Swimming in the river

A few years ago we were lucky enough to meet a relative of Charles Humphreys who told us about Charles’s job at the open-air swimming place in the bend of the river Colne approaching North Station.  Charles encouraged school use of the bathing place and as swimming at North School has been so memorable we wanted to find out more about these lessons in the river.

North School swimmers. Could this be the Castle Park bathing place?

Today swimming is taught at Leisure World with classes making use of the heated indoor teaching and fitness pools.  On the way there classes pass the location of a former public bathing place in the river between the modern cricket club and lower Castle Park. In the 1880s this river bathing place moved upstream to the site still visible from the Colne Bank Avenue bridge today.

Charles Humphreys was one of the first bathing place attendants on this new site in 1887, seven years before North School opened. Initially he was appointed just for the summer months and had a winter job as sanitary inspector. Charles encouraged schools to make use of the bathing place and in 1895, the summer after North School opened, John Harper records that he has arranged for the boys to take lessons:

“I have this week organised two swimming classes and have arranged with the authorities of the public bathing place that Standards V, VI and VII shall bathe on Thursday mornings 11.30 to 12.00, and Standard IV on Monday mornings 11.30 to 12. The fee of 3d will admit each class to any part of the bathing place once a week.”

It does seem to have only been boys who took lessons at this time. Despite being allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Fridays from 1893, and Charles’s wife making 30 curtains for the female changing rooms, it was not until 1921 that lessons for girls took place. John Harper then records a “growing demand from parents that girls should have an opportunity of learning to swim” and schoolteachers Miss Rowland and Miss Smith, both good swimmers according to Mr Harper, started to teach the girls.

Ronald Rose, who attended North School from 1923 remembers swimming in the river in Castle Park. He remembers the reeds were cleared but that the bottom was still very muddy. The owner of Middle Mill was paid to open the gates, lowering the river level to make it easier to clear reeds at the bathing place. 

The open air facilities were improved in 1932, with a new pool opening on June 16.  The new pool was oval shaped with a spectator area.  Dorothy Culley remembers in the 1930s “one hot summer afternoon sitting on the concrete steps at the bathing pool watching the ‘Water Sports’ and cheering on members of Lawrence house. Their colour was yellow, for the sands of Arabia! Blue was for Scott of the Antarctic.”

Michael Cooper remembers “swimming in the open -air pool under the bypass bridge. If the water temperature was 60F [15C], we were lucky! I can remember the excruciating business of getting in on one occasion when it was 54F [12C] (it was our choice to do it!)”

The water temperature has certainly stuck in many minds.  One former pupil remembers hating her lessons during the 1950s:

“Swimming lessons began after Easter, whatever the weather. We were taken to the outdoor pool which was not far to walk from school, but which was actually a part of the river. I think the water was filtered before it entered the pool. The water was always freezing cold as far as I remember. I was a skinny little girl and hated the whole experience. I have never learnt to swim. I think I was put off swimming for life.”

Despite this North was very successful in competitive swimming.  In 1914 as a reward for winning the swimming challenge cup children were given a half day holiday. In the 1930s the school had further successes winning the Coates-Hutton Shield, Championship shield and various relay shields and cups.

The heated garrison pool was available for use from the later 1950s and it seems that from the 1960’s lessons moved indoors to this facility.