Ian Jack: When the English were the world's best swimmers

Once the English were the world's best swimmers, and the nation swimming-mad

This summer Dr Ian Dungavell is swimming his way through the aquatic architecture of Victorian and Edwardian England, when Britain led the world as the supreme swimming nation and the equivalents of Michael Phelps learned their trade in canals, mill ponds and the disagreeable water (changed only weekly, and therefore dirtier as the week grew longer) of the municipal baths.

Dr Dungavell's long swim is a stunt, but rather an interesting one. As the director of the Victorian Society, he wants to draw attention to the plight of England's old and often handsome public swimming pools, with their ornate tiling and high, echoing roofs. Many have been demolished. Others, saved by architectural listing, have become night clubs, mosques, flats and offices.

According to Dr Dungavell, the new-build fixation of local authorities and the way National Lottery grants work - separately for sport and heritage - conspire against keeping old pools as pools. Even the Victoria Baths in Manchester, which received more than £3m after they won the BBC's Restoration show, are dry and will probably never see a swimmer again. The Victorian Society and other campaigners want pools with water, where bathers can enjoy the aesthetics and a continuing local tradition.

England has 13 listed buildings that still operate as public pools. Dr Dungavell is swimming all of them. For each year of a pool's age he swims a length - so, for example, on July 28 he swam 104 lengths at the Beverley Road Baths in Hull, because they opened in 1904.

Some pools are longer than others. Swindon's is 33 metres and, as it opened in 1891, Dr Dungavell will next Wednesday need to do 117 laps or 3,861 metres in one go. He refers to the prospect as "the Swindon nightmare".

We met this week on the train to Brighton, where he was to swim at St Luke's Pool, opened in 1903. He was wearing a T-shirt printed

"1000yearswim.com" - from the combined age of the pools (in fact 1,438) - over a lean torso that looked a good advert for frequent swimming. What had been prize discovery of his nine pools to date?

"Moseley Road in Birmingham and Manningham in Bradford are both tremendous in their different ways. At Manningham they still have tiled spittoons curving out from the pool's edge and the original scum channels down the sides." A scum channel takes the slops from the surface water. The first few inches are always said to be dirtiest, and before chlorination and filtration arrived in the 1920s swimmers needed to be brave about powering their way through all the things, visible and invisible, that can float free from an immersed body.

It may be this folk memory, enshrined in stories about crystals that would turn urine in water pink, that caused "public baths" to fall out of fashion. "Pools", a word with pleasanter implications, are what we call them now, and this is proper because the baths/pool confusion comes from the 19th century, when an act of parliament enabled local authorities to raise rates to build baths, places for washing, where plunge pools for a little recreational swimming were sometimes added as an afterthought.

But the cleaning of bodies and clothes was seen for decades as their primary purpose and so "baths" stuck as the term that covered everything inside them, even after new housing permitted everyone to scrub themselves at home.

Long before then, and peculiarly for a cool country surrounded by cold seas, Britain had adopted swimming as a cult. Charles Sprawson tells the story in his magnificent account of swimming history, Haunts of the Black Masseur, first published in 1992. Sprawson writes: "In the 19th century the English were acknowledged as the best swimmers in the world ... They never for a moment doubted their pre-eminence." They loved the breast-stroke, which had replaced the doggy paddle around the time of Sir Walter Raleigh, when the main reason to swim was not to drown, and they clung stubbornly to it even after Native American swimmers beat them in racing competitions with the stroke that became known as the crawl.

The crawl's splashing was seen as vulgar and primitive. British swimmers modelled their actions on the frogs that were kept in tubs beside pools as teaching devices. The head was to be kept upright at all times for a stately effect, and also perhaps as a precaution against swallowing water that contained who knew what. Captain Matthew Webb breaststroked his way across the Channel in 1875 and for a week afterwards couldn't wear a collar, owing, Sprawson says, "to the deep red raw rim at the back of his neck".

Sea, lake and river swimming had drawn gentlemanly, even poetic, addicts from the start of the century. Byron was a great swimmer, who began in the rivers of Aberdeenshire, where he grew up; he had a club foot and water allowed him a grace that land didn't. Algernon Swinburne, a notoriously odd fish, loved being beaten up by the sea and the shingle - he was a masochist - and swam in all weathers in places as chilly as Northumberland and Loch Torridon (reflections of his enthusiasm can be seen in the new interest in "wild swimming" and writers such as Robert Macfarlane, Kate Rew and the late Roger Deakin. Less poetically, Manchester produced some world-beating swimmers who trained in canals and the reservoirs that filled the boilers of cotton mills. But it was the heroic exploits of Webb that made Britain swimming-mad and did so much to fuel the boom in municipal pools. By 1911 there were about 600 of them, not including pools such as St Luke's, which was originally attached to a school.

It now sits fenced-off from the playground in a hollow facing the sea, a nice little building in red brick with a curved roof and fleur-de-lys on the cast-iron downpipes. Dr Dungavell had never been to St Luke's before and he was taken with it, until we saw the inside. A false ceiling to save on heating bills, all the old cubicles and tilework removed. "The heart sank," he said later, after swimming his 105 lengths of the 15-metre pool in an energetic mixture of dipping breaststroke and crawl. Clive Merrett, one of the pool's lifeguards (now known as leisure attendants), remarked that you never saw the side-stroke these days, though occasionally you saw an older person doing "the old English backstroke", arms gently rotating, legs working on the inverted frog model. But it, too, was increasingly rare.

I stood on the balcony and looked down on the oblong of liquid blue. St Luke's remains a rudimentary pool, too small for the extras favoured by modern leisure centres: wave machines, flumes, slides. This was its evening session. Women - there were very few men - came out of the changing room and slid into the water. One or two stood chatting in the shallows, others swam along together talking. The rest wore goggles and began to perfect the movements of the frog. Water was their refreshing friend - Paul Valéry called swimming "fornication avec l'onde", sex with the wave, and even in the chlorinated water at St Luke's it was possible to see its sensual attraction and the grace it could give the ungainly.

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew all this, but how strange that, in Europe at least, the rediscovery and re-celebration of swimming first erupted among a white-skinned people whose teeth chattered when they entered the sea. Britain's few still-active Victorian and Edwardian pools are monuments to their enlightened passion.


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Relaunch of Newcastle's City Baths begins 'year of hope' for historic pools
City’s Turkish baths, refurbished after a local campaign, first among several set to reopen in UK

Helen Pidd North of England editor

05, Jan, 2020 @1:31 PM

Article image
Demolishing Glasgow's Red Road flats for the Commonwealth Games could leave the city's reputation in rubble | Ian Jack
Ian Jack: There are honest arguments in favour of demolishing the Red Road tower blocks, but the idea that this is a 'respectful celebration' that will 'wow the world' is absolute flapdoodle

Ian Jack

12, Apr, 2014 @7:03 AM

Article image
The view from north of the border: metropolitan elites, Mackintosh and migration | Ian Jack

Ian Jack: As the referendum on independence moves ever closer and the debate about Scottish identity continues, one stereotype persists – the Edinburgh solicitor

Ian Jack

31, May, 2014 @8:00 AM

Article image
London is now full of war memorials, but the oldest are still the best | Ian Jack
Ian Jack: The timeworn efforts of Charles Jagger and Edwin Lutyens still stand head and shoulders above London's newer monuments and war memorials

Ian Jack

09, Nov, 2012 @10:29 PM

Article image
Bath's Georgian swimming pool wins £4.5m towards restoration
Campaigners have secured funds to conserve Bath's historic Cleveland Pools, which had been neglected for years

Steven Morris

11, Aug, 2014 @4:38 PM

Article image
The Inverkip chimney is gone, and I'm glad. Does that make me a philistine? | Ian Jack
Ian Jack: Inverkip power station – and its skyscraping chimney – have been demolished. Some are lamenting the lack of one of Scotland's great modernist buildings, but not I

Ian Jack

03, Aug, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
Parliament is falling down. So should Dunsop Bridge be the new capital?
Haltwhistle? Rochdale? Dunsop Bridge? If our MPs do go into exile, they should find a spot that moves the centre of political gravity away from the South. But good luck keeping the Shetlanders happy

Ian Jack

07, Mar, 2015 @8:00 AM

Saving churches for their history - not religion

Ian Jack: These buildings are an important part of our landscape – even if they are not used for worship

Ian Jack

03, Jul, 2010 @6:00 AM

Ian Jack: We are all suburban now

Ian Jack: In popular culture the suburbs are always somewhere we long to escape from. Not true

Ian Jack

20, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Ian Jack: How the display cabinet killed Wedgwood

Ian Jack: The pottery's problem is that they made too much - who wants it once everyone can afford it?

Ian Jack

10, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM