logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Going swimming in
1940s and 1950s England

YOU ARE HERE: home > leisure

Swimming was by no means a regular activity for children like me who grew up in the 1940s and early 1950s. Here is why:

to top of page

Swimming in the sea

For most of the early lives of anyone of my age in England, the beaches at the seaside were fenced off with rolls of barbed wire because the beaches had been mined against a German attack in World War Two. After the war, the beaches took time to clear. So it was quite a while before anyone was allowed to play on them or swim from them. My recollections come from the 1950s or perhaps the late 1940s.

to top of page

Public swimming baths

There were public swimming baths. I was too young to realise whether or not they were open in the war. Probably they were until something needed mending, when they would have had to shut because whatever was required was needed for the war effort. During the war, lots of facilities were shut for that reason, and I clearly remember the notices 'Closed for the duration'. They never said, 'Closed for the duration of the war'. Everyone knew what they meant.

Our local swimming baths were at Mill Hill, and were probably fairly typical of other swimming baths at the time. By today's standards, they were basic. There was a small paddling pool and a larger rectangular pool which was shallow at one end and deeper at the other; and there was a single diving board and a single slide.

to top of page

Swimming baths and polio/infantile paralysis

As a child in the 1940s and early 1950s, I wasn't allowed to go to swimming baths much because they were linked in people's minds with polio.

What it was like to have infantile paralysis

Fortunately my infantile paralysis was only suspected rather than the real thing. Nevertheless, initially, I was treated as if I did have it until tests showed that I did not.

I was in an isolation hospital for approximately three weeks. This was in November 1947. The patients were adult servicemen as well as children.

I was in a bed next to a boy called Teddy Austin whose treatment was an inverted U-shaped device containing a series of light bulbs. This was placed over his back and the bulbs switched on. I think it was some form heat treatment, but whether it worked on not I don't know.

My worst experience in the hospital was the lumber punch. I had two of them, one on entering the hospital and a second about two weeks later. The idea, as I understand it, was to draw off fluid from the spine. We were OK if the fluid was clear.

There was a chap at school who had to wear a leg-iron support, probably due to infantile paralysis. It seemed to work because he no longer needed it in later life.

Dick Green

Polio - or infantile paralysis as it was usually called - was a dreadful disease which paralysed or stunted limbs for life and struck indiscriminately in the summer months. My father-in-law had it as a child and as a result had one leg shorter and thinner than the other which made him walk with a limp. There was a girl at my first school who had had it as a toddler. One arm was shrivelled and and she wore a heavy caliper on one leg to stretch the leg so that it would grow somewhat normally along with the other one.

No-one knew where it came from or how it was caught, and swimming pools were widely blamed and therefore feared. How true this was, I don't know. However to us children, with the optimism of childhood, we never imagined that polio would strike us. So we pressurised parents to let us go to the swimming baths, and sometimes we won.

A vaccine against polio only became available towards the end of the 1950s.

to top of page

Swimming in rivers

Swimming area on a river, 1950s Britain

Swimming area on a river

Certain parts of certain rivers were considered safe for swimming.

On one occasion, I was taken swimming in the River Cam at Cambridge. I can't remember much about it, other than that swimming there was totally accepted, in that lots of people did so, and there was even a diving board there.

What I specifically remember, though, was that it although it may have been safe from dangerous currents, it certainly wasn't safe from bugs. I was violently ill a few days afterwards with flu-like symptoms - and being the middle of summer, it couldn't have been flu.

to top of page

Swimming costumes for girls

Swimming costumes and swimming caps, 1950s

Swimming costumes and swimming caps, 1950s.

The only swimming costumes for girls that I ever knew were navy blue with a round neck. I'm not sure what they were made of - probably wool. In appearance, they did not look all that different from the swimming costumes that girls were wearing in the early 1900s.

Girls always wore swimming hats - known as swimming caps. I am not sure whether this was compulsory in public swimming baths or whether it was to keep hair dry. If the latter, the caps were singularly unsuccessful. They were made of thick rubber, did up with a strap under the chin and were closely fitting with insets for ears. They were floppy but did not really stretch, which was probably why they inevitably leaked. They did, though, keep dirty hair out of the water - and hair was not washed particularly often in those days.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

to top of page