Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
Tower Bridge and Tower Beach
‘Children may now use the beach lawfully as well as safely, for the King has given permission for them to have this tidal playground for ever’
The Times, 24 July 1934
I leave London Bridge and head along the Thames Path towards Tower Bridge but the route is temporarily closed and so I stop, not wanting to take a detour right into the Tower of London. I walk down some steps to the shore where waves lap around ancient timber structures; two heavily tattooed men are roaming the beach while a woman concentrates on writing her name on the sand with a sharp stone. A Dutchman asks if I can take his photograph. It’s not the beach or the bridge he’s interested in: he wants to pose with the Shard behind him, the silver needle looming over London Bridge Hospital on the other side of the river. But it is Tower Bridge that attracts most people. Opened in 1894 it’s still one of the most familiar bridges in the world, regularly featured in films and tourist literature. It’s the only Thames bridge which can be raised, the middle section being lifted four or five times a week to allow large vessels to pass underneath. ‘I want to go on the beach!’ a man at the top of the steps shouts to his children and I think, why? There’s nothing much to see down here.
But back in the 1930s, a little way downstream in front of the Tower of London, this was the city’s very own ‘sea side’. Here children of the East End traditionally played on the rocky foreshore at low tide, although this could be a fatal pastime. Officially they were also trespassing on land that belonged to the Crown. When Henry III received ‘a white bear’ from King Haakon of Norway in 1252 it was reportedly given ‘a long leash’ so that it could swim in the Thames and catch fish, but in the fourteenth century Edward III issued a proclamation against bathing in the Thames near the Tower ‘on pain of death’, presumably because it bordered royal land.
When the Tower of London Children’s Beach opened in 1934 King George V promised the children of the East End would ‘have this tidal playground for ever.’ Here families enjoy ‘London’s Riviera’ in 1952.
The 1930s children’s beach was the brainchild of the Revd Phillip Thomas Byard Clayton, explains Rose Baillie, chair of the City of London Archaeological Society (COLAS), who has written a booklet on its history. Popularly known as ‘Tubby’, the Revd Clayton was a man of ‘radiant spirituality, energy, good heartedness and charm’. In the summer of 1931 he came up with a plan for the foreshore which ‘in summer is alive with families’ and when ‘venturesome children have from time to time to be rescued from the incoming tide by boats from Tower Pier, but warning will not keep them from their natural wishes’. ‘Tubby’ believed the area could be ‘a genuine delight to the poor families who frequented Tower Hill’. He received the backing of Lord Wakefield of Hythe, a former Lord Mayor of London who made his fortune founding the Wakefield Oil Company, later Castrol, and who became president of the Tower Hill Improvement Fund. He bankrolled ‘all the beach expenses pre-World War Two,’ explains Rose, ‘and a heap of other good causes as well’.
On 23 July 1934 the beach was officially opened with a grand ceremony attended by the Lord Mayor, the Bishop of London and Lord Wakefield. ‘Now,’ declared the Fund in a report entitled ‘The Great Goal’, ‘on this very spot where, in the Middle Ages the penalty for trespass was also death for man, woman or child’ there would be ‘a safe playground for little ones’. King George V had been petitioned for permission to create the beach and, in a letter read out by Lord Wakefield, he assured local children that they would ‘have this tidal playground as their own for ever’. Wakefield cut a white tape to open the beach and then, reported The Times, ‘the ladder was lowered, to the music of cheerful siren-blasts from ships in the Thames’. Children rushed down to the beach, where free ‘buns and chocolate and unlimited lemonade’ were set out on long tables laden with casks and cardboard boxes of food.
The beach was used for paddling, swimming, building sandcastles and sunbathing. In the coming years there were toffee-apple sellers, entertainers and gala days, and thousands used the spot for their summer holidays. An estimated 70,000 children visited in the first year; in 1935 there were 100,000 children and adults. Most came from Stepney, others from Barking, Bermondsey, Borough, Shoreditch, Tottenham, Bethnal Green and Walthamstow. Teachers brought their classes to the beach as well, just as stateschool pupils would be taken to Thames baths at Oxford and Reading and public school boys would be taught to swim in the river at Eton and Westminster.
The ladder was lowered for up to six hours a day, between April and September, depending on the tides. There was a beach guard and during very busy days the St John Ambulance was on hand to help.
Safety, says Rose, was always a major concern. Leaflets were widely distributed, and a duty waterman was posted 30 yards downstream with a lifebuoy and pole grapnel to rescue those in trouble. His services were called upon three times in the first year. He was then joined by a commercial boatman who offered boat trips and rowing lessons. Yet while eighty-two accidents were reported in two seasons, most were minor cuts and scrapes.
The quality of the water itself, however, didn’t seem to cause concern: ‘we today are very conscious of the health risks of swimming in possibly polluted water,’ writes Rose. ‘Strangely enough, I have yet to find any indication that this was a concern for those involved with the Beach in the 1930s.’ Instead, within a few years it was increasingly being used by hospital convalescents.
In 1936 deckchairs were introduced, as well as 200 cubic yards of ‘clean Essex sand’, which meant the beach was a little higher and so could be used for longer periods. The next year another 300 cubic yards of sand was added and on sunny bank holidays the beach was thronged with deckchairs as people sampled the delights of London’s ‘Riviera’. There were still accidents, however. Children were rescued when they got into difficulties swimming inwater that was 12 feet deep, and at least two drowned near Irongate Stairs when they were swept away by the current.
In September 1939, with the outbreak of war, the beach was closed, as were other Thames bathing spots. By then it had been used by an estimated 400,000 people, such was Londoners’ love of holidaying by the Thames, even within the City. In July 1946 it reopened with new ladders, taken from the SS Rawalpindi, and that year Pathé News filmed ‘Tower Bridge Pleasure Beach’, with ‘800 feet of beach right in the heart of London’. There was ‘plenty of good, soft sand’, to ‘build fairy castles’ or to laze on, with deckchairs ‘for mum to snooze in and dad to read the paper in’. But it had been a close call; the PLA had wanted to remove the sand, saying it interfered with shipping.
There was also a sandcastle-building competition judged by Tessie O’Shea, the actress and singer whose ‘theme tune’ was ‘Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee’. A picture from 1949 shows children eagerly queuing up to enter the beach on 26 September, the last day of the summer season. ‘It was pure joy,’ remembers one visitor, ‘it was freedom, it was a day out, it was our Southend. It was something you looked forward to.’
‘As a kid I was taken to Tower Beach a lot,’ says Ron Osborne, ‘as it was near to Mile End where we lived, having moved from a rundown tenement flat in Shadwell to a proper house in Mile End to avoid the bombing of the Docks in the war. In the 1950s Tower Beach was very popular and was packed at weekends if the sun was out, or even if it wasn’t.’ The Thames might have been declared biologically dead, but the shore was still a social place to meet for lunch and have a singsong, and parents were still taking their children there in the late 1960s with ‘bucket and spade and sandwiches and bottles of pop’.
Yet the beach never quite regained its former glory; the boatmen had gone although there was still an attendant. No more sand was added and, explains Rose, there was growing awareness of ‘the dangers of bathing in a sometimes polluted and strongly flowing river’. In 1971 the beach was closed because of cost, pollution and safety fears, and it stayed shut as ‘an anti-terrorist measure’. Then in 1990 a committee was formed to campaign for the beach to reopen. There was to be a two-month trial and the idea was to truck in more sand and open it for twelve days a month, taking up to 500 people at a time. The committee’s medical adviser, a professor from Guy’s Hospital, told the press that ‘the water quality of the Thames was probably at least as good as most British beaches, and better than some’. However, the plans were dropped after the death in 1991 of one of its chief instigators, Labour politician Donald Chesworth, and the beach remained closed.
In the end London children didn’t get the tidal playground for ever as promised by the King in 1934, but such is the pull of the Thames that we’ve found new ways to use the foreshore. ‘Londoners appear to have forgotten that they have a river,’ says Rose, and few would ‘contemplate crowds bathing in the lower Thames’. But with increasing interest in the shore as an environmental and archaeological resource, the Tower Beach is now open for two days a year with free activities organised by Historic Royal Palaces, COLAS and Thames 21. The event began in July 1998, with access by Irongate Stairs, which the tide reached sooner than the rest of the beach. It was then repeated in 2000 and this time people were allowed to use the Queen’s Stairs. The weekend is intended mainly for children, but anyone can search for treasures washed up or buried on the shore during two hours or so of low tide, the only time of the year the public is allowed access.
On the last weekend in July, I come back to the Tower of London where at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning there is already a queue of about thirty people. Some are mudlarks, I’m told, wearing sturdy boots, camouflage trousers and kneepads, carrying rucksacks and trowels. The original mudlarks were nineteenth-century children and adults who scavenged the banks of the Thames at low tide, looking for coal, iron, brick, copper, canvas, and bones to sell to dealers. In the early twentieth century the word was used to describe schoolchildren who begged passers-by to throw coins into the Thames mud for them to retrieve. Today’s mudlarks search the riverbank for objects of historical and archaeological interest and are more likely to use metal detectors - but they are strictly forbidden at this event. There are around seventy licensed mudlarks, of whom just seven are women.
Everywhere I look are large Health & Safety signs, a warning about Weil’s disease and a long list of rules - ‘Children must be accompanied by an adult. WALK - do not run. The beach is very rocky in parts - be careful how you move. There may be sharp objects on the beach - be vigilant. Do not touch your mouth or eyes after being on the beach.’ Anyone with an open cut or graze is to ask for a plaster, and ‘if you find yourself in deep mud stop and walk back out the way you went in’. The warnings seem excessive to me - how dangerous can it really be to go down to a beach? - but presumably an event like this can’t be run without them. Even sadder is the idea that ‘venturesome’ children’s freedom to play has to be curtailed, as if we can’t trust kids to run around on the sand any more (and perhaps dodge a few rocks and survive some cuts and scrapes) when, after all, that’s what beaches are for. Today’s rules would seem very strange to those who used the beach before us. Now banning swimming and closing down old bathing spots is seen as an easier option than the effort required to create safer places to swim.
COLAS have set up tables on the grass on the other side of the Thames Path, where I meet Rose Baillie. ‘This foreshore,’ she says with a sweep of her hands, ‘was always a place where children played.’ She points behind to the green spire of All Hallows church, one of the oldest in the City of London, where Revd ‘Tubby’ used to preach. ‘He saw kiddies nearly drown,’ she says, ‘but instead of saying “let’s ban it”, he said “let’s make it safer”.’ And he did.I rejoin the queue and chat with a woman from Yorkshire. ‘My dad worked here in the sixties for a construction company and he found this.’ She pulls a small cannonball out of her pocket. Her father died recently and she seems to have brought the cannonball with her as a memento of his life and the very reason she’s here at the Thames. Suddenly there’s activity on the Queen’s Steps: they’re being cleaned with a hosepipe. I lean forward and see the water is right at the bottom of the steps, and I wonder how long it will be before the tide recedes and we’re allowed down. More mudlarks arrive, skilfully managing to join the front of the queue, with ‘hey, mate’ and hearty handshakes.
Now we have to sign a Health & Safety form and put on blue surgical gloves. At last, an hour later, a Yeoman Warder in full regalia says we can enter the Queen’s Steps. A woman shouts, ‘don’t run’ and then asks me quite sharply if I have gloves and if so why I haven’t put them on. The stairs are steep and wet but I manage not to slip, and then I start walking along the beach, with no idea what I’m looking for. There is something dreamy about looking down on stones, strolling on a hot day by the Thames in central London, right at river level for once. I try to conjure up what it would have been like here in the 1930s at the city’s Riviera, with deckchairs and sandcastle competitions, toffee apples and unlimited lemonade.
Today the old children’s beach at the Tower of London is open for two days a year. Children no longer swim, but it’s an opportunity to find riverbank artefacts.
Then I seea man wearing a bright yellow jacket and, assuming he’s a volunteer, I go up to ask for tips. He turns out to be Graham Keevill, a consultant archaeologist and one of the initiators of the foreshore event who has worked at the Tower for twenty years. He is Historic Royal Palaces’ professional supervisor for the beach open day and is known as Mr Archaeologist. ‘It’s a thrill,’ says Graham, ‘even after thirteen years.’ I ask him what people normally find: ‘clay tiles, pottery going back to Roman times. It’s a piece of history, our history, and we don’t mind people taking it away with them.’ A volunteer approaches; he says the tide will be in in an hour and the water will get to the stairs, ‘then we have to get people out. But there will still be a bit of beach and they don’t realise they are getting cut off at the steps, because they don’t want to leave.’
Graham says people particularly like picking up bones; ‘you see them with armfuls, it’s some sort of dinosaur fixation’. Others find cannonballs and broken cannons - the Tower supplied the royal army with weapons from medieval times to the mid-nineteenth century - as well as coins. The Tower was home to the Royal Mint for 500 years until 1812. ‘There is a sense of the people who were up there,’ Graham points to the Tower, ‘and down here,’ he points to the beach, ‘this was the Tower’s own private dock.’ To archaeologists like those involved in today’s event the Thames is a keeper of our history, preserving relics from bygone days on its shore, fragments from the past, signs of industry and battle, even of England’s old place in the world. And now at last, after nearly thirty years, the public is allowed to come here again.
Someone once found a Roman oil lamp, Graham tells me, and there are plenty of clay pipes. ‘That red stuff,’ he gestures down at my feet, ‘is brick or kiln material.’ ‘What, like this?’ I ask, picking up a big chunk. ‘That,’ he says, ‘is a Roman tile, you can tell by the ridge that it was an end-of-roof tile.’ So far all I’ve found is a chocolate wrapper, a plastic water bottle and lots and lots of stones. But then, as he’s talking, I suddenly see a coin-sized piece of pottery with a pretty blue and white design, and then fragments of clay pipes, which I’d thought were bits of discarded tubing.
The beach is busy now; everywhere is the sound of people scraping in the sand, kids filling up buckets with stones and bones. Volunteers have set up a table with pictures of animal skeletons; I hand over a bone and am told it’s a sheep’s metatarsal. Next I present a piece of pipe; it has quite a big central hole so that makes it nineteenth-century, then a green bit of pottery which I’m told is a piece of border ware from Surrey or Hampshire made in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and would have been used for cooking or storing food. By now my arms are aching with all my treasures, the heat is overwhelming and it’s time to make way for the children behind me queuing at the information table, some with bones as big as their hands.
It’s clear that the reopening of the children’s beach at Tower Bridge, even for just one weekend a year, has been a great success, giving us free access to an area we want to explore. Other places could follow, with recent calls for a year-round beach on the Thames. The campaign group Reclaim the Beach argues that ‘with the water cleaner every year, it will soon be fit for swimmers again’ and suggests one could be below Victoria Tower Gardens and another on the South Bank.
Artist Amy Sharrocks also has a dream for Tower Beach. She has been ‘making work about people and water’ for around ten years and her projects include SWIM in 2007, an ‘all-access swim across London’, and Museum of Water at Somerset House in 2014. For the past few years her plan has been to organise a swim across the Thames. ‘I’m doing it to try and get a different sense of London; it’s a conceptual art piece, a dream. I’m not doing it for charity. It’s an artwork. It’s crucial to think about this river and how we use it.’
Swim the Thames is scheduled for 2015 and would start from the south side of the river, ending underneath the Tower of London, where the children’s beach used to be, probably in September, as ‘we need a dry month, before the rain and the sewers overflow’. It would begin about thirty minutes before low tide; swimmers will be pulled by the current, catch the slack water and then be taken around in an arc. At the moment Amy is ‘marshalling people. I have around a thousand names of people who want to do it. Everyone’s like, “Oh I want to swim the Thames, where do I sign?”’ But when she asked the PLA ‘if I could swim from Vauxhall, or anywhere really, they said “no way, no one touches the Thames”. I’m not doing a guerrilla swim: I want them to recognise our right to it. In Roman times London was a water city. Now we’re leading dry lives alongside an oasis of water.’
She had aimed to do the swim in 2012, but this was suspended because of the Olympics, and now the new by-law is in place. ‘They close London off if it’s a race or if it’s to raise money,’ she says, ‘but this is just for the joy of doing it. If just once a year they could stop industry for a swim …’
Others are attracted to Tower Bridge, too, not for art but for stunts. In July 2009, twenty-seven-year-old Australian freestyle motocross star Robbie Maddison performed a spectacular back-flip over an open Tower Bridge. ‘People say I’m crazy,’ he told the press, ‘but I just love taking on these huge challenges.’ Tower Bridge also remains a good spot for a demonstration. In July 2012 a man said to be a taxi driver dived head first off the bridge during a protest by London taxi drivers who wanted to be allowed to use the Olympic Games Lanes. A group of drivers travelled slowly across Tower Bridge tooting their horns when, at around 4 p.m., a man apparently wearing a white Stetson hat, jumped. He was pulled from the river by the marine policing unit, having, according to the BBC, almost been hit by a tourist ferry and arrested for a public order offence - just like Victorian divers Tom Burns and Marie Finney who once dived upstream at London Bridge.