Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (2015)
Hampton Court-Molesey Lock-Sunbury-Kingston
‘Should you fall into the water, you will find swimming of more use than mathematics’
Revd Charles Haddon Spurgeon,
Baptist preacher, 1834-92
It’s a bitter April morning as I approach Hampton Court, on board the Richmond Royale. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Thames so uninviting; even the seagulls look frozen. Inside the boat the sides are lined with red leather seats, the floor covered in patterned carpet like an old-fashioned pub. It’s so cold I can see my breath in the air. I chat to a crewmember, a young man who lives locally but has never swum in the Thames. He knows of three people who ended up in hospital recently after jumping into the river. One incident happened downstream at around 8 p.m. on a hot day: ‘we saw a man in the middle of the river, with his mates outside a pub cheering him on, then on our way back we saw an ambulance and he was being given CPR. He died the next day. It’s the shock of the water when you’re drunk.’
Outside the snow-splattered window the river looks like dull scratched metal. I go up on the top deck, where there’s a bit of a blizzard blowing, just in time to see Henry VIII’s magnificent palace, originally built for Cardinal Wolsey. There’s a glint of gold at the grand Tudor gates and further on, beneath the turrets, a hand-painted sign that reads ‘No Mooring’. In the summer of 1718 three gentlemen arrived here from London on horseback and ‘it being excellent hot they went to bath themselves in the River of Thames. And not being skilled in Swimming, they were all drowned.’ But others found it a perfect spot. ‘If there be a situation on the whole river between Staines Bridge and Windsor Bridge pleasanter than another, it is this of Hampton,’ wrote Daniel Defoe in 1724. ‘The river is high enough to be navigable, and low enough to be a little pleasantly rapid; so that the stream looks always cheerful, not slow and sleeping, like a pond. This keeps the waters always clear and clean, the bottom in view, the fish playing and in sight.’ There is little cheerful about the scene today and no bottom in view as I step off the boat. There’s no sign of any fish playing either, although porpoises were recently reported downstream at Twickenham, where sightings go back to at least 1896, when the press warned it was illegal to shoot them and that ‘porpoise meat, though doubtless nourishing and perhaps toothsome, has long gone out of fashion’.
In the 1880s city holidaymakers enjoyed regattas at Hampton, just as they did at Henley, along with river festivals and other ‘primitive amusements’, while hustling photographers stood at vantage points to take pictures. In 1890 Henry Bran, ‘swimmer, waterman and ferryman at Hampton’, escorted the American Davis Dalton in his attempt to swim the Channel, accompanying him in a small punt. When Dalton arrived in England he fainted on the beach at Folkestone after a twenty-three-hour crossing, the British press disputed his swim and it was never officially recognised. The following summer, however, Dalton was in the Thames, this time swimming all the way from Blackwall to Gravesend on his back.
Today this part of the river is also the site of an annual mass swim, 2.25 miles from Hampton Court Palace to Kingston upon Thames, again staged by Human Race and described as one of the more challenging events in the open-water swim series. ‘It’s a linear course, the start and end points are in different places and we have to move people’s kit,’ explains John Lunt, ‘but for spectators they can walk along the towpath so there is the tourism element; if you were in the middle of a lake no one could see you.’ The first swim took place on 1 August 2010 with 1,200 swimmers, including Olympic silver medallist and open-water swimmer Keri-Anne Payne and Olympic rower Toby Garbett (who also swims the Henley Classic), and the race raised £10,000 for WaterAid. In 2011 it was renamed the Speedo Open Water Swim Series and the following year a non-wetsuit option was introduced (if the water is over 15 degrees). The event is now billed as the UK’s largest river swim, although, as with all Thames events, the actual dates are dependent on the weather.
Victorian holidaymakers enjoyed regattas at Hampton Court, while in the 1920s there was a resort for swimmers known as ‘London’s Palm Beach’.
In 2012 the race was postponed from July to October after heavy rainfall and flooding, and in a survey conducted after the event almost half of the 700 entrants reported falling ill. Public Health England concluded that poor hygiene and swallowing river water may have been to blame, but it also found that those who had previous recent experience in an open-water river event, and those over the age of forty, were less likely to get ill. It recommended cleaning wetsuits after swimming and so Human Race put new measures in place - including hygiene stations where participants can soak their wetsuits in sterilising Milton Dip, as well as gel pump dispensers. While most people don’t get sick from swimming in the Thames, in the modern world precautions are always being improved and refined.
I cross the handsome three-arched Hampton Bridge, where a sign tells me it’s 147 miles to the source of the Thames. As I turn right towards Molesey Lock I consider the distance I’ve come and how the landscape has changed over nearly seventy miles, from a waterlogged meadow in Gloucestershire, to a winding waterway through the city of Oxford, to the rowers’ delight that is Henley, the grandeur of the Thames overlooked by Windsor Castle, and now I’m here in Surrey, just entering Greater London.
First built in 1814 and then rebuilt in 1906 and enlarged to let 200-foot-long naval craft through, Molesey is still a working lock today. It’s lined with well-trimmed grassy banks, although now it’s snowing so hard I can barely see a thing. Back in the 1890s this was the busiest lock on the Thames where visitors couldn’t even see the water for all the ‘bright blazers, and gay caps, and saucy hats, and many-coloured parasols’. On a fine Sunday, ‘all the inhabitants of Hampton and Molesey ‘dress themselves up in boating costume,’ wrote Jerome K. Jerome, ‘and come and mooch around the lock with their dogs, and flirt, and smoke, and watch the boats … one of the gayest sights I know of near this dull old London town’.
The lock was also the site of races, such as those carried out by the Ilex Swimming Club. In the summer of 1873 the banks were crowded with spectators - the press noted ‘amongst whom were many ladies’ - as swimmers competed for four prizes offered by an Ilex club member for a three-quarter-mile handicap. Twenty-three men took part, starting at 6 p.m. on a barge moored above the Hampton ferry, swimming downstream to a flagstaff oppositethe headquarters of the Molesey Boat Club. It was won by the aptly named Mr Leader who ‘had all the race to himself’.
River races were also held a few miles upstream at Sunbury where in 1907 the Clapton Ladies held their second quarter-mile handicap. The Daily Express, which by now often featured photos of ‘lady swimmers in the Thames’, reported on a ‘keen contest, in which the competitors were started from a big punt in mid-stream’. Sixteen women took part, with the winner, Miss Thistle, finishing the ‘hardy-fought race’ in just over eight minutes.
As late as the 1970s families still spent summer Sundays and school holidays paddling in the Thames at Sunbury, for example at Rivermead Island. One bather remembers, ‘It was considered a normal thing to do. Is the Thames worse than it was? Are we more sickly? Or simply more careful?’
Others swam a couple of miles further upstream, at Walton-on-Thames. ‘My grandfather, on leave from the navy, used to dive off Walton Bridge for coins tossed from the boats,’ says Ray Kennet. ‘There used to be a lot of picnics, swimming, musicians, all the poor people enjoying themselves in the water.’
A 1909 postcard of the swimming baths at Walton-on-Thames. In the 1940s families would picnic and swim near the bridge.
He recalls one particular Saturday in 1945, a blazing hot August day, when the family, who lived on a council estate in Hersham, had just enough money to get the bus to Walton Bridge for a picnic and a swim. Fifty or so others were already there, shirtless men with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, women sitting on old army blankets cutting bread for watercress sandwiches. ‘It cost nothing and was a day off from the factory, or cooking and washing clothes,’ explains Ray. ‘Modern folk may have to imagine this, the people were happy.’ He was then five years old, could already dog-paddle and was anxious to show off. ‘The adults are seated on the grassy bank just downstream of the bridge where the water is shallow and safe. I dog-paddle past the crowd but I am not noticed. No one shouts, “look, he’s only five and can swim already!” Frustrated, I wade out a little further and repeat my swim-by. Still no cries of praise. I keep going until I run out of breath and reach for the bottom with my toes. The riverbed is not there, no gravel to support me. I am aware of seeing a blurred underwater vision of death, I thrash wildly, a great bright sky glows down, everything becomes blurred again. I go into shock, my mind says, very clearly “so this is what death is, it is like this.” One final desperate thrash, everything turns bright. I hear a piercing scream. I realise later that it was my mother, who raced into the tranquil Thames and fell flat on her face.’ But then some strong-armed men grip him just in time. ‘I remember one last thing, all these decades later. I had been wrapped in a towel and my mother is crying. She pulls herself together and snaps, “you stupid little bastard.” My mum lived to be eighty-six and it was the only time I ever heard her swear.’
Some thirty years later Chris Dane also used to swim at Walton, to the west of the town’s bridge at a place known as Cowey Sale. ‘Mum used to take us when it was hot, there was a grassy beach and a slipway for boats which meant you could get in. We did it to cool off and we weren’t the only ones, there were people sunbathing, people with kids … I remember mum was always careful, she’d say “don’t go too far”, but there was a low current. I can’t say it was pleasant but it was cool. It was dirty, but not polluted. There was boat oil, and people cut their feet on broken bottles, but it was needs must when it was hot, especially the summer of 1976. I was around ten and a good swimmer, the current didn’t seem strong, but it was horrible and silty underfoot so the idea was to get swimming as soon as possible.’ Chris went back in his late teens, ‘splashing round and being stupid with mates’, and again as a student in the 1980s, but he now lives in London. ‘I don’t know if people still swim there at Walton, parents would probably frown on it.’
I leave Molesey Lock thinking of the crewmember on board the Richmond Royale who lives locally but has never swum in the Thames, and knows only horror stories. Yet swimmers have used this stretch of the river in many ways over the past century; where once this lock was crowded with spectators in bright blazers and coloured parasols watching life on the Thames, today wetsuited swimmers gather nearby at Hampton Court each year to race in the river itself.
I get the train to Kingston upon Thames, around three miles downstream, and whose inhabitants similarly have a grand tradition of using the river - with a floating platform in the 1870s and a mixed bathing pontoon in the 1920s. Kingston residents have fought for the right to bathe in the Thames and the town was also the training ground for two very successful women’s swimming clubs whose members included once famous long-distance swimmers largely forgotten today.
There’s not much to see from the train window but the backs of houses and a fox curled up asleep on an old pillow, and when I get out at the station the wind is icy and it’s snowing again. I dodge through road builders down to the river and a bleak stretch of iron that is Kingston Railway Bridge, then along the riverside and on to Queen’s Promenade and Charter Quay, a recent development with bars, cafés and luxury apartments. Turning left, I find myself in a market, which in today’s weather is dismal. A man shouts out the price of avocados but there are virtually no customers to hear him; a nearby stall advertises rump steak, ostrich and zebra meat. Kingston is known for this ancient market place, along with its royal connections as a place where Saxon kings were crowned, while its three-mile stretch of the Thames is the focus of an annual regatta now around 150 years old. More sinisterly, the river once also featured ducking stools used for punishing women. In April 1745 the London Evening Post reported, ‘a woman that keeps the Queen’s Head ale-house at Kingston, in Surrey, was ordered by the court to be ducked for scolding, and was accordingly placed in the chair, and ducked in the river Thames, under Kingston bridge, in the presence of 2,000 or 3,000 people’. When the characters in Three Men in a Boat set off on their trip along the Thames, it was at Kingston that they began, picking up their boat just below Kingston Bridge. The town in those days was a place of quaint backstreets, a ‘glinting river with its drifting barges’, a wooded towpath and trim villas. As with elsewhere on the Thames, it had become popular with city day trippers and boating enthusiasts, with regular fast trains from London.
Today people often leap off Kingston Bridge for fun, and then post their dives on YouTube. A recent clip shows ‘students Kay and Kaleem’ jumping from the bridge on the last day of college, to cries of ‘oh f**k’. Others, filmed by passers-by, show people jumping off the 23-foot bridge to roars of ‘go on, mate!’ and ‘hurry up!’ In one case a man does a backflip, and then appears to break his back when he hits a shopping trolley.
Inside Kingston’s Local History Room it’s blissfully warm. History officer Michele Loose has dug out some documents relating to swimming and I sit facing a table with boxes of card catalogues, on top of which is a small brown stuffed mouse. It appears to be watching me as I start to look at maps, archive newspapers, a leaflet from the Court of Chancery, and local history books.
The first public swimming pool in Kingston was a floating platform on Steven’s Ait, to the south of the town. It was officially opened in 1872, after the council obtained a seven-year lease and put up a canvas screen to shield passers-by from nude bathers, just as at other Thames spots. It was for men and boys only, and was said to be deep with a strong current. But locals had used the river as a bathing spot long before the floating platform. In 1865 the Attorney General went head to head with the Mayor of Kingston, Aldermen and local burgesses over whether the town should be allowed to drain all its sewage into the Thames. The Thames Conservancy Board, which had taken control of the river from the Corporation of the City of London in 1857, wanted to take out an injunction to prevent this, but it was argued that the volume of water and the rapid stream meant there would be no serious ill effects. The Thames had been ‘used from all time’ for drinking water and fishing, although when it came to bathing it was unclear ‘as to the degree of right acquired by the public’. While a gentleman wishing to bathe who ‘chose the particular spot where the sewer drained into the river, might find it exceedingly inconvenient’, it was ‘not on that account necessarily a nuisance’. The conclusion of the Court of Chancery was that ‘everybody has a right to employ the water of a large public river as he thinks fit’, and the injunction was dismissed.
In 1880 the council gave local engineer John Dixon £1,000 to build a new swimming place where women would also be allowed, as in other riverside towns, for a few hours a week. This was a pontoon, accessed by steps near Kingston Bridge, but the Thames Conservators objected to its location so it was towed upriver to Town End Wharf, moored just off the Anglers pub and opened in July 1882.
Again the Conservators objected, but when they wanted the baths moved once more, downstream and near the tannery, the council refused. It was then that a ‘miniature war’ broke out, reported the Surrey Mirror on 19 August 1882: ‘An unseemly squabble, ending in something like a fight between officials representing the Thames Conservancy and members of the Corporation took place on Friday morning last at the river side.’ The ‘cause of the disturbance’ was the swimming bath, which the paper insisted was ‘in no way interfering with the navigable part of the river’. At 8 a.m. a tug called Queen arrived on the scene and its crew tried to moor on to the bath. The Borough Surveyor, with plenty of assistants, stopped them. An hour and a half later conservancy officials arrived and one of their representatives, a Captain Little, was allowed on to the bath. There was then a dispute over who was in charge, resulting in a ‘scrimmage’. The Borough Surveyor won.
By now a large crowd had come to watch, as well as the Mayor and several councillors. The officials held a ‘parley’ on the tug, when Captain Little ‘tripped’ the two anchors at the stern of the bath. His men were about to cut away the chains holding the pontoon when deputy mayor Alderman Frederick Gould ‘showed resistance’. In the resulting dispute ‘boat hooks were freely used’, one of which tore Gould’s trousers and injured him on his left thigh. As soon as ‘the miniature war’ was over, Captain Little held ‘another conversation’ with the borough authorities, which consisted mainly of threats to sue them.
The Surrey Mirror appeared proud of the outcome, reporting that as the tug turned ‘her head down the river, and as she steamed away cheers … were given for Alderman Gould and the Borough Surveyor for their present victory over the Conservancy’. The swimmers had established their right to bathe where they chose, and demonstrated the lengths they would go to in order to protect this right, and the floating pool remained. A week later David Pamplin, former teacher and examiner of swimming at Wellington College, and now at the Kingston Floating Swimming Bath, wrote to the press to ‘induce the Kingstonians to avail themselves in greater numbers than they now do of the opportunity they have of bathing and learning to swim’.
After an explanation of the best strokes to use, and the importance of life saving, he ended with a quotation from the Revd C.H. Spurgeon: ‘Should you fall into the water, you will find swimming of more use than mathematics.’
But in the coming years the cost of maintaining and improving the bath proved too high for the council. By the early 1890s it had closed, although the 1893 Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map still has a ‘bathing place’ noted on the Hampton Wick side of the river. People clearly liked a swim in Kingston, though. At three o’clock on a September morning in 1893 a local domestic servant found the back door of her employer’s house open and a pile of her master’s clothing on the grass near the river. She at once alerted the police. However, it turned out her employer, a tradesman in the high street, had fancied a bathe at 2 a.m. He had ‘got to the Middlesex side’ but was not able to get out, so he was ‘obliged to walk in a nude condition’ through Hampton Wick all the way to a friend’s house to beg for some clothes.
In 1897 Kingston’s first indoor swimming pool opened, the Corporation Baths, and it was here that the Kingston Ladies, one of the earliest swimming clubs for women on the Thames, was formed. They held their first meeting in May 1898 with twenty-four members and a few months later performed an ‘entertainment’ in front of an all-female audience of fifty. ‘At first it was decreed that competitors should race in long dresses,’ explains local historian June Sampson. ‘Mercifully for them, this idea was dropped and they presumably wore the uniform club swimsuit instead. This was a knee-length garment in brown serge, with frilled sleeves, high neck, and shoulder flounces edged with gold braid.’ In 1901, however, competitors had to wear stockings ‘because husbands and fathers were present’.
How crazy this seems today, and how difficult and uncomfortable it must have been to swim in both knee-length serge and stockings. But this certainly didn’t stop the Kingston Ladies and they were one of several clubs that would dominate the river-racing scene in the early 1900s, fielding a number of champion swimmers. In the summer they swam in the Thames, in the winter they held galas indoors. In July 1901 five club members entered the Thames ‘opposite the Swan at Ditton’ and swam to the railway bridge at Kingston, just over two miles. One added a further half a mile by carrying on to Corporation Island in Richmond. The following month Florence Harper was reported as having ‘broken all records’ by swimming from Hampton Court Bridge to Teddington Weir in four hours, while in 1905 Ethel Littlewood made a record nine-mile swim from Hampton Court Bridge to Richmond Railway Bridge in five hours. The following year she set another record, swimming sixteen miles between Sunbury and Richmond locks in eleven hours, beating seven male competitors.
There was also a junior club for women, the Kingston Cygnet Swimming Club. At their annual long-distance race in 1906, seventeen-year-old Claire Parlett, along with twelve others, left Sunbury Lock at 11 a.m. The ‘wonderful girl swimmer’ didn’t leave the water until 7.30 p.m., after swimming thirteen miles in eight and a half hours, a feat that ‘beats all previous records for lady swimmers in the Thames’. It must have been a round trip, for she was loudly cheered as she passed through Molesey and Teddington locks before ending at Kingston Railway Bridge looking ‘quite fresh and well’.
Kingston was a focal point for women swimmers at the turn of the century, Reading may have had a club in 1904, and other Thames towns had designated bathing places, but aside from racers in Maidenhead in the 1950s this is the first time I’ve come across so many champion women in one place. The Kingston Ladies fielded both national and international stars; Violet Morgan won the Southern Counties ASA Girls 100 yards freestyle championship in 1910, while in 1924 Audrey Clemons, ‘still in her teens’, swam a twelve-mile race in the Thames, lasting five and a half hours in water that was ‘exceedingly cold’. Three years later Olive Bartle, aged fourteen, won the club’s mile race in the Thames in twenty minutes forty-eight seconds. The fact that 50 per cent of Thames lightermen couldn’t swim at the time must have made such an accomplishment even more impressive. In 1934 Bartle won bronze in the 4×110 yards freestyle relay at the Empire Games and represented Britain in the European Games in Germany. She later gave a special exhibition at Holborn Baths, where competitors were supplied with Bovril, which, the programme promised, ‘prevents that sinking feeling’.
The Kingston Ladies stopped racing in the Thames in 1939, although the club kept going through the war; races were then briefly revived in 1943, but ceased in 1949. After the war, the club gained national renown for its Rhythmic Swimming Team which performed water ballet routines, and continued as a successful competitive club until the Coronation Baths closed in 1980. In 1989 it reopened at the New Malden Centre as Surrey’s only Synchronised Swimming Club and now has around fifty members. The Silver Lifebuoy Trophy, awarded annually for services to the club, was originally won by Daisy Littlewood in 1908 and a lifebuoy is now the club’s logo.
Another women’s club, the Surrey Ladies, was formed even earlier than the Kingston Club, for in 1880 they held their ‘sixth annual entertainment’ at the Surrey County Baths, where they gave displays of ‘elegant and rapid swimming’ competing for a writing desk, a lady’s toilet case and a tête-à-tête tea service. As with the Kingston Ladies, they also swam in the Thames and the Surrey Ladies may well be the river’s oldest, and possibly first, club for women. In 1912 they held a long-distance race from Molesey Lock, while in the summer of 1919 Ivy Hawke swam just over eleven miles from Raven’s Ait to Chiswick church, spending six and a half hours in the water. Eighteen women started the race; just nine reached Teddington Lock. In 1931 a mother and daughter took part in a Surrey Ladies’ Thames swim; K.E. Roberts won the endurance race for the fourth consecutive year, while her fifteen-year-old daughter, Lorna, won the club’s quarter-mile Thames race twice.
Women dive off a barge at the start of the Surrey Ladies’ annual river swim in 1917. The winner was fourteen-year-old Ivy Hawke.
Just who were these women who braved the often freezing Thames, who swam for hours, mile after mile, setting new records for speed and endurance, winning championships and representing their country abroad? History officer Michele Loose inserts a memory stick into a computer; she wants to show me some photos which have been recently donated. I stare at the screen as it lights up with a sepia image of eight beaming Surrey Ladies competing for the 1917 long-distance swim from Raven’s Ait.
The women stand in line on concrete blocks, apparently on the edge of the water, wearing one-piece costumes bearing the club badge. Second from the right is Ivy Hawke, her hands on her hips, also beaming. Another photo from the same date shows nine women in the process of jumping from a big barge, watched by uniformed soldiers. A big banner reads: THE SURREY LADIES SWIMMING CLUB ANNUAL SWIM. A third image shows Hawke being ‘helped’ out of the river after her swim, wearing a flowing white shift (as per modesty regulations), watched by people on a smaller Port of London boat. The day is cold; the male spectators are wearing coats, hats and scarves. Hawke was clearly an important member of the club; she’s in every picture, including a group shot in which the women are fully clothed, with young girls in the front row. She’s also seen posing on a boat with Hilda Coles; a caption on the back explains she was the ‘bath superintendent’.
I’m hoping that Alison Young, who donated the images, might be related to one of the swimmers, but it turns out she’s a collector who bought the photographs from a dealer at an antiques fair. She admits that, when it comes to swimming, ‘I’m frightened to death of floating and cannot swim at all.’
However Rebecca Rouillard was so inspired by one of these photos that she decided to dig deeper, and she quickly became fascinated by Ivy Hawke. A swimmer herself, Rebecca had never imagined ‘that women were swimming long-distance races in the Thames a hundred years ago’. She competed in her first open-water swim at the age of eleven, the Midmar Mile in South Africa, taking part every year for the next six years with her best time around twenty-four minutes. She stopped swimming competitively when she left school but a couple of years ago, and now living in England, she heard about the Human Race event from Hampton Court Bridge to Kingston Bridge. She joined the Kingston Royals Swimming Club and began to train. Then she realised her club had come into existence as the result of an amalgamation between the New Kingston men’s club and the Surrey Ladies in 1980. This meant that Rebecca had another strong link to Ivy Hawke, and she set about finding out more.
Ivy was born on 12 April 1903, and lived in Surbiton, where her mother ran the Spread Eagle Coffee Tavern. She was fourteen when she won the 1917 Thames race, an annual long-distance swim, usually starting from Raven’s Ait and in which the finish line varied, depending on who swam the furthest.
Members of the Surrey Ladies Swimming Club, the Thames’ first club for women. Ivy Hawke, nicknamed the ‘Smiling Swimmer’, is second from left in the middle row.
She won a number of races from Raven’s Ait to Kew Bridge, to Chiswick church and to Albert Bridge at Chelsea. The island was a popular place for other swimmers to begin as well; this was where, in 1888, Madame Darnley Mitchell, the ‘accomplished swimming mistress of Kingston baths’, had started her swim to Henley. It was also here, in July 1899, that Frederick Lane, amateur champion of Australia, made his first public appearance in England during a half-mile race against two Otter Club men. Lane ‘led from start to finish’. The following year he became the first Australian to represent his country in swimming at the Olympic Games, winning two gold medals at the 1900 Paris Games - although he was actually part of the British team. Raven’s Ait has changed over the years; it’s been home to the Kingston Rowing College, and the Navy League’s TS Neptune, the TS standing for training school. Today it’s an ‘exclusive island venue’ used for weddings, business meetings and conferences.
After Hawke’s swims from the Ait, she did what a lot of long-distance Thames swimmers did at the time: she set her sights on the Channel. The river was seen as an ideal place - perhaps the only place - to train for a swim between England and France that would cover at least twenty miles, and many earlier and future Channel champions started their careers in the Thames. Hawke failed on her first attempts, in 1922 and 1927, and then in 1928 she made it from France to Dover in nineteen hours and sixteen minutes, becoming the fifth woman and the third British woman ever to successfully swim the Channel. ‘Miss Ivy Hawke, 23 year-old London Girl … conquers Channel,’ reported Pathé News, which filmed the last leg of her triumph. She can be seen ploughing through the swell using a steady front crawl, the accompanying rowing boat lurching from side to side. At times the only part of her visible is her white hat, and at the end she’s surrounded by cheering supporters, clearly shattered but wearing her trademark smile. No wonder she was nicknamed the ‘Smiling Swimmer’, with the press applauding her dogged endurance and the ‘long, persistent, lonely fight’ against the shifting currents of the Channel. ‘I shall be all right tomorrow,’ she asserted the day after her swim, ‘and after that I shall continue to help my mother at home.’ In 1929 she tried to swim from England to France but had to give up three miles from the end. The following year she was demonstrating her stroke at the opening of Surbiton Lagoon.
‘Ivy has inspired me,’ says Rebecca Rouillard, ‘and made me grateful for my neoprene wetsuit and my fog-resistant swimming goggles.’ She donned both when she took part in the Hampton Court to Kingston race, the first time she’d ever swum in the Thames. She found the water ‘very clear and beautifully calm, it hardly seemed to be moving’ and completed the course in one hour and twelve minutes, quicker than she’d anticipated - her family were still having breakfast and missed her finish - and she will ‘definitely be back to do it again’. Rebecca came across Ivy Hawke quite by chance. But Ivy’s story spoke to her, and made her feel a connection with the past. When she competes now she’s motivated by the women who swam before her and the legacy they left behind. Now that Rebecca knows Ivy Hawke’s story, it won’t be forgotten after all and perhaps the Surrey and the Kingston Ladies can at last take their rightful place in the history of British swimming.
During the early 1920s, meanwhile, a new form of river bathing for the inhabitants of Kingston was introduced when local man Samuel Emms bought property ‘between High Street and the river’ for a bathing station. This was again a pontoon, moored ‘a few yards out in the stream’, with an impressive 250 dressing cubicles on the bank. The site was for both men and women - mixed bathing was now being introduced at a number of Thames spots - with chutes supplied with mains water and diving boards. However, just as with the location of the 1880 pontoon, there was opposition, this time from the Free Church Council, and ‘wordy battles’ were fought through the pages of the local press. Some mocked that Emms had bought a white elephant, so on the day the bathing station opened he organised a parade through town led by a band - and an elephant. There is an Emms Passage in Kingston, possibly named after him.
The new bathing place was known as Boats and Cars, explains June Sampson, ‘the idea being that it enabled people to arrive by car, park their vehicle then enjoy a boat trip or a swim in the Thames. It continued well into the 1930s.’ For Jack Taylor, Media Office Manager at Kingston Council, the place was a favourite spot for his grandmother, Phyllis Broom, and her siblings from Broom Farm in Long Ditton. ‘She wasn’t a particularly keen swimmer, it was just what they did for recreation, like kids would go to an indoor pool now.’ Jack has photographs of three of his grandmother’s four siblings, two men and one woman, wearing one-piece costumes and sitting on a diving board in 1924, with Kingston Bridge in the background. Another from the same year shows people enjoying a water slide, which appears to be moored in the middle of the Thames, probably at Town End Pier where Queen’s Promenade begins, ‘where there is a slight kink in the river’.
Phyllis Broom’s siblings sitting on a diving board at Kingston’s bathing place, known as Boats and Cars, in 1924.
The late novelist Leslie Thomas also enjoyed swimming near Kingston. He was born in 1931 and, after being orphaned at twelve, spent his adolescence at a Barnardo’s home known as ‘Dickies’ in Kingston upon Thames. ‘The river was like a bale of silk unwinding,’ he later wrote, ‘thick and smooth and quickly it ran like it always does when the water is warm. We swam for an hour or more until the river was darker and mistier, and running more into the sky every moment.’ It’s a peaceful interlude in Thomas’ story of growing up in a children’s home during the Second World War, as he floats happily on his back among the stumpy green islands. He also swam near Hampton Court Bridge in the River Mole, a tributary of the Thames, ‘a deep and languid river, with fish in its olive cellars and with shadowy weeds running and folding like the long hair of girls’. Thomas and his friends fling themselves ‘into the sweetness of the river’ with not a care in the world, and laugh and play in the Thames, just as children have always done.
A water slide moored in the River Thames at Kingston in the 1920s, probably at Town End Pier.