We have celebrated this summer the opening of “Lansbury’s Lido,” and for the first time women have been allowed to swim openly and without fear of arrest in the holy waters of the Serpentine. Hundreds have availed themselves of the privilege, and thousands more have discovered a cheap and amusing outdoor show.
Few realise the hard work that their mothers and grandmothers have had to get the taboo removed from fresh-water swimming for women. I remember how bitter it was in our childhood to be told, when we saw our brothers going joyously out to swim in any river or pond handy: “Little ladies may only bathe in the sea; God made the canals and rivers for boys. You are very rude girls to want to go.”
Even last century the logical mind of girlhood asked: “Why is salt water more moral than fresh?” In the tropical days of the summer of 1881, with the thermometer soaring into the eighties a poor woman of Coal Court, Drury Lane, was seen bathing in the lake, arrested at once by a scandalised policeman, and dragged before a magistrate, while 200 male persons were left happily swimming.
The bright young people of that day were deeply moved at such injustice, at such a scandalous example of laws made by men for men. The leaven of sex equality was working in our veins; we were out for the “right to swim” as well as the “right to vote.”
Nearly fifty years later (1929) another woman swam in the Serpentine and was fined for her audacity. I am told that during the tropical heat of 1914 so many mixed bathing parties were organised by moonlight that the authorities of the Thames Conservancy failed to cope with them, but the shadow of the war was falling over us, so that perhaps they had no time or energy to deal with such trivialities.
Some of us, however, were determined that women should also taste the joys of swimming. All through the closing decades of the last century we worked hard to get swimming baths open for women, and our crusade prospered both in rich and poor neighbourhoods, fine baths for women only being built in many wealthier districts, and even in the comparatively poor district of Prince of Wales Road, Kentish Town. For some years there were complaints that these baths were poorly patronised, except in rich neighbourhoods, but the small fee of sixpence (or twopence for second class) was difficult to obtain owing to the economic dependence of women of the working class, where pennies were short and babies plentiful.
In North London a few enthusiasts worked hard for years to get some of the Heath ponds open for women at least one day a week. At the first informal meeting our plan was mocked out of court. All the men present sat back in their chairs and roared with laughter at the very thought. The crowds would be so great on the banks that people would be crushed to death, and the tramways and North London Railway would run special excursions to see such a sight. However, we worked on, heedless of ridicule, owing much to the influence of the few women on the L.C.C. and the Borough Councils.
I have before me cuttings from the old “Westminster Gazette,” dated October 1903, containing a controversy between Mrs. Mary Nugent and the present writer headed ‘Women and Water.” Mrs. Nugent suggests that women do not like water, that “hitherto woman had never been heard of in connection with water. Never! Only with wine.”
It certainly had been a great disappointment that we enthusiasts found the attendance so bad through the warm days of that beautiful summer. Sometimes only two or three women turned up. Once, I remember, I was all alone, but when, since the Christian era or even before, men had reserved all fresh water swimming for themselves only, it was no wonder few women could swim – a valid reason in a deep pond.
It is strange that a sporting country should have been so churlish to her daughters, when even so far back as the seventies and eighties there were open-air baths for women in the Seine, the Rhine, the Rhone, and probably in many other rivers which I had not the good luck to visit. Here in London we had to wait for another century before we could taste the joys of a plunge in the open, with the blue sky overhead, the green trees fringing the water, and the blazing sun shining warm on us as we clambered triumphantly on to the raft. It cost us a long and weary struggle to win, not the freedom of the sea, but the freedom of rivers and lakes and ponds.