Archive for the ‘Bathing Costume’ Category

Bathing Machines at Bognor

Today there is much debate as to the right costume for outdoor swimming.

Are you really a wild swimmer if you were a wet suit or should you just wear a swimsuit and brave the cold?

Now in days gone by the issue was a little more sensitive. When day trips to the seaside became fashionable and when both sexes wanted to bathe, something had to be done to protect public decency. Separate bathing areas for men and women were established on the beach and the introduction of bathing machines became a tantalizing spectacle for spectators gathered on the promenade.

The whole story makes a fascinating read – see: Hung Out to Dry, Chapter 3, Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks – for the full story…


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Western Daily Press reports: “The oldest surviving open-air swimming baths in the UK, in Bath, are set to be fully restored and reopened to the public.

The Grade II listed Cleveland Pools – a 200-year-old Georgian lido – has secured funding of £4.1 million, including a development grant of £366,200, from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The restoration project, run by community group The Cleveland Pools Trust, will conserve the Georgian features and upgrade the facilities to allow for year-round swimming and other activities.

When complete, the site will include a 25-metre swimming pool, children’s splash area, pavilion and cafe. The pools will be naturally treated and heated using the latest technology.”

“The pools first opened in 1815 following the Bathwick Water Act which prohibited nude bathing in the river.

Laid out in the shape of a miniature Georgian crescent, the site includes two bathing pools, the original changing rooms and a private ladies pool.

They are one of only a small number of pre-Victorian sporting buildings to survive nationally and are thought to be the oldest swimming baths of its type in Western Europe.

The site closed to the public in 1978 and after finally closing altogether in 1984 was briefly used as a trout farm.”


Nude bathing (or skinny dipping) once common on river and lake-sides throughout the UK was responsible not only for the construction of swimming pools such as this, but also for a shift in cultural attitudes towards outdoor swimming. See Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture – Chapter 3 Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks, and Chapter 5 Lidos Open, Rivers Close. More…

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Ladies Bathing Place Bangor County Down

A blast from the Past!

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Bathing Place Chertsey

Happy days! Bathing at Chertsey.

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Heddon Court Bathing Place, 1912

A rare glimpse of Heddon Court bathing place provided for wild swimmers in years gone by.

In an effort to preserve modesty, encourage cleanliness and educate swimmers, bathing places like this were built across the country. facility’s were meager; a bathing attendant, a changing hut (offering shelter to clothing in poor weather), a diving run and some steps attracted swimmers from miles arround. As you can see we don’t need much to enjoy open water. One essential sadly lacking today is the liberty to swim! Visit Europe and you will find outdoor swimming encouraged and enjoyed to the benefit of all. Why are we so prejudice against river and lake swimmers in England?

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Margate Bathing Beach

Changing Tents on Margate Sands

Next time you visit the seaside, keep a lookout for one of those old coin operated telescopes on the seafront. Take a good look at the view and you may wonder why on earth anyone would pay good money to look up and down a featureless empty beach. If you wanted a closer look why not walk onto the sands? The picture below may give you a clue, its all related to decency.

At a time when working class people had little opportunity to wash at home and no concept of privacy, no undergarments to wear when swimming and no desire to restrict their freedom on the beach, the sexes were separated when in public view. Bathing machines were used by the better off and their attempts to hide themselves away became a great summer  amusement.

Mixed bathing

Costumes were essential when mixed bathing later became the fashion. Bathing machines were retired to the back of the beach replaced by the beach huts of the present day. For a time beach tents became the place to get changed but windbreaks and towels have put the changing tents out of business.


Fashion and lifestyle now dictate a cover all approach for sea bathers, wetsuits and sun-suits are the latest craze. All of these changes have had a dramatic impact on swimmers and bathers.

Read the history of swimming costumes.



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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).

Matthew Webb Swims the Channel

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.

Swimming History

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.

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