The Christmas spirit of the Serpentine in London: History of the Christmas Day Race for the Peter Pan Cup

It all started in 1864

The Serpentine Swimming Club's Christmas morning handicap is swum over a 100 yard course for the Peter Pan Cup.  The club's Christmas Day race has been held every year since 1864.  In the early years it was customary for the winner to be presented with a medal. 

Author J M Barrie became associated with the Christmas Day race in 1903 when he first donated a Peter Pan Cup.  This coincided with the play Peter Pan's debut on the London stage. Like the fictional boy who never grew up, the race has taken on a legendary appeal.

J.M. Barrie continued to present a cup for the winner each year up to 1932.  The honour then fell to Albert Greenbury, a dedicated member since 1909 who served as club president from 1935 to 1955.  To this day the Greenbury family continue the tradition.  Albert's granddaughter, Lucy Harris, is a current member and races all through the year.

Oldest continuously swam race in the world

The Serpentine Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan Cup is probably the oldest continuously swam race in the world having been raced every year since 1864, with only the 2020 race being cancelled due to UK Government Covid regulations. Next to an Olympic 100 meter freestyle race, it is almost the only swimming race reported on throughout the world, with the winner's name appearing in media from the USA to Malaysia.

Notable swimmers

Former club vice Captain for 41 years (from 1971 to 2012) Peter Larrad has completed more than 50 Christmas Day handicaps. Club historian Mike Olizar completed 50 or 51 and missed four since 1967 including 2020. Former club president Brian Thomas has completed almost as many.

Former club president Alan Lacy was perhaps the oldest to take part in a Christmas Day handicap.

Long-time member Emmi Hunte made history as the only person to win the Christmas Day race twice, but the Peter Pan cup only once (see below for more on Women and the Christmas Day race). Sir Anthony Cleaver and Haydn Turner, both in their 80s, have been competing on Christmas Day since 1999 every year. 

Female members of the Serpentine Swimming Club and Christmas Day: A brief history

Women swimming on Christmas morning before being involved in racing

There were always one or two that would swim before the race.  For example, Yvonne Wood would always have an early dip before each race and then change ready to assist with judging.  This would naturally include Christmas Day.  Patricia Thomas, wife of Patrick Thomas (the two Pats) was another lady that swam all-the-year-round, including Christmas Day.  She swam from the late 1970s into the 1980s (and possibly the 90s).  She was one of the first women to take part in the handicap races in the (late?) 1980s. 

Also, we must never forget Bettine Milton (known to us all as "Mrs Mac"). She was a "member" from the late 1950s/early 1960s and swam virtually daily until, we believe, the 1980s.  Mrs Mac swam in a turban type headgear, nearer the what is now the restaurant area. An actress and model in the 1930s, there are portraits of Bettine in the Victoria and Albert museum archives taken by the famous photographer Norman Parkinson.

Apart from Mrs Mac, there was a Russian ex ballerina who used all year round to change at the eastern end of the lido area. She even in her 80s was extremely supple and performed wonderful gymnastics.

Mrs Mac during the big freeze of 1963

Mrs Mac during the big freeze of 1963

Mrs Mac during the big freeze of 1963

Female swimmers and the Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan Cup

History of the Wendy Cup

By the early 2000s, there was no gender distinction in our races, all swimmers competing as equals under the eyes of the handicapper.  The exception was the Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan cup. During the 1990s, to encourage the still handful of women swimmers, a small “Wendy” cup was provided each year by the club to be presented to the first woman home. As with the Peter Pan cup, this was retained each year by the winner.  Many saw this as unfair as all swimmers in the race were competing under a handicap and the small cup provided by the club was in no manner as grand as the Peter Pan trophy presented by the race sponsors, the Greenbury family. 

The AGM of 2003 sought to rectify this. The concept was by no means acceptable to all at the meeting. The compromise outcome was for the first swimmer home to be deemed the winner of the Christmas Day race, with the Peter Pan cup presented to the first man home and a Wendy cup to the first woman.  No issue arose for the 2003 Christmas Day race. 

How Emmi Hunte twice won the Christmas Day race but was only once been a Peter Pan cup winner

However, in 2004 the race was won by the very popular veteran Emmi Hunte. Many, including the race sponsors the Greenbury family, thought it very strange and unsatisfactory that a small alternative cup was presented to the race winner rather than the grand Peter Pan trophy for which the club and the event has a global reputation.  The issue was addressed at the 2005 AGM with a proposal that the race winner would be presented with the Peter Pan cup, irrespective of gender.  The motion was passed virtually unanimously, with many who opposed the proposal at the 2003 AGM speaking this time strongly in favour.

Emmi Hunte won the Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan cup again in 2015 and this time, received the grand trophy that's the Peter Pan cup.

Christmas Day race entry criteria for members of the Serpentine Swimming Club

The Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan cup is the Blue Ribbon event for those club members who compete regularly throughout the year. Entry will only be for club members with a handicap. The entry critieria will be published ahead.

To qualify for the Christmas Day handicap list (2021)

  • Swimmers on the handicap list before the start of the Winter Series (on 6 November 2021), must compete in at least 2 of 7 Winter Series races.
  • Swimmers NOT on the handicap list before the start of the Winter Series, must compete in 6 of the 7 Winter Series races.
  • Swimmers unable to fulfil the above requirements may contact the race sub-committee by contacting the Hon. Secretary by Monday 20 December 2021 to be considered for entry into the race.

The list of qualifiers will be published on Wednesday 22 December 2021.

The sub-committee reserves the right to cap numbers if necessary on safety or other exceptional grounds.If there is a risk of over-crowding on the jetty, some swimmers may be asked to hold back until space is freed up.

Non-racing members and Christmas Day

Members who do not qualify are free to swim before or after the race on Christmas Day, but not between 8:30am and 9.15am.

Christmas Day race logistics

Volunteers are invited to come around 7.45am to help set up the race. Swimmers are invited to be ready to march to the board from 8.45am. The race starts at 9am promptly. 

Photos of the Christmas Day race

Katherine Cselsko, 2019 winner

Katherine Cselsko, 2019 winner

The winner of the Christmas Day race 2019 was Katherine Cselsko, here holding the Peter Pan cup after winning.

Club members on the board. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Serpentine Swimming Club members lining up on the board ready to take the jump for the 2019 Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan Cup. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Exiting at the end of a 110-yard swim course in icy waters, finishers of the Christmas Day race of the Serpentine Swimming Club in London.

Club member Yvon Heul (aka Squirl) on the board on Christmas Day. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Piper bringing Serpentine Swimming Club members on the board for the Christmas Day race. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Diving from the board. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Diving from the water. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Serpentine Swimming Club members swimming on Christmas Day 2019 and racing to win the Peter Pan Cup. Photo by Steve Lippitt

Archive press pieces about the Christmas Day race at the Serpentine

THE CHRISTMAS MORNING SWIMMING HANDICAP IN THE SERPENTINE.

THE CHRISTMAS MORNING SWIMMING HANDICAP IN THE SERPENTINE.

(WON BY R. J. LOBB, WHO HAD TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS START.) Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News - Saturday 02 January 1904

Man of 79  in Serpentine  Race 

Man of 79  in Serpentine  Race 

Christmas Day swimmers of  the Serpentine Swimming Club  dived into a water temperature  of 33deg.—one of the lowest  ever experienced for the event_  for the 94th annual rare for the  Peter Pan Cup, in Hyde Park.  London.  The cold did not stop Mr.  Charles Bryant. aged 79. plunging  in and finishing the course.  Mr. Bryant has cycled from his  Richmond home for more than  50 years to take part in the  race which he won 30 years ago.  Ire lay round the edges of  the Serpentine as the 28  swimmers took to the water.  The Nub's secretary. Mr.  Clarence Reed. said the bitterly  cold conditions began to tell on  competitors by the end. Roy  Wrev. aged 33. a clerk, of  Greenford, won the race. Birmingham Daily Post - Wednesday 27 December 1961

A CHRISTMAS CUSTOM WHICH NEEDS COURAGE

A CHRISTMAS CUSTOM WHICH NEEDS COURAGE

Dim the Seirpemiiliiini! Pessimists often assure us that we have become so luxurious that we lack grit, but the fact remains that the competitors who took part in the forty-third Christmas-morning swimming handicap in the Serpentine reached the record number of forty-seven. The trophy of the day was the Peter Pan Cup presented by Mr. Barrie, which was won by Mr. Mitchell of the Polytechnic, who covered the 100 yd. in 2 min. 26 sec. Gold medals were presented to the second and third competitors by the proprietors of Oxo, which was served free to all the competitors after the race. DRAWN BY ERNEST PRATER.The Sphere - Saturday 04 January 1908

70-Year-olds In Serpentine Race

70-Year-olds In Serpentine Race

Two 70-year-old men. Mr C. P. Bryant and Mr A. Maggs, went among twenty-three people who swam 100 yards across the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park today in the traditional Christmas Day race organised by the Serpentine Swimming Club. As the competitors lined at 9 a.m. there was short shower of sleet, but before the race ended, the sun was shining from a blue sky. The water temperature was degrees—only three degrees less than the air temperature. All twenty-three completed the course and the winner was the youngest entrant, 16-vear-old Edward Bennlon, a North London engineering apprentice. He was presented with the Peter Pan Cup—a non-challenge trophv presented annually the club president. Aberdeen Evening Express - Friday 25 December 1953

THE FIFTIETH ANNUAL CHRISTMAS MORNING HANDICAP RACE IN THE SERPENTINE.

THE FIFTIETH ANNUAL CHRISTMAS MORNING HANDICAP RACE IN THE SERPENTINE.

1. Lined up for the start. 2. Off 3. The close finish. 4. George Gyton, the winner, with the "Peter Pan" Cup. 5. Wading ashore after the race The record number of 47 entries was received for this jubilee celebration of the dub. The winner George Gyton, received 46s. start, and won by a foot in lm. 43 3-5. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News - Saturday 03 January 1914

Christmas Day Swim

Christmas Day Swim

Wrap up  warmly to cheer on around 30  members of the Serpentine  Swimming Club, who compete for  the annual Peter Pan Cup over a chilly  100-yard course. Dec 25,9 am.  Serpentine, Hyde Park, W 2. Illustrated London News - Wednesday 01 November 2000 

Serpentine Christmas Day Race 1916

Serpentine Christmas Day Race 1916

Serpentine Christmas Day Race 1916 - The Illustrated Sports and Dramatic News. British News Archive / British Library

Media information for the Serpentine Swimming Club Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan Cup

The Serpentine Swimming Club are usually happy to cooperate with requests for news stories, articles, filming and photography. However, please note that if undertaken for commercial purposes prior permission must be obtained from the Royal Parks.

Please refer to the following links with regard to obtaining any necessary permission. 

Filming & Photography: Email to film@royalparks.org.uk

Events: Go to their website: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/

Feel free to browse through our selection of SSC photos that media publications may use. Please credit the photos to the Serpentine Swimming Club.