|Bathing in London from Mediæval to Georgian times|
by Anthony Waldstock
“a large hall where the porter stands to receive the money. Hence we pass through an entry into another room, where hangs a pair of scales to weight such as, out of curiosity, would know how much they lose in weight while they are in the Bagnio. The building was a stately edifice, of an oval figure, in length 45 feet and breadth 35’. On Women’s Days there are all imaginable conveniences of privacy, and not a man to be seen, but all the servants are of the female sex.”
The Turkish Bath became something of a craze. Another was opened in 1683 in the south-east corner of the Covent Garden Piazza. This one was called a “hummums” (from the Turkish hammam. The hummums did not offer just the usual sweating and bathing facilities – customers could also purchase overnight lodgings as well. Of course the Thames and its tributaries were obvious places for bathing and other water-based amusements. There are numerous examples of “mothers bathing their children” in rivers such as the Westbourne and Wandle etc. However, the experience cannot always have been a pleasant one. On the western edge of the city was the Fleet river. Its waters were used by the tanners and butchers for soaking hides and cleaning entrails and it was notorious from an early date for the unpleasant smells this activity generated. Effectively, it was an open sewer – an image wonderfully caught by Jonathan Swift:”Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sail’d from, by their sight and smell …
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drown’d puppies, shaking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.”
But this, apparently, did not stop people from bathing in the Fleet. Alexander Pope, in his Dunciad, addressed these lines to the hardy souls who braved these waters south of Fleet Bridge:“To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The King of Dykes ! Than whom no sluice of mud,
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
‘Here strip, my children ! Here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash through thick and thin,
And the most in love of dirt excel
Or dark dexterity of groping well.”
The first indoor swimming pool was opened in London on 28th May 1742. The Daily Advertiser announced: “This day is opened, at the Bagnio in Lemon Street, Goodman’s Fields:
The Pleasure or Swimming Bath which is more than forty-three feet in length, it will be kept warm and fresh every Day and is convenient to swim or learn to swim in. There are Waiters attend daily to teach or assist Gentlemen in the said Swimming Bath if required. There is also a good Cold Bath.>Br> Subscribers may have the use of both for a Guinea”.
The first designed open-air swimming pool was Peerless Pond which was converted from an existing pond at Old Street in 1743. It measured 170 feet by 108 feet and was equipped with an arcade and boxes for dressing, as well as a screen of trees to protect the bathers from the gaze of vulgar people. The Annual subscription was £1 10s. For casual visitors the cost was a shilling a time. The proprietor was a William Kemp, a London jeweller. Beside the swimming pool he kept a large fish pond which he stocked with carp and tench. This open to subscribers for an annual fee of one guinea or to casual anglers for two shillings a time. In winter, the ponds were used for skating .
The original name of the pool had been Perilous Pond on account, according to Stow, of the number of youths who drowned in it whilst swimming. Pennant, writing in 1790, says that it has:
“ been converted into the finest and most spacious bathing place now known; where persons may enjoy the manly and useful exercise with safety. Here is also an excellent covered bath with a large pond stocked with fish, a small library, a bowling green and every innocent and rational amusement; so that it is not without reason that the proprietor hath bestowed on it the present name.”
Around 1805, the lease was acquired by Joseph Watts who drained the fish pond and constructed Baldwin Street on part of the site. William Hone visited the amenity in 1826 and found that very little had changed.
“Trees enough remain to shade the visitor from the heat of the sun on the brink. On a summer evening it is amusing to survey the conduct of the bathers; some boldly dive, others timorous stand and then descend step by step, unwilling and slow; choice swimmers attract attention by divings and somersets, and the whole sheet of water sometimes rings with merriment. Every fine Thursday and Saturday afternoon in the summer columns of bluecoat boys, more than a score in each, headed by their respective beadles, arrive and some half strip themselves ere they reach their destination. The rapid plunges they make into the Pool and their hilarity in the bath testify their enjoyment of the tepid fluid”
The pool was closed in 1850 and built over and is now occupied by the unglamorous St. Luke’s estate where the trees are long since gone.
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