‘Few working men could afford the luxury of a bathing costume. Most (in)famously, the Serpentine was ‘obscene with bathers’ at dusk and dawn. Flustered visitors to the park regularly complained about the spectacle.’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 6: Obscene With Bathers
Bathing was an immense problem for the poor in early-Victorian London. In the slums, it was common for a single communal tap to provide domestic water for a dozen or more families (for all purposes – cooking, cleaning and washing). Furthermore, such taps were only turned on for a few set hours each week – thanks to penny-pinching landlords, determined to keep down their costs. Thus, the entirety of a family’s water supply for a week generally consisted of a few carefully hoarded pails and tins. Regular bathing at home – even the strategic sponging of one’s body – was nigh impossible. Not for nothing, then, were the poor dubbed ‘the great unwashed’ – a phrase which the proletarian writer Thomas Wright would attempt to reclaim as a badge of honour, redolent of honest toil. The lower orders were not, however, necessarily hostile to bathing, given the opportunity. In the summer months, large numbers of men and boys took to the capital’s canals and lakes – even brickmakers’ flooded clay pits – to take a dip in the cooling water.
Unfortunately, this created its own problems – for they bathed naked. Nude male bathing – no decent Victorian female would contemplate such immodest activity – was the norm across all classes until the mid-century, even at respectable sea-side resorts. The working-classes adopted the same custom in London – and, besides, few working men could afford the luxury of a bathing costume. Most (in)famously, the Serpentine was ‘obscene with bathers’ at dusk and dawn. Flustered visitors to the park regularly complained about the spectacle:
I was taking my usual walk last Saturday evening in Hyde Park, after the hours of business were over, when, to my great surprise, I saw several persons bathing, as of old, on the northern bank of the Serpentine River; and, on making the circumstance known the police, I was politely informed that their orders were not to interfere in the matter. Is it because the great and noble of the land have left town that those less fortunate than themselves are to be subjected to the nuisance, which they flattered themselves had been abated, of seeing hundreds of naked men and boys surrounding that beautiful piece of water, and by their yells and discordant noises preventing any respectable persons from enjoying a quiet walk on either bank of the river?
The Times, 12 September 1843
Yet, despite the Victorians’ supposed prudery, the practice was never outlawed. Hyde Park would maintain set hours for bathing. Victoria Park, built in the 1840s for the working man of the East End, allowed bathing in its lakes from 4am to 8am, and even provided a ‘swimming master’(whose other job was selling ginger-beer and sugar-plums to the owners of miniature yachts who frequented the lakes during daylight hours). After the emergence of parochial public baths and washhouses in the 1840s – accompanied by earnest paeans to the joys of soap and water – park lakes still remained the traditional resort of the very poor, a concession to their dire need:
Of course most people who come to the Park of an evening are aware of the swarm of small boys who assemble on the bathing ground (or space), some four hundred yards allotted for that purpose on the south shore, who have been waiting hours before the time, especially after a hot day in July; (they come in droves and batches from all quarters of London) anxiously looking for the signal to plunge in – and this signal was the approach of the Royal Humane Society boats from the opposite side of the water, exactly at half-past seven, to be in readiness to render assistance to any of the bathers that may be in danger of drowning – three as a rule, one at each end of the boundary and one in the centre.
I assure you it is no easy job for the police a few minutes before the approach of these boats to keep them from undressing and plunging in, the eagerness of the young rascals being so great. When I say “undressing” I mean stripping off what little they have on-the word is superfluous, for to keep them from undressing long before the time was a matter of impossibility; it appeared a certain amount of gratification to them to undress, and it was only with firmness and intimidation of sending them away altogether that they could be prevailed upon to squat about with even their shirts on. We usually supplied ourselves with a light stick or cane, and shook it at them in a threatening manner, occasionally impressing upon them the fact that they would get a taste of it, if they did not behave themselves, or we should have been overrun; and even when the boats did appear, and the shout went up- “All in!” I have been in a state of suspense while the boats were coming across, as in sheer excitement the smaller ones were so apt to get out of their depth.
Edward Owen, Hyde Park, Select Narratives, Annual Event, etc, during twenty years’ Police Service in Hyde Park, 1906
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.