A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames
Published by Aurum April 2015
‘Hurrah .. for Caitlin Davies who fearlessly dives into the Thames to restore its reputation as a source of pleasure and even sensuality … Armed with Davies’ fascinating book, it is time for Londoners to rise and reclaim the river,’ Philip Hoare, The Guardian
‘Caitlin Davies’ warm, gleeful, beautiful biography of the Thames sets out to consolidate and record it . . . Big on detail, long-forgotten facts and anecdotes, contemporary and historical, personal and social, the book follows the Thames, section by section, travelogue style,’ Anna Morell, Outdoor Swimming Society
Limited edition prints of the Downstream jacket are available from illustrator Joe Lyward
The Story behind the book: a journey that began in January 2013
While I was researching Taking the Waters, about the famous bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath in north London, 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.
Channel champions also trained in the Thames, like Mercedes Gleitze – the first British woman to swim the Channel, in 1927 – and Ivy Hawke – the third British woman to cross the Channel – as well as famed high divers Annie Luker and Marie Finney. Then there are the men who swam and trained in the Thames, like manacled diver Jules Gautier, Montague Holbein and Captain Webb.
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 those who have been drawn to its waters.
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. A stone 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 an Edwardian postcard of Henley Baths.
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 traveling 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 where 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.
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, where the Surrey Ladies Swimming Club used to hold their long distance endurance races. Seldom has the Thames looked more unappealing.
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. She was a member of the Surrey Ladies Swimming Club, pictured below (image kindly provided by the Local History Room).
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.
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.
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. 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: Westminster Bridge, a place where many endurance swimmers set off in Victorian times, including Channel champion Captain Matthew Webb. Webb’s rival Captain Boyton also set off from Westminster, although he swam wearing his famous rubber life-saving suit.
In 1874 Captain Webb swam from here in order to prove he was capable of swimming the Channel.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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. The water tasted nasty compared with the Upper Thames…
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.
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.’ 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.
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’
Delivered the manuscript, which at 100,000 words is a lot longer than I’d intended…
Selected press coverage:
- A feature on ‘wild swimming’ in Le Monde..…Comme un Anglais dans l’eau
- ‘Why we love and fear the Thames’, the Museum of Water at Somerset House
- An interview on Monocle 24 Radio about floating baths
- A mention of Downstream in the Wall Street Journal
- Radio 4 PM feature on wild swimming
- The Ecologist features open swimming in the city and the Urban Plunge exhibition
- A piece for Tate Etc. in which contributors write about a work of art from the Tate’s collection. I chose a beautiful photo-lithograph by Roni Horn, from Still Water (The River Thames, for Example).
- Essex band The Avenue to release a CD inspired by the stories in Downstream, with songs dedicated to Victorian exhibitionist Jules Gautier and dare devil diver Annie Luker
- ‘9 people you didn’t know that made history swimming in the River Thames’, written for BBC History Magazine
- An extract in The Telegraph
- A review in The Independent
- A review in The Evening Standard
- A chat on the Moncrieff Show, Newstalk, Dublin
- A review in the Guardian
- London Thames swimming on the Robert Elms Show BBC London
- A review from the Outdoor Swimming Society
- Video clip from the Thames Baths Project on Kickstarter
- A feature for the Independent
- A blog for the Museum of London
- A feature for Town & Country Magazine
- A feature in the Ham & High
- Feature in Mail on Sunday Travel
- A review in the Telegraph
- A feature in Jocks & Nerds
- A podcast with Modern Notion, New York
- A feature by Agence France-Presse (AFP)
- A review from the River & Lake Swimming Association
- Thames swimming on Woman’s Hour, recorded at Clifton Hampden, the first in a two part feature
- Wild swimming feature in the Evening Standard
- An interview on BBC Newsnight for a wild swim feature, aired August 20th
- A review in the Times Literary Supplement
- A second feature on Woman’s Hour recorded at Putney with Doloranda Pember
- September: an interview with RFI – Radio France Internationale for a feature on swimming in the Thames
- A three week show case on Thames Swimming opens at the Museum of London
- A blog for Lido London, ‘Why I Swim’
“a fascinating cultural history of swimming …”
– Liz Hoggard, The Independent)
“a joyful historical and geographical frolic”.
– Iain Finlayson, Saga Magazine
“Davies had dipped a toe in the river once – 40 years ago – before starting on this book. She’s far from a zealot, which is why she can be read with pleasure by those who wouldn’t dream of pulling on a wetsuit themselves.”
– Michael Kerr, The Telegraph
“Like a masterful front crawl Caitlin’s prose looks effortless and never lacks pace … a story of remarkable individuals who fought against time, tide and prudish attitudes to bathing costumes in a bid to conquer the river. Book of the month by several nautical miles.’
– Matt Brown, Londonist
“An enthusiastic ‘history and celebration’…she describes well the dislocating sounds and sensations that accompany any journey through the Thames water without a boat”
– Peter Stothard, Times Literary Supplement
“a very satisfying read”
– Alexandra Heminsley, The Arts Show, BBC Radio 2
“a selection of remarkable stories”
– Christopher Woodward, Evening Standard
“a long, absorbing read about the River Thames…Davies has immersed herself in the world of open-water swimming and become intimate with all its politics, arcane rules and unsung heroes and heroines”
– Kathy Watson, The Oldie
“Caitlin Davies takes us from Thames Head to Southend, entwining part and present, in a truly bounteous book, brimming with swimming exploits and records, races and regattas, delights and dangers, paddles and picnics. ”
– Jean Perraton, River & Lake Swimming Association
Previous Talks and Events:
Women swimming the Thames: forgotten champions’, University of Hertfordshire, De Havilland Campus
William Henry and the formation of the Royal Life Saving Society, RLSS Award Ceremony, Guildhall, London
Illustrated talk on Thames Swimming old and new at the London Society, The City Centre, 80 Basinghall Street, London
Wandsworth Heritage Festival, Putney Library, 5/7 Disraeli Road London
Greenwich Literary Festival
International Sports and Leisure History Colloquium Manchester Metropolitan University
Rivers of London Cityread Festival
Footprints River Walks Festival
Chiswick Pier Trust,
Panel discussion on urban swimming at The British Library
Stoke Newington Literary Festival
Wandsworth Historical Society
Open Water Swimming Show
Thames Swimmers Display
Forgotten Thames Champions
Henley Literary Festival
Archway with Words Festival
Richmond Literary Festival
Urban Plunge at the Roca London Gallery
Two features on Thames Swimming on Woman’s Hour
A feature on Thames Swimming on Radio 4 PM
A chat about Thames swimming in Oxford on BBC Radio Oxford
A chat about Essex swimming on BBC Radio Essex
Talking London Thames swimming on the Robert Elms Show
The River’s Tale, a radio feature on the liquid history of the Thames, by Claire Crofton
An interview on Monocle Radio about Thames floating baths then and now