A dip in the briny then back to the smoky
By Sadie Mayne
I think it would be interesting to dramatise the first meeting of the Brighton Swimming Club – Britain’s oldest continuous swimming club – at the Jolly Fisherman pub in Market Street in May 1860, using the original minutes. (English Heritage are currently funding an accessible archive.) There are fantastic drawings and photographs from the period, for example one of the club on Brighton beach in 1863 wearing only shorts and top hats.
The majority of Victorians couldn’t swim – not surprising when the first public swimming pool in Brighton was built in 1895. Brighton Swimming Club was ahead of its time in offering informal swimming lessons and by July 1863 there was an average of 1200 bathers a day.
Stunts included their annual aquatic tea parties and the club ran competitions for ‘ornamental swimming’, ‘swimming dressed in suits or clothes’ and ‘undressing while in the water smoking a pipe the whole time’. The club believed that swimming ‘cleansed the body to prepare the mind for instruction’. Everyone had to use the bathing (changing) machines on the beach from 8am so the club swam between 6-8am. Their changing rooms were a shed and two old railways carriages by the Chain Pier.
I want to explore (a) historical attitudes towards sea swimming – it was customarily done naked by men in the nineteenth century and naked swimming was not illegal until 1860; and (b) what kind of men were involved – freethinkers, health freaks, good Samaritans wanting to save lives? Did the club attract men from all classes? (The Ladies Brighton Swimming Club wasn’t founded until 1891 – bathing in the UK was segregated until 1901.) As sea dipping for medicinal purposes died out in the 1850s, would sea swimming for fun have been seen as a wild, even outlandish thing to do in the 1860s?
This page was amended on 09/04/2014