Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
‘It [is] as necessary that a boy should learn to swim as it [is] that he should learn to write’
Reading Swimming Club, 1897
Reading has two long, straight stretches of water, one above Caversham Bridge and the other below Caversham Lock, which may well explain why the town has one of the longest continuous traditions of Thames swimming. Regattas were held here in Victorian times, although this area of the Thames was famous then for another reason: it was where ‘baby farmer’ Amelia Dyer, eventually hanged in 1896, threw the bodies of the children she had murdered into the water. As for swimming, when the narrator of Three Men in a Boat arrived in Reading he declared ‘the river is dirty and dismal here’. But that didn’t stop bathers, although the fact they were naked, as elsewhere on the Thames, was a ‘public nuisance’, according to the press. In the summer of 1888 ‘Disgusted of Wargrave’ complained that ‘a dozen or more men and boys lark about the banks in a state of nudity’ at Reading and Caversham.
As in Oxford, there would be several official swimming areas at Reading, but this time there would also be a pool especially for women. The oldest and best-known bathing spot is King’s Meadow beside Caversham Lock, also called the Corporation Baths. In the early 1800s local brewer Jonathan Tanner occupied the land and in the summer he and his two sons rode down the towpath on horseback where bathers were ‘a great nuisance’ during hay-making time, running through the hay and throwing it at each other. When the boys were chased, they ‘pitched into the Thames and mixed with those who had not trespassed,’ explained W.S. Darter in his Reminiscences of Reading 1888. So Tanner decided to have ‘several cartloads of broken bottles’ thrown into deep water ‘where the older boys bathed at the foot of the lock. This did not wholly prevent bathing but many persons were injured by having their feet cut and ever after [he was] dubbed Mr Bottle Tanner.’
Bathers enjoy the King’s Meadow men’s pool in 1876. It was opened in 1834, situated in an inland cut and filled directly from the river. Following improvements in 1893 it became ‘one of the finest open air swimming baths in the country’.
In 1834 the King’s Meadow swimming baths were officially opened, situated in an inland cut and filled directly from the river, for men only with single, monthly or season tickets. Such was their popularity that they were improved more than once over the years, with a new bathing house built ‘near the pound-keeper’s lodge’ in 1843 and a further renovation fifty years later.
There were also three local swimming clubs that used the Thames in Victorian and Edwardian times: Reading Swimming Club, the Island Bohemian Club and the Winter Bathers.
The Reading Swimming and Lifesaving Club was founded in 1885, and would eventually have its headquarters at the King’s Meadow pool. A founding member was Harry John Isaacs who received a bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society, established by two doctors in London in 1774, for rescuing a man from the Thames, and he also played in the club’s water polo team that held its matches near Caversham Bridge.
The Reading Swimming Club organised annual entertainments, just like its counterpart in Lechlade, with its 1892 event held at its headquarters at ‘Simonds’s Baths, in South-street’, where the press reported ‘many of the races were keenly contested, particularly that for the championship of Reading’. The programme included a life-saving exhibition and drill, with various methods of rescue first being explained by a Mr W. Henry, and then demonstrated by club members. Spectators were ‘very numerous, the building crowded to excess’.
William Henry was none other than one of the founders of the Swimmers’ Life Saving Society, which started in 1891 and later became the Royal Life Saving Society. He was an English Salt Water and Thames champion, winning the long-distance championships from Putney to Charing Cross Railway Bridge in 1887. He also played water polo for England, wrote prolifically on the art of swimming and was an expert in ‘scientific swimming’, the forerunner of modern synchronised swimming. Henry lived in London and organised massive swimming and life-saving galas at various places such as the Highgate Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath. He also kept in close contact with the Reading club. In 1893, when members turned their attention to life saving, he ‘did what he could to start a class’, as well as giving public demonstrations, and in 1897 he was the club’s vice-chair.
The Reading Swimming and Lifesaving Club was founded in 1885, with its headquarters eventually at the King’s Meadow men’s pool.
By the end of 1893 the King’s Meadow pool had undergone ‘extensive alterations and enlargement’. The bath was now 230 feet long and 60 feet wide, with a ‘water area of 1,400 square yards’, 6 inches of concrete at the bottom and a springboard. The south end of the bath, at 3 feet deep, was reserved for learners with a lifeguard rail fixed just above the waterline. There were covered seats, with hat and coat hooks, nine large dressing boxes, a ticket office and toilets. Thames swimming at Reading was now becoming more sophisticated, for both spectators and participants. Sluice doors allowed water in and out of the pool; ‘this arrangement was deemed necessary, as lowering the sluice door it will allow all leaves, etc., floating on the top of the water to run off’. An iron fence was erected around the bath, high enough at the south end to ‘prevent the interior from being seen from the Railway’, presumably to shield train passengers from the sight of naked bathers.
It may seem amazing now that a riverside town was actively encouraging its inhabitants to swim in the River Thames, providing not only a pool but a springboard, an area for learners and other amenities. But back in the 1890s this was seen as a civic responsibility, to meet the needs of swimmers by creating official bathing spots, and the Thames was the obvious place to do this. Reading, boasted the local press, ‘may now congratulate itself on having one of the finest open air swimming baths in the country’.
During the opening ceremony at the King’s Meadow pool a 100 yards scratch race was held, when swimmers set off together with the objective of being the first to finish, within a radius of three miles. There were just four competitors, the water was ‘very cold’ and they were watched by 150 spectators. By spring 1894 the Reading Swimming Club was said to be ‘flourishing’. It now had a new clubhouse on ‘Moss’s Island’ - an area of Fry’s Island leased by local boat builder and water bailiff Bill Moss - ‘for the use of the members’ carrying out a life-saving class. The club had seventy-three paying members and twenty honorary members. Henry Creed, club president for many years, told that year’s annual meeting that ‘he had always felt a keen interest in swimming matters, looking upon natation as an art which the town ought to foster in every possible way’. He was also calling for ‘the provision of swimming baths, with qualified instructors in life saving, for ladies’.
When the club held its eleventh costume entertainment in the new baths the following summer ‘the weather was delightfully fine and the programme most attractive’, but as with other Thames swimming clubs its fortunes were mixed and ‘the attendance was decidedly meagre’. There was a Boys’ Race, a 100 Yards Championship of Reading, a Plato Diving Competition - ‘an exceedingly interesting event’ - and a Two Widths’ Blindfold Handicap for club members which ‘produced much merriment, the swimmers taking nearly every direction but the right one’. At the club’s entertainment in 1897 swimming was ‘not so popular as a spectacle it ought to be, and there was no very large crowd at the Corporation Baths’, despite an ‘excellent programme of events, ranging from grave to gay, and intermingling with the serious sport such items as greasy-pole climbing, blindfold race, etc.’.
At the club’s annual dinner in 1897 Mr C.T. Murdoch stressed the ‘great importance in a town like Reading, situated, as it was, on the banks of the principal river in the country, that there should be a good swimming club’. ‘Hear, hear’ came the response. The club was now affiliated with the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), which meant it was ‘one of the first institutions of its kind in the country’. The ASA had been formed in 1886 (although its history is complex and it’s often said to have been founded much earlier) and by 1892 it had 404 affiliated clubs.
The Reading club had also established the Albert Palmer Challenge Cup for ‘competition amongst boys of the Reading Board Schools’ and teachers were urged to ‘take the boys down to the baths and get them to practise swimming’ because ‘it was as necessary that a boy should learn to swim as it was that he should learn to write’. Club members competed outside Reading, winning prizes in Luton, Southampton, Basingstoke, Swindon and London, as well as Life Saving Society’s awards and Royal Humane Society medallions.
In 1901 the club was still holding a water polo match and races at the King’s Meadow pool in the presence of ‘many spectators’, but the following year was ‘a variable one, successful in some ways and disappointing in others’. While the club had assisted the town’s Mayor ‘in the carrying out of the aquatic programme at the Coronation festivities, which were a great success’, this meant its annual sports day held the next month ‘financially and numerically was a fiasco’. However, the winner of the championship of Reading now received a ‘new and handsome challenge vase’ and the ‘minor items were full of fun and amusement, especially the blindfold and bandbox race’. The polo team, meanwhile, had for the first time beaten Oxford University, by two goals to one.
In 1903 the women of Reading finally got their own bathing place, with the opening of a Ladies’ Swimming Bath at King’s Meadow. Women may have been allowed to swim at Abingdon’s bathing place for four days a week in 1881, and one day a week at Oxford’s Tumbling Bay in 1893, but in Reading they got a whole pool to themselves, in what appears to be the first women-only bathing spot on the River Thames.
The Ladies’ Bath was a brick and tile building surrounding an open-air pool, smaller than the men’s at 120 feet by 45 feet, with a depth of 6 feet at the deep end and 3 feet at the shallow, and a filter stopped fish getting into the pool. The press called it ‘a handsome structure, replete with every convenience’, completed after ‘considerable engineering difficulties’ and ‘second to none in the country’. A women’s section of the Reading Swimming Club was founded the following year, and by 1914 there was a separate Ladies’ Swimming Club.
Both the men’s and women’s bathing places at King’s Meadow had long opening hours, in the summer from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., with free swimming on some afternoons. Schoolchildren were offered instruction in swimming and life saving, with an annual gala held at the Ladies’ Bath.
The Reading Swimming Club also swam with the Island Bohemian Club, which had begun in 1908, with some overlap in membership. Bill Moss, who had the lease on Fry’s Island, with a bowling green, tennis courts and chalets, was a founding member. Each April, swimmers who used the King’s Meadow pool tended to ‘migrate upstream’ to the backwater side of Fry’s Island. In 1909 the Reading Swimming Club and the Island Bohemian Club held a gala on the island, with a one-mile open race, comic costume competition, fancy diving, a mop tournament, duck hunt, greasy pole and water polo as well as school races. People were no longer simply racing in the Thames; as in Lechlade it was now a place for some serious entertainment, involving everyone from established athletes to schoolchildren.
A third group of local swimmers were the Winter Bathers, a mix of business people and members of the Reading Swimming Club, who swam year round, including on Christmas Day. The Thames has always been loved by cold-water bathers and the inhabitants of Victorian Reading were no exception. ‘We must mention the unique Association of Winter Bathers who daily have their matutinal “dip” in the open river no matter how severe the weather,’ reported The Reading Illustrated in 1899. ‘They number twenty-six, ranging in age from the “Commodor” Mr Samuel Hood, who celebrated his ninety-second birthday last February, and Master Fred Russell aged thirteen!’ Hood was said to have ‘bathed almost from his earliest youth up to the present time’. Despite regulations against nude swimming, meanwhile, many still bathed naked. One member of the Winter Bathers reportedly went in with his drawers on his head, saying, ‘they said we had to wear them, but they didn’t say where!’
In 1902, the Winter Bathers had their customary New Year’s morning swim and then a celebratory breakfast where toasts were honoured and a telegram sent ‘To His Majesty the King, Sandringham, — The winter outdoor bathers of Reading assembled at their annual breakfast wish to you and her Majesty the Queen Happy New Year’. The reply they received read ‘Am commanded by the King and Queen to thank you for your kind message of good wishes for the New Year’. In 1908, ten veterans were entered for the Winter Bathers’ handicap race, and by 1911 there were two women in the group, including a Miss Cusden who was said to be a keen winter bather.
Then, in 1936, Reading residents were promised a new place to swim on the Thames when the town corporation bought View Island, four acres of land near Caversham Weir. ‘It will not be possible to do more this season than make temporary arrangements for bathers,’ explained the press, ‘but eventually an elaborate lido is to be designed there. Facilities will be provided for bathing and sun-bathing, fishing and tennis. There will also be a tea pavilion.’ Lidos were all the rage in the 1930s, with at least 180 being built in Britain between 1930 and 1939. This was part of a government drive to improve the nation’s health, but lidos were also places where people could enjoy some leisure time, with sunbathing terraces, cafés and spectator areas. While the one on View Island doesn’t seem to have materialised, another one was ‘nearing completion on the south side of the river at Scours Lane’, with accommodation for sixty-two men and sixty women. There were two other Thames lidos in the area as well, Freebody’s lido on the Caversham bank and Cawston’s on Piper’s Island, both close to Caversham Bridge. The former was known for its high diving board and, alongside it, an iconic silhouette of a figure diving which featured in government propaganda after the Second World War to show Britain was ‘back to its old self again’.
During the 1940s the King’s Meadow pools were still used for school swimming lessons, just as children were taught at Tumbling Bay in Oxford. Local historian Gillian Clark, who was born in Caversham and grew up in a boat-building family in Reading, remembers, ‘I was taken to the women’s pool when I was at junior school, terrifying it was. It had thick green water, you couldn’t see the bottom, and the tiles were slippery with algae. I can feel the terror now. I certainly didn’t learn to swim there! There was a woman called Miss Francis with a long pole with a loop on it and she put the loop around you and walked around the bath and you’d be dragged along. Every one of my generation in Reading remembers Miss Francis. I suppose the school had a duty to teach us, as we were a riverside town. All the local children were marched down there in the late 1940s, it was run down even then, with wooden cubicles and no showers, but it was the only pool I knew. The King’s Meadow bathing place was the council pool and we were at council schools.’ Gillian’s husband Tim, who had learned to swim ‘in a clean sea-water pool in the West Country’, got a shock when he had his first school lesson in Reading in 1948 at the King’s Meadow men’s pool: ‘the water was cold, green and dirty, the surfaces slimy, the surroundings falling to pieces.’
River racing in Reading continued into the 1970s, with the local police holding a one-mile race in July. Here PC Barrett receives the winner’s cup from Chief Constable Jesse Lawrence.
Gillian, meanwhile, wasn’t allowed to take a boat out on her own until she could swim across the river to Fry’s Island and back, so her uncle taught her in the Thames when she was around eleven. ‘We went in from our own landing stage outside what had once been Bill Moss’s boathouse and continued to swim from there every summer. For others who wanted to swim it was about finding a place where there was a beach on public land and you could get in and out. Depth was the big issue; one step and you could be out of your depth, but we knew our own strip.’
But in the mid-1950s she stopped swimming in the Thames because ‘it was seen as something not to do, and you had the alternative of a clean warm indoor pool. And one day I saw a steamer emptying its chemical toilet into the Thames and after that, never again!’ Yet although river swimming fell out of fashion among the general public in Reading, clubs continued to hold races on the Thames, with organised competitions right through to the 1970s.
In the mid-1950s Tim Clark, who belonged to the Reading and Caversham Boys’ Club, took part in an inter-club mile swim. The boys were ‘taken up to what we call Fishery Islands, where you still see people swimming today,’ explains Gillian, ‘and then told to swim to Caversham Bridge. He was about fifteen. He was just told, “off you go”. There was no big turnout of safety boats, just a “get in and swim”. A mile is quite a long way if you’re in the middle of the river and panic, but it was no big deal; it was what you did then.’
Today what swimming club would take teenagers into the Thames, let alone tell them to swim a mile without a major risk assessment, as well as public liability insurance, wetsuit requirements and accompanying kayaks and boats? On the other hand, Tim’s 1950s race must have been regarded as enough of an occasion for him to be presented with a silver medallion, which he still has today, and to have his photograph in the local paper.
Organised river racing in Reading continued into the 1970s, with the local police holding a one-mile race in July, ‘long after most people had deserted the river for the heated pools,’ says Gillian, ‘as they would have had to know how to jump in and rescue someone in trouble’.
John Humphries, a member of the Outdoor Swimming Society, remembers ‘hundreds of people used to swim in the Thames at Reading in the 1970s during the annual music festival’. But others stopped swimming because of increasing numbers of swans, believed to carry avian TB, as well as the risk of larger boats, and illegal sewage discharge.
However, local people still used the various lidos into the early 1970s. At Scours Lane, situated in a sandy bay where the river was relatively narrow and cordoned off with pieces of wood chained together, there was a diving board, a safe area for children, changing rooms, lawns for sunbathing and picnicking, and Alf’s Café for drinks and sandwiches. It closed around 1974, as did Freebody’s and Cawston’s, meeting the same sorry fate of many of the country’s lidos.
Some twenty years earlier the King’s Meadow men’s pool had also closed, having been filled in and turned into a builders’ yard. In the mid-1970s this in turn was demolished and replaced with housing. When in 1974 the women’s pool was closed in order for new filtration units to be installed, it was never reopened. It was then leased to a sub-aqua diving club but after the lease expired it fell into disrepair. Yet in recent years campaigners have fought a determined battle to save the women’s pool, said to be the oldest surviving outdoor municipal pool of its kind from the early Edwardian era. In 2003 there were plans to turn the site into a hotel, but then the ironwork supporting its partial roof gained Grade II listed status. Campaigners successfully blocked further development plans, clearing rubbish from the pool and holding open days. At the end of 2013 it seemed that Clifton Lido Ltd from Bristol would get the go-ahead to restore the site, with a year-round open-air pool, spa, restaurant and bar. But critics were concerned that the admission price would be too high, and urged the council to bid for Lottery funding, along with the King’s Meadow Campaign, to keep the baths under public ownership. ‘I will always feel sad that Reading Borough Council were so mercenary and heartless over it being a future community and youth engagement project,’ says campaigner Bob O’Neill. ‘They will end up with a private diners’ club - fine while there are enough rich people to use it but when they move on, the pool as it has been proposed, will not be OK to cater for the needs of the “proletariat” in great numbers.’ The campaign has drawn a lot of support on the lost lidos website, with many saying the pool brought back happy memories. ‘I swam here as a small girl and would very much like to bring my grandchildren who live in Reading to swim here,’ wrote one woman, while another commented, ‘On the River Thames our Heritage [sic]! Beautiful river. We need to keep more Community Baths!’
To those like Bob O’Neill the crucial thing is to preserve this heritage - in the shape of the actual building, but also to connect us to the way we used the Thames in the past, in a town that once had pools and lidos, galas and clubs, where a group of winter bathers could send a telegram to the King and fully expect a reply and where the authorities went to great lengths to provide safe, clean areas in which to swim.
Campaigners have fought a determined battle to save King’s Meadow women’s pool, pictured today. It opened in 1903 and appears to have been the first women-only bathing spot on the Thames.
When Gillian sends me photos of the old King’s Meadow women’s pool today I’m taken aback by the way it’s both beautiful and decrepit. By the side of the bath are green pillars topped with ornate wrought-iron leaves, but although it’s clearly being cared for the steps lead down into stagnant looking water where two ducks swim next to a cardboard box. The wooden changing rooms are missing doors; there are rubbish bins on the side and weeds around the edge. Yet there is something about the scene that makes me think of a stage set, as if it’s just crying out to be revived, longing to be filled once more with novice schoolgirls learning to swim and the sound of women’s laughter, this first ever pool that we were given on the River Thames in 1903.