Swimming History Picture of the Week: Swimming in the Thames at Richmond 1914-18

Times have certainly changed and nowhere more so than on the riverbank.

William Woodruff recalls his summertime childhood visits to his doting aunts at Bamber Bridge, and the reaction of Betsy as she passed by the skinny dipping pond: “Summer after summer, the walks took the same route. Nothing changed – not even the demonstration that Betsy put on daily by a deep pond where boys sunbathed and swam in the nude. Betsy always got worked up about the nude bathers before we reached the pond.”

“ ‘Just look at that Grace.’ She shouted in a shocked voice over her shoulder, while pointing with her stick. ‘Did you ever see such? What are we coming to? That’s what I ask you, what are we coming to? There’s no shame.’ ”

“On and on, she went, her moist face becoming scarlet. By the time we reached the pond, her stick was raised like the sword of an avenging angel. By then, the swimmers had slithered down the muddy bank into the water. Betsy marched to the water’s edge to deliver her usual sermon about shame and immodesty. She ended on the same note.

“All of which sent the swimmers into fits of laughter. ‘Silly old ******!’ they shouted back, while splashing water at her. ‘Why don’t you fall in?’ ”

“After a summer or two I took all this in my stride. Aunt Betsy didn’t mean what she said. It was her way of enjoying herself. She would have been mortified if the hooligans had suddenly worn pants. Quite gentle aunt Grace never intervened – she stood at some distance, her face wrapped in smiles. She enjoyed her sister’s daily tirade more than the swimmers did.”

From: The Road to Nab End: An Extraordinary Northern Childhood by William Woodruff.

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