Posts Tagged ‘History of swimming’



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Well the answer is Yes and No!

The Leicester Mercury reports: “Proposals for a “secret Island” on the River Soar in Leicester have won a contest for suggesting ways it could be regenerated. Architects from around the world were invited to submit designs for Soar Island in the city’s industrial heartland.” The winning design “brings together narrow boat markets, micro-farming and craft workshops, with open-air performance space, riverside starter homes and a floating swimming pool.

On the other hand…

“City mayor Sir Peter Soulsby said he would be interested to see what elements of the design could realistically be delivered… ‘There was plenty of imagination and creative thinking in SWA’s proposals, although clearly it would be the more commercially deliverable elements that could play a part in our vision for Soar Island.

‘While the final scheme will be at the discretion of the developer who ultimately takes on this site, it’s possible that some of SWA’s pioneering ideas – such as self-build homes and workspaces – could work on a site like this.’ ”

No mention of the floating swimming pool as one of the commercially deliverable elements of the plan here! This is a great pity because Leicester City Council are in a position to celebrate Leicesters status as Environment City and at the same time build on the city’s rich swimming heritage by including a floating swimming pool as proposed in this winning design. Similar proposals are afoot in the capital, and have long been an attractive feature on the continent.

Leicester is being transformed before our eyes as the vision of Sir Peter Soulsby the city mayor unfolds and develops. His appreciation for this historic city and its rich heritage cannot be denied even by open mouthed skeptics. But could this scheme as a floating swimming pool in Leicester be commercially viable? One only has to take a look at the success of the bathing beach at Rutland Water to find the answer.

Build it and they will come!


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“From 1884 to 1932 all events and competitions against other clubs took place in the River Colne. Being river water the temperature at times was quite cold, and in times of drought the water level was very low, but these circumstances did not deter the enthusiasm of the Members…” of Colchester Swimming Club.

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The Blue Lagoon BristolFilled to capacity, the Blue Lagoon at Bristol 1937.

When it comes to social history of swimming, the popularity of fresh air and sunshine in the 1930’s saw the doors opened to swimming pools up and down the country. As the demand for places where people would feel comfortable sunbathing rose, so lidos were built meaning that swimming and sunbathing for both sexes became freely available for the very first time. The association between sunshine and swimming was to be firmly implanted in the psyche of the British public and it has continued ever since. The introduction of the lido saw a move away from the early morning swim, towards a preference for bathing in warm sunny conditions. The development of the lido and the exodus of swimmers from the river into purpose-built accommodation although appearing on the surface to be of great benefit to swimmers, would ultimately have dire consequences for river bathers.

The lido era brought the sexes together in a new and unique environment, changing forever our image of the body. The Victorians had dressed to disguise the human form, but the lido put the body on public exhibition with costumes that left little to the imagination. Between the 1920’s and the 1940’s, swimsuit fashions, beauty contests, and extensive spectator galleries contributed to a rise in body consciousness. Hollywood portrayed, on the beach and at the swimming pool, a vision of physical perfection to which successive generations have attempted to aspire. The sexualisation of modern society and the commercialism that propels it, rose from the humble waters of the lido.

Read the full story in Chapter 5, Lidos Open, Rivers Close: Hung Out to Dry Swimming and British Culture.

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1938 Summer Swimming Relays in River Cherwell

1938 Summer Swimming Relays in River Cherwell

Oxford, the centre of learning, has a Wild Swimming history stretching back hundreds of years.

The History of swimming in Oxford

As Britain led the world into a new association with water wild swimming came back into vogue and people countrywide began using natural ponds, lakes and rivers for their wild swimming adventures. In Oxford, Parson’s Pleasure[1] had been in use since the 16th century. The site still holds echoes of its past as does its companion: Dames’ Delight. Parson’s Pleasure officially came to its end in the mid 1990s, but cultural change started its slow death long before that. The fencing has now all gone, along with the diving board. A concrete base is all that is left of the fun, like a memorial stone on the now deserted lawns, the remains lie on the opposite bank to University Parks, Holywell. A bench in the grounds bears a plaque memorializing ‘…Mr H N Spalding[2] a lover of Parson’s Pleasure who gave to the university the fields opposite the bathing place in order to preserve the view.’ It was traditional for men and boys to bathe here in the nude. Naturally, it was screened from view on all sides and as you might expect, ladies were to either avert their eyes as they passed by in punts, or better still, to get out of the punt and walk around the fencing. C S Lewis apparently loved the place, as did many dons and undergraduates. In later times, speculation developed as to the interests of those using Parson’s Pleasure and indeed, as its popularity declined, it became a magnet for suspicions. According to Cities Of The Imagination:[3] ‘By the end, the only men who went there were those who wanted to expose themselves to passing punts and those who delighted in the company of naked young men.’

Swimmers at Tumbling Bay in 1959

The history of swimming in Oxford well illustrates changes seen across Britain. The British Isles are surrounded and saturated with waterways which should be a delight for swimmers, yet the history of swimming reveals that the British have gone to great lengths to separate swimmers from the natural world. Today swimmers are mostly confined to indoor pools and the swimmers experience is a far cry from the freedom, fun and adventure associated with swimming in the recent past.  Read Hung Out to Dry and discover why the experience of swimmers has changed so much and what this says about us as a nation and about our culture.

Cold water swimming

The history  of swimming pools

The History of Swimming Costumes

100 years of swimming history 1912 – 2012

“A persuasive book… intriguing from the outset, a fascinating chronology of British swimming which goes much deeper than one might expect. Well researched and interestingly written… the historical ebb and flow of swimming popularity is quite remarkable.” The Swimming Times November 2012

Wild Swimming




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Sea Swimming Newquay

Sea Swimming Newquay

The Bathing Machines of Newquay…

The history of swimming Costumes

Wild Swimming and Swimming Costumes

On a sultry summer’s day, what could be more natural and liberating than to dip into a lake or river to complete the picture of scenic perfection?  In calm waters, swimmers get twice the view as water mirrors the colour and adds texture to the panorama they swim into. We love to live and holiday close to water; in fact you only have to mention a ‘sea view’, for house and holiday prices jump up.  Across Scotland, in parts of Wales and throughout Europe, swimming is as much a part of the summertime experience as it was in England not so many years ago; then the 1970s TV safety film: Dark and Lonely Water, lit the screen and cast gloom over the concept of outdoor swimming. The ‘Grim Reaper’ we were shown, stood ready to take the life of any fool that dared swim in open water and we could be sure that summertime fun would lead to tragedy. Swimmers were persuaded that they really did need to ‘KEEP OUT’, leaving the sport of outdoor swimming to those ruffians who would dip regardless, and, just because they had been told not to. You might think this an oversimplification of matters, and you would be right. A great many factors combined to achieve the outdoor swimming status quo in England, so many factors, that I thought it would make a good read for all those interested in returning to the outdoors, and so I published: Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture.

Swimming Costume Boy and Girl
Yet swimming is so innocuous that it hardly seems possible for the activity to have had more than a fleeting influence on the culture and history of Britain. Thinking further though and it’s obvious that all swimming necessitates a degree of pantomime as even the most cosseted among us will need to change into our wet suit ready for our swim. Unlike other sports, the act of getting changed, what we wear when wet and the process of getting into the water has influenced the way society has perceived what came to be a very British outdoor sport.
Dressed to swim

Bathing for Health

Bathing was fundamental to our Roman invaders and was widely practiced along with swimming, for centuries. Later Church morality motivated abstinence among the faithful, a position reinforced when the plagues of the Middle Ages swept whole families away. The only protection against disease, people were told, was to remain unwashed, so that the skins pores would become blocked with dirt preventing deathly vapours from infiltration the body. At this time in history bathing was considered to be a very risky exercise and it took centuries before the traditions of the ‘great unwashed’ were questioned. When bathing became good for you again, cleanliness was deemed next to Godliness and the righteous were encouraged to bathe as often as once a week. But it was soon discovered that much more fun could be had, especially in cold water, by learning to swim.

Bathing Machines Ostend 1923
Bathing Machines Ostend 1923

Bathing Machines

As time passed, the bathing machine was invented allowing participants to bow to proprietary by getting changed in privacy whilst being transported into a screen of deep waters. Yet mixed bathing, when it was introduced, presented moral dilemmas unheard of whilst bathers were separated by gender. As a culture, the British have danced around the issues of morality ever since, with a variety of attitudes surfacing at different points in time. Yet as our bathing culture spread aboard so a similar evolution in social mores was sparked worldwide. The bathing machine, invented here in the UK, became an essential part of beach life overseas as British prudery was exported along with the seaside holiday experience. In the end a changed morality allowed bathing machines to be converted into beach huts, or burned in symbol of the liberality of the times. It was much the same with the emancipation of women but it made for a much bigger fire.

The End of Bathing Machines
The End of Bathing Machines
This aspect of British bathing history now seems but a bizarre part of our eccentric past. Yet this important milestone in the evolution of our culture popped the cork from the bottle. The Seaside holiday evolved from its humble and secretive beginnings into an obsession with sunbathing and physical exposure. Swimming costumes developed from coverall into none at all for hardy eccentrics, or at least ‘cover little’ for the rest of us.
skinny dipping at Margate
When listening to a series of paper round experiences just the other week on Radio 4, Melanie Walters (of Gavin and Stacey) recounted her adventures living in the Mumbles as a young girl of 11 in the 1970s. Not only did she often enjoy a solitary sea swim whilst on route, but sometimes in the summer she did the whole thing dressed ready for her swim in her “little white and red check bikini,” yet she observes; “that wouldn’t happen today.” And she’s right. Attitudes have changed greatly in the decades since, and this becomes obvious when sharing holiday photographs with our children, the differences in seaside fashions from when we were young are promptly observed.
New Brighton Beauty Parade 1951
New Brighton Beauty Parade 1951

Lido’s and Speedo’s

The magnetic Lido era drew swimmers in from rivers, lakes and the seaside, with diving boards, slides and cafes offering an altogether more civilised outdoor swimming experience. Yet at the same time these Lidos put bathers on show for spectators who gathered in great numbers to watch the spectacle of the scantily clad, cavorting in the water. Beauty contests spawned a trend to judge others by their appearance and this concept has now matured so that even young children diet in hope of attaining physical perfection. Bathing fashions have changed so much over time, that even in Australia (the birthplace of Speedo swimwear) as here in Britain, swimming trunks have dropped from favour with board shorts replacing them on the beach and in the pool. Trunks may survive for the sake of speed at competitions but they have been outlawed at Alton Towers for three years now on grounds of etiquette. Yet for hygiene’s sake brief swimming trunks are seen as essential at swimming pools in France to this day. In England, men and boys more fashion conscious than ever, wear baggy shorts to hide their shape on the beach despite the half mast trousers fashion on the street.

The Water Toboggan 1926
The Water Toboggan 1926

Swimming Pools built to Preserve Decency

In an effort to disguise and to hide swimmers from view, specific river bathing areas became necessary when Matthew Webb opened the floodgates to outdoor swimming by conquering the Channel in 1875. Boys in particular took the challenge to heart, unperturbed that a lack of swimwear was scandalising the ladies. Indoor and outdoor pools were to follow as a means of containing and controlling the increasingly popular swimming movement. Bathing machines and bathing costumes helped to disguise the swimmers, but warm water, and holidays abroad have now all but emptied British waters of the swimmers to whom they belong.

Bathing Costumes 1919

Skinny Dipping

2012 has been a year to remember our swimming heritage and to put the fun back into open water by swimming our way back to the great outdoors! Although interest in a return to nature and skinny dipping in particular has attracting interest in the wild swimming community, it is worth remembering that it was skinny dipping that got British swimmers into trouble in the first place. In January 2012 in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, the Walrus Club (a group of eccentric bathers who would swim and dive into the canal adjacent to their club house) had their premises and equipment destroyed by officials bringing an end to their 60 years existence. A spokesperson stated “local residents were offended by the sight of undressed winter swimmers in the water and on the canal bank.” Times change, and even countries that have until now lagged behind the times are catching up with the notion of prudery. Will the history of British swimming provide a lesson to wild swimmers today? Or will history repeat itself and get the movement into trouble? Perhaps it would be best to contend ourselves with the freedom to swim as it gradually emerges and confine skinny dipping to the privacy of the bathtub.

Wild Swimming
Historic Wild Swimming swimming locationsWild swimming is good for you

Wild Swimming News

British Wild Swimming History

Wild Swimming in Cold Water

Wild Swimming and Sunbathing

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Public Bath, Great Smith Street, WESTMINSTER


Westminster’s first public baths and wash house was part of the old library complex, designed in 1891 by F.J. Smith. The entrance was to one side, and features panels of sculptured swimmers by Henry Poole, then just 18.

The baths helped encourage swimmers indoors and away from public view, but they also contributed to a decline in swimming popularity. Read below a short account by Grace Foakes remembering her girlhood in Wapping in the early 1900s.

“The river was a never-ending source of pleasure. To paddle or swim in the Thames was something that every boy did. Boys would organise races between themselves. Rival gangs would compete. Each gang had its chief, a boy selected solely on merit. They would swim from one foreshore to another and back, which was usually quite a long way. Those who gave up were looked upon with contempt, while the boy that won was chosen as chief of all the gangs. The boys had no lessons in swimming, they taught themselves.”

“The boys of working class parents were usually tough and strong. They roughed it from a very early age. They were experts at saving lives, although their method was all their own. They were as much at home in the river as they were on land. When the ships and barges moored along the wharves on a summer’s evening, swarms of boys would strip, swim out and clamber aboard, not for the purpose of stealing but for the sheer joy of it. If the vessels were moored near a public house or bank which overlooked the river, the boys would give a display of diving. Shouting to the customers to watch, they dived from the barges and ships, doing all kinds of tricks. The customers threw pennies which the boys had to dive for. This afforded men and boys alike much amusement. Sometimes it ended in tragedy for, although the boys could swim, if the ventured too near a barge they were sucked under and drowned. Each boy kept a sharp look-out for anyone in trouble and many boys saved the lives of their companions while engaging in this sport.”

From: Four Meals For Fourpence: A Heartwarming Tale of Family Life in London’s old East End.

Delve deeper into the history of British swimming by reading: Hung Out to Dry Swimming and British Culture.

“A persuasive book… intriguing from the outset, a fascinating chronology of British swimming which goes much deeper than one might expect. Well researched and interestingly written… the historical ebb and flow of swimming popularity is quite remarkable.” November 2012 Swimming Times


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