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Glide gently, this forever glide, ON Thames that other birds may see

The town of Richmond

The collection is housed in the Old Town Hall, close to the riverside where the Thames glitters in the sun, the broad promenade overlooked by affluent buildings that rise from a manicured lawn. The Thames runs through the borough for twenty-one miles and it was the beauty of the river here that inspired Wordsworth’s 1790 poem, where ‘in thy waters may be seen/The image of a poet’s heart’.

The ferryboat was turned around by the current, and carried to Isleworth.’ Charles Dickens often stayed along this stretch of the river. In the summer of 1839, he rented Elm Cottage in nearby Petersham for four months, writing to the artist Daniel moralize, ‘Beard is hearty, new and thicker ropes have been put up at the tree . . . Swimming feats from Petersham to Richmond Bridge have been achieved before breakfast, I have risen at 6 and plunged head foremost into the water to the astonishment and admiration of all beholders . . .’ But while Dickens may have loved a swim, there were soon bathing regulations in place. In 1844 a letter writer to The Times objected, ‘I have myself gone to Richmond for a river bath, but found numerous ill-natured announcements on boards, that I must be taken into custody . . . If I attempted it before so late an hour that would prevent my getting a conveyance to town the same evening.

The atmosphere inside the local studies collection is friendly and relaxed, the low-ceilinged attic room crowded with books and pamphlets. Archivist Felix Lancashire has the scrapbook ready for me, a large blue hardbound document including handbooks and annual reports, which together provide a potted history of the evolution of swimming in England. The book begins with an 1885 program for the annual entertainments held by the club, which was amalgamated with the Kew Bridge Swimming Club, at the Richmond Baths. This was the headquarters of the club, and its president was the MP Thomas Skewes-Cox.

The Richmond Club’s president was now a JP – he was knighted a few years later – and another river race was launched, a two-and-a-half-mile scratch race for the Holbein Shield, between Teddington and Richmond, locks, ‘on the ebb tide’. The three river races soon acquired formal titles. The Majority Challenge Cup for the half-mile was inaugurated in 1903 to commemorate the club’s ‘coming of age’, and the Wishart Challenge Cup started in 1907 for the quarter-mile at Walton. Club members have established swimmers. In 1906 they were competing in the 150 yards championship of London, where they practiced ‘the “crawl” stroke’.

I turn the page to find a letter written in 1915 explaining there were no fixtures arranged for the current year and no handbook had been published. And while I know what’s coming, it’s still a shock as I come to the club’s report for the spring of that year. It makes bleak reading: gone is the usual page-long account of successes in swimming and water polo; instead, there is a list of members who have joined His Majesty’s Forces – as privates, lieutenants, troopers, and gunners. Church bells begin to chime ominously outside the attic room as I turn to the next year’s report. Now the men are missing, wounded, killed in action. Soon these young men, former champion swimmers, are invalided, gassed, and prisoners of war, while some were awarded medals such as the Military Cross.

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Last word

But while there were no fixtures because of the war, the club began to promote races at local schools and in 1916 there is the first mention of girls, with ‘prizes for Boys and Girls Races’ included in the list of expenditure. The next entry is for 1926 when its patrons are HRH the Duke of York and the Most Honourable the Marquis of Cambridge. The fortunes of the club had changed again, just as they did with other Thames clubs like those at Reading. Now there were a large number of junior members and the river races, still at Walton, were underway. But attendance wasn’t as good as it had once been. In 1924 the races were ‘deplorably supported’ despite the ‘considerable time and expense’ they took to organize. In 1927, the year of the General Strike, there was still a ‘poor number of entries’ to the Thames races.

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