Victorian London - Health and Hygiene - Baths and Bathing - public bathing outdoors

Sir, - Will you permit me to inquire why it is that the new rule which has been recently, and very properly made, and placed on boards along the northern bank of the Serpentine River, prohibiting any bathing on that side, is so soon to become a dead letter?
    I was taking my usual walk last Saturday evening in Hyde Park, after the hours of business were over, when, to my great surprise, I saw several persons bathing, as of old, on the northern bank of the Serpentine River; and, on making the circumstance known the police, I was politely informed that their orders were not to interfere in the matter. Is it because the great and noble of the land have left town that those less fortunate than themselves are to be subjected to the nuisance, which they flattered themselves had been abated, of seeing hundreds of naked men and boys surrounding that beautiful piece of water, and by their yells and discordant noises preventing any respectable persons from enjoying a quiet walk on either bank of the river?
    I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
    Sept. 11.             A CONSTANT READER

letter to The Times, September 12, 1843

Sir, - I read in your paper of this morning a querulous letter from a "Constant Reader" respecting the numbers of poor people who are, I am happy to find, now permitted to bathe in the Serpentine River. I wonder that you, who so lately employed your pen in showing the necessity of providing the means of general ablution for the bodies of our poor working people, should now publish the complaints of this person.     What are the poor people to do? There are no free baths provided by the State; the great highway of the Thames is interdicted, perhaps not improperly; but with respect to the Serpentine River, there can be no objection to the use of it as a great public bath.
    If "constant readers" and others of such sickly fancies do not like to witness the scene of so much enjoyment, let them go somewhere else and take their "quiet walks" for the walkers, quiet or otherwise, may go to many places, whereas the bathers can go but to this one. For my part, I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to those in authority who have had the merciful kindness to allow the poor working man to refresh and strengthen his body in the comfort and salubrity of a bath in the Serpentine River.

letter to The Times, September 14, 1843

Jul.30 1844


Sir,- In your paper to-day is a letter from a wharfinger at Vauxhall, wherein he complains "how disgracefully indecent it is to the numerous steam-boat passengers that bathing is allowed, and he calls for it suppression in the river Thames from the fearful sacrifice of life," &c.
    He appears to be dreadfully shocked that he can occasionally see the heads and shoulders of two boys in the water, but perhaps much nearer to him may be seen men at work on the river with nothing on but a pair of canvass trousers.
As to the losses of life from bathing, let them be compared with those of the numerous boats on the river, or even with his friends the steam-boat passengers, and see which shows the greatest per centage. If one is dangerous and must be stopped, why not stop all the other dangers at the same time?
    With reference to the indecency complained of, I can only say, I have bathed from very early life in the sea, in rivers, canals, and baths of all kinds, and I have for hours watched bathers of every rank in society, yet I never witnessed any case of indelicacy (or indecency, as your correspondent has it) on the part of a bather; but I have known instances of persons knowingly intruding (females as well as males) into the very small spaces, and during the limited time, allowed to bathers; after this comes a letter to you, probably from some father, who complains that "his daughters have been shocked, &c." leaving it to be thoroughly well known that he has daughters, and that they are more delicate than other people in this squeamish age.
    The real cause of loss of life, in a great measure, is that bathing is not more universal, and that so few persons consequently swim. Persons of cleanly habits and of real delicacy of feeling seldom complain that others try to be clean and comfortable, and no one who knows the comforts of a bath would ever, I am sure, wish to deprive another of such an enjoyment.
    Consider the services rendered by swimmers in many ways. How many times a year do we avoid being shocked and alarmed because men who have fallen into the water save their lives by swimming? How many other lives do they save? How often have they assisted vessels by carrying a line ashore when other means have failed? How have they carried despatches in time of war?
    I have myself gone to Richmond for a river bath, but found numerous ill-natured announcements on boards, that I must be taken into custody anywhere within the jurisdiction of the police, if I attempted it before so late an hour that would prevent my getting a conveyance to town the same evening.
    Many times you have before done gone service to the bathing community, for which no one is more grateful than
    Your obedient servant,

letter to The Times, July 30, 1844

see also Andrew Wynter in Our Social Bees - click here

see also Charles Maurice Davies in Mystic London - click here

Bathing.- Few things are pleasanter on a hot day than a plunge into one of the deep, quiet, shady pools in which the Thames abounds. Few things are more exhilarating than to rise after a scientific header in the rushing waters below some such weir as that at Marlow. And at ordinary times, in ordinary seasons, and with ordinary caution, the pleasure is one almost entirely unaccompanied, to a reasonably good swimmer, with any amount of danger. But it should always be remembered that any sudden flood, which involves the raising, perhaps some miles away, of sluices and weir paddles may transform the usually safe bathing-place into what is practically nothing more nor less than a death trap. Furthermore, it is well to remember that some of the most deplorable bathing accidents on record have happened to men with experience on the river, and practised swimmers to boot. Many weirs fall into absolute pits, and in many cases contain the debris of old bridges, blocks of concrete, or stumps of sunken trees; and in many eases again the eddies and whirlpools in the rush of waters defy all calculation. Its quieter places another kind of danger is presented by the weeds, whose clinging embrace has proved fatal to many a good swimmer. It must not be supposed from this recapitulation of the dangers of river bathing that it is intended here to discourage so laudable, so health-giving a practice. What is aimed at is to insist, as strongly as possible, on the absolute necessity of caution, and the desirability, when possible, of consulting before the plunge some local expert as to the condition of the water. The melancholy fate of Mr. Argles, who lost his life in August, 1879, in one of the best-known and most frequented bathing-places on the river - Odney Pool at Cookham - ought most strongly to point this moral. Canon Argles, after his son's death, writing to the Times on the subject, said that a guidebook, which his son had in his possession at the time of the fatal accident, stated that there was "splendid bathing its Odney Weir." And splendid bathing at Odney Weir, under ordinary circumstances, there undoubtedly is, as the writer, from many years experience of its waters, can aver; but the season of 1879 was in all respects exceptional, and there can be no doubt that the suck of the stream, owing to the great rush of water which it is impossible accurately to gauge from the appearance of the surface, developed some peculiar source of danger unknown at quieter times. It is notorious to all rowing men and habitués of the river that Sandford Lasher hat almost yearly demanded its tale of victims, and it is almost inconceivable that people will continue year after year to tempt fate in this and other equally dangerous places.
    It was originally intended to add to the other information contained in this book, which it in hoped still be of use to rowing men, a list of the best and most convenient bathing-places between Oxford and Teddington. But a careful personal inspection of the river, undertaken specially for the purposes of the DICTIONARY during the past season - an inspection following a practical Thames experience of over twenty years - led, irresistibly, to the conclusion that so great a responsibility was not lightly to be undertaken. The idea of giving such a list was, therefore, reluctantly abandoned, and the Editor has thought it more judicious, and even more practical, simply to give the few words of caution which are here set forth.
    It is hardly credible, even taking into consideration the difficulty of moving the constituted authorities, that nowadays, when the river is year by year growing in popularity and attracting more and more visitors, so little has ever been attempted in the way of establishing safe and convenient bathing-places. A few local clubs and private houses have their own bathing-waters and bathing conveniences, properly kept in order and attended to ; but, for the general public, there is hardly one that offers any attraction to the swimmer, except the bathing sheds and ladders at Solomon's Hatch,·, between Marsh Mill and Henley. It is not as if any great outlay were required, or as if any serious expense would be entailed by the maintenance of the simple building required, or the provision of the needful attendance. Enclosed baths are, no doubt, here and there to be found, but in the bright summer weather the temptation to swim in comparatively open water is almost irresistible, and, danger or no danger, is sure to be yielded to. That a little care and public spirit on the part of the governing bodies of the small towns along the river, who reap in good seasons so large a harvest from the boating and excursion public, would not only be the means of giving healthful enjoyment to many and would save many valuable lives is certain. That, in tne long run, it would entail no loss of money admits of little doubt. 
    From another point of view, the establishment of recognised public bathing-places would be a most valuable boon to the boating parties, very often largely consisting of ladies, who throng the river in the summer months. It is too often the Custom under the present absence of system for the rowing man to cast his flannels from him and to plunge into the river, in puris naturalibus, oblivious or careless of the fact that after the bath a certain amount of drying becomes necessary. There is no guarantee that the reach selected for bathing, which may have been perfectly empty a few minutes before, may not be alive with boats while the drying and dressing processes are still in an incomplete state. The establishment of properly sheltered and recognised bathing-places would go far to prevent the compromising situations which too frequently mar the pleasures of a picnic or boating party. No system, however good, will prevent the reckless and shameless indecency which is too often displayed by the roughs, gentle and simple, who unhappily find their way to the river as they do to all other places of public resort. This nuisance is, naturally, greater in the neighbourhood of the more populous towns, and cases where the local authorities, who undoubtedly have power to interfere, are too supine to adopt the simple expedient of summoning the culprits before the magistrates, the example of one town at least may be commended. In this case a vigilance committee of the able-bodied residents took the matter into their own hands, and by the summary chastisement of some of the sturdiest and most audacious offenders very speedily worked a signal and permanent cure. It is perhaps, too much to expect that the Thames Conservancy, who have already so much work on their  hands, should, for the present at all events, be able to give their attention to this really very important subject; but the Board, as at present constituted, has already done so much, and has show itself so desirous of consulting the interests of those who have pleasure on the river as well as of those who are there on business, that it may be hoped that from them in the not distant future the desired reform may come.
    With the view of diminishing the number of deaths which annually occur from incautious bathing, the following notice is, by order of the Royal Humane Society, issued by the secretary and distributed throughout the United Kingdom: "Important to Bathers - Avoid bathing within two hours after a meal. Avoid bathing when exhausted by fatigue or from any other cause. Avoid bathing when the body is cooling after perspiration. Avoid bathing altogether in the open air if, after having been a short time in the water, there is a sense of chilliness with numbness of the hands and feet; but bathe when the body is warm, provided no time is lost in getting into the water. Avoid chilling the body by sitting or standing undressed on the banks or in boats after having been in the water. Avoid remaining too long in the water, but leave the water immediately there is the slightest feeling of chilliness. The vigorous and strong may bathe early in the morning on an empty stomach. The young and those who are weak had better bathe two or three hours after a meal; the best time for such is from two to three hours after breakfast.
    The Lancet says: "It is very generally believed that the proper way to bathe is to take a header into the sea, or, at least, to immerse the whole body immediately.  Theoretically this may be done so far as the most vigorous organisms are concerned, but it must not forgotten that a man may be perfectly healthy, and yet not endowed with sufficient latent energy to recover quickly from the 'shock' which must in all cases be inflicted on the nerve-centres by suddenly plunging the whole surface of the skin, with its terminal nervous twigs, into a cold bath. For a time, at least, the central activity must be reduced in force, if not form. When, therefore, a man plunges, and immediately after strikes out to swim, it is not only possible but probable that he may become exhausted, and fail from depression of energy, with cramp."

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

    Of course most people who come to the Park of an evening are aware of the swarm of small boys who assemble on the bathing ground (or space), some four hundred yards allotted for that purpose on the south shore, who have been waiting hours before the time, especially after a hot day in July; (they come in droves and batches from all quarters of London) anxiously looking for the signal to plunge in - and this signal was the approach of the Royal Humane Society boats from the opposite side of the water, exactly at half-past seven, to be in readiness to render assistance to any of the bathers that may be in danger of drowning - three as a rule, one at each end of the boundary and one in the centre.
    I assure you it is no easy job for the police a few minutes before the approach of these boats to keep them from undressing and plunging in, the eagerness of the young rascals being so great. When I say "undressing" I mean stripping off what little they have on-the word is superfluous, for to keep them from un dressing long before the time was a matter of impossibility; it appeared a certain amount of gratification to them to undress, and it was only with firmness and intimidation of sending them away altogether that they could be prevailed upon to squat about with even their shirts on. We usually supplied ourselves with a light stick or cane, and shook it at them in a threatening manner, occasionally impressing upon them the fact that they would get a taste of it, if they did not behave themselves, or we should have been overrun; and even when the boats did appear, and the shout went up- "All in!" I have been in a state of suspense while the boats were coming across, as in sheer excitement the smaller ones were so apt to get out of their depth. But it is surprising-owing, I believe, to the promptness and watchfulness of the R.H.S.'s boatmen under Mr. Supt. Horton - that very few casualties happen; and when yeu come to consider, three men have to keep at this particular rush (I don't think I shall be exaggerating)  between six and seven hundred bathers, young and old;, under their observation, I think you will admit all credit is due to this Society. A scene of excitement now take. place, the splashing, laughing and yelling one to another. in their intense delight for the first few minutes are perfectly deafening, and is heard almost all over Park; many, I am sure, hear this din and wonder where it proceeds from. 
    After the bathe and the excitement are over, there comes the dressing business, and often trouble with it - for I have frequently known a youngster's neighbour take a fancy for his superior pair of boots, leaving his inferior pair instead, and often not even that consideration shown, to say nothing of the squabbles one with another brought about by the intermixing of each other's clothing.
    So much for evening bathing. Just a little about the morning-that takes place from five to eight o'clock, all the year round. This may be doubted, so far as the attendance is concerned, but it is actually true, for, frost or no frost, there are an exceptional few elderly bathers who come regularly and have their morning dip; even should the ice be ever so thick, they manage to keep a sufficient space so as to have a plunge at this one particular spot. I have often seen them with a drag pole breaking the ice which had frozen since the morning before.
    I may add the police are always on duty there during bathing hours, to see that the rules of the Park are not infringed.

Edward Owen, Hyde Park, Select Narratives, Annual Event, etc, 
during twenty years' Police Service in Hyde Park,