Picture: W. & D. Downey

Swimming History


The great British bathing tradition emerged during a period of rapid religious and social change. Discover how outdoor swimming shaped British culture.

For the most part, Christian teachers had for centuries deviated from scripture and proclaimed that un-cleanliness was next to godliness, with the clean being perceived as partners with the Devil himself. The collapse of the Roman Empire began with the bath; bathing led to immorality and in due course to family breakdown and ultimately to the destruction of the very fabric of society. The Catholic Church from its inception viewed bathing and cleanliness with abhorrence.

Floating in water was an ability they attributed to witches and wizards, a gift supposedly bestowed because of their commune with Satan (see picture). Hung Out to Dry chapter 2: Cleanliness versus Godliness.

Bathing for health and swimming for pleasure certainly caught the imagination of rich and poor alike when it was reintroduced, yet centuries of religious intolerance had a lasting impact on a nation unprepared for the consequences of the new doctrine of soap and salvation. The magnetism of British led Industrial Revolution saw masses of country folk attracted to the cities by the prospect of regular income and material gain. In the countryside the whole family would work together provided a very suitable environment for the upbringing of loving and responsible children. Crammed now into quickly built houses, family life was reshaped as all would work long hours in artificial and unhealthy conditions, separated from one another. Men and women would work 12 to 18 hours a day, wages were at starvation levels and child labour was commonplace. For the working classes, hard work and little pay took a heavy toll, especially when you consider the unsanitary condition of the slums they called home. The British had abolished slavery in 1833, but as Queen Victoria ascended the throne just four years later, many of the working classes were living and working in conditions worse than those of the liberated slaves.

By the Victorian era, restraint had become a cultural trait. The British were encouraged to shy away from showing their true feelings, focusing on duty and responsibility as they kept a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Just two hundred years earlier, Oliver Cromwell had overthrown the monarchy, reintroducing Fundamentalist Christianity in a Puritan Republic. When the monarchy was restored, loose living and debauchery returned, and by Victoria’s reign, the disparity between the moral ideal and the vulgarity in which the people revelled, was all too obvious.

As missionaries circled the globe in an effort to convert humanity, European preachers went on to change not only the convert’s religion but also his culture. The British Empire dominated the world, attempting to civilise it with teachings of Christian duty and prudery. Where native customs were retained (including minimal attire) many religionists viewed these so-called ‘brothers in the faith’ as little more than savages.

The middle classes benefited greatly from the readily available cheap labour, with many amassing great fortunes. Yet life in the city bore no resemblance to the countryside paradise that the workers had left behind. Many workers would find escape through drink, but the seeds of discontent had been sown. The workers longed to escape from the dark drudgery of life. When release came in the form of a day trip to the seaside the workers rushed to enjoy it like a cork shooting from a bottle. But the middle classes felt it their responsibility to moderate the behaviour of such ‘roughs’. Hung Out to Dry chapter 3: Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks.

British Culture The Ducking Stool Witches and English History
British Culture, Bath, Kings and Queens Bath
British Culture, travelling to the seaside by train - Leicester Thomas Cook
British Culture, Holidaymakers at Blackpool
British Culture, naked bathing, Margate
British Culture, English missionary John Williams, active in the South Pacific

​​​​​​​​​​​​Christianity and English culture came to symbolize the ideal in the minds of many representatives of the Church, and the view that the British way is God’s way persists very much in Britain even today, being a carryover from our Empire days. Hung Out to Dry, chapter 1: From Pride to Prejudice.

Yet what would be done about the daily pantomime on sea shaw, lake side and river bank as brazen men and boys took to the water for their dawn swim? Hung Out to Dry chapter 4: Sunny Days, Dark Shadows.

British Culture, naked bathers, Victoria Park London

Restrictions played a part, but in the end the nation’s swimmers were rounded up en mass, chased out of open water and restricted to indoor swimming pools. The middle classes took over from hesitant Church leaders bringing cultural changes that have lastingly shaped the nation. Yet all has not gone according to plan, prudery has not led the people to the hoped-for safe harbours of moral excellence, rather it has resulted in moral decline and promiscuity with teachings of denial contributing to an accentuation of desire. The result is a society that has now become so sexualised that it is virtually impossible even for children to remain innocent. Broadband internet makes pornography readily available to all. Children as young as seven and most by the age of eleven satisfy their curiosity about sex with regular visits to depraved image sites. As the nation’s youngsters become addicted to a diet of depravity, the façade of British prudery disguises a situation that rivals the decline of Roman society in seriousness. Despite our dysfunctional families, broken homes, disturbed, unsociable and, in many cases, amoral children, we continue in our confidence that the British way of life has no equal.

Although religious influence has nowadays receded, the aftershocks of its reign echo throughout our culture with the insistence on rules remaining evident everywhere. In contrast to our European partners, we British are keen to do the right thing and especially to make sure that others do so. Particularly since the Industrial Revolution, we as a culture have felt it our duty to poke our nose into other people’s business and take decision making out of their hands. We are told what to eat and drink, what to think and exactly how to bring up our children. The rules may change from week to week, but the nation follows in a game of ‘Simon says’ that has been played out for decades. We are frightened of doing the wrong thing and of expressing a different point of view. This has taken its toll on those eccentrics who have resisted the current tide, which is to view bathing in the great outdoors with suspicion. Gradually, towards the end of the last century, swimming in all but coastal waters has met with varying degrees of disapproval.  Hung Out to Dry chapter 7: The Last Stand.

​"A persuasive book... intriguing from the outset, a fascinating chronology of British swimming which goes much deeper than one might expect. The author's passion for open water swimming is evident throughout and undeniably admirable. Well researched and interestingly written... the historical ebb and flow of swimming popularity is quite remarkable." ASA The Swimming Times

British Culture, naked bathers chased away, Hyde Park London
British Culture, Swimmers excluded from Leicester Riverside Lido
Hung Out to Dry Swimming and British Culture, Wild Swimming, History, Book, Chris Ayriss