Leicester’s Roman baths were never intended for swimming. The Romans were master swimmers delighting in cold open water. Non swimmers were perceived as illiterate and uneducated.
Use of the baths: “Getting into hot water,” led to trouble with the Church. 4th Century Church Father Jerome, equated sex with sin. He praised nuns who refused to wash. Augustine of Hippo viewed cleanliness with abhorrence. Bathing necessitated nudity, led to lust and damnation. One wash at baptism was the rule for “progressive” Christians. Persons of bad character would be ‘magically’ repelled by water. The last official ‘swimming’ of witches in England was here in Leicester in 1717. The ungodly were thought to become like their father the Devil – lighter than air. Unable to sink they ‘swam’ to their death.
(Bath) Bathing became acceptable again as a treatment for disease, provided the sexes were segregated to maintain morality.
1587 (Cambridge) in an effort to protect good ‘Christians’ from drowning, Everard Digby published: The Art of Swimming. Leicester celebrity Daniel Lambert saved countless lives by teaching men and boys to swim in the River Soar.
The Industrial Revolution drew workers from the countryside to a life of drudgery and oppression in the city. 1845 Leicester’s Thomas Cook pioneered the seaside holiday. Nude swimming and bathing became common place as workers rushed to enjoy the freedom of the beach. Bathers enjoyed the river overlooked by Leicester’s ruined Abbey. Bathing Machines at the seaside were invented to preserve decency.
1875 National Hero Captain Matthew Webb conquered the channel. Every young man took to the water in imitation of his hero: Captain Webb. It all became too much to bear. Swimmers were chased out of open water.
River swimming was very popular on Bede House Meadows.
But naked bathers cavorting on the river were heading for trouble.
For the sake of decency they were confined to indoor swimming pools…
…and designated bathing places designed to contain and hide them from public view. Bede House Bathing Station, Leicester.
1878 Women were mostly excluded from swimming, many drowned because they couldn’t learn to swim alongside males.
Leicester’s Central Baths pioneered a ladies pool. Leicester’s river swimming champion: John Jarvis. At the 1900 Paris Olympics he became the first ever triple gold medal winner. Leicester’s Jenny Fletcher was the “world’s first great woman swimmer.” This Olympic champion set 11 world records. Swimming exhibitions and competitions were the main attraction for show days in Leicester’s Abbey Park. Water Polo drew huge crowds; Leicester was a team to be reckoned with. Swimming was seen as an essential skill especially for adventurous boys. They were trained to swim like heroes. Those that passed the swimming test earned vouchers to swim for free at the Bede House river bathing station.
Swimming popularity was so great that two privately owned lidos were built in the city during the sunbathing era. Kenwood in Knighton and Leicester Lido in Humberstone.
1933 The Daily Mail exposed the unsanitary conditions at swimming pools. But Leicester’s pools had clean clear water already. Water quality at its river bathing stations sadly did not come up to standard. All bathing places were closed in1938 with the promise of a brand new lido to replace the competition venue in Abbey Park. These ambitions were shot to pieces and blown away by the declaration of war the very next year.
In 1966 the amended plan materialised. St Margaret’s Baths opened and thousands rushed to swim in the baths they loved.
Despite being officially closed for swimming, bathers enjoyed the river until the 1970s. 1973 A Public Safety film featuring the Grim Reaper scared all but the unruly out of rivers and lakes. 1988 Diving boards were removed from most swimming pools. In Leicester, free access to diving was greatly restricted. Leicester’s beloved baths were demolished to make way for the Shires shopping centre in the year 2000. Prickly bushes have been planted to prevent swimmers enjoying the river lido in Abbey Park.
Leicester’s Statue of Liberty now stands beside the derelict Bede House Bathing Station with her back to the river.
Poor water quality shut the door to swimming freedom in what was to become Environment City. 2014 Rutland Water opened a bathing beach for free swimming. 2015 Otters return to Leicester’s waterways, a clear indicator of clean water. Outdoor swimming is tolerated again at various sites across the Country.
What will the future hold for swimmers in Leicester?