To be published by Aurum
While I was researching Taking the Waters, about the famous bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath, I was interested in finding out about the history of swimming and how/when/if women swam in Victorian times. The common idea seemed to be that women didn’t really swim, and that they only rarely had the chance to swim competitively. But they did. And their choice of venue was often the River Thames, where they raced for miles in oil and sewage.
So we have Agnes Beckwith – and a little later, Annette Kellerman and Lily Smith
and then there are the men who swam and trained in the Thames, like manacled diver Gautier and Captain Webb (below)
That got me thinking. Why did they swim in the Thames? for fun, for glory, for pleasure, for fame…
So for the next year I’m going to be traveling the Thames from source to sea researching the stories of all those who have been drawn to its waters. I’m also going to be interviewing as many people as possible.
This week I interviewed Lewis Pugh about his 21-day swim in 2006, to highlight the issue of climate change
and David Walliams about his eight-day swim, in aid of Sport Relief in 2011.
Then I went to Henley to have a long chat with Tom Kean, co-founder of Henley Open Water Swim Club, fascinating to hear how two men’s pre-dawn swim along the course of the Regatta evolved so quickly into a major open water event.
Henley is best known for rowing, but it has an amazing river swimming tradition as well…monthly races, impressive challenge cups…and that’s back in the 1890s
Yesterday I went to the official source of the Thames, in a meadow called Trewsbury Mead, not far from the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire. Normally there’s not much to see in terms of water, but here was the scene:
Our dog wasn’t that happy, but I had to get to the stone that marks the spot where, according to the Environment Agency and Ordnance Survey, the Thames begins. Whether or not it really does start here has been the subject of argument for hundreds of years.
Last week I interviewed Matthew Parris about his 2010 swim across the Thames in central London. Wearing just a pair of trunks, his aim was to swim from Globe Wharf in Rotherhithe to Narrow Street, in Limehouse. Instead he was swept three-quarters of a mile upriver….
I also visited the Henley River & Rowing Museum, where assistant curator Lindsay Moreton had kindly dug out everything she could find on swimming, including this Edwardian postcard of Henley Baths:
© River & Rowing Museum
The Baths appear to have opened in the late 1880 and it was here that the Henley Swimming Club (formed in 1894) held its races.
Today I interviewed Simon Griffiths, editor of H2 Open Magazine – ‘the world’s only open water magazine’ and proof that open water swimming continues to grow in popularity. I’m hoping readers might help me out with tales of their own Thames swims.
Lots of Thames swimmers have been in touch, including the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Thames team who are currently travelling the length of the river, bit by bit. People have also been telling me tales of swimming at Wargrave, Abingdon, Cookham, Grafton Lock, and a Thames loving dog who bathed twice a day until he was 17.
Last week I went to Eton College to read documents on 1800s swimming societies, kindly provided by archivist Penny Hatfield. There are references to Thames swims dating back to the 1500s.
Windsor and Eton also have their own (less well documented) Thames swimming tradition, with Victorian public baths at Baths Island as well as several swimming clubs, including the Windsor Ladies.
I also went to the wonderful Museum of London Docklands. The last time I visited a few weeks ago Tom Wareham, Curator of Community and Maritime History, had collected some great documents on swimming in the London docks in the late 1800s, and in the 1930s.
This time museum guide Brian Grover had found me some lovely images of Thames swimming in the 1940s. He grew up on the Isle of Dogs and remembers the Thames as a filthy, post-war children’s playground.
Back from Oxford, a City with a well-known river swimming tradition, although there seems to be very little on this in any of the museums. The Bodleian, however, has a Victorian swimming manual that was well worth reading. I visited Folly Bridge, scene of a once famous (and now apparently completely forgotten) endurance swim in 1890.
And then there’s Tumbling Bay, closed in the 1990s along with the rest of Oxford’s official bathing spots, but still in use judging from clips on You Tube. Here’s the announcement for FEMALE BATHERS ONLY on a FRIDAY
Note that BATHING DRESSES WILL BE SUPPLIED and MUST BE USED…
Tumbling Bay looks a bit like a small lido, the water from the two weirs was rushing so loudly I heard the place before I found it.
I also met with Esther Browning from the Oxford Mail, a committed Thames swimmer with plenty of tales to tell.
And I spoke with more swimmers, with Thames stories from South Stoke, Marlow, Kingston, and Walton on Thames.
Planning a trip to Hampton Court and Kingston-Upon-Thames. As with other places, it’s clear there’s a long Thames swimming tradition, it’s finding any archive material that’s the difficulty.
I’m keen to see if I can discover anything about the Kingston Ladies Swimming Club – one member won the women’s long distance 15 mile Thames race in 1908, while the ‘swimming mistress’ of Kingston Baths in 1888 swam all the way to Henley…. I also want to see Steven’s Ait, where there was a (men only) Victorian bathing spot.
In the meantime I’ve been collecting more modern stories of Thames swims, for example at Sonning and Maidenhead, and including night time swims, Christmas Days swims and ‘random swimmers’ who love the speed of a high current.
Just back from a boat ride, from Kingston Upon Thames to Hampton Court, in the snow. On the way the boat passed Raven’s Ait (below), where the Surrey Ladies Swimming Club used to hold their long distance endurance races. Seldom has the Thames looked more unappealing…
Fantastically helpful Local History Officer Michele Losse, at Kingston’s Local History Room was able to show me some photographs of a 1917 race, featuring champion Ivy Hawke. I also read the Surrey Comet from the 1880s, looked at old maps and read some very old reports.
The weather improves at Richmond
The Richmond Local Studies Collection has a beautiful big scrapbook covering nearly 50 years in the life of the Richmond Swimming Club, from 1885 to 1931. One club member got to the semi finals of the 100 metres backstroke in the 1908 Olympics.
The scrapbook includes lots of posters for indoor swimming entertainments, details on the three river races held in the Thames, and a letter explaining there would be no fixtures in 1915.
Richmond was also the starting place for the ‘most important swimming race ever held in England’ when in September 1907, 33 people swam to Blackfriars. One renowned swimmer to arrive in Richmond in the summer of 1915 was Eileen Lee. The 19-year-old covered nearly 22 miles in one day.
I’ve been to a lot of archives recently and this was one of the friendliest and busiest. Many thanks to archivist Felix Lancashire and his colleague Patricia Moloney for their interest and real enthusiasm and for providing the documents and letting me take some photos.
Thames swimming is still popular around Richmond, Bamber Gascoigne for example is a regular. The first time he went in the Thames was in the 1940s, while at Eton. Now he’s been swimming at Richmond for 30 years.
Then it was back on the train to Kew Gardens and a walk to Kew Bridge. Kew to Putney was once the most famous stretch on the Thames when it came to river racing, and the starting point for the Long Distance Amateur Championships. Countless champions have made their way downstream from here. First impressions weren’t great however, it felt like I was on a motorway.
But when I got to the end of the bridge, on the right hand side, the view couldn’t have been more different:
Here’s a drawing of Kew Bridge, seen from Strand on the Green. It was drawn by Alan Smith, who used to call the Thames ‘The Old Father.’ He also claimed to be the youngest person to have dived off Hammersmith Bridge.
I’m working my way right into London now, visiting Putney Bridge which has an important place in Thames swimming history for several reasons. This is where Australian teenager Annette Kellerman – who would become the world’s most famous long-distance woman swimmer, Hollywood star and swimsuit designer – launched her international career in 1905. Meanwhile, a bye law introduced last year means people can no longer swim from Putney downstream without a licence from the Port of London Authority.
On to Battersea, Albert and Chelsea bridges. First I went to Cremorne Gardens, not far from Battersea Bridge. This used to be a huge pleasure garden, and races were held across the Thames as early as the 1830s. The park keeper told me no one swims here now. Here’s a warning sign, just in case:
Albert Bridge is the prettiest I’ve seen so far, although in terms of swimming I’ve barely seen it mentioned anywhere.
Today I’m very excited to have got in touch with the great grandson of Jules Gautier, the famous Victorian swimmer.
A trip to Knebworth to finally meet Andy Nation. Back in 2005 he became the first person to swim the 147 miles of the non-tidal Thames. When Lewis Pugh did his swim the next year, it was Andy he rang for advice and a chat. Why did Andy do it? “Because,” he says, “no one had done it before.” And also, of course, to raise money for the Anthony Nolan Trust, the blood cancer charity.
At the moment Andy is is training for his Teddington to Calais swim, which begins in July.
Back to the London Bridges…..Here’s the scene on the steps leading up to Westminster Bridge, a place where many endurance swimmers set off in Victorian times.
In 1874 Captain Webb swam from here in order to prove he was capable of swimming the Channel.
Using a slow and rather old-fashioned breaststroke, he made it to Waterloo Bridge in ten minutes, got the tide just before Southwark Bridge and ended up at Tower Bridge after a total of 40 minutes. He’d made his point and the following year he became the first person to successfully swim across the Channel …. and an overnight sensation.
Webb’s rival Captain Boyton also set off from Westminster, although he did it wearing his famous rubber life-saving suit.
I’ve had incredible help from two archivists this week – Elizabeth Wells at Westminster School and Terry Head at City of London School. Both went to great lengths to investigate their school’s links with Thames swimming and dug up some brilliant stories.
Today I finally got to interview ‘King of the Channel’ Kevin Murphy, who has swum the Channel 34 times – more than any other man in history. In 1980 he swam from Richmond to Gravesend, that’s 43 miles in just over 17 hours, making him the first person to swim the length of the tidal Thames. “I dreamed it up,” he told me, “because I thought it was a good challenge.”
Five years later ‘Queen of the Channel’ Alison Streeter, who has swum the Channel 46 times – more than anyone in the world – took on Kevin’s challenge. She completed it in 14 hours, 28 minutes.
But the recent bye law means it’s unlikely anyone will be allowed to swim all the way along the tidal Thames again.
Alison has retired from swimming and doesn’t give interviews but her mother Freda kindly agreed to talk to me.
Back to the bridges – this time London Bridge and Tower Bridge.
Today’s London Bridge, which opened in 1973, replaced a 19th-century stone-arched bridge – but there were many other bridges before that, going right back to a Roman timber structure. In Victorian times a hundred thousand people walked across London Bridge every day. A good spot then, if you wanted to swim and needed a crowd.
It was here in September 1875 that Agnes Beckwith plunged into the Thames. The 14-year-old swam all the way to Greenwich. This is the (modern day) view of where she would have been heading, first stop Tower Bridge.
There was a children’s beach at Tower Bridge from the 1930s all the way through the 1960s (with the exception of World War Two). King George V said local children would ‘have this tidal playground as their own forever.’ Thousands of people flocked to the beach on sunny bank holidays for a day out at the ‘sea side.’
Today the beach is open for two days of the year, thanks to an event organised by the City of London Archaeological Society (COLAS).
Walking along the Thames looking for the old children’s playground.
A trip to the Greenwich Heritage Centre today, in Woolwich Arsenal.
I’m keen to find out more about Greenwich Beach – which was apparently created in the early 1930s – with imported sand spread out in front of the Royal Naval College. Archivist Jonathan Partington and his colleague Jenny couldn’t be more patient or helpful. Within minutes I’m given five boxes to look through, the best photographic selection I’ve yet to see in any Thames side archives.
This is what the beach used to look like:
Then I went to Greenwich and here is that same beach today:
The gate at the top of the steps is open, but there is a warning sign:
Still, I can’t resist a paddle.
After a break for more research and interviews, it was on to Southend. After a seven month journey down the Thames I was off to the Crow Stone, where the river officially ends (on the Essex side).
But first I went to Southend Pier, the scene of many a race in the old days, to meet with Richard Sanders, Pier and Foreshore Supervisor. He knows everything there is to know, and told me some hair raising stories.
Southend Pier (above) – there’s been a train in one form or another running along this, the longest pleasure pier in the world, since 1890.
Richard in the offices below the pier, with equipment used to rescue people from the mud and/or water:
Southend is home to a number of champion swimmers, like Norman Derham who in September 1926 crossed the Channel on his third attempt, winning a £1000 prize offered by the News of the World. Derham, who was covered in ten pounds of grease, trained for his swim in the Thames. He’d almost managed 21 miles from Blackwall Pier to Gravesend, when a Belgian steamer opened its bilges right next to him and he was sick for three weeks. Derham’s archives are kept at Southend Museum and the images below are courtesy of the museum, with particular thanks to curator Ken Crowe.
In modern times Southend is where Peter Rae set off from when he decided to swim to Kent and back – all on one tide.
Then it was a quick train ride to Chalkwell to meet Iain Keenan, founder of the Chalkwell Redcaps, an open water swimming club with soaring membership. Club members took me on a swim to the Crowstone, the water was balmy but there was quite a swell…
That’s me done from source to sea…but there are more swims to go and more people to interview, such as Ness Knight who will soon be swimming the Thames as part of her Big British Adventure:
For two days a year the old beach by Tower Bridge is open to the public, thanks to COLAS. This morning hundreds queued to get down the usually locked Queen’s Steps. There were children with buckets everywhere, just like in the 1930-50s, only their buckets were to store archeological finds. This is what I found:
Today I swam 7 kilometres in the Thames! From Buscot Lock to Radcot Bridge, a one-day trip with SwimTrek.
Today I took part in the Great London Swim, a mile round Millwall Dock. It was originally going to be held at the Royal Victoria Dock, but tests found the water was ‘unsafe for immersion sports.’ Around 3000 people took part, I was in the ‘white wave’.
Are we coming full circle? In Victorian times there were floating baths on many a river, including the Thames. There are now plans for new baths on the Thames,
Busy writing the first draft of the book, and following up interviews I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, like a chat with Charlie Wittmack who in 2010 as part of his World Triathlon swam the Thames…and continued swimming all the way to France.
Last month I met with James Stewart, President of the Otter Swimming Club, one of the oldest surviving clubs in the country. Formed in London in 1869, it still holds races in the Thames today. Their earliest river race was in Shiplake - where club members (below) are pictured on a houseboat in 1905.And here is the club today:
I’ve also been interviewing more Thames swimmers, such as Wouter Van Staden who swam across the estuary, and brothers Richard and Dave Walsh who for five days swam from Lechlade to Teddington in 2009 to raise money for Leukaemia Research. They were accompanied by their dad in a kayak.
Martin Garside from the Port of London Authority kindly took me out on a PLA patrol boat through central London, to show why it’s not a good idea to swim around here. ‘The Thames is a dangerous place,’ he says, ‘it’s not a theme park or an adventure playground.’ He was accompanied by Steve Rushbrook, PLA deputy harbour master for the tidal Thames, who has worked on the river for 20 years. Between January and October this year there were 153 ‘confirmed persons’ in the river, 23 were ‘swimmers in difficulties’. There have already been 35 deaths.
Bob Bradley, marine inspector, has worked for the PLA since the 1960s.
January 31, 2014
Just finished a first full draft of the book, and another round of interviews – including with Thames swimming event organisers the Human Race and the Great Swim Series.
And what a great story the Boulter’s to Bray swim is and the way they have resurrected a grand Maidenhead tradition.
I now have a timeline I’ve drawn up of Thames swims that is pages and pages long…. from the 1300s to today.
1726 Benjamin Franklin swims three and a half miles
1807 Byron swims three miles
1826 A party of printers swim four miles for a 20 guinea bet
1840 The aquatic jockies swim naked across the Thames
1865 A ‘who can swim the longest’ race
1869 The one-mile amateur championships begin
1873 A great gala on the Thames, and plans approved for a floating bath
1875 Swimming is the ‘mania of the hour’