Swimming History Picture of the Week: River Swimming in the Thames

Public Bath, Great Smith Street, WESTMINSTER
River Swimming in the Thames

Westminster’s first public baths and wash house was part of the old library complex, designed in 1891 by F.J. Smith.

The entrance was to one side, and features panels of sculptured swimmers by Henry Poole, then just 18.

The baths helped encourage swimmers indoors and away from public view, but they also contributed to a decline in swimming popularity. Read below a short account by Grace Foakes remembering her girlhood in Wapping in the early 1900s.

“The river was a never-ending source of pleasure. To paddle or swim in the Thames was something that every boy did. Boys would organise races between themselves. Rival gangs would compete. Each gang had its chief, a boy selected solely on merit. They would swim from one foreshore to another and back, which was usually quite a long way. Those who gave up were looked upon with contempt, while the boy that won was chosen as chief of all the gangs. The boys had no lessons in swimming, they taught themselves.”

“The boys of working class parents were usually tough and strong. They roughed it from a very early age. They were experts at saving lives, although their method was all their own. They were as much at home in the river as they were on land.

When the ships and barges moored along the wharves on a summer’s evening, swarms of boys would strip, swim out and clamber aboard, not for the purpose of stealing but for the sheer joy of it. If the vessels were moored near a public house or bank which overlooked the river, the boys would give a display of diving. Shouting to the customers to watch, they dived from the barges and ships, doing all kinds of tricks. The customers threw pennies which the boys had to dive for. This afforded men and boys alike much amusement. Sometimes it ended in tragedy for, although the boys could swim, if the ventured too near a barge they were sucked under and drowned. Each boy kept a sharp look-out for anyone in trouble and many boys saved the lives of their companions while engaging in this sport.”

From: Four Meals For Fourpence: A Heartwarming Tale of Family Life in London’s old East End.

Delve deeper into the history of British swimming by reading: Hung Out to Dry Swimming and British Culture.

“A persuasive book… intriguing from the outset, a fascinating chronology of British swimming which goes much deeper than one might expect. Well researched and interestingly written… the historical ebb and flow of swimming popularity is quite remarkable.” November 2012 Swimming Times

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