Now seen as one of the most popular forms of exercise, the health-giving properties of swimming have not always been recognised. This gallery enters the murky depths of 16th-century rivers, breathes the bracing air of the Regency seaside and dives into a modernist swimming pool to chart the course from water as site of danger to a space of health.
De Arte Natandi (‘The Art of Swimming’), was the first treatise on the topic published in Britain. Written in an age when many people could not swim and drowning was a regular cause of death, it features advice on different swimming techniques, detailed information on how to enter the water safely and advice on what kinds of water were safest to swim in.
In this idealised image, the figure holding the recovering patient has been identified as Dr William Hawes. Hawes claimed that as a child he regularly saw dead bodies being retrieved from the New River in London, which sparked his interest in the resuscitation of the apparently drowned. Co-founded by Hawes in 1774 to aid resuscitation of the near drowned, The Royal Humane Society still exists today.
The late 18th century saw a growing advocacy of the health giving properties of the seaside – and of sea bathing. This print by Thomas Rowlandson is one of a number of works he produced which reference not just the growing practice of sea-bathing but the voyeuristic nature of depicting such a scene (one was titled ‘Summer amusement at Margate, or a peep at the mermaids’).
Opened in July 1875, this piece of imaginative Victorian engineering drew its water from the Thames, filtering out the mud to make it safe for swimming. Its creators even added machinery in 1876 to freeze the river water and create an ice-skating rink for the winter. The floating baths lasted until 1885 when the structure was purchased by the South Eastern Railway Company and scrapped.
On 21 August 1875, Captain Matthew Webb dived off the Admiralty Pier in Dover. Nearly 22 hours later he landed near Calais, the first person to have swum the English Channel unaided. Considered the epitome of Victorian manliness and bravery, Webb took on a range of extreme swimming feats, and even published a book called The Art of Swimming – the same title as Digby’s 16th-century text. In 1883 Webb died attempting to swim across the Whirlwind Rapids at Niagara Falls
Although competitive swimming had been part of the modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896, the 1912 Games was the first to feature events for women – the individual 100 metres and the 400 metres relay. The introduction was not uniformly welcomed: only three teams entered the relay and prior to the games both the French and American delegations opposed swimming being introduced to the Games for women.
Aiming to uncover the factors that resulted in positive health, the Pioneer Health Centre was a family health and social centre located in Peckham in London. At the centre of the building was the swimming pool – the second largest in London at the time. This image captures the element of free play – and its observation - that the Centre’s founders advocated.
Digby’s De Arte Natandi showed the dangers of rivers and water courses but contemporary Britain has seen a revival in the seeking out of remote rivers, lochs and waterfalls for purposes of ‘wild swimming’. Popularised by the writer Roger Deakin, wild swimmers seek out secluded locations to swim in the countryside.
About the author
Ross MacFarlane is a research development specialist at Wellcome Collection. He has researched, written and lectured on the collections and other topics at the intersection of death, folklore and medicine.
Try these next
Browse 1907 book ‘Swimming pools: their construction; mechanical installation; water supply; heating the water; various types of installations adapted to different conditions; with thirty illustrations and charts.’
Read more about the work of the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre Experiment and see a picture of the pool as viewed from the cafe.
Visit the Reading Room areas on body and breath to read more about swimming and other exercises and their effect on health.