Reflections on women swimmers and the Serpentine Swimming Club

Reflections on women swimmers and the Serpentine Swimming Club. Brian Thomas

Early morning public access to the Lido

I joined the club in 1967 and through to the mid-1990s both men and women had 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 the 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 Wimbush, my great aunt.  She happened to be the first because my father was at the AGM and when renewing our membership on the night also signed up Miss Wimbush.  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.

Race participation

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. 

And Finally

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.