Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘How pleasant from that dome-crowned hill
To view the varied scene below,
Woods, ships, and spires, and, lovelier still,
The encircling Thames’ majestic flow!’
William Gifford (1756-1826), ‘Greenwich Hill’
It’s a muggy summer’s morning when I come out of Woolwich Arsenal station on my way to the Royal Arsenal, once one of the world’s leading centres for manufacturing munitions. There are only around forty miles left of my journey down the Thames and today I’m heading for the Greenwich Heritage Centre, on the hunt for swimming stories and in particular the history of Greenwich Beach. Few people are out today on this recently redeveloped site; a woman is walking a dog; another pushes a crying child in a buggy. I walk down a wide paved boulevard past expensive looking apartment buildings and then Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum. In the distance, by the Royal Arsenal Pier, there seems to be a group of soldiers and it takes me a while to realise they’re rather menacing cast-iron statues. At the pier itself there’s the usual warning sign, ‘Danger of injury, strong currents and deep water’, but when I look over the wall the Thames is motionless and the water silky.
In Victorian times this was the site, just east from here, of the Princess Alice disaster, then described as ‘one of the most fearful disasters of modern times’ and today as the largest loss of life in peacetime Britain. On the evening of 3 September 1878, several hundred passengers were returning from a ‘Moonlight Trip’ from Swan Pier, near London Bridge, to the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens in Gravesend. The Princess Alice was one of the London Steamboat Company’s largest saloon steamers and at around 8 p.m., in sight of North Woolwich Pier, it collided with a Newcastle-bound collier, the iron-built SS Bywell Castle.
The Princess, said to be as ‘thin as eggshell’, split in two and sank in less than five minutes. Many passengers were trapped in the wreckage and drowned; others died in the river in which an hour earlier raw sewage had been released from sewer outfalls at Crossness. Hardly any of the passengers would have been able to swim, only ‘a few’ were reported as having made it to shore, and the paddle steamer was barely equipped with life belts - the press reported ‘a dozen or more lifebuoys onboard’. Around 700 people died, just 100 were rescued. Newspaper reports painted a horrific scene, with ‘the river for a hundred yards full of drowning people screaming in anguish and praying for help’. The captain of a nearby ship launched a rowing boat and although he managed to save eleven people the vessel was so swamped by crowds ‘shrieking and drowning’ that ‘it was necessary to quench their hopes by knocking them off the sides with the oars’.
On the evening of 3 September 1878 the paddle steamer Princess Alice sank in less than five minutes after colliding with the coal ship SS Bywell Castle. Around 700 people died, many because they were unable to swim.
As a result of the tragedy, new safety rules were put in place, as they would be again after the Marchioness disaster in 1989. All ships would pass each other on the port side, and there would be enough life belts for everyone on board. The Thames River Police’s rowing boats based at Wapping were replaced with steam launches, there was a new plan for dumping sewage at sea, rather than releasing it downriver, and treatment works on shore.
A few years later, on the northern side of the Thames from here, the Royal Pavilion Pleasure Gardens (now the site of the Royal Victoria Gardens) was the starting point for a race which ‘severely tested the strength of amateur swimmers,’ reported The Times, ‘as they had to go nearly across the river and back again’. But by the early twentieth century newspaper reports on Thames swimming in this area tend to focus on tragedies. In the summer of 1920 two men jumped into the river at midnight ‘for a wager’ and attempted to swim across, with fatal consequences. The same year a man was seen swimming fully dressed before he sank opposite the North Woolwich Pier. As ever with the story of the Thames, the river has been the scene of pleasure, sport and, because of lack of swimming ability and pollution, tragedy.
Upstream from here, to the west, is the Thames Barrier, one of the world’s largest movable flood barriers, run and maintained by the Environment Agency, and where the PLA swimming ‘ban’ from Putney ends. The barrier opened in 1982, spanning 520 metres across the Thames, and is said to protect 125 square kilometres of central London from flooding caused by tidal surges.
This was a memorable spot for Kevin Murphy during his 1980 swim, when he ran out of tide. ‘They were building the Thames Barrier at the time,’ he explains, ‘and I had to fight to get through the pillars, the workmen were cheering and shouting me on but I couldn’t get through. I spent six and a half hours going nowhere. I might have gone backwards a bit. The water was really, really black and sludgy. What I didn’t know then, what no one told me, was I was stuck at the sewage works, which was probably why I got ill.’
Lewis Pugh’s Thames swim around a quarter of a century later, to raise environmental awareness, was rather different. When he reached the barrier he had no problem getting through, but was shocked at what he saw: ‘the Thames Barrier is supposed to save us from climate change and a storm surge, but when I got there I realised how small it is, it’s nothing.’
I leave the Royal Arsenal Pier and walk back up the boulevard to the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which houses the local history library and the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s museum. There’s nothing on display about swimming, but archivist Jonathan Partington has some documents in the search room where the local studies collection is kept. It’s quiet inside; there are the usual filing cabinets, wooden tables and the obligatory blue carpet. I sit by an open door, hoping for a breeze; outside I can see a courtyard where a group of primary school children in full camouflage gear are being told to stand in line.
Jonathan hands me a thin manila folder labelled ‘Swimming’. Inside there is just one newspaper article, dated September 1895, which explains, ‘we announced that Sam Martin, of Woolwich Baths, would attempt the great swim from Blackwall to Gravesend. He has done it - that is the attempt. But he did not quite succeed in the task.’ Only two others had managed this nineteen-and-a-half-mile course, Captain Webb and Fred Bownes. Martin almost made it; he only had half a mile to go when the tide turned and his friends persuaded him to stop. ‘Unless a man can swim 3¼ miles an hour with the tide for six successive hours,’ noted the paper, ‘he has no chance.’
Jonathan wheels in a trolley with three old books of council minutes, as well as a huge cardboard box of photographs labelled ‘Greenwich beach, pier and power station’. Then he brings a box of Thames riverside pictures, and yet another until I have five boxes on the table in front of me. This is the best photograph collection I’ve yet to see in any Thames-side archives.
I’ve already read that in the 1930s an official beach was created at Greenwich, and, like the beach near Tower Bridge, it became a popular place for those who couldn’t afford to get to seaside resorts. Children went beachcombing, collecting pieces of chalk and selling them, while families spread out on the sand to have tea. I’ve also been told by Dr Pieter van der Merwe, General Editor and Greenwich Curator at the National Maritime Museum, that in the hot summer of 1933, in the depths of the Depression, ‘when to provide some holiday opportunity for people who had no means of taking one, Greenwich Council imported thousands of tons of sand and - presumably with Admiralty agreement - spread it on the Royal Naval College foreshore’.
I open the box of Greenwich beach photos and pick up an undated picture showing a tiny narrow strip of sand with a short flight of stone steps leading down from the Royal Naval College. Another photo, dated 1930, shows groups of children and women - most fully clothed in coats and hats - picnicking on the foreshore. Some of the children are paddling, their trousers and dresses hitched up. Then I bring out a copy of the same photo, only this time it’s labelled ‘the children of Greenwich enjoy a day on their beach in the late 1920s’. So perhaps the beach was only officially opened - or extended - a few years later, as the foreshore was clearly being used well before the 1930s.
An illustrated newspaper clipping from June 1933 describes ‘the beach at Greenwich where little Londoners love to play at being at the seaside’; women sit on the stone steps; children and dogs play on the sand. The background is heavily industrial, full of building and boats, for the southern side of the Thames from Rotherhithe to Woolwich had long been a place of shipbuilding, although the naval dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich had closed in 1869. Postcards were produced of the beach; one also appears to be from the 1920s, in the foreground a young man in shorts seems to be towelling himself dry and it suddenly strikes me that so far no one is actually swimming in any of these pictures.
Another postcard of Greenwich Beach shows the same landscape - the beach, the steps, the boats - only this time it’s Edwardian, judging by people’s clothes. There’s a similar Edwardian bathing scene at low tide in the pages of a guide to Greenwich, issued by the council in the mid-1920s, and now there are two naked boys in the foreground who appear to be getting dressed after a swim. The beach ‘is at the eastern end of the Pier’, a long stretch of ‘shingle which at low tide and, of course at the proper season, affords facilities for bathing, paddling, etc., of which the juvenile population eagerly avail themselves’. Greenwich had ‘long been noted for the hospitality it extends to strangers,’ notes the guide, with hotels and private apartments, tea gardens and ‘temperance restaurants galore’. In all ‘there is an enjoyable and inexpensive holiday awaiting the visitor at Greenwich, and a variety of interests such as can hardly be found in any other place in the kingdom’.
Outside in the courtyard I hear a man shouting, ‘foul language? Do we tolerate it?’ ‘NO!’ shout the children in their camouflage outfits. A few moments later the sun comes out and they start doing star jumps.
The beach at Greenwich where ‘little Londoners love to play at being at the seaside’ pictured in 1935. The beach was in use from Edwardian times, by the 1930s guards were on duty to ensure better safety, and children still used it in the 1960s.
I pick up the books Jonathan has put on the trolley, three volumes of the Greenwich Minutes of Proceedings of the Council between 1929 and 1933. There are references to an open-air swimming bath in Blackheath and a public bath and washhouses on Trafalgar Road, where mixed bathing had proved very popular, with 1,196 people on a single day in July. But there is no mention of any beach. However, there is one last reference in a newspaper clipping. In August 1938 the Kentish Mercury explained that the Greenwich Life Guard Corps, a group of volunteers linked to the Royal Life Saving Society, had started work on Greenwich Beach on August bank holiday to ‘prevent loss of life’. As with Tower Beach, children may have always played here but by the 1930s there was more emphasis on safety. A bell tent had been erected for guards to use in an emergency and the ‘latest apparatus in resuscitators’ was kept at Greenwich Pier. The guards were drawn from ‘all ranks of competent swimmers’, most with life-saving awards, including members of the police, Sea Scouts and swimming clubs attached to Greenwich baths. First aid had already been given to ‘numbers of children who have cut their feet while paddling on the foreshore’, as well as to a boy who ‘had his head cut with a swimming bucket’. A few years earlier a boy had been saved from drowning here and his rescuer given a shaving set in recognition of his valour. The guards were on duty from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and ‘their presence has given a feeling of security to many parents this week for during the hot weather hundreds of children have been using the beach’.
Like other Thames bathing spots, the Greenwich beach would have been closed during the Second World War, although again children continued to use it in the 1960s. One visitor remembers playing on the beach and coming home ‘with at least one item of clothing (and some skin) coated in sticky tar. I think it came from ships flushing out their fuel tanks.’ Fast forward some fifty years and in 2012 the Greenwich peninsula, upstream from Woolwich and now home to the O2, was to be the site of the longest artificial city beach in Europe, catering for up to 5,000 people with tonnes of sand ferried by barge from Norfolk as part of a Peninsular Festival. But this never materialised and the company concerned went into administration. I leave the heritage centre still puzzling about the history of Greenwich Beach: when was all the sand shipped in and where did it come from? In the case of the Greenwich peninsula, our attempt to reclaim the Thames ended in failure.
I get the Docklands Light Railway to Greenwich, turning left out of the station to where the Cutty Sark is marooned on dry land. Greenwich, a World Heritage Site with several famous maritime landmarks, has long been a popular ending place for endurance swimmers. The National Maritime Museum, however, has no specific objects or documents relating to Thames swimming, although it was at Greenwich that Agnes Beckwith arrived in 1875 from London Bridge and Annie Luker from Kew in 1892.
There are also records of people bathing here since the early 1800s, and as with other places along the Thames it could be dangerous. On one summer’s Sunday afternoon a young boy was ‘suddenly taken with the cramp, when he sunk to rise no more’, while another ended up in hospital after diving into the river and ‘his face was severely cut and his head injured by a stone at the bottom’.
But, as usual, it was naked bathing that the local authorities viewed as a bigger concern. In 1835 a ‘gang of fellows’ were seen bathing on the banks of the river at Greenwich ‘in defiance of the order very properly issued by the Lord Mayor’. The nuisance had ‘recently become intolerable’, considering the number of passing passengers ‘hourly conveyed by the steam-boats’, and the press hoped the police would step forward and ‘do their duty’. The river would hardly have been clean. In 1859 Greenwich’s Medical Officer noted several epidemic diseases, scarlatina, measles and cholera - the latter in part attributed to ‘the emanations from the waters of the Thames’ which had the summer before reached ‘a putrid condition’ with hundreds if not thousands of houses draining their sewage into the water.
In 1871 one case of indecent bathing did go to court when the police arrested sixteen-year-old Edward Vinten who, along with two other boys, had been seen ‘in the river near the Ship Tavern, preventing several guests from being seated on the lawn’. The Ship was one of several celebrated waterside hotels by the Thames (and now the site of the Cutty Sark) known for its ‘public dinners’ and particularly its whitebait. These were caught in the river until pollution drove fish - and the local fishing industry - out of the area in the 1860s. Another hotel, the Trafalgar, was famous for its ‘Ministerial fish dinners’ when cabinet ministers travelled to Greenwich to mark the close of the parliamentary session. This was the traditional Liberal venue, while the Conservatives favoured the Ship.
As for the issue of naked bathers, at the time of Vinten’s arrest there had already been ‘numerous complaints made to the police’, and the Chief Commissioner of Police had issued placards ‘cautioning persons against bathing within sight of public highways or resident houses’. Naked bathing was also common among those visiting ‘convalescent small-pox patients’ on board the Dreadnought hospital ship. The young men - aged between fifteen and twenty - were in the habit of ‘standing on barges and exposing themselves’, driving the Revd F. Clarke to write to the police authorities.
During the trial Vinten’s mother explained her son was ‘not a disobedient lad’, and was about to enter ‘upon a seafaring life’. The judge said he could well understand the desire to bathe during hot weather, but there were baths at Greenwich ‘where bathing could be carried out without any offence being committed’. Greenwich baths and washhouses had opened in 1851, while the Greenwich Hospital School had its own ‘spacious swimming-bath’, an open pool built in 1833 and later covered, where pupils were taught to swim. In the end Vinten was fined ten shillings on condition of good behaviour for three months.
I walk around the Cutty Sark and turn right along the Thames Path and there it is, right in front of me, a scene straight out of the archive photographs I’ve been looking at all morning. Here is the exact same strip of beach, the same unchanged set of stone steps. But there are no children playing on the sand or families having picnics, no guards or bell tent. The scene in the distance is still industrial, building cranes and boats, black smoke in the air, but far less grim than it would have been in the 1930s. A clipper boat passes by; it’s not a paddle steamer but those on board are still travelling down the Thames for pleasure, although they don’t need to avert their eyes from naked bathers.
I walk past the Old Royal Naval College where people sit on benches enjoying the sun, and stop at the steps; there is an open gate at the top, but also a large sign warning these are ‘Dangerous steps! Descend at your own risk’. The stone surface towards the bottom is green and slimy, and so is the chain handrail, but they don’t seem particularly dangerous. The beach is covered in grainy beige sand, on which someone has drawn a love heart, dotted with rocks, stones, shells and a piece of broken glass, while in the water bobs a deflated football. I decide to paddle as children used to do, take off my sandals and roll up my jeans, even though the water is swirling shades of brown and I can’t see the bottom. It doesn’t feel too cold; I’d like to get in and swim. The only thing that puts me off, aside from not having a costume, is what might be underfoot after all the stories I’ve read of children getting injured.
Apart from this beach and the one at the Tower, there was another beach on the Thames, some twenty miles downstream in the town of Grays. It officially opened far earlier, in July 1906, with barge loads of sand from Great Yarmouth. The plans had started in 1902 when the suitably named Councillor A.W. Boatman suggested a permanent memorial to mark Edward VII’s coronation, complete with public baths. A few years later the pool was dug, providing work for the unemployed in a town where ‘the distress of the poor was severe’ and a councillor presented a pair of swans ‘to be placed in an enclosure whilst bathing was taking place’.
The formal opening took place on the evening of 30 July, with ‘tremendous crowds and unbounded enthusiasm’. Traders and households decorated roads with flags and fairy lamps; there were fireworks, music provided by the town band and a swimming display of ‘ornamental and scientific swimming’ by Mrs W.B. Knight, gold and silver medallist of the Royal Life Saving Society. The ‘pond’, as it was known, was 91 yards long by 50 yards wide and contained 616,500 gallons of water. In the two weeks before the formal opening, 3,535 had paid for admission. Yet incredibly, considering it was 1906 and women already had a swimming club at Kingston and their own Thames pool at Reading, only nineteen of these were ‘ladies’.
By 1912 the pond was open daily during the summer, with private dressing boxes for hire, and, as with other Thames pools, local schools used it for swimming lessons. But the tide washed the sand away, the beach had to be renewed several times and by 1930 vandalism had become a problem. Within a couple of decades the sand had gone and there was rubbish everywhere. In 1999 the beach was redeveloped as a children’s playground and the pond filled in with sand. Today it’s part of the New Grays Beach Riverside Park, which includes a beach, only this time behind the sea wall. This seems to be in keeping with the way the Thames was once used at Grays; the city beach on the Greenwich peninsula might never have materialised and the Tower Beach is now only open two days a year, but here the foreshore is still for children, even if it’s no longer officially for swimming.
There is an even longer tradition of organised bathing a few miles downstream, on the southern side of the Thames at Gravesend. The Gravesend Bathing Establishment had warm and cold salt-water baths on shore, as well as bathing machines in the river. An advert from around 1800 explains ‘the Warm Baths may be had at a moment’s notice in Summer or Winter’, while the machines were used ‘at all times of the tide, and may be subscribed for by the Month, Quart or Season’.
Aside from river bathing machines, Gravesend was another ending point for endurance swimmers in Victorian times; Frederick Cavill, for example, arrived here in 1876 after his twenty-mile swim from London Bridge. But the only recorded long-distance swims upstream from Gravesend were by two British Channel champions - Captain Matthew Webb and, in modern times, Alison Streeter.
‘Swimming is not unnaturally in vogue this month,’ commented the Penny Illustrated Paper as it reported on Webb’s ten-hour swim between Gravesend and Woolwich on 12 July 1878. Webb, accompanied by two ‘Gravesend boatmen’, dived in at 7 a.m., reached Woolwich just after midday, turned with the tide and swam back to Gravesend. He covered around forty miles, ‘probably the longest distance ever accomplished in fresh water’, and ‘took no alcoholic stimulants during his swim, his only refreshment being a little beef and some coffee’. The press devoted just a paragraph to this swim, and there was no mention of any crowds. Perhaps, considering he’d done the Channel three years earlier, it wasn’t seen as a major feat. In comparison, at the time of his Channel crossing, the Mayor of Gravesend had presented Webb with a purse containing £75, the Assembly Rooms were full to capacity, and the Mayor hoped Webb’s achievement would mean soon ‘every waterman in the town’ would be a swimmer, whereas at the present only ‘one in 50’ knew how to swim. Swimming, as elsewhere along the Thames, was beginning to be seen as a key life skill.
On 2 August 1878 when Webb set off for a 100-mile swim, this did receive more coverage. The plan was to start at North Woolwich Gardens, swim down the river, ‘probably reaching Gravesend about low-water’, turn with the tide and swim back to Woolwich. As the tide turned again, so would Webb, reaching Gravesend at about midnight and then North Woolwich that evening. The press noted that this was ‘an expedition which, should it prove successful, will, as a feat of endurance, be far greater than his former feat of swimming across the English Channel’, during which he’d been in the water for nearly twenty-two hours. But Webb’s plan to swim ‘continuously, without any rest whatever’, for an intended thirty-six hours, wasn’t to be.
He set off with a powerful breaststroke and, hugging the Essex shore, headed towards Gravesend. Two hours later he ‘partook of slight refreshment’ and was ‘swimming in capital condition’ when he reached North Woolwich. But ‘the wind then had increased so much that there was quite a sea on, and Webb consequently left the water by the desire of his friends’. He landed at North Woolwich Pier after nine hours, a fraction of his intended time.
It would be more than a hundred years before anyone attempted anything similar. This time it was Alison Streeter. In 1985 she had swum from Richmond to Gravesend; the following year she decided to do it the other way round. She went back to the PLA, intending to swim from Gravesend to Richmond but ‘they didn’t want to give permission, they said no one has ever gone up the Thames,’ laughs her mother, Freda: ‘don’t issue Alison a challenge!’
This swim, which raised money for breast cancer research, ‘was fraught with difficulties. She would stop so I could feed her and the river was so fast that she went back half a mile, by the time she caught up it was time to feed her again. Around the Woolwich Ferry the tide was due to change and it didn’t. We phoned the PLA and said, “when is it going to change?” They said, “it has”. I said, “don’t tell us that, we’re in the middle of it and it hasn’t!” An hour later we phoned them again and they said “it’s changed” and we said “it hasn’t”.’ Eventually it did. During the downstream swim there had been strong tides and Alison had to move to the sides, while on the upstream swim ‘everything was coming towards her, the water was foul. I don’t even want to talk about what was in it. She was ill for six weeks afterwards. Before the end she was beginning to go a funny bluish colour. But there was a friend and her family on a bridge and they yelled and she saw them and that seemed to do it, because she rolled on her back and then she flew into Richmond.’
In 1991 Alison Streeter was awarded an MBE for swimming and charity fundraising and, like Mercedes Gleitze, she is one of very few women inducted into both the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. The former currently has thirty-six British honourees, of which nine are women, and the latter has fifty-one individual British swimmers, of which thirteen are women. ‘After she stopped swimming Alison was a Channel pilot,’ explains Freda, ’but it was too close for her so she sold her boat, changed her name and moved to a farmhouse in Wales.’ But Freda continues to train Channel swimmers at Dover harbour and in 2005 she herself was inducted in the IMSHOF as an Honour Observer in recognition of the hundreds of Channel swimmers who owe their success to her training, support and advice. ‘Open-water swimming is so big now,’ she says. ‘Thirty-three years ago I started training Channel swimmers, there were six people. Last weekend I had a hundred and twenty.’