Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
Shiplake and Wargrave
‘There is probably more than one Otter who harbours the idea of returning to the tideway for a repeat of the great races of Victorian and Edwardian times’
Otter Swimming Club, 1990
In the summer of 1888, some six miles downstream from Reading at Shiplake, the Otter Swimming Club held its first annual ‘Up-River race’ on the Thames. This was a quarter-mile course with eighteen entrants, and for many years the village would remain central to the club’s illustrious history.
Otter ranks among the earliest of British swimming clubs, formed in London in 1869 with a spirit that was ‘quite intangible and indefinable’, according to former president Dr Carmichael A. Young, with ‘fellowship and camaraderie’ cementing the members together. It’s not the oldest club - the London Swimming Club was formed in 1859 and the Brighton Swimming Club in 1860, while the Serpentine Swimming Club started in 1864, based on the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park with water originally pumped from the Thames. But it is Otter SC that is one of the few survivors of the dozens of clubs that once raced in the Thames, and still swims there today.
I’m meeting current president James Stewart at the Lansdowne Club in west London, an ‘exclusive and traditional’ private members’ club, with a very specific dress code. ‘Ladies’ dress’ should be of ‘a conventional nature’ - smart trouser suit, jacket, skirt or dress, and definitely no leggings - and only when the ambient air temperature exceeds 24 degrees C are gentlemen allowed to remove their jackets, and even then they are not to be draped on chair backs.
A busy Edwardian scene at Shiplake Lock, near where the Otter Swimming Club held its first annual ‘Up-River race’ in the summer of 1888.
The entrance to the club is so discreet that I don’t even see the name plaque until I’m right at the front door. Thankfully I’m allowed in and I join James in the bar area, where adjacent seating overlooks the club’s swimming pool. He is an immaculately dressed, broad-shouldered man in his early seventies and the second longest serving honorary secretary in the club’s history. While early documentation is thin on the ground, he believes the club was formed by members of Oxford and Cambridge university swimming clubs and the Otters incorporated their colours, the dark blue of Oxford and the light blue of Cambridge. The club’s first treasurer was William Terriss, a Victorian actor famous for his appearances on the London stage, who also served as president from 1870 to 1871. In 1897 he was murdered on the steps of the Adelphi Theatre, where he was performing, by an out-of-work actor who’d accused Terriss of ‘persecuting’ him; he was found guilty but insane. Today Terriss’ ghost is said to haunt Covent Garden Tube station where a figure in a grey suit - some say an opera cloak - has been seen by more than one ticket inspector over the years.
Otters were founder members of the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), having resigned from its predecessor, the Swimming Association of Great Britain, ‘because they were admitting professionals and we were an amateur club,’ explains James. This came after years of bitter argument, for the distinction between professionals and amateurs was an important issue in the late Victorian period, when only ‘gentlemen’ could afford to compete for honour rather than money.
Until 1869 there had been little distinction between amateur and professional swimmers, there were few baths and race meetings were of a ‘rough and ready character’. Then the Associated Metropolitan Swimming Clubs was formed, and their rules defined a professional as anyone who competed for money prizes, wagers or admission money, or who ‘made the art of swimming a means of pecuniary profit’. But an amateur could still compete against a professional for ‘honour or for money’ if they handed the prize over to the association. The group then changed its title, first to the London Swimming Association and then to the Metropolitan Swimming Association. But aside from lack of funds, the main problem was ‘the frequent and apparently interminable discussions’ as to what defined a professional swimmer. Volume nineteen of The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, an edition devoted to swimming and published in 1893, has an entire chapter on the Government of Swimming and the history of the amateur movement. Its authors were William Henry (at one point vice-chair of the Reading Swimming Club) and Archibald Sinclair, who, along with Henry, was one of the founders of the Swimmers’ Life Saving Society.
The Metropolitan Swimming Association decided an amateur could race against a professional for a ‘prize or honour only’, and in 1874 the group became the Swimming Association of Great Britain. But the bickering continued and ‘wordy warfares’ meant the ‘better-class clubs held aloof from the association’. The professionals formed their own group, but this soon collapsed. By 1884 the Otter Swimming Club had had enough and resigned ‘in consequence of a dispute on the vexed question of amateurism and professionalism’. Eight or nine other clubs immediately followed suit and formed the Amateur Swimming Union. There then followed a ‘desperate struggle for supremacy’ between the two, but eventually they formed a new organisation together and in 1886 the ASA was founded with a new code for the future government of swimming, with no fewer than 135 rules. It was now accepted that an amateur could not swim against a professional and the authors of The Badminton Library volume were happy to record that ‘the tone of the sport has vastly improved’.
The amateur movement would come to control the sport, as in the United States, the ASA set the rules when it came to competing and those who swam for money were seen as less ‘sportsmanlike’. But there was certainly money to be made. James Tyers, for example, a champion swimmer who won numerous ASA championships and turned professional in 1898, travelled the country netting ‘a nice little sum’ in prize money. The leading amateurs of the time tended to have ‘no regular business’ before joining the ranks of the professionals, noted Pearson’s Athletic Record. When Tyers wasn’t swimming he looked after a billiard room in a Manchester hostel, while Thames champion John Arthur Jarvis was a painter and paper-hanger.
When it came to the Otters, ‘Our early members were upper middle class and mostly university graduates,’ explains James, ‘but one of the early presidents was a baths’ superintendent. We’re an eclectic club, for anyone who wants to swim.’ The reason they held their first Thames race at Shiplake was probably because a member had a houseboat there, the Dabchick, a handsome two-storey vessel on which members posed for photographs in the early 1900s.
Racing was important in the early days of the club and for thirty-seven years the office of captain was decided by a 1,000-yard race at the Welsh Harp, a reservoir in Hendon, opened in 1835, and then, after 1886, a one-mile at Surbiton which continued until 1905. The Otter summer programme has always included an open-air quarter-, half- and one-mile race. The quarter was originally held at Shiplake; in 1888 it ran from a houseboat called the Otter, while in 1893 the course was from Shiplake Ferry to the Dabchick, a tradition that remained for the next forty-three years. The quarter-mile later moved to the Henley Sailing Club and then to various other Thames spots such as Hampton Court.
The half-mile was first held between the piers in Brighton, but from 1894 to 1898 it was swum at Shiplake as well and the winner received a gold cup, the most valuable of the club’s trophies. In 1921 the half-mile was held at Walton-on-Thames and then, since 1969, at Henley Sailing Club.
The one-mile open-water trophy started in 1898 (presumably on the Thames, although it’s not known where) and apart from during the First and Second World Wars it has generally been held every year up to the present day. One member went on to win gold in the 100 yards freestyle at the World Championships in 1906, while several have represented Great Britain at the Olympics even into the 1960s. In recent years the mile has usually been held at Windsor, although when the Thames proved too ‘insanitary’ it was held at Eton College’s open-air pool.
James Stewart joined the club in 1962 after leaving school. ‘I was brought up in Bombay and I swam competitively from the age of five. I was taught to swim at a Europeans-only club. A woman trained us up and told me, “you’re good enough to get to the Olympics one day”, although I didn’t.’ In 1951 he returned to the UK and took part in public schools relays in London run by Otter, who also ran the varsity match. ‘I arranged for Otter to come and swim against us at the school and later my mother wrote to ask if I could become a member. So it’s all thanks to Mum!’
Members of the Otter Swimming Club pose for a photo on the Dabchick in 1905. The club was founded in 1869 and still holds races in the Thames today.
His first swim in the Thames came the year he joined, when he did the mile at Windsor and the half-mile at Henley. ‘I was worried most about my eyes and getting them infected. But the biggest difference between a river and a pool is that in a pool you can see the bottom and you can swim in a line. In the Thames I always do ten pairs of strokes, then I look up.’ James was fast: in 1967 he was a member of the club’s 4×110 yards freestyle relay team which won the ASA title. The following year he was the seventh fastest Englishman over 110 yards at the ASA championships, while he won the annual mile in 1967, 1968 and 1970.
In the mid-sixties the club stopped swimming in the Thames - ‘the water was said to be a risk to health’ - but returned to the river a few years later; ‘we got a grant of £500 a year from Thames Water Board, we wanted to go back to the Thames and they wanted us to, to show it was cleaner’.
But while Otters were once the top men’s club and national champions, in the 1970s they went into decline, coinciding with a general view that river racing was dangerous. In the 1990s, when the club celebrated 125 years, the future seemed uncertain. ‘The nightmare scenario is one of stagnant waters, polluted seas and public baths in the form of kidney-shaped leisure centres,’ noted the club’s anniversary booklet. It bemoaned the closure of lidos and a ‘woeful shortage of space for club swimming in central London … To be sure, we exercise caution in using the river, but there is probably more than one Otter who harbours the idea of returning to the tideway for a repeat of the great races of Victorian and Edwardian times.’
In part that has come to pass. Today the club has 375 members, 260 of whom are swimmers, and, as in the past, many are university graduates. And why do they still choose to swim in the Thames? ‘Early swimmers started in open water,’ explains James; ‘it only really became a sport when there were indoor pools and lidos and people could race. Competitive swimming now is over timed distances, you need clear water and an appropriate temperature. Competitive swimmers never get out of a warm pool. But we’re very traditional, we’ve never lost the Thames.’ As for whether they wear wetsuits, ‘No,’ he says firmly, ‘they are not allowed. No aids are permitted, as in Channel swims. I trained in a wetsuit for a triathlon a few years ago and gained twenty seconds each two hundred metres.’
Otter still runs its three annual swims, usually in the Thames. In 2012, twenty-four swimmers took part in the mile at Windsor, but the half-mile in Henley was only confirmed the morning of the race because of heavy rain, fast currents and ‘excess debris’ in the river. Around thirty to forty people enter each Thames race: ‘it’s a social affair with a dinner afterwards, a lot are London-based, and we have a coach that takes them to the race.’ James has never known anyone to get ill, ‘except once in the half-mile a man, a good swimmer, died of a heart attack. You’re more likely to get sick if the river is low and there is stale water, there are no problems after heavy rain, and it will be a quicker race! We’re competent swimmers, there is no reason for anyone to get hurt.’ But there are more regulations now ‘since Health & Safety reared its head’. In the 1960s, as with river races in Reading, competitors ‘just dived off and swam, we were counted as we set off and the number checked when we got back. Today we get permission from the EA on condition we have boatmen, and river traffic is warned about the race.’
In recent years the club has regained some of its former glory: ‘water polo has kept us going, and now we’re one of the dominant Masters clubs in the country [essentially swimming for adults, as defined by G.B. Masters]. You still see the Otter name all over the place, even me - Charles James Stewart.’ He’s just returned from an ASA event where he competed as a member of the ‘280 squad’, comprising four men with an average age of seventy.
Another major change is that the club is open to women. Their continuing exclusion ‘reflected our Victorian antecedents,’ says James, ‘and led to some ridiculous situations’. At its annual dinner the club couldn’t invite women guests and there was a crisis when the ASA elected a woman as president and ‘we couldn’t invite her!’ Finally, in 1976, 107 years after the club was founded, women were allowed to join and the following year Dawn Eva won the one-mile at Windsor. James hands me a sheet showing the list of winners; everyone has initials only, except for Dawn because ‘she wanted her full name, to show she was a lady’. I stare at the list, thinking how proud she must have been, and whether - intentionally or not - women were excluded from the Otter Swimming Club for over a century because the men were afraid of being beaten.
We leave the bar, walk to the seating area and look down on the Lansdowne Club’s pool where three men are swimming leisurely. James points to the clock at the far end. ‘There was a diving board there back in the 1950s when I joined the club, although it wasn’t really deep enough to dive. There used to be a chute, too; things have certainly changed.’ He believes the Otter Swimming Club has been strengthened by the growth of multi-sports events and many members compete in open-water events and triathlons, among them internationally known athletes such as Rachel Joyce. Susie Rodgers won three bronze medals for Britain’s Paralympics swimming team in 2012, while the club’s women’s water polo team is ranked second in the British Water Polo League - and it all started at Shiplake on the Thames.
Others have loved swimming in this stretch of the river, too, like actress Margaret Rutherford who enjoyed bracing dips in the mid-1950s. It was at Shiplake that she taught a friend’s grandson to swim - a young boy called Antony Worrall Thompson, now a well-known chef. ‘She was a bit of an outdoor swimmer,’ explains her biographer, Andy Merriman, ‘she once told a friend, “I need some freedom” and then they went swimming. It lifted her sadness. If ever she saw water she threw herself in. Wherever she went, she was always swimming.’
A little way downstream, on the opposite side of the Thames, is Wargrave, which has a regatta that can be traced back to Victorian times, although it wasn’t until the 1920s that swimming races were added. Demelza Blick grew up in Wargrave and took part in the regatta as a child: ‘in between I would splash and swim. It has become too big an event now, but I felt a strange pull to the river and so I found other ways for me to swim. There are stretches further up that feel like my childhood river.’ Her father retired when she was eight and in the late 1980s, during long hot summers, they went out together on the river where she remembers lots of freshwater mussels. As a child Demelza was sent for history lessons at people’s houses where ‘old river people would tell me which patches were stony, which patches were muddy, it was part of growing up. I get homesick now if I smell freshwater.’ She says swimming in the Thames is very common around Wargrave and people don’t bat an eyelid. ‘There are river families who have been here for many generations. Gardens lead on to the Thames, and kids swim there after school. I haven’t seen the river changing. The village has changed, with rich stockbrokers and retired film stars, but the people on the river haven’t changed. Pubs have been renovated and turned gastro. Sunday drivers come and sit and look at the river, they are not engaging with it and old people and old families think it’s a tragedy.’ She tends to swim from April to October. ‘I can’t afford to fork out for a wetsuit, and otherwise the river can be very fast and cold.’ She does, however, wear flippers, which means she can have two speeds and if a pleasure cruise appears she can get out of the way quickly.
Demelza wouldn’t swim in central London: ‘it’s too dangerous and there are all the currents. I used to work on boats at Tower Pier and staff fell in and nearly drowned.’ But she’ll always continue swimming at Wargrave. ‘People say, “oh, you’re doing wild swimming, that’s very trendy”. That’s odd to me, I’m not wild swimming, I’m just swimming.’ Demelza is doing what people have always done: engaged with the Thames as swimmers. For her it is an obvious thing to do, to take to the waters on her doorstep, and so much a part of growing up that her education meant learning about the river from village elders. Similarly, James Stewart has been racing in the Thames on and off for over half a century, following in the footsteps of those eighteen men who, in the summer of 1888, plunged into the water from a houseboat at Shiplake. In many respects, the way we use the upper river in Oxfordshire hasn’t changed at all.