The Serpentine, in Hyde Park, was formed in 1730-1733. Queen Caroline wife of George 2nd had the idea of providing an ornamental lake to further enhance the park's beauty. Hyde Park had for centuries been a royal hunting ground and King Charles 1st opened it to the public in 1637. The lake was formed by damming the Westbourne which, via a series of ponds, flowed into the Thames near present day Victoria.
In the 18th century Hyde Park lay in countryside on the immediate outskirts of London. The open space attracted, as it does today, Londoners for recreation. Some would visit in attending public executions, at Tyburn, close to where Marble Arch is now found. Tyburn would remain London's chief place for the execution of malefactors till 1783.
No doubt individuals would have cooled off, in hot weather, in the lake's waters. Like minded persons would have informally met up to swim together. As they banded together no doubt competitive races were organised and there are records showing that these attracted large numbers of spectators and were taking place as far back as the 1830's.
Records also show that the Serpentine Swimming Club held its first Christmas Day Race in 1864. This would suggest that, by then, a number of kindred spirits had organised themselves for a considerable period and had decided to formalise their activities. At the time at least one other club, the London Swimming Club, was also formally sharing the swimming area on the lake's south side.
It is perhaps of interest to note that the Football Association founded in 1863 is just one year older than the SSC. The SSC is considerably senior in years to both the Amateur Swimming Association founded in 1869 and the Lawn Tennis Association founded in 1888, with Chelsea Football Club situated just a couple of miles away, a mere baby in comparison founded in 1905. At the time of SSC's birth London was undergoing rapid expansion and Hyde Park was now in the centre of a densely populated built up area. As such it was providing a place of relaxation to its urbanised masses. The formation of London's underground system took place as the SSC was formed. The first line on the London underground being opened in 1863. This would make Hyde Park and the Serpentine more accessible to Londoners.
A large number of gentleman's clubs in London, often housed in handsome buildings, had been in existence since the 18th century. The Serpentine Swimming Club did not have the benefit of any such luxury. It had to content itself with the shelter provided by an elm tree and a wooden seat surrounding it to place clothes.
The SSC is perhaps best known by the general public for its Christmas Day race for the Peter Pan Cup. Few realise that the Club also holds a race every Saturday throughout the year. These grow from a 40 yard dash in January to races of 100 yards, 220 yards, a half mile and a mile. There is also a Bridge to Bridge race covering a 1000 yards swimmable length of the Lake from its Knightsbridge end to the bridge across it. The Club still holds its races in imperial lengths and even younger members accept this, today, slight eccentricity. Members do not confine swimming to Saturday. Many take advantage of the privilege to relax in its waters any time between 6am and 9.30am. Some do this as a happy start to a working day.
The main factor which decides the lengths of races being, of course, the temperature of the waters. These will often freeze in December and January slowly rising in warmth usually reaching 10 degrees by April and on rare occasions touching 20 degrees in July and August.
The earliest SSC fixture card in the Club's possession is for 1913 and the format of races raced over has little changed. It is quite likely that this pattern had been established well before 1913. In Victorian days the races attracted large numbers and wagers were laid on swimmers. A handicap system applied, as it does now, and the role of the handicapper was vital if fair play was to be had. A slow swimmer might have covered half the course before the scratch man entered the water. The handicapper would, week by week, observe a swimmer and would soon spot any crafty attempt to perform badly in the hope of getting an improved handicap for a major race later on. The skill of the handicapper was the ability, as it still is, to take water conditions into account. Thus a slow swimmer staying longer in the water slows up even faster. Thus an even better handicap must be given.
In the SSC's earlier history many grand names would be found sponsoring individual races. Thus in 1913 we had amongst others Leopold De Rothschild, Lord Hamilton, The Earl of Londesborough, Baron de Forest, the Duke of Westminster, Lord Howard de Walden, W.A.Burdett -Coutts MP, Sir Carl Mayer, The Hon E.R.Belilos CMG, The Earl of Lonsdale and Sir Thomas Dewar. It is unlikely that any of this fine muster actually set a foot in the Serpentine let alone swum in it. Today's sponsors of races, and donors of modest prizes, are usually the family and friends of deceased members or present day members.
A noted sponsor of the 1913 Christmas Day Race was the then, as yet unknighted, James Barrie author of Peter Pan and the first donor of the Peter Pan Cup. Living nearby, in Bayswater, he often walked in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and spotted the Serpentine swimmers. Another to be taken by the sight of the SSC's swimmers was the Indian author Vikram Seth. The "Serpentinies" make a cameo appearance in his " An Equal Music ". For several years Vikram became an active member of the SSC. Since 1933 sponsorship of the Peter Pan Cup has been in the hands of the Geeenburys who had swimmer members of their family in the SSC in Edwardian days.
The activities of the SSC would often attract the attention of Victorian and Edwardian illustrated papers. Somewhat humorous illustrations appeared, several times, in the Illustrated London News and in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. The characters shown over one hundred years, some over weight and some unhealthily thin, some long in tooth others youthful are such who appear at the lake most days of the year. One suspects that the jovial banter heard before and after races would have been the same as today's. There is however one dramatic difference and that is the total absence of women. Women now form about half of the active membership of the SSC. Their presence was only first felt some two decades ago.
The age range found in the Club then is reflected today. On any given Saturday some competitors will be mere teenagers whilst others will be in their late eighties.
It is unlikely that women swam in the Serpentine until the Lido was opened in 1930. A total lack of changing facilities would have precluded their presence in the waters. The lido open to the public was, and still is, totally separate to the SSC. The person responsible for the formation of the lido was George Lansbury the, then, government's Commissioner of Works. Noted for similar schemes some fondly christened him the Commissioner for Good Works. A plaque to him is found on the lido cafeteria's wall. Photographs in the press, on the lido's opening, showed throngs of women queuing to pay for entry. The lido was, as is now still the case, only open for the summer season. A few women would now continue on throughout the year using a ladies' loo to change in.
For some extraordinary reason the activities of the SSC still continue to excite the media especially in the winter. Foreign journalists from as far away as Japan have also shown an interest in what appears to some to be the masochistic pleasure SSC members find in swimming in cold water. Perhaps one foreign journalist, in particular, captured the spirit of the SSC. In a long article appearing in "The American Swimmer" in its number of October 1923 Captain Colbridge of the United States Army notes a line up before the start of a race. "..........The elderly gentleman on your right, with the stooped shoulders, keeps a sweet shop in Maida Vale, the one next to him is a tobacconist in High Holborn. The man on your left is a major in the army. Over the way is a waiter from the Trocadero Restaurant. Down a bit you see the physician to the Queen. Here is a haberdasher's clerk from Marylebone Road. Such is the club you join a democratic amalgamation of persons interested in swimming and caring not for anything but their mutual swimming interest" His observation encapsulated the very essence of the SSC's membership as it was and as indeed is now.
In past years, as now, most members exude a feeling of happy abandon after a morning swim. This was noted by King George V, who out on horseback was regularly saluted by the elderly Dick Ledger walking briskly and cheerily home, a wet towel slung over his shoulder. The King, much impressed, by this joie de vivre had his private Secretary send a letter on 10th May 1921 congratulating Ledger on his vim and vigour. It can safely be concluded that it is this feeling of enjoyment, spotted by the monarch, which has generated the love for the Lake in generations of the Club's members. The Serpentine Swimming Club is now over 150 years old and it is expected that it will provide the same joy to members for another 150 years.
Reflections on women and the Serpentine Swimming Club. Brian Thomas. December 2018
Early morning public access to the Lido
I joined the club in 1967 and through to the mid-1990s both men and women had the free access to swim in the Lido between 6.30 and 9.00. I understand this was the case back to the late 1940s. It was not until the mid-1990s that The Royal Parks required people swimming early mornings to be club members and thus meet the Parks’ public liability requirements. This followed the club’s campaign and representations to ensure the Lido would open to the public in the summer and for its members to continue to be able to swim every day of the year. In effect we became a club that raced on a Saturday, but whose members were permitted to also swim on all other days of the year.
Associate membership for women
From Easter each year changing facilities were not an issue for the men and women who swam early morning. Rather grand, spacious marquees were erected ready for the spring and summer Lido season either side of the pavilion: women’s to the west, men’s to the east. Early morning swimmers were permitted to use these. During the winter period the tents came down and went into storage and we had use of a room in the pavilion. This proved difficult for the women, who were required to change in the (moderately sized) disabled toilet. Despite the poor changing facilities a handful of women did swim all year round. These were mostly, but not exclusively, partners of club members. The club like many at that time had been male-only since its foundation in 1864. To participate in the club’s race fixtures club membership was required. Many people joined the club in order to be part of the club “family” even though they did not race. Our AGM of 1974 (or was it 73?) voted to grant women Associate Member status in recognition of the small number of women who swam with the club or were involved in a supporting capacity. The first associate member was Dorothy Winbush, my great aunt. She happened to be the first because my father was with me at the AGM and when renewing our membership on the night also signed up Miss Winbush. She was then in her mid-80s. Though never having swum in the Serpentine she had a close association with the club since the 1930s when her nephew, Tommy Thomas (my uncle), swam as a schoolboy.
The late 1970s and 80s saw women begin to participate in the race calendar, being allocated a handicap and swimming alongside the men. Championed by the then club president, Bob Kelly, and the handicapper, Frank Simms, the AGM of 1985 saw the membership vote in favour of women being able to join as full members. As the decade progressed into the 1990s there were still but a handful of women (to be counted on the fingers of one hand) participating in the races though this was slowly growing. ASA regulations at the time precluded men and women competing together but the club in its’ usual “casual” attitude to strict rules and regulations began to award prizes and cups to the women competitors. ASA regulation did in fact change in 1998, allowing men and women to compete together in internal club races, “providing there was no physical contact”. By the early 2000s women’s names were appearing on all club cups, including our second Blue Ribbon event the Bridge to Bridge (won by Saundra Satterlee in 2002).
The Christmas Day Race for the Peter Pan 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 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. 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.
To borrow from my own statement as outgoing President at the 2004 AGM, anyone who has the balls to plunge into our lake and race in the middle of winter has the right to compete as an equal club member irrespective of gender.