Leicester: Swim City

Excerpts from Chapter 6

Having considered the many factors that have affected the swimmer, let us now look at how all of these influences have impacted on the sport, by turning our attention to the inland city of Leicester. What has happened here has been reflected throughout the country and helps us to better understand the plight of swimmers today. In Leicester as elsewhere, swimmers are barred from open water. Yet, as if the official reason for this has been forgotten (pollution) and despite the fact that water quality in much of its open water is higher than in many swimming pools, the river remains out of bounds to swimmers. In the next chapter you will discover just why this paradox exists and why the swimmer has been 'hung out to dry.'

Close to Nature

Per Penny per Person

Leicester Shines


The Swimming Hole

Swimming Days Out

Danger: Do Not Bathe

A Long Time Coming


We Don't Want Water…

Environment City

So it is not surprising then, that interest in swimming became decidedly bad for your health. Religious conviction and the political union of Church and State ensured that these masterpieces of construction were ultimately closed and destroyed. Additionally, the Anglo Saxon invaders were determined to obliterate their predecessors' accomplishments, and so little is left.   Close to Nature   The 16th century saw a moderation in Church teachings and although the re-cords of history remain silent on the use of the river until 1741, a map of Leicester labels a field in this region as: 'The Bath',  showing the return of swimming interest. Daniel Lambert  (1770-1809 pictured left) a well-known personality in the town, taught boys to swim here in the river Soar. Lambert was an excellent swimmer and such a celebrity in the town that all of Leicester's youngsters would look to him for instruction. Due to his tremendous size (he weighed over 52 stone when he died and measured 9? 4? around his waist),  he could float with ease; in fact it is said that he could swim with two men lying on his back.  If some of his charges seemed a little timid, he would carry them across to the bank opposite their pile of clothes and leave them to struggle back. They would then either have to sink or swim!  The city's bathing area, originally flanking Bath Lane, seems to have split both north

and south with the growth of the town. Most popular was the area adjacent to Leicester's Abbey, known as Abbey Meadows. The area lies in the proximity of the old Abbey sewer,  and the spot finds mention in the Dare Reports on working class life in Victorian Leicester.  Joseph Dare was a middle class evangelist who did much to assist Leicester's workers to improve their situation and living conditions. Naked outdoor swimming in Abbey Meadows was, though, something of which he vehemently disapproved. He condemned the noisy enthusiasm of those bathing in the Soar and complained: 'Certain classes of roughs can only enjoy themselves by annoying decent people. The bathing in the pasture also deprives respectable females of the pleasant recreation of boating.' Despite the area's reputation as a 'dank, diphtherial and febrile spot', it can't have been that unattractive if respectable ladies would consider it a suit-able leisure area. What was offensive, in the mind of the middle classes at least, was the fact that bathers were splashing around in the nude. Dare continues: 'I have seen fellows splashing about up to the North Bridge in full view of the public road and contiguous factories; and other like disgusting exhibitions at the top of Soar Lane coal wharf.' It was reasoned that men and boys bathing together in a naked state could be up to no good. Joseph Dare refers to disgusting scenes tolerated in the pasture, whilst others describe the area as 'nothing else but a meeting place for all kinds of vice and filth.' Something had to be done, so Joseph Wright, the In-spector of Public Nuisances, was sent to investigate. Significantly he reported that there was nothing to complain of, but some could not accept this, conclud-ing that the presence of the Inspector had caused the bathers to moderate their behaviour.  It would be improper to suggest that all those attending were of impeccable morals. There may well have been indiscretions, even if not during the Inspector's visit, yet the real problem would appear to be the suspicion and fear that arose out of a clash of culture. The lack of privacy endured by the working class shaped their attitudes; they were without shame. Living in op-pressive and cramped conditions with little opportunity for recreation, boys went wild on the riverside; they noisily enjoyed themselves and loved to run and swim naked (they ran to get dry). The middle classes benefited greatly from the labour of these lesser mortals, but their behaviour did not sit well with mid-dle class niceties. The middle class liked everything to be regulated and well superintended, and this was most certainly not the case by the river.

The success of Leicester's Thomas Cook in providing affordable holiday travel (by train since 1841) had not only contributed to the transformation of the seaside, it had given impetus to the polarization of attitudes regarding public decency on the beach. Back in 1847, Queen Victoria set a new trend by visiting the seaside 'just for fun' as opposed to sea bathing purely for medicinal purposes. Ten years later the Marquess of Westmeath presented a 'Bathing Bill' in the House of Lords requiring men to wear bathing costumes. However, the House thought the subject better dealt with through bye-laws and the Marquis withdrew his Bill.  Nude sea bathing came under restriction and inevitably the days for bare bathers at home were now to be numbered. Victorian standards of morality and feelings of British supremacy led to a confidence and determina-tion when it came to dealing with inferiors. After all, Britain ruled one in four of the world's population and clothed the world in wool and cotton. The middle classes had no doubt at all that 'God was an Englishman' and that he favoured the British. They felt that they knew better than the workers and they saw it as their God-given duty to civilise and moderate the potentially dangerous activities of such 'roughs', thereby retaining God's good pleasure. Pressure to conform had its roots in these early expressions of condemnation and it is still very apparent in the area even today, as evidenced by the proliferation of swimming restrictions in the city.   Per Penny per Person  Leicester's first indoor pool was built in the 1840s on New Walk. Warm water fed the sizeable pool from the owner's factory. It was some forty feet long by twenty-one feet wide and was originally available only for private swimming. Things changed, however, when in 1847 the Corporation agreed to pay Mr J P Clarke one hundred pounds towards his expenses and Clarke's baths were opened to the public. This was in response to the government's 1846 directive to provide public baths and washhouses. Leicester then could boast a swimming bath in response to the ruling well before a London pool opened in 1849!  Bathers (men only) were charged 'per penny, per person, per swim,' and were given a clean towel into the price (costumes were unheard of). In 1869, the Corporation took over the baths, paying rent to Mr Clarke, and from 1870 onwards children were admitted at half price. Mixed bathing was out of the question and women were only admitted between the hours of  



Wild Swim

















Leicestershire Historian No 46 (2010) "This book examines the social history of swimming, demonstrating the important role it has played in everyday British Culture. ...religious and moral attitudes regarding swimming, seaside swimming and swimwear, and the rise and fall of sunbathing. Chapter 6 uses Leicester as a case study to explain how 'the British' swimmer came to be 'hung out to dry'. ...most convincingly researched... there is a lot of fascinating and detailed material in this book" Lucy Faire

"...a fascinating book by local author Chris Ayriss. ...very readable, informative and entertaining... many excellent illustrations." Leicester Mercury 


From Pride to Prejudice

Cleanliness Versus Godliness

Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks

Sunny Days, Dark Shadows

Lidos Open, Rivers Close

Leicester, Swim City

The Last Stand