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Before Our Lidos


Outdoor swimming is very popular today, as it has been in the past.

It is clear from newspaper reports that locally nude bathing in the Thames was quite common in the 1880s. For example, there are several cases of absolute shock-horror at the occasional glimpses that females might have got, and suggestions arising that some form of fencing be put up, and changing rooms built.  Thus, the concept of a "lido"!

Simon Griffiths: Outdoor Swimming magazine


Photographs show that many lidos were built in the 1920s and 1930s. These outdoor pools did not have heating

After the Second World War Billy Butlin sponsored outdoor swimming, including Channel swims from 1953 - outdoor pools were features of the Butlin holiday camps.

In 1951 Brenda Fisher broke the women's world record for swimming the Channel and went on to more Channel swims; Brenda was awarded a British Empire Medal by the Queen in the 2018 New Year's Honours List.

In the 1970s and 1980s Simon used to swim in the lido in Cheltenham. This was one of the lidos which managed to stay open when many were closing all over the country - a movement away from outdoor swimming in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Heated pools became popular and there was more awareness of Health and Safety.

Recently rivers and lakes have been cleaned up and opened possibilities for outdoor swimming; as a result outdoor swimming societies have grown. People are discovering places where their parents and grandparents used to swim.

There is a growth in people looking for challenges and Triathlon swimming has become popular.

Lidos give people the opportunity to swim outdoors when they want to (especially those who are lucky enough to have a nearby outdoor pool).
Hampton outdoor Pool has managed to survive even though it was closed by the Council - later rescued by local residents.

Simon said that Hampton is a luxury. Many outdoor pools closed because they were only open in warm weather and the upkeep became prohibitive. Survival for many was a result of heating the water so the pools could be open all year round. However, there is a desire to swim in all weathers; some outdoor pools embrace cold water swimming, those such as Tooting Bec and Brockwell where people swim all year round.
Today outdoor swimming continues to grow as more people are concerned with a healthy lifestyle and keeping physically active. Twenty years ago there were only indoor pool events but nowadays there are many different types of outdoor swimming events being enjoyed by whole communities of swimmers.

One of the main attractions of open water swimming, e.g, in rivers and lakes, is that it is not competitive. Swimming is not governed by timing, the length of a pool - open water removes all that. Instead of focussing on performance it is possible just to enjoy swimming.

There was the period when outdoor swimming fell out of favour - outdoor swimming has gone in the Twickenham area where there used to be multiple sites. There were places where people met and diving boards set up. We have lost "that something" when people could meet and be active and keep fit. It is lovely to see this happening once again [in some parts of the country]. We need to think how we can use the facility of the river again. Twickenham is tidal and we need to teach people how to swim safely in open water.

FROM THE PRESS ARCHIVES – swimming in the river

Hampton Wick , 25th June 1863
The Hampton Wick Local Board held its first meeting on 22 June 1863 and one of its first legislative actions was to limit public bathing to before 8 am and after 9 pm during June, July and August, and to before 8 am and after 8 pm during the rest of the year.


Surrey Comet June 1863
Permit me to ask, through your paper, one or two questions with reference to bathing in the Thames, off Messenger's Island (Raven's Ait, off Kingston). Are there any stated hours for gentlemen to bathe; if so, what are they? Are gentlemen compelled to wear the usual bathing dress, or are they not? Are they allowed to come out of the water on the Towing Path in a state of nudity, for the edification of ladies who are constantly walking there, or are they not? By these three questions being answered, gentlemen will know at what time they can take a quiet row on the river with ladies without their morality being shocked, and ladies will know how far they may venture to walk down the towing path, without on their return, being subjected by the disgusting annoyance of running headlong against a lot of naked men.

I was, until lately, under the impression that people were not allowed to bathe until dusk, but have discovered that I was labouring under an error, for I take a row every evening, either with my wife, sister or friends, and never do I remember passing Messenger's Ait without seeing some naked men, either on the island, in the water or on the Towing Path. Surely this sort of thing cannot be allowed. Are ladies to be subjected to such disgusting sights every evening, just because men do not see fit to put off their baths for half an hour or so? If so, it speaks but little for the morality of the Kingston people.

I was this evening on the river with my wife, {before 8 o'clock) and there stood on the Towing Path a man without his clothes, and at the side of the river, two more in similar, cool, summer attire. Within ten yards of these three gentlemen were two ladies and a gentleman, walking towards Hampton Court. They evidently did not know that they were in such close proximity with what might have been taken for savages …. and so they walked on, but suddenly the discovery was made; the ladies appeared horror stricken, as well they might; but there was no alternative but to go on, which they did. This is but one case I could mention, and which I have been an eye witness to.



From: The Hackney & Kingsland Gazette 15 January 1870 p 3

The Swimming Baths of London
R.E.Dudgeon MD
Lonon: Turner & Co,  1870

In a pamphlet of some six-and thirty pages the author endeavours to popularize a plea for Open-Air Swimming Baths.  He says:
“Swimming is an exercise at once healthful, pleasant, and useful.  The full hygienic effects of swimming can only be obtained when it is practised in the open air, and in unpolluted water of a natural temperature”
And again he says:
“Every town which aspires to be considered at all perfect in its sanitary arrangements should possess ample swiming baths in the open air”
“The healthful effects of swimming in cold water in the open air result from  the peculiar exercise, the temperature of the surrounding mediums, and the exhilaration of the spirits it causes.  Before entering the water, and each time of having it, we enjoy an air-bath, the beneficial effects of which are not solely or chiefly dependent on the temperature, but mainly owing to the actual impact of the atmospheric gases, and of the light,and possibly the direct rays of the sun upon the skin.”
Further on Dr Dudgeon asserts, more enthusiastically than pleasant:
“He who passes through life without learning to swim misses one of the purest pleasures life affords, and deserves to be drowned in a six-foot pond.”
In speaking of the Thames as an open-air swimming bath he says:
“London itself, with a population of three millions, is now without any regular open-air swimming bath.  A noble river runs through it, but in spite of the gigantic works for interrupting and carrying off the sewage, the Thames is still such a polluted stream that no one with all his senses entire – especially those of sight, smell, and taste – would venture to bathe in it below Teddington Lock.  It is true that one sees in summer many boys disporting themselves on its grimy bosom between the bridges, and I have even seen some enjoying a douche at the outfall of a sewer, but such feats will be more admired for their temerrity than imitated for their propriety; and the Thames from Richmond downwards must still be considered as unsuitable for bathing.”
After describing the various bathing establishments in London and its suburbs (omitting, however, Albion Hall, Dalston) he dwells on the great healthful advantages to be derived from open-air bathing – proposes their introduction in special lakes at Victoria and other parks – and urges women to become bathers:
“When speaking of the advantages of swimming in the open air, I have not meant that these advantages were limited to the male sex.  On the contrary, I am strongly of the opinion that swimming is an exercise equally, if not more, adapted to women as to men.  Men have their hundreds of games and occupations that keep their muscles in constant and varied play.  From those women are practically debarred, and the exigencies of society limit their exercises to but few, and some of those can only enjoyed by the wealthier classes.  Their bodies are generally of less specific gravity, and so float more easily in water, whether fresh or salt.  This being so they sooner acquire the confidence necessary to make good swimmers.  Then, as the water sustains the whole weight of the body, and as they are no longer restrained by the bands, bones and laces of their dress, they are free to bring into full play, without fatigue, all those muscles which have hitherto been kept in thrall by the milliner's devices.”
We refer our readers to the pamphlet itself for further information; but we shall be glad to learn that the advocacy of the enthusiastic author has more rapidly brought to a successful issue the establishment of swimming baths in London.


Richmond and Twickenham Times, March 22nd 1890
The Daily Graphic of Tuesday contained the following letter from the pen of Mr Harry Bodkin Poland, Q.C., -

If you think my experience of bathing all year round in the river may be interesting to your readers, here it is. When I lived on the banks of the Thames, at Strawberry Vale, Twickenham, I used, at quarter-past seven every morning, to plunge into the river. I continued to do this for several years, and although the dark mornings for about three weeks before Christmas and a few weeks after were a little trying, I always found myself both invigorated and refreshed, and on no occasion did I feel the worse for it. I was obliged to be so early, as the Courts wait for no man. The great thing to attend to is to make your header directly you are out of bed, and to take care to keep warm until you plunge. For this purpose you should put on a coat lined with flannel, with a thick coat over that, trousers lined with flannel, slippers lined with lamb's wool and warm gloves. You should stand on a piece of carpet and throw your clothing off like a quick-change artist, and on coming out of the water you may stand in the open and thoroughly enjoy the east wind for the first time in your life, and the snow, sleet, hail, or rain will only be a diversion. My friends, the bargees, who were nearly frozen to death on their barges used, naturally, until they got accustomed to the sight, to think the winter bathers mad. About three of my neighbours were also in the habit of bathing nearly all year round, one all the year, but I was the last of the maniacs!

Cold bathing in winter will not. of course, do for a man whose liver is sluggish. The great advantage of cold bathing is that it prevents you from "catching cold". As the bathing season will be coming on, I will write you another short letter with some hints on bathing in general, in sea and river, for the benefit of your young readers."