Posts Tagged ‘River Thames’


The Guardian reports: 1 August 1923: In a neighbourhood where “free access” to deep water is always possible for babies and toddlers, it is essential for all children to learn swimming.

“Every year children are drowned here,” said my friend, the schoolmistress, as we walked along the land side of the wharves, where steep little passages run down at intervals to the river. “Last week a mother brought me her little son in the hope of getting him into my infant class, though he is under five. ‘The other one drowned in the dock,’ she told me; ‘I shouldn’t like to lose this one, too!’”

…I found it a pleasant experience to pursue a chattering group of forty little girls, of standard five upwards, along the sultry sweltering streets into a delightfully cool swimming bath. Every Monday this particular elementary school goes there for a twenty minutes’ lesson from a swimming mistress of apparently inexhaustible patience who told me she had already given ten such lessons that day. More…

See alos: From Lifesaving Education to None At All



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Wild Swimmingh Tenerife

I have just returned from two fabulous weeks of sunshine and swimming in Tenerife. I was so busy enjoying myself that I had no time to report on three significant news items that came up while i was away and so I have grouped them together here.

Firstly the long anticipated release of: Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames by Caitlin Davies. The .independent reports: “Caitlin Davies… charts 400 years of bathing in the river – following the 215-mile journey of the Thames from its source in Gloucestershire, via the posh boating territories of Oxford and Eton, through Shiplake and Margrave (where actress Margaret Rutherford once taught a young Antony Worrall Thompson to swim); and on down to Westminster, London Bridge; and finally through Southend to the Crowstone obelisk, which marks the official end of the Thames.

Davies (whose previous non-fiction book was Taking the Waters: A Swim Around Hampstead Heath) offers us a fascinating cultural history of swimming. The Victorian era saw the birth of organised river racing, with the launch of the amateur long-distance championships of Great Britain, but we also we see the rise of bathing houses, floating baths and lidos for ordinary workers. Beaches are created at the Tower of London and Greenwich. Bridges along the route create endless opportunities for diving and mudlarking. More…

Then we had the tragic news of a drowning in the pond on Hampstead Heath. The Telegraph reports: “Friends of a Rabbi’s son who drowned in a Hampstead Heath swimming pond desperately dived underwater to save him as emergency services looked on from the bank, eyewitnesses said… “There were police officers and paramedics and firefighters on the bank just standing there watching while the boys dived under. There was at least seven police officers on the side. I heard one of the boys shouting to one of the ambulance crews and asking how long someone could survive under water without breathing as they continued swimming around in a panic. I’m guessing the emergency services are told not to go into the water…”

The Heath is controlled by the Corporation of London and a spokesman admitted that officers had not entered into the water to try and save the drowning teenager. The spokesman said: “The Heath constabulary officers are here to enforce bylaws in the park, they are not trained lifeguards and the water is dangerous and very murky, so they are advised they are not to go in until proper assistance arrives” He said: “He was swimming away from the designated area and out of hours so there were no lifeguards on duty. There are signs everywhere warning people not to go into the water at these times.”

Hot sunny weather draws people to open water. One has to ask; could we not better educate youngsters so as to help prevent such tragedy’s?

This point was emphasis in my third news item, a report on the death of a Huntingdon school boy. The Cambridge News reports: “A coroner is to raise concerns about the lack of school swimming lessons with the Education Minister after a teenager drowned on the first day of the summer holiday. Poor swimmer Rony John, 15, jumped into the river with friends at Hartford but got into difficulties in July last year.

An inquest in Huntingdon heard that St Peter’s School in Huntingdon axed swimming lessons just weeks after Rony’s death because they cost nearly £10,000 a year. Assistant coroner Belinda Cheney recorded a verdict of accidental death on Rony, of Tomlinson Court, Huntingdon. She said she would be writing to the Education Minister asking why there was not sufficient provision for swimming in the national curriculum.

She said: “Swimming is not a difficult skill to learn yet it is a critical life skill.”

Mrs Cheney said the safest strategy would be to teach young people to swim and this was the responsibility of schools and parents.

The inquest heard that Rony had gone to the riverbank near Hartford with friends and had jumped into the water, but got into difficulties. Friends tried to rescue him and a group of adults, including two Polish men, dived into the water but were unable to find him.

A major rescue operation was mounted and Rony’s body was found in the early hours of the following morning after he was spotted on an underwater monitor.

Firefighters were in the water after donning special equipment 10 minutes after the alarm was raised, but Mrs Cheney said Rony would not have survived after four minutes.

Station Commander Karl Bowden, of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, said… they were running an education programme for schools but it was unlikely they would be able to stop young people jumping in the river.

Rony’s father John Thomas said in a statement: “He was extremely well-behaved. He was always a good boy.”

Mr Bennet said only primary schools were required to provide swimming lessons under the national curriculum and that St Peter’s had stopped swimming lessons in September because they had cost £10,000 the year before.”

It’s tragic to think that throughout history boys and young men in-particular have enjoyed cooling off and swimming in open water becoming capable swimmers and lifesavers, yet in our modern enlightened times we fail to value lifesaving swimming education.

Discover the truth behind the scandal

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Malcolm Tozer Reviews: Hung Out to Dry: Swimming and British Culture, in the Spring Edition of Physical Education Matters.


It was by chance that your reviewer came across this privately published social history of swimming and the evident enthusiasm of its author – devotee of outdoor bathing and self-taught historian – prompted the request for a copy. Chris Ayriss’s idiosyncratic approach is as refreshing as the waters he loves and the ebb and flow of his story matches that of meandering stream; you never know what is round the next bend.

The Blue Lagoon Bristol 1937

The book spans ancient and modern, from the Roman occupation of Britain right up to the health-and-safety madness of present times. On the journey we meet bathing to satisfy superstitious, ritualistic, religious, medical, sensual, sexual, naturist, hygienic and escapist needs – amongst others – sometimes with the active approval of society, sometimes not. It would seem that skinny-dipping just for fun was never as simple as that.

Henleaze Lake Bristol 1932

Bathing’s real boom began in the mid-Victorian period when Thomas Cook introduced cheap rail excursions to seaside resorts; week-long factory closures saw whole towns decamp to Skeggie or Clacton; Billy Butlin’s promise of a week’s holiday for a week’s wage led to the popularity of holiday camps; major resorts competed for the biggest lidos and the highest diving boards; and inland cities provided their own riverside beaches and swimming lakes. Some marvellous photographs show packed crowds on Blackpool beach in 1949, with no room to swing a spade; sand-castle building in the shadow of London’s Tower Bridge in 1939; a sardine-jammed lido in Bristol in 1937; and fantastic multiple diving platforms at Henleaze and Weston-super-Mare.

London-on-Sea 1939

The demise from the 1960s was sudden: it came with the introduction of cheap flights to Mediterranean beaches; the delights of sun and sangria; the building of corporation indoor swimming complexes; riverside landowners denying right of access; health concerns about polluted rivers, canals and lakes; and safety worries over unsupervised bathing. Recent evidence from my outlook in Cornwall suggests that a partial recovery is underway – helped by the economic recession, the popularity of ‘staycations’, and the ready availability of wetsuits. Is the bucket-and-spade holiday back in fashion?

Wild Swimming

All this is told in a jaunty style. A bevy of blurred boys’ bare bottoms may see the book banned from school libraries, but there is much here to inform and entertain all who have ever delighted in a midnight skinny-dip – outdoors, of course.

Hung Out to Dry: Swimming and British Culture, by Chris Ayriss, Lulu.com, 2012, £14.50, ISBN 978-0-557-12428-2

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The Opening of Tooting Beck Lido 1906
The Opening of Tooting Beck Lido 1906

For the poor, the swimming pool became the cheapest place to bathe. At the opening of Tooting Bec Lido in London, Wandsworth Borough News reported – regarding hundreds of small boys: ‘heedless of the presence of members of the fair sex, [they] unblushingly undressed and were sampling the quality of the water long before the “big guns” had departed.’ Many bathers walked barefoot across the common prompting complaints to the Council that the facility was being ‘stormed by the riff-raff from slum land.’ Without doubt the waters lost much of their sparkle as 1,500 were bathing each day. Regarding indoor pools, many included a second class or boy’s bath, in which boys could bathe for a fraction of the cost of a private tub. Even so their behavior needed regulation so that hijinks did not end in complete mayhem. Although initially built to complement river, lake and canal swimming, concerns over indecency prompted change. No working class man or boy owned a bathing costume, in fact if you look carefully at the front cover picture of my book: Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture you will notice one youngster carrying the only clothes he has, screwed up in one hand.


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Swimming Pool in the Thames

The London Evening Standard reports:

“Architects have unveiled their vision for a swimming pool in the Thames.

They believe the river will be clean enough for leisure use once Thames Water’s proposed super-sewer is completed in 2023.

The idea, encouraged by the growing popularity of “free swimming” in landmarks such as the Serpentine and Hampstead ponds, is being revealed and It Could Be Now exhibition at the Royal Academy.

It is inspired by the popularity of the Thames as a swimming destination after the arrival in the capital of the first sewers.” More…

Badeschiff Swimming Pool in Berlin, Germany

A similar scheme operates well in Berlin and although not quite the same as swimming free in the river, this idea will be welcomed by many.

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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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English: Hampton Court Palace From across the ...The London Evening Standard reports: A total of 338 of about 1,000 competitors in the 2.2-mile Human Race from Hampton Court to Kingston bridge were taken ill last October. This prompted an investigation amid concerns of the potential dangers linked to the rise in popularity of “open water swimming” in rivers and lakes.

The report found a link between the wearing of a wetsuit and becoming ill – suggesting that swimmers failed to wash themselves and their wetsuits properly after leaving the water and before eating.

Gillian McVeigh of Human Race said that showers would be provided to allow swimmers to wash after exiting the river during this year’s race, on July 21. “It’s definitely good to hear that there isn’t a high risk or Public Health England would have advised people against swimming in the Thames,” she said.

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