Swimming – “Sea & River Swimming”
Sea and river swimming were popular activities with groups of boys and young men during the summer months for most of the 19th century and in many of Scotland’s major cities there were recognised safe spots, in Edinburgh, swimmers used Granton Harbour and Trinity Pier at Newhaven, Dundonians swam in the sea near the Castle at Broughty Ferry and in the west, Glaswegians used the River Clyde.
The Fleshers’ Haugh section of Glasgow Green was the busiest bathing spot with a grassy bank that ran down to the water’s edge allowing a timid person to select his depth, while on the opposite bank the river was deep enough for a good plunge. A few yards down stream was Dominie’s Hole, a popular “plumb” or “hole” for proficient bathers.
The photo opposite shows an image of a silver-gilt medal was made in 1837 for the “Professor of Swimming” employed by the “12th of March Club”, which was based in the Bridgegate, Glasgow.
The club was set up to commemorate the flooding of the Bridgegate on the 12th March 1782, and membership was limited to local men who had experienced the flood, or their descendants.
In 1829, Mr John Douglas offered to teach members and their sons the “noble and manly art of swimming” and was duly appointed “Professor of Swimming” to the club. Lessons took place in the Dominie’s Hole, a section of the River Clyde by Glasgow Green where the Town Council had provided basic facilities such as spring boards and stone paving for swimmers.
An image of the Dominie’s Hole is displayed on one side of the medal, while on the other side there is an engraving of the Bridgegate.
Another favourite location was in the Gorbals area, where a cotton mill poured out a steady stream of hot water into the Clyde allowing youths to indulge in a hot bath free of charge.
In Aberdeen, both river and sea swimming were popular and the “Pottie o’ the Dee” was a favourite river site.
In the first half of the 1800s, swimming was a simple recreational activity and there were no formal competitive events. It was popular because no specialist equipment was required, it was individual and improvised, relying on no other person to enable it to take place and it was free from financial restraint. Furthermore, it was an extremely refreshing experience to swim in a clear river with a sandy bed or in the sea on a hot summer’s day.
Safety, even in those times, was of concern, in 1846 Archie McFarlane was appointed as the “Rescue” on the Beach at Aberdeen and in Glasgow, the Glasgow Humane Society was formed in 1790 to reduce the number of drownings in the Clyde.
It erected a boat house and a room for storing life-saving equipment in 1796 and by the turn of the 1800s a Life-Saving officer was based in the Humane Society House. In addition, members of the public attempting to save swimmers in distress were offered financial rewards.
By the third quarter of the 19th century, various local groups of swimmers had gathered together to formalise their activities and in 1850, the Forth Swimming Club was established in Edinburgh.
Silver-gilt badge and chain for ‘Professor of Swimming’ of the Bridgegate ,12th March United Clubs, 1782
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In 1862, in Aberdeen the Bon-Accord Swimming Club was formed and also in Aberdeen, the Dee Swimming Club began in 1865.
Over in Glasgow, the West of Scotland Swimming Club was inaugurated in 1866. The structures, aims and activities of the four clubs were quite similar.
Archie McFarlane, the “Rescue” at Aberdeen Beach, was the prime mover in the establishment of Aberdeen’s first swimming club after he suggested to a group of young men from the Holborn and Chapel Street districts, whom he had taught to swim, that they should form a club and they took up the idea and established the Bon-Accord Swimming Club in April 1862.
The club used the “Pottie” on the River Dee as this was a fine natural open pond with good banks from which the swimmers practised diving and there was a small island in the centre of the “Pottie” on which members built a Changing Room.
The club started with 30 members, in 1864 there were 43 and 136 by the end of 1866. The majority were skilled tradesmen or the owners of small local businesses who had both the time and money to go swimming. For example, there was a sculptor, carpenter, plumber, surveyor, market gardener, jeweller, tailor, hairdresser, painter, printer, hatter, gilder and carver and most men joined because they wanted to learn to swim, dive and improve their stroke technique and lessons were given by Archie McFarlane.
As members became increasingly proficient, they asked McFarlane to organise swimming and diving competitions and by 1864, an Annual Programme of races had been established. These included a “Fast Swimming Match” over 300 yards, “Long Distance Swimming Matches” over 500 and 1000 yards and shorter 100 and 200 yard races for teenagers and the winners of the most prestigious events were awarded trophies or medals.
In the best tradition of Victorian philanthropy, the prizes were paid for by local businessmen or the club’s two very generous patrons, Colonel Lumsden of Belhelvie and John Farley Leith M.P..
Members never competed in intra-club competitions for money and a variety of other activities were also introduced to sustain interest and enthusiasm, these included hurdle racing, diving for objects, plunging for distance and duck hunts.
The club’s activities also proved to be very popular with spectators, who flocked to the banks of the Dee to enjoy the fortnightly “entertainments”.
Crowds of three and four thousand were common and the various events provided an impressive spectacle rivalling any other sporting event of the period. It was really entertaining to watch and bet on an exciting and potentially dangerous swimming race, object diving or distance plunging match.
The displays of ornamental swimming, comic sketches or mock drownings and rescues were also great favourites with the crowds.
In the mid 1860s, clubs began to organise “All-Comers” events to encourage contact between “racers” from other clubs. Bon-Accord arranged its first Open Competition in 1865 and a member of Tayside Swimming Club appeared along with eight other “strangers”’.
The winner received a Silver medal and those placed second and third were given money prizes of 5s. and 4s. respectively.
By the early 1870s, Open Races were very popular with the best club swimmers and each club thought that its particular Open Races were sufficiently “national” in character to be declared Scottish championships. For example, within the space of eight weeks in the summer of 1873, clubs in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen had promoted their own “Quarter Mile Championship of Scotland”.
To clear up the confusion and determine the rightful claim of swimmers to a particular Championship Title, a meeting of all Scottish clubs took place in Perth in February 1875 with Dee, Bon-Accord (Aberdeen); Arlington, Clydesdale, West of Scotland (Glasgow), Forth, Lorne (Edinburgh); Paisley and Tay (Dundee) attending.
They agreed to establish a National organisation to regulate Scottish Championships and called it the Associated Swimming Clubs of Scotland. (A.S.C.S.).
It formulated rules for only one race, the “Half Mile Championship of Scotland” and this took place annually in the last week of July, with a first prize of a cup worth 30 guineas and five other prizes of £5, £4, £3, £2 and £1 were “to be given in cash or value” as the winners preferred.
The Championship venue was rotated annually between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen and the first race was swam in the Forth at the Chain Pier, Trinity in 1875 with 15 competitors and the winner was Thomas S. Wylie from Glasgow and another Glaswegian, Robert Wilson, won the second contest which took place opposite the Esplanade at Greenock.
The Championship contest was held for a few more years but it lapsed in 1881 with the demise of the A.S.C.S., which had failed to expand its membership and attract sufficient funds.
River swimming lost much of its appeal during the last quarter of the 1800s, in Glasgow, as the city’s industrial base expanded, good river bank sites were acquired by a variety of industrial companies resulting in a considerable increase in shipping.
The once peaceful Clyde became a thronging industrial artery and in such conditions swimming was not a particularly attractive prospect. Moreover, for some new industrial processes the river became a convenient dumping site for waste products and consequently, it became increasingly polluted.
At one competition held on the Clyde in 1888 the swimmers showed some concern over the condition of the water:
“One thought it “limo thick”, another spluttered out, “I’m pizhined”; while a third was heard to remark, “It’s as bad as castor ile, an’ I’d rather swallow Gregory’s mixture ony day.”
Moreover, after 1878 a variety of newly built public indoor swimming baths provided a much more attractive alternative to a rather hazardous “douke” in the Clyde.