Throughout history the human race have been keen swimmers, with most swimming simply for pleasure, fun and relaxation. Whilst enjoying the water both adults and children sought bodily cleanliness along with the opportunity to associate with and enjoy the company of their friends. As swimming is so commonplace and requires little equipment, tracing the history of swimming poses a real dilemma for the historian with little apparatus to discover and very few records to consult.
Learning to swim
Today we accept the fact that on the whole British swimmers swim indoors. Competitions are staged within the precise confines of municipal swimming pools. But for millenniums prior to our enlightened age, swimming was an outdoor activity with most swimmers becoming acquainted with the sport at a very early age. Throughout history children have been especially attracted to water and so teaching them to become competent swimmers makes sense.
As for the history of swimming in Britain, records begin with the Romans. Keen to educate their youngsters the Romans plunged infants into cold water and taught them to swim using rush floats as buoyancy aids. A Roman proverb gives us further incite: 'An ignorant man neither knows how to read nor to swim,' swimming then was seen as an essential skill in Roman times. Soldiers became practiced swimmers; their ability to ford rivers and swim across lakes made them a formidable fighting machine as they conquered the world.
The Industrial Revolution
The Romans brought real benefits to Britain, transforming the country and civilising its people. Yet the combination of Roman hedonism and the spread of Christianity ultimately saw bathing condemned across Europe. It was not until the industrial revolution that swimmers once again enjoyed the approval of society. The magnetism of the Industrial Revolution saw British cities fill out rather like the waistline of a successful businessman. Unhygienic slums were thrown up to accommodate the new arrivals and health problems and social issues soon became part of everyday life. A lack of swimming ability was highlighted by skyrocketing drowning statistics, leading to a new interest in the long neglected activities of bathing and swimming. English Heritage has produced two wonderful volumes in the last few years, with Liquid Assets charting the history of Lidos, and Great Lengths documenting indoor swimming pools. Most establishments were designed along utilitarian lines but some stood out as wonderful expressions of philanthropy and civic pride.
Poverty and Cleanliness
For the poor, the swimming pool became the cheapest place to bathe. At the opening of Tooting Bec lido in London, Wandsworth Borough News reported - regarding hundreds of small boys: 'heedless of the presence of members of the fair sex, [they] unblushingly undressed and were sampling the quality of the water long before the "big guns" had departed.' Many bathers walked barefoot across the common prompting complaints to the Council that the facility was being 'stormed by the riff-raff from slum land.' Without doubt the waters lost much of their sparkle as 1,500 were bathing each day. Regarding indoor pools, many included a second class or boy's bath, in which boys could bathe for a fraction of the cost of a private tub. Even so their behaviour needed regulation so that hijinks did not end in complete mayhem. Although initially built to compliment river, lake and canal swimming, concerns over indecency prompted change. No working class man or boy owned a bathing costume, in fact if you look carefully at the front cover of my own book: Hung Out to Dry, Swimming and British Culture, you will notice one youngster carrying the only clothes he has, screwed up in one hand.
Separating the Sexes
The early morning swim enabled male bathers to show respect to women, as all were to be out of the water and off to work long before a 'respectable' lady showed her face out of doors. But the provision of pools with warm water tempted bathers indoors and away from swimming in the wild. Segregation of the sexes whilst swimming protected moral sensibilities and a new age of British swimming was born.
To improve water quality, filtration and chlorination plants were installed to replace the expensive and time consuming 'empty and fill system' that predated it. As authorities focused on the need to keep bathing waters clean, suspicions were raised over wild swimming, and so in the cities, most swimmers ultimately found themselves swimming indoors. There is no doubt that some of these baths are marvels of design and are a pleasure to visit. Successive generations have progressed from dipping their toes into the water, to complete swimming competence within an indoor swimming pool. Yet, no matter how grand the surroundings, indoor swimming seems like a confinement on a warm sunny day. When first built, swimmers could choose between the newly created baths and a local river or lake. Today, city dwellers are told to swim indoors, or else not swim at all! It's a far cry from the days of Captain Matthew Webb who resolutely battled against tides and winds for 21 hours 45 minutes becoming the first to swim the channel. The New York Times reported on the effect of his success: 'The London baths are crowded; each village pond and running stream contains youthful worshipers at the shrine of Webb and even along the banks of the river, regardless of the terrors of the Thames police, swarms of naked urchins ply their limbs, each probably determined that he one day will be another Captain Webb.' This period of youthful exuberance ultimately saw swimmers confined by authority, and having to contend themselves with pacing backwards and forwards within the restrictions placed upon them in the river and ultimately the swimming pool.
Love them or hate them swimming pools are here to stay. These pools are like palaces for some, and like prisons to others. But if we are really honest, who of us would not prefer to swim outdoors, on a hot summer's day? The 160 page book Hung Out to Dry pulls back the curtain of time, explaining for the first time the remarkable history of British swimming.
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." The Swimming Times November 2012