Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘On the way to Kew,
By the river old and gray,
Where in the Long Ago
We laughed and loitered so’
William Ernest Henley (1849-1903),
‘On the Way to Kew’
The district of Kew was the starting point for one of the most famous swimming championships on the River Thames, a five-mile course to Putney which first ran from here in 1890 and, except for the interruption of the First World War, continued until 1939. When I arrive at Kew Road Bridge the scene is disappointing; from street level it looks more like a motorway, but as I start to walk across the bridge I see a brown, silty beach at the far end providing easy access to the water. I think of a report I read from 1882, when a woman and her two-year-old child were spotted here and when a passer-by commented that it was ‘cold for the child to be out’, the woman replied, ‘it will be colder soon’. Two bodies were later found tied together with a handkerchief and apron, with the child bound to her mother’s waist.
The Thames has always been a place of tragedy and death, whether deliberate or accidental, and Kew is no exception. It was incidents like these, and particularly the plight of unmarried mothers, that inspired Jerome K. Jerome to a more sombre passage in his otherwise comical Three Men in a Boat, when the three friends discover the dead body of a woman, lying ‘very lightly on the water’. She had ‘loved and been deceived … left to fight the world alone, with the millstone of her shame around her neck’. After keeping herself and her child ‘in miserably paid drudgery’ she eventually drowned herself and the river ‘hushed away the pain’.
But Kew plays a happier role in the history of Thames swimming as the setting for the five-mile long-distance championship. This initially began in 1877 and was known as the ‘Lords and Commons race’ because the cup was subscribed for by members of both Houses of Parliament. The original course was from Putney to Westminster Bridge or vice versa, then it was changed from Putney to Charing Cross. In 1879 the race was handed over to the Metropolitan Swimming Association, and was later run by its successor, the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA). In August 1890, ‘owing to the dirty state of the river’, the ASA decided to move it to Kew. The course ran from Kew Railway Bridge, half a mile downstream from where I’m standing, to Putney Pier. Sixteen swimmers competed that first year, with eleven finishing and qualifying for ‘standard certificates for swimming the journey within 10 minutes of the winner’. By 1897 ‘colonials and foreigners’ were taking part; in 1899 the winner received a sixty-guinea challenge cup and the race began from the ‘Anglia Boat-house at Kew’. Only three men entered that year and just one managed to finish because the water was so cold.
Other races were held at Kew as well. In 1891 clubs affiliated to the ‘City of London Swimming Association’ had held their annual 1,000 yards swim from ‘Maynard’s Boat House to the Ibis Club House’. The following year the Zephyr Swimming Club, ‘one of the best known amateur organisations in the metropolis’, had their annual mile handicap with nineteen people swimming from ‘Kew-bridge’ to the ‘Ship at Mortlake’, while the ASA held a 1,000 yards race from ‘Kew-bridge’ to the ‘Ibis Boat-house’.
Kew was also the starting point for a memorable long-distance swim by seventeen-year-old Annie Luker when, in August 1892, she set off for Greenwich intending to swim eighteen and a half miles to ‘establish claim to the female championship of the world’. By London Bridge, the press reported, she was showing signs of tiring but she ‘struggled on with the utmost gameness’, refusing to leave the water. However, after nearly five hours and having covered sixteen miles, with ‘no refreshment at all’, she was helped out of the river and on to the accompanying boat, exhausted. Apart from Madame Mitchell swimming from Kingston to Henley in 1888, this is the earliest long-distance Thames swim by a woman I’ve yet found, and, as usual, further information is thin on the ground. Annie was born Hagar Ann Luker in 1870, in the Thames-side market town of Abingdon, one of eight children whose father, John Pearson Luker, was a swimming professor who was said to have trained Captain Webb for his Channel swim. While she appears to have started her career as a river swimmer, she went on to become a famous high diver. In January 1894 she was appearing at the Royal Aquarium, diving ‘from the mid-air platform into the shallow tank used by the male divers’, took part in an aquatic entertainment at Earls Court, and in May that year performed a ‘sensational dive’ from London Bridge.
A reporter from the Pall Mall Gazette described her as a ‘quiet, innocent-looking’ little figure, with ‘timid dark diving eyes; the sort of girl one would expect to scream at a black beetle’. Yet she was thrilling London on a nightly basis diving 70 feet into the Aquarium tank, sometimes sharing the billing with a boxing kangaroo and a talking horse. Her debut had certainly been dramatic; the feat had already been performed by a number of men when a member of the audience stood up to declare that a woman could do it. Annie Luker duly made her perilous plunge and ‘the effect was electrical’. She had wanted her husband - ‘I’m married, you know’ - to make the challenge but ‘he was too nervous’ so a friend took his place. Her husband, however, couldn’t overcome his fears: ‘he never comes to see me, he couldn’t stand it. We live close by, and he waits for me at home.’ In 1895 she was described as Champion Lady Diver, still at the Royal Aquarium, where she continued to dive until 1900, and she was now appearing in the press as part of an endorsement for Ellimans Muscle Rub Lotion. She also worked as ‘swimming instructress’ at the Caledonian Road Baths in London.
Meanwhile, the long-distance amateur championship from Kew was still going strong, and in 1905 The Times reported on ‘certainly the best race ever seen’. John Arthur Jarvis had held the title for seven years but this time he met his match in the form of B.B. Kieran, the Australian amateur champion, and D. Billington, who’d won the mile amateur championship a few weeks earlier at Highgate Pond on Hampstead Heath. Jarvis made a ‘plucky effort’, but was overtaken by both men, with Billington the eventual winner. In 1914 the race was won by H.C. Hatfield, but it was then put on hold during the war, resuming in 1920 with ‘very few competitors’. In 1925 it attracted twenty-seven of the ‘world’s best swimmers’ and was won by Paulo Radmilovic, also the winner in 1907. Radmilovic, born in Cardiff in 1886, had a glittering career, representing Great Britain in five Olympic Games, twice as captain of the winning water polo team.
The Kew to Putney race for men continued until the outbreak of the Second World War, while at some point a separate race for women was introduced. In 1921 the ‘ladies’ long distance swimming championship’ from Kew to Putney was won by eighteen-year-old P. Scott from Cardiff. Twenty-two women took part and all completed the course.
In 1923 the winner was Hilda James, already a swimming superstar who had won a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp as a member of the British 4×100 metres relay team. When the Americans took gold with their speedy style, sixteen-year-old Hilda asked them to teach her their novel stroke and then introduced the American crawl to the UK, making her a ‘pioneer of modern freestyle,’ explains Ian McAllister, her grandson and biographer.
Born in 1904 in Garston, Liverpool, Hilda’s religious upbringing meant she was not allowed to do RE at school and so as an unusual alternative she was taken for swimming lessons at the local baths. Although at first she hated her hand-knitted costume and didn’t fancy cold water, after dodging lessons by hiding in the changing cubicle she was encouraged into the pool. Bill Howcroft, a respected swimming race official, soon spotted her star qualities and started to coach her; Hilda James then began competing at ASA championships and took two surprise gold medals at the Olympic Tests in 1919. This was despite having left school at thirteen to help her mother and sick brother, and now working full-time as a shop assistant. After the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, swimming in a roped-off canal basin in cold, dirty water, she became known as ‘the English Comet’, dominating ASA competitions in the early 1920s, officially breaking six world records, and unofficially, because of time-keeping problems, breaking many more. She was invited to the 1922 Women’s Swimming Association of New York American Summer Tour, held to raise awareness of swimming as a sport and hobby for women, and used the Atlantic crossing to trial a new role as Cunard Club swimmer on RMS Aquitania.
Women launch themselves off from a boat at the start of the long-distance race from Kew to Putney in 1923. The winner was Hilda James (far left and closest to the camera) who three years earlier had won a silver medal at the Olympics.
Then, in July 1923, she won the long-distance Thames race, followed the next month by the eight-kilometre Seine long-distance championships, in choppy water full of sewage. But then triumph turned to crushing disappointment. Her mother insisted on accompanying her to the 1924 Olympics. When the Olympic Committee told her there was already a chaperone and that she would have to go at her own expense, she refused to let her daughter go. Hilda was under twenty-one and a minor: there was nothing she could do but bow to her parents’ wishes. That year, however, she won the Thames championship again, before leaving the world of amateur swimming to join Cunard officially as the first celebrity crewmember.
By now she had ‘broken and lowered English records at almost every yards distance available,’ explains Ian. A Gaumont clip from 1927 shows her swimming freestyle like a tornado through the water, followed by breaststroke, backstroke, trick swimming and dives. His grandmother retired ‘to keep house, have a child, and return to live with her parents again’, although in the mid-1960s she would teach Ian and his brother to swim. Then, in 1982, at the age of seventy-six and now with a pacemaker, she brought the house down at Guinea Gap Baths in Merseyside with an impromptu swimming display during a memorial gala for another well-known open-water swimmer, Ernie Warrington.
While Ian always knew about his grandmother’s swimming career, and used to beg for information about her trophies, he only began his research in earnest when his own son was born and ‘it became a mission to leave a record of his interesting great-grandmother’ to go with all the memorabilia. ‘I think she did the Thames because it was on the circuit and coach Howcroft would have put her up to it,’ says Ian. ‘She was a sprint swimmer really and more used to a pool but it was an ASA championship race; and if you put her in water she would swim.’
A 1925 publicity photo of swimming superstar Hilda James in her role as Cunard ‘cruise hostess’ aboard RMS Carinthia.
Ian himself swam up to school level, while ‘my son is a brilliant swimmer, he’s a volunteer lifeguard at Bournemouth and he’s built like an eel’. Yet although he has many medals, trophies and archive pictures, he doesn’t have any of his grandmother’s blue silk swimming costumes: ‘she cut one down and made it into a swimsuit for my brother’s bear!’ Thanks to her adoring grandson’s thirty years of research, Hilda James is better known than many of her contemporaries and to Ian’s delight she was recently nominated for inclusion in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Joyce Cooper winner of the 1931 Women’s Long Distance Swimming Championship from Mortlake to Putney, one of several long-distance Thames races for women.
In 1939, meanwhile, the Thames women’s race from Kew to Putney was won by Ruth Langer, an eighteen-year-old Austrian refugee. Also a noted swimmer, three years earlier Langer had refused to take part in the Olympic Games in Berlin, later explaining, ‘being Jewish, it was unthinkable to compete in the Games in Nazi Germany, where my people were being persecuted’.
As I walk back across Kew Bridge I’m wondering why, with all this illustrious river racing history, I haven’t found any reports of people swimming around Kew any more and, unlike at Henley, Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor and Hampton Court, there are no mass-participation events either. I head down to the Thames Path, stop at the Kew Pier ticket office and ask the man inside if he ever sees people swimming. ‘Not with all the sewage they pump in,’ he says, pointing just past the bridge. I’m later told that in the summer of 2013 a man leapt into the Thames from a pub at Kew Road Bridge for a dare, and swam across the river and back before winning a prize of a pint of beer.
Downstream in the neighbouring district of Chiswick, however, people still swim on a regular basis. In the 1920s there were open-air baths here where ‘brilliant weather attracts parties of bathers,’ explained Pathé News which filmed men and women splashing around together, while dozens clamber up diving boards and hurl themselves off. Today Chiswick is the location of the Great River Swim, held annually from Chiswick Pier and until recently organised in conjunction with a local restaurant, Pissarro. It started in 2002 and is in aid of Chiswick Sea Cadets, who provide activities such as ‘Throw the Rope’, ‘Fishing for Ducks’ and face painting, reminiscent of riverside carnivals of yesteryear.
Steve Newell, the swim’s founder, explains, ‘I’d been doing Iron Man triathlons but I’d retired by then having done twelve years of that. I was talking to friends at the Pissarro one day. I played golf with some of them and we’d been toying with the idea of hitting a golf ball across the Thames when one said, “I bet you couldn’t swim across”, and I said of course I could. I tried it out one summer’s day at high tide, from Chiswick Pier to the Surrey bank, which is about 200 yards. My wife was there watching just in case. I had no doubts about my ability to do it, but there is a lifeboat station next door so help was at hand in an emergency. It was my first time to swim in the Thames, although I’d fallen out of boats before, when it was not that pleasant but not so bad.’
Just as would later happen at Henley and Maidenhead, when Steve advertised a Thames swim others joined in. ‘I let the PLA and river police know and they came and watched. But we found it was fraught with difficulties. If you swim right on high tide there is no current, but at low tide there would be no water. And you are crossing what I call the shipping lane and that can be difficult.’ So the second year they swam parallel to the bank; ‘there is a quiet area near the pier. We did about 600 metres. I borrowed a sizeable buoy from the Human Race people and at low tide I went out and fixed it to the seabed.’
The first year fifteen people took part, the next year numbers dropped, because of weather, and only six people entered. ‘There had been a thunderstorm and the sewers were overflowing. There had been a general alert to canoe and row clubs not to go on the river. So we almost didn’t do it.’ But then Steve says he got a better understanding of the river and in 2004 ‘we went up to one kilometre, to a green navigational pole at the upstream end of Chiswick Eyot, to the island and back. You start by swimming into the tide knowing it will turn in a few minutes, then you keep close to the riverbank as there is less current at the edge. It’s a slightly unfair race because if you’re fast then you get to the turnaround point and the tide is still coming in so you get a good push back. But for a weaker swimmer you get halfway and then you’re swimming against high tide.’
However, he says, ‘people just like to swim the Thames and especially the tidal Thames because it’s a challenge’. A lot of people come from the Serpentine Swimming Club in Hyde Park: ‘where they swim it’s flat and calm and there’s no current and they fancy a change of scenery’. Wetsuits are not required, although ‘the PLA say we have to have insurance, it is a little more costly without a wetsuit rule’. From 2010 the swim was extended to a full mile to include a clockwise circumnavigation of Chiswick Eyot. In 2012, sixty people took part; the most they’ve ever had is 120.
Unusually, Steve was well aware of the swimmers who have come before him even before he launched the Chiswick event. ‘I was introduced on one occasion to a quite elderly gentleman and he had a postcard photograph of his aunt who’d won the race from Richmond Lock to Blackfriars in 1911.’ Steve is also part of a group who swim in the Thames roughly every fortnight, from the Black Lion pub in Hammersmith, half an hour before high tide, to Chiswick Pier. ‘On a sunny evening it’s idyllic, there are nice houses to look at, and with a strong tide and a good stroke you can do it in a quarter of an hour, or you take in the scenery and it takes twenty-five minutes.’ Again many come from the Serpentine Club, most not wearing wetsuits. There is no entry fee and it’s run on a voluntary basis. Steve supplies a dinghy and a friend rows it. On one recent evening they had eleven swimmers, with only one in a wetsuit, and the water was 13 degrees. Rod Newing, who regularly takes part, explains, ‘it is a very scenic and historic part of the Thames’. Steve says the PLA seem ‘unconcerned about the Hammersmith swim, they say they want to work with me not against me. It’s only when there are a hundred people that they want to warn ships and river clubs. They don’t close the river but they send out a warning.’ However, some rowing clubs disapprove: ‘they feel the upstream river belongs to them. They’ve done well, in the Olympics and everything, and they feel they own the river. But they don’t like operating at high tide.’ The PLA insists on public liability insurance in exchange for a notice to mariners and, while this used to be costly, he says the insurance situation has improved. With more organised open-water swims, partly on the back of the triathlon boom, ‘insurance companies are now better able to judge the risks and costs have started to fall to an affordable level’.
As elsewhere on the Thames, there are accidents at Chiswick involving unorganised, careless or drunk swimmers. In August 2003 the owner of a courier company dived into the river at around 9 p.m. to save a drowning man who had ‘drunk one too many’ and was struggling against the high tide. ‘This kind of thing can be dangerous,’ said a spokesperson from Chiswick’s RNLI lifeboat, ‘people don’t understand how strong the river can be.’ The lifeboat had already been called out ‘over 170 times’ that year and had recovered forty-eight people from the river.
Such warnings aren’t new and seem to have increased in the past forty years, initially as we were first encouraged to move away from the river and into indoor pools and now, with the closure of so many pools and lidos, as we make our way back to the Thames. In the early 1980s youngsters in Chiswick were said to be risking their lives by swimming during a hot spell. One resident said, ‘I have lived here for eighteen years and it is only since the Chiswick swimming baths closed that children have been coming here in larger numbers. You can’t stop them wanting to swim. It is very worrying. They haven’t a clue about the tides. They just launch themselves into the water and then panic when they are quickly carried off.’ Sewage can also be a problem. In the summer of 2004 torrential downpours led to the river’s worst pollution incident in twenty years, with blocked sewerage pipes and Thames Water pumping up to one million tons of raw sewage into the river to prevent it from spilling into homes and streets.
Jason Finch, former director of the Thames Explorer Trust, an educational charity based in Chiswick, stresses the general cleanliness of the Thames, but also warns of the dangers of swimming. The Trust work with around 18,000 schoolchildren a year, taking them on to the foreshore at ten sites in London and helping them learn about geography, wildlife and history. ’You’d be amazed,’ he says, ‘at the number of children who live in London yet never go to the Thames … or who come and see the Thames at, say, Docklands and think it’s the sea. A lot of our work is really helping people realise how wonderful the Thames is. It is the cleanest river flowing through any world city and has a hundred and twenty-five different species of fish. Sometimes at Chiswick it feels like we’re overrun with geese, cormorants, swans and herons.’
But as for swimming, the Thames is much wider than people think: ‘at Chiswick it’s 144 metres wide but when we ask visiting school groups how wide they think it is, most guess 50 metres or less! The current is much stronger than people realise as well; it’s not helped by the fact that the Thames is much narrower than it was originally, because of artificially built riverside embankments, so the same amount of water flows deeper and faster than it ever did when the river was “natural”.’
Chiswick is the location of the Great River Swim, which began in 2002 and is held annually from Chiswick Pier.
He says it’s no wonder that two of the busiest RNLI stations are on the Thames, at Embankment and Chiswick, and are among only a handful nationally that have a full-time crew rather than volunteers; such is the demand for their services. ‘The other aspect that makes Thames swimming dangerous,’ says Jason, ‘is the amount of river traffic - you could be hit by a boat!’, whether they be rowers around Chiswick, river ferries and taxis in central and eastern London, or freight ports further east. But when it comes to the Thames foreshore, today it’s a relatively empty landscape. ‘You have us doing our educational work, dog walkers and sunbathers and sometimes the modern mudlarks at work. If you were to go back historically in many places it was an amazingly busy place. Really the foreshore has only become empty since the end of the Second World War.’
But there were plenty of people around on 7 April 2012 when Australian Trenton Oldfield decided to demonstrate against government cuts by disrupting the 158th University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. Footage filmed from the riverbank shows both boats heading towards Chiswick Pier, with several motor boats behind, and then a lone swimmer appears. The rowers pass on either side of Trenton; incredibly, he isn’t hit, and as he ducks under the blades they stop, to cries of ‘you idiot!’ and ‘get out of the water!’ He is then yanked out and thrown on to a boat, to loud applause, and is jeered as he’s arrested and led away.
Trenton had apparently entered the water about five minutes earlier, and waited for the boats to arrive. The race was eventually won by Cambridge. During the subsequent court case he was found to have acted dangerously and ‘displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist’. He argued that the race was ‘a symbol of a lot of issues in Britain around class. Seventy per cent of government pushing through very significant cuts are Oxford or Cambridge graduates.’ He was jailed for six months for causing a public nuisance. Trenton’s stunt received widespread coverage, but record-breaking river swimmer Andy Nation feels ‘he is not a credit to swimming in the Thames’ because ‘like a naughty child he just did it to get attention’.