Swimming through time on the Serpentine
The Serpentine Swimming Club began with its headquarters beneath an old elm tree on the south side of the lake, a wooden bench for clothing being the only facility. Fred Houghton says in Breaking the Ice: Commander Gerald Forsberg remembers:
‘Indeed it can truthfully be said we were as close to nature as one could ever wish to be and how we loved it. Even the swans were given names to which they answered. There was no shelter other than that given by the trunk of a burley old elm. We were in full view of the riders in Rotten Row and this fact subsequently brought about the first change.’
A mound was created the full length of the course to hide the bathers from view. However, the lack of screening for those getting changed led to many complaints of indecency. The tradition of early morning bathing ensured that the spectacle would not be witnessed by women, who were very well aware of the need to make themselves scarce in the early hours so as not to see what the ‘stork’ saw. Even so, a protest was made in the House of Commons, referring to disgusting scenes observed on the banks of the Serpentine, which were allegedly more disgusting than those to be witnessed in darkest Africa. Boys were customarily chased out of the lake because they insisted on skinny-dipping and this became the theme of many amusing photographs.
Children flocked to the Serpentine especially because they could swim there for free. Many simply could not afford to swim in the newly created indoor pools despite the relatively low admission charges; besides outdoor swimming was fun and accessible. Commander Gerald Forsberg remembers:
‘My own initial aquatic adventure was to swim across the lake. This not only required a certain standard of high physical ability, but also an equal and opposite standard of low animal cunning, because the Royal Humane Society boat was stationed in the most strategic place for just the express purpose of stopping such dangerous young voyages. It was necessary to wait until the R.H.S boatman had his attention quite firmly diverted elsewhere – not infrequently by an accomplice-cum-decoy. When the currently devised stratagem was operating successfully, one made a mad sprint for the other side. The centre line of the lake was the point of no return. From there on, one could pretend – in best Nelsonian fashion – not to hear or see the boatman’s urgent signals to return. Or one could innocently plead a most pressing necessity to land on the nearest shore for a rest. I succeeded in such enterprises some half-dozen times before being recognised as a regular transgressor and ‘warned-off’ formally. In quite blunt straight forward fashion too; R.H.S boatmen were frequently ex-sailors with a memorably blistering vocabulary and a muscular expertise with a well-aimed wallop.’
It was with mixed feelings that members of the Serpentine Swimming Club discovered that the government were planning to create a lido on their beloved lake. A deputation sought an interview with the commissioner of works, George Lansbury, a Poplar Labour politician. The result was very satisfactory in that he gave categorical assurances that all the privileges that the club had hitherto enjoyed would be respected and that admittance to the lido would remain free of charge for those engaged in club activities. The creation of the lido forced club members a little further from ‘Mother Nature’ (from 1930 costumes were insisted upon), but it did not prevent these pioneers of open-air swimming from pursuing their activities. The main idea of the lido was to provide discreet changing facilities, so that passers-by did not have to witness the bare flesh of changing swimmers – ‘indecent exposure’. In order to obtain Royal Consent, Lansbury took water samples to King George V, who personally examined them through a microscope before giving his approval for construction to commence.
According to Douglas Goldring: ‘So mean was the attitude of the governing class that Lansbury had to fight tooth and nail against Tory obstruction to obtain for Londoners the right to bathe in their own Serpentine, in their own park.’ Writing in Punch, Eric Keown reports on the struggle: people would ‘…write letters to the press urging the impropriety of giving London‘s bodies a chance to cool themselves in London’s water…’ (Lansbury) ‘ploughed resolutely ahead with his schemes for making life a little brighter, especially for children in the parks… He was called a sentimentalist and even worse.’
The Times led with ‘Mr Lansbury’s devastations’ and reported that the parks were being endangered ‘for the sake of privileged parties of individuals.’ Eric Keown continues: ‘having failed on public and religious grounds the objectors now switched to the aesthetic’ (complaints over the colour of the changing marquees). There was outrage over the prospect that near nudity was to be encouraged in the park. Initially, swimmers charged at 3d a head were only tolerated earlier than 10.00 a.m. in the summer months. In the winter, swimmers could not bathe after the 6.30 a.m. curfew on weekdays or 9.00 a.m. on Sundays. Leo Fabian of the Serpentine Swimming Club was caught red-handed by a policeman being found swimming in the lake at 9.02 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He was summonsed and duly fined one shilling for this grave misdemeanour.
Despite all the objections to the lido, we find that no sooner was it opened than thousands of Londoners flocked to it to enjoy its pleasures.‘Shoals of citizens and their young swam bravely to and fro, while the air rang with the cheerful sound of spring boards drumming.’