with regulation.’ ” Thus nude bathing came under the control of the Corporation, who now prescribed its limitations. No doubt this came as a blessed relief to those who felt it essential to contain the masses of young adventurers. The imitation of Webb saw swimmers spanning great distances up and down river; however the Order would now ensure that youngsters were contained within much smaller stretches of river, out of public view. This would go a long way towards bringing to an end the annoyance and embarrassment experienced by respectable ladies. But it changed forever the thrill of distance swimming; boys and young men had to contend themselves with counting lengths rather than the real achievement of swimming for miles. From this point on, swimmers were in a sense confined by authority and so they paced backwards and forwards like caged animals. In the minds of the prudish Victorians that’s exactly what they were. The first victory had been achieved; shameless children were hidden away so that ladies, young and old, could stroll along the riverbank in peace.
A little later, as Tuke was painting the innocence of boyhood in Cornwall and the ASA were making sure that boys wore swimwear for competitions, concern over the sexuality of children was reaching fever pitch so unruly roughs were being rounded up and drawn into the swimming pool, where their conduct could be superintended. More swimming baths were erected one after another with brand new indoor facilities built: Vestry Street baths in 1891, known by locals as the ‘bug bath’ due to the prevalence of cock roaches; Cossington Street 1897 (fed by a spring), then in 1901 Spence Street was constructed, followed by Aylestone in 1910 ( see picture above). Leicester truly became ‘swim city’! So it’s no wonder, with all this encouragement for swimmers, that the first long distance river swim through London saw a Leicester man Mr J A Jarvis take first place. He raced in the Seine in the 1900 Paris Olympics, becoming the first ever triple gold medal winner. John Jarvis called himself ‘Amateur Swimming Champion of the World,’ and he earned 108 international swimming championships to prove it! It is also no surprise that at the first Olympic Games to include female swimmers, Jennie Fletcher of Leicester won bronze for the 100m freestyle. Then at the same games in Stockholm (1912) she formed part of a relay team that went on to win gold. In all, she won over 20 major trophies and titles, becoming champion of England six times as well as setting 11 world records. Her achievements were recognised in 1971 when she was praised as the ‘world’s first great woman swimmer’, being included in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Although she died in 1968 her achievements were not recognised by the City until 2005 when a plaque commemorating her achievements appeared at Cossington Street Sports Centre. These swimmers put Leicester on the map and indeed the city’s connection with swimming is truly remarkable.