Kathleen Murphy the first of many

Mixed swimming ban removed 90 years ago

It’s hard to imagine that up until 15 June 1930, men and women were forbidden from swimming together in the Serpentine at the same time. 

Ninety years later, our club celebrates not only the distinctive step made by Kathleen Murphy who was the first woman swimmer to enter the waters at the Serpentine lido on 16 June 1930, but also the inclusive nature of our Serpentine Swimming Club.

Kathleen Murphy 21 years old

The right mix

Pause and think for a moment, that almost a century ago, people were fighting for the right to have mixed swimming sessions at the Serpentine.

And imagine the heady atmosphere, when an estimated 10,000 spectators gathered around the Serpentine lake at Hyde Park to cheer on Ms Murphy and all the women swimmers who had feasibly waited a lifetime to do what is natural.   

A life in a day for Kathleen

A life in a day for Kathleen

photo of Kathleen Murphy flanked by policewoman before lido opens [Collection of John Tierney]

Murphy commuted 15 miles from Pinner to arrive at the Serpentine at 5am

Kathleen Murphy, aged 21, had been the first to join the queue that June 16 day in 1930, arriving at the lido gates at 5am. And the roars and cheers that greeted all were at their loudest when the first mixed bathing session at the Serpentine lido, instituted by George Lansbury, First Commissioner of Works was inaugurated at 4.30pm on 16 June 1930. 

Newspaper reports described Murphy as dressed to impress as a “woman clad in flaming-red bathing costume and wearing red slippers. She was Miss Kathleen Murphy, a 21-year-old Journalist, of Yexham Cottage, Waxwell-lane. Pinner.” 

The Lansbury Lido

The Lansbury Lido

The Sunlight League

The successful beginning of the mixed bathing was part of the plan of Mr. George Lansbury, the First Commissioner of Works. A year earlier in 1929, a group known as the “Sunlight League” headed by Sir Richard Paget had presented a proposal for “modern sun-bathing facilities” on the banks of the Serpentine to Lansbury. 

A key part of the submission was mixed bathing stating “a feature would be made of the desirability to have the boys’ and girls’ dressing cabins adjacent, so that they could swim and dive together.” 

George Lansbury

George Lansbury

Architectural style

The desire communicated by the Sunlight League to George Lansbury was that “a permanent architectural bathing colonnade should be erected on the west bank of the river, and covered. The roof which would be supported by pillars, would be utilised for sun-bathing purposes. In addition, there would be grass and sand patches for the same purpose.”

Many details had purposely been thought through, and it was also suggested that “at the back of the colonnade there would be continuous lines of dressing cabinets for men and women, with accommodation for the drying of costumes, the hire of them, and so forth.”

Good old Lansbury

And just one year later, jubilant spectators lined both sides of the Serpentine and the bridge which spans it. They showed their appreciation of London's new Lido with volleys of cheers as bather after bather entered the water. The bathers themselves were delighted, and many of them shouted "Good old Lansbury" as they frolicked in the water.

Alfred Rowley, the Serpentine Swimming Club Secretary presented Kathleen with a bronze medal of the club.  

Another newspaper report from the time wrote that “the second woman to enter the water was Miss C. Garner, of Kennington. Following Miss Garner, crowds of bathing belles, wearing all the colours of the rainbow, seemed to appear from nowhere, and plunged into the water with shrill cries of delight. The crowd cheered loudly, as yellow, green and pink costumes appeared in the water. The women played polo, carried each other pickaback, and swam races. Scores of men followed, and half an hour after the first bather had entered there were at least a hundred men and women in the water. They were almost entirely surrounded by dozens of boats containing spectators who wanted to have the closest possible view of the new Lido.

The day after the celebrated event, there was dissatisfaction from one angle.  A very disappointed woman-bather was Miss Agnes Nicks, of Fatbridge Road, Highgate, a swimmer who the year before had made a swim in record time from Teddington to Waterloo and back last July. 

She claimed to have been the first woman actually to enter the Serpentine. But, she explained, on the ‘wrong’ side, opposite the bathing pavilions. "I didn't think it mattered which side I went in," she said. Rowley, a veteran of the club said that a medal could be provided for her, too.

The Serpentine 'Lansbury Lido' 1930

The Serpentine 'Lansbury Lido' 1930

A few years ago, Mike Olizar, our club historian chased up Murphy’s family, but it seemed that she had emigrated to South Africa. Mike adds that “in 2015 I got into correspondence with Kathleen's grandson in South Africa. Kathleen married before WW2 and with her husband emigrated to South Africa in 1946. She died in Cape Town in June 1979.

Photo from John Tierney's collection

Photo from John Tierney's collection

And one year on, media opinion was moving from mixed swimming, with what to sensationalise about an Irish Prime Minister

Thank you to Mike Olizar for chasing up on Kathleen Murphy's life. 

And at this stage, we do not have certainty as to whether Kathleen was born in Ireland, or born in the UK of Irish parents. In the scale of context, that issue of parentage fades, as the Serpentine continues to do as always, as the waters fold over seconds after the last swimmer exits the water.

And do the waters know if it was a man or a woman who moulded its way through the waters? The answer is the same as always, definitely not, the water treats all people the same, and maybe there is the lesson.

John Tierney

Twitter @swimmingdragons