From the archive: Wild Swimming

Have you, over this ‘staycation’ summer, had the opportunity to join the estimated four million of us who enjoy ‘wild swimming’?

Wild swimming, offering as it does an antidote to the strictures and stresses of lockdown, reportedly* saw a 287% increase in popularity over the first months of the pandemic. Yet the habit of swimming in natural settings is hardly new and for most of history, indeed, ‘wild’ swimming was the only kind to be had. Why, then, does this little card found in the Archive report such a harsh penalty for a brief ‘skinny dip’ in a river?

The card [catalogue number 2010.2114] is undated but the case it records was reported in the newspapers when it came before magistrates in December 1809. 

Morning Post – Saturday 09 December 1809

MIDDLESEX SESSIONS December 5th :  John Trye was indicted for bathing in the New River and exposing himself naked in the fields between Islington and Stoke- Newington, of which offence he was convicted, and sentenced to be imprisoned in Newgate for two months. 

Upon the trial it appeared that, during Summer, the above fields have been rendered impassable to the decent part of the public, by persons bathing in the New River, and afterwards running naked about them.

To correct this most disgusting nuisance, the Magistrates were applied to, and they directed constables lo warn persons to observe the cautions against bathing, painted upon numerous boards upon the banks of the river. The defendant, although admonished to the contrary, would bathe in that part of the New River called the Two Sisters, between Islington and Newington, for which he was indicted. The Court, in passing sentence, expressed the strongest disapprobation of the crime, and a determined resolution to punish all who might in future be found to offend in a similar way.

Sent to Newgate for two months, poor John Trye was evidently being made an example of. It was obvious that he was far from the first to transgress in this way. New River was an artificial waterway opened in 1613 to carry drinking water into the City of London, and its potential for bathing without hazardous currents was immediately apparent. Already by 1614 the New River Company was having to pay watchmen to keep swimmers and dogs out of the water. In the ensuing years, watch houses (still in existence) were built, notice boards erected, heavy fines inflicted and prison sentences threatened – all to no avail. In 1783, residents downstream were preparing to sue the Company, complaining that their water was flowing ‘thick and unclean’ as a result of “a set of Worthless Rascals who are always, especially on Sunday, Washing their nasty rotten Hides in the New River Water .… a great abominable shame for a rich Company to suffer such indecency.”

If John Trye’s harsh sentence proved the intended deterrent, its effect was not long-lasting. In 1830 a report claimed that up to a thousand people were using the river to bathe in every summer. Long term, the only way to reduce the problem was for the Company to supply water free to new public baths, to fence off the river banks and even, in places, to divert the water to underground tunnels passing beneath the streets. New River is now often classed as one of London’s ‘lost rivers’.