Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘Here at Hungerford Bridge floating swimming-baths are in the course of erection … [they] will be open for bathers of either sex’
Walter Thornbury, Old and New London, 1873
It’s a sunny morning in May and the riverside at Charing Cross Bridge, around half a mile downstream from Westminster Bridge, is crowded with luxury cruisers, boats with restaurants and nightclubs on board, tourist coaches and open-top sightseeing buses. It’s a good spot for visitors to London, with the steel railway bridge leading over the Thames to the Festival Hall, and nearby the London Eye glinting like a silver beaded bracelet. But in Victorian times this was a bleak place. In the 1820s ten-year-old Charles Dickens worked close by at Hungerford Stairs, opposite the entrance of today’s Embankment Tube station, as a ‘shop drudge’ at a blacking warehouse on six shillings a week. Dickens later described it to his biographer John Forster as ‘a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and swarming with rats’. He was based in the counting house on the first floor, overlooking the Thames, where his job was to ‘cover the pots of paste-blacking’ with paper. ‘No words,’ he said, ‘can express the secret agony of my soul’ as his ‘early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in my breast’. He uses much the same words to describe the young David Copperfield’s experiences at the fictional Murdstone and Grinby’s Thames-side warehouse.
While Dickens would later enjoy swims at Richmond, his early experiences of the river explains why the Thames was such a lurking presence in many of his novels, a deadly sewer lined by festering mudbanks where in the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend a boatman pushes off into the slime and ooze looking for corpses to rob.
But for others it could be a place of safety and pleasure. ‘Here at Hungerford Bridge,’ wrote Victorian author Walter Thornbury, ‘floating swimming-baths are in the course of erection. These baths, which are planned on an extensive scale, containing many thousand gallons of filtered water, will be open for bathers of either sex. Experiments have been made which have established beyond all doubt that the Thames water can be easily and effectually filtered. When filtered it is found to contain a very large proportion of sea-water; in fact, we have heard it said that at high tide it is almost entirely sea-water, clear and green, as at Ramsgate or Margate. But this statement we are inclined to question.’
The idea with the floating bath was to give people a clean, secure place to swim. It was ‘perhaps the most rational means yet decided for diminishing the number of deaths from drowning while bathing in the river, which invariably accompany a hot season,’ reported the press. However, Thames water ‘though improving, is not exactly the fluid in which bathers with delicate stomachs would care to disport themselves’. In September 1874 the Medical Officer of Health inspected 2,083 vessels on the Thames; ninety-three ‘sick sailors had been found afloat’, while of nineteen samples of drinking water taken from the boats, seven were ‘unfit for human consumption’.
The designs for the bath were prepared in 1870 and the Thames Conservancy Board approached for mooring permission. London wasn’t the only city to have floating baths; others did, too, such as Liverpool, where in 1816 a bath in the form of a ship opened at George’s Pierhead on the Mersey. There were floating baths on other rivers as well, such as the Dee and the Clyde, while there were six at different places along the Severn, some lasting into the early 1900s. Within London, in 1819 the Royal Waterloo Bath, built inside a ship’s timber hull, had been anchored off Waterloo Bridge. Historian Ian Gordon has identified seventeen floating baths in Great Britain, most built between 1870 and 1880, and cheaper and quicker than building a swimming pool on land. The tradition elsewhere in Europe went back even further, with floating baths, bains flottants or Flussbader, in Paris, Frankfurt and Vienna in the 1760s. These were more like barges for those interested in the ‘beneficial medicinal effects’ of cold-water bathing.
The plan for the Charing Cross bath involved a pontoon, with the bath in the hollow centre. It would be 6 feet deep in the middle and at night would be ‘emptied and swabbed ready for the next day’. The temperature would be 72 degrees. There were dressing boxes for 150 people, it would open for fourteen hours at a time, and its expected capacity was an impressive 2,500 people a day. In August 1874 the London Standard explained that the new floating bath was at the ‘point of completion’. Certain hours would be ‘set apart for ladies’ and staff, both men and women professional swimmers, would be on hand to give lessons. In the evening the London Swimming Club would give lessons for free. In winter ‘a stream of hot water’ would pass through the bath to regulate the temperature. It must have been very warm; the following year the temperature was regularly raised to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit - no wonder it was called ‘Hot Baths on the Thames’.
The Charing Cross floating baths as depicted in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in August 1875, shortly after they opened. The aim of the ‘super structure of iron and glass’ was to give bathers a safe, clean place to swim.
The Penny Illustrated Paper, however, was sceptical. ‘It remains to be seen how far our comfort will be increased by the forthcoming opening of the floating bath to the west of Hungerford Bridge. At first sight it is certainly not perfect. Why is it covered at the top with glass? Why does not the water run through it, as is the case with each of the floating baths on the Seine?’ Instead it ‘appears to be nothing better than a covered tank’. In 1875 it was moored into position and opened in July that year, around the same time as the new sewer system was completed. Built by the Floating Swimming Bath Company, the ‘super structure of iron and glass’ was 153×25 feet. At one end was the filtering apparatus while at the other was a refreshment room. The Birmingham Daily Post assured its readers that it was ‘larger and in every respect superior’ to baths on the Seine. While the tidal stream was ‘thick and yellow with mud and refuse’ the water in the bath would be clear. Images in the press showed men diving off one of two arched girders, lounging by the poolside dressing boxes and swimming around an ornamental fountain.
The river water was passed through a filtering apparatus, which still allowed it ‘to retain its natural salts and soft refreshing qualities’. There were also attempts to ‘free the bathing water from the tint pervading it,’ reported the Illustrated London News, but ‘in effecting this decolorisation, the water would become less pleasant to bathe in’.
In 1876, the year porpoises were spotted in the area, the bath averaged 700 people a day, far fewer than anticipated. One issue may have been cost; a floating bath - at one shilling a swim - was more expensive than public indoor pools. In December that year the Charing Cross bath was turned into a Glaciarium. The public had ‘shown that they fully appreciated swimming in the Thames in summer, but the winter months found the floating structure empty’. But trying to freeze the water with ‘two ice machines’ so people could skate proved difficult, as the ‘extensive area of glass roof … greatly raises the temperature of the internal atmosphere’. Still, The Times reported ‘ice two inches thick’ had been formed and ‘was skated upon, in the first instance, by two ladies’. It still continued as a bath, however, and was chosen as the site for aquatic displays. On 31 July 1879 one T. Ingram dived 65 feet into the water, which appears to have been a London ‘plunging’ record at the time.
In 1885 the South Eastern Railway Company apparently wanted to demolish the Charing Cross floating pontoon, but had offered it to the City Corporation ‘for use of boys at the City of London School’. So did pupils use the floating baths? ‘The short answer is no,’ says the school’s archivist Terry Heard. In the early 1880s the school moved from Milk Street to the Victoria Embankment and before the new building was finished a group of boys paid a visit, one describing what he saw: ‘At the east end [of the basement floor near the Embankment] is a large iron grating, guarding a mysterious and winding cavern. On the occasion of our visit the gate was open, and I walked through, and was surprised to find myself suddenly on the bank of the Thames. I fancy this subway was used to bring building materials by water, but there were interesting rumours that it was intended for access to swimming baths, which it was suggested might be floated down the river from Charing Cross.’ The floating bath was to be moored alongside the long narrow wharf opposite the school, with dressing boxes provided, and one of two tunnels leading from the school would be used as access.
In June 1881 the Court of Common Council of the City of London had received a letter from ‘Admiral Sir George Elliott, KCB’ asking for ‘the formation of an approach from the Thames Embankment across the Wharf in front of the New City of London School to a Floating Swimming Bath’. This was ‘to be placed in the Thames at the North-west end of Blackfriars Bridge’. It took the City Lands Committee nearly a year to recommend that the request be turned down, with the plan finally being abandoned in 1885. A decade later and the City of London School had its first organised swimming team, perhaps taking advantage of a swimming pool in the nearby St Bride’s Institute. The school’s own ‘fine swimming pool’ opened in 1937.
According to some reports, after a sale by auction failed to meet the asking price the bath was ‘scrapped’. But on 2 September 1891 the Morning Post declared, ‘London is once more in possession of a floating swimming bath.’ In the intervening seven years the bath (apparently the same one) had been ‘lying unused in the Surrey Commercial Docks, having been purchased by a syndicate’ but it had now ‘undergone a process of improvement, amounting almost to transformation’. The bath was moored ‘within 50 yards’ of Cleopatra’s Needle and named the Cleopatra Swimming Pool and was ‘entirely new in many of its features’. The main one was that the water no longer came from the Thames, but was ‘drawn from the main of the New River Company, and as it is to be frequently changed the only serious objection to the old floating bath will no longer hold good’. This suggests the problem with the original bath wasn’t just cost and weather, but concerns about the state of the water.
The bath’s foundation weighed 750 tons, and piles had been driven 25 feet into the bed of the river. The water rose and fell with the tide, and the swimming area, said to be the largest in London, was 133 feet long by 25 feet wide, with the depth ‘graduated by means of a false bottom’. Pumps heated the water, the bath was illuminated at night with electric light, there was ‘a well-appointed café where bathers can obtain light refreshments’, and it was open every day, including Sundays.
But again the bath didn’t last long. In 1893 the Highways Committee turned down a licence renewal application, deciding that ‘the retention of the bath in its present position, or the placing of it in any other position on the river near the Embankment, was not desirable, nor of any great advantage to the public; while, on the other hand, the structure itself was not, nor in their opinion could it be made, ornamental’. This was despite accusations that ‘in this exceptional weather the Council was standing in the way of poor people obtaining at a cheap rate the opportunity to bathe in the natural stream’, which was met with cries of ‘No, no’.
In 1894 a proposal to ‘moor or fix’ the bath on ‘the beach at Southend’ was approved, but four years later it was sold to a ship breaker for £300. The original cost of the bath had been £23,000. But again the dream of a floating bath wasn’t quite over and in 1899 the Leeds Mercury referred to ‘a new club’ for Londoners, anchored ‘somewhere off the embankment’, with a promenade deck ‘whereon on sultry days in summer members can listen to sweet music and gaze romantically into the swift flowing, muddy Thames’. The river was ‘dirty’ but ‘odourless’, although there was an ‘evil smell’ coming from penny steamers whose smoke was said to be ‘harmless’. For years, said the paper, London had had a floating bath but there had not been enough public support, because bathers didn’t believe it could possibly be clean enough and instead took their ‘morning dips elsewhere’. It’s not clear what came of these new plans.
Today there is little on Thames swimming at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. Archivist Alison Kenney has searched numerous prints and photographs of river panoramas, ‘but none of the index cards say anything about swimming apart from the one about the Charing Cross floating bath’. The one image they do have shows the bath neatly tucked to one side of the Thames, the surrounding water clear and calm. But if architect Chris Romer-Lee has his way, there could be floating baths on the Thames again. He’s director and co-founder of Studio Octopi, which in 2013 was one of five practices selected for the Architecture Foundation’s Open Call to develop ideas for the future of the river. ‘Our idea was legal swimming in the Thames post completion of the Super Sewer,’ he explains. Work is scheduled to begin on the Thames Tideway Tunnel - otherwise known as the Super Sewer - in 2015, if it gets planning permission. At twenty miles long, it will connect with thirty-four of the most polluting sewer overflows and by 2023 will ‘catch 96 per cent of the current levels of sewage discharge’.
Studio Octopi’s original plan was to design ‘some slightly bonkers swimming enclosures that sit or float in the river at Blackfriars Bridge North Foreshore and King Edward Memorial Park Foreshore, two Super Sewer building sites. We’ve just got an idea that seems believable if a whole series of factors falls into place! If the Super Sewer doesn’t get permission other clean-up options will be considered as they still need a solution to overflowing sewers.’ However, until recently Chris wasn’t aware of London’s heritage of floating baths, although ‘I’ve always loved swimming; it’s a bit of a family obsession and there are stories that an elderly relative used to swim across the Thames at Hammersmith sometime in the 1980s.’
When he saw the Open Call, ‘I was at Lake Zurich where they have swimming areas and lovely sophisticated changing rooms. I thought, why can’t we swim in the Thames if the Super Sewer is going to make it cleaner?’ It was only much later, after being selected for the Open Call, that he found out about the old floating baths at Charing Cross. At the Blackfriars Bridge North Foreshore the initial plan was for four pools, including one devoted to lane swimming and one for wild swimming, which Chris believed could be popular with City workers and tourists. At low tide there could be water cascading between the pools so ‘it’s not so murky’. The shallowest pool, at 500 millimetres deep, would be for children, while the deepest, at 1,500 millimetres, would be a semi-submerged floating pontoon, just as in Victorian times. Response to an article on the plans was mixed. One reader commented, ‘Two words: Weil’s disease’, but another said they had spent their childhood swimming in London in the 1950s and even ‘learned to snorkel in the Thames’.
By 2104 Studio Octopi’s plans had changed; now there would be one site, at Blackfriars Bridge, and this time they wouldn’t use Thames water. ‘The response from the public and swimming community has been phenomenal,’ says Chris, ‘and although unfunded we’re continuing to develop designs that address the biggest concern, water quality. What if the plans to resolve the sewage overflows into the Thames weren’t tackled for another ten years? How could we get Londoners swimming in the Thames sooner, tomorrow even? The solution was simple. Build a steel pontoon with pools set within the structure, therefore physically separating them from the Thames water, yet maintaining a visual link with the river.’ This would effectively give ‘the illusion of swimming in the Thames when in fact the water was freshwater (rainwater or tap). We see these new proposals as a stepping stone to actually swimming in the Thames.’
Will swimmers return to the Thames in central London? Studio Octopi’s new plans for floating baths at Blackfriars Bridge.
The floating pontoon would offer a twenty-five-metre lap pool, a plunge pool and paddling pool all within a 60×10 metre structure moored off Temple Stairs along Victoria Embankment. Surrounding the pools would be a ‘generous open-decked area for relaxing and enjoying the amazing views up and down the river’, just as in Victorian times. Key to these proposals, says Chris, is seeing them as ‘an extension to the civic spaces along the river, re-establishing a physical link between Londoners and the Thames’. The baths would be connected to the Embankment via a walkway, with changing and washroom facilities at street level. As with the original scheme, they would be ‘enclosed by our now trademark native reeds and rushes. A visual sign that London’s river is clean and healthy and given the chance plants will grow in this tidal stretch of the river.’
The floating baths, if they do happen, is yet another example of using the Thames in the same way as we did in the past, whether forming open-water swimming clubs or organising river races. Once again we are returning to the waterway with ‘new’ ideas, only to find out they’re not new at all. Press coverage of Studio Octopi’s plans has been substantial and, as with the Victorian floating baths, media reports expressed enthusiasm at a new place to swim, tinged with scepticism that the Thames is the place to do it. The context is similar, too; in 1875, when the Charing Cross bath opened, the new sewer scheme had just been completed, while Captain Webb’s crossing of the Channel meant outdoor swimming was hugely popular. In the twenty-first century there are again new sewer plans, as well as a resurgence in outdoor swimming. Even the development of the plans is the same, initially using Thames water and then switching to tap water.
I cross over Charing Cross Bridge to the south side where there is a series of easily accessible small sandy beaches. One lies just by the National Theatre, on the Queen’s Walk, where the air smells of cooking burgers and people stroll in the sunshine dodging low-flying pigeons. A locked gate blocks the steps to the beach, but the sand is pitted with recent boot marks. I can hear the waves at the shore, the tide has washed up seaweed and beer cans, the water is a uniform brown. ‘See, here’s a beach!’ exclaims an American woman. ‘Look at the sand!’ ‘I wanna go on it,’ says her son. ‘You can’t go on it.’ ‘Why?’ he whines but his mother has already walked away and so half-heartedly he starts to cry.
For a moment, in the sun, it’s easy to imagine children cooling off here on a hot day, not caring about pollution or even if they could swim. An 1842 lithograph by William Parrott, one of the few images held by the Museum of London with evidence of Thames swimming, shows a group of boys undressing on the foreshore below Waterloo Bridge getting ready for a dip. But in modern times people were more likely to try and kill themselves here.
Actress Damaris Hayman remembers people jumping off London bridges ‘to finish themselves’ in the 1950s: ‘a lot of people thought of it as a way to end it all, and people mostly picked Waterloo Bridge. If they were fished out alive, and they were quite often fished out alive, then they had shots, typhoid and so on. They had tetanus shots and everything you can think of. The fear of what they might have picked up was seen as a greater hazard than the actual drowning.’
This didn’t seem to be a worry for the characters of Iris Murdoch’s 1954 novel Under the Net, when one drunken night Jack Donaghue and friends decide to swim in the Thames. They check the time for high tide, set off down Upper Thames Street and find the river ‘thick with scum and floating spars of wood, full to over-flowing in the bosom of London’. Despite this and a smell like rotten vegetables, they undress, keeping an eye out for river police. Jack shoots out into the open river, the sky above cascading with stars, behind him the black hulls of barges, ‘the whole expanse of water was running with light. It was like swimming in quicksilver.’ Eventually he feels the tide turn and it’s time to leave, ‘a tension had been released, a ritual performed’, and like river swimmers before and after him, he is ready for the new day.