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School Holidays, early-mid 20th Century


Going swimming in 1940s and 1950s England

Swimming was by no means a regular activity for children like me who grew up in the 1940s and early 1950s. Here is why:

Swimming in the sea

For most of the early lives of anyone of my age in England, the beaches at the seaside were fenced off with rolls of barbed wire because the beaches had been mined against a German attack in World War Two. After the war, the beaches took time to clear. So it was quite a while before anyone was allowed to play on them or swim from them. My recollections come from the 1950s or perhaps the late 1940s.

Public swimming baths

There were public swimming baths. I was too young to know whether or not they were open in the war. Probably they were until something needed mending, when they would have had to shut because whatever was required was needed for the war effort. During the war, lots of facilities were shut for that reason, and I clearly remember the notices 'Closed for the duration'. They never said, 'Closed for the duration of the war'. Everyone knew what they meant.

Our local swimming baths were at Mill Hill, and were probably fairly typical of other swimming baths at the time. By today's standards, they were basic. There was a small paddling pool and a larger rectangular pool which was shallow at one end and deeper at the other; and there was a single diving board and a single slide.

After the war, when I was old enough to remember, parents did their best to dissuade their children from using public swimming baths because of the risk of polio. Although no-one knew whether swimming baths were a likely place to catch it, the risk was often not considered worth taking, particularly in hot summers.

Swimming in rivers

Certain parts of certain rivers were considered safe for swimming.

On one occasion, I was taken swimming in the River Cam at Cambridge. I can't remember much about it, other than that swimming there was totally accepted, in that lots of people did so, and there was even a diving board there.

Swimming area on a river, 1950s Britain

Swimming area on a river

What I specifically remember, though, was that it although it may have been safe from dangerous currents, it certainly wasn't safe from bugs. I was violently ill a few days afterwards with flu-like symptoms - and being the middle of summer, it couldn't have been flu.

Swimming costumes for girls

The only swimming costumes for girls that I ever knew were navy blue with a round neck. I'm not sure what they were made of - probably wool. In appearance, they did not look all that different from the swimming costumes that girls were wearing in the early 1900s.

Swimming costumes and swimming caps, 1950s

Swimming costumes and swimming caps, 1950s

Girls always wore swimming hats - known as swimming caps. I am not sure whether this was compulsory in public swimming baths or whether it was to keep hair dry. If the latter, the caps were singularly unsuccessful. They were made of thick rubber, did up with a strap under the chin and were closely fitting with insets for ears. They were floppy but did not really stretch, which was probably why they inevitably leaked. They did, though, keep dirty hair out of the water - and hair was not washed particularly often in those days.

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