Extracted from “100 Years of Scottish Swimming” – Peter Bilsborough (1988)
Private baths clubs provided most of the earliest opportunities for indoor swimming.
They based their programmes on those created by older clubs which had used sea and river sites.
They all offered swimming lessons to members. Once there was a sufficient nucleus of swimmers, they also arranged intra-club competitions and other activities to sustain interest.
These ranged from contests in graceful swimming and speed events over a variety of distances to demonstrations of stroke technique by resident bath-masters.
Unfortunately there was only a handful of private bath clubs and swimming did not become really popular until other facilities became available.
The opportunity for expansion occurred when public baths were built.
Glasgow emerged as a leading centre because it had a lot of good quality, cheap facilities.
After 1878 competitive swimming developed extremely quickly and became a very popular participant and spectator activity.
At a participatory level in 1887:
‘Swimmers have again, in racing parlance, ‘got into their stride’, after the holidays and are doing good work. In Glasgow, almost every week-night is taken up with club races. Sometimes no less than three clubs have fixtures on the same night.’
Swimming was popular because it was financially and geographically accessible to a large section of the population. Galas consisted of a variety of events which encouraged men and women of all ages and abilities to take part. Both national and local newspapers enhanced participation by publishing detailed regular reports of activities. (photo)
As a sporting spectacle the Scottish Umpire noted in 1885,
‘That swimming entertainments are popular in Glasgow was amply testified by the competition held in Gorbals Baths, Main Street, on Monday night, promoted by the South Side Amateur Club… The spacious building was literally crammed from floor to ceiling, a good representation of the fair sex amongst the number.’
Cheap fees and warm comfortable accommodation encouraged spectators. As most galas took place on weekday evenings there was little competition from football, cycling and athletics which were weekend spectacles.
The very nature of the races and novelty displays also interested people.
Most of the increasing amount of swimming activity was centred around new voluntarily organised swimming clubs which grew rapidly during the last quarter of the 19th century.
In Glasgow in 1900 there were 45 clubs. By 1914 there were 109.
Clubs had little difficulty in attracting swimmers.
In 1888 West of Scotland S.C. had 135 active members. Queen’s Park S.C. had 181. In 1892 Northern S.C. had 186 members, a rise of over 50 on the previous year’s total, while in 1907 Western S.C reported a membership of 134, 14 up on its 1904 total.
Most members, to judge from the level of membership fees and methods of raising funds, were lower middle and respectable working class men and women.
Most of the lower class activists were employed as clerks while the majority of working class men belonged to the ‘labour aristocracy’ — skilled workers such as engineers, builders, bricklayers and craft workers — who enjoyed economic security and high rates of pay.
Swimming clubs were formed around a variety of agencies.
The work place was a particularly important entry point. Neptune S.C. had strong links with the engineering firm Wylie and Lochead while Caxton S.C. was established by a group of local print workers. Villafield S.C. consisted of employees of the well-established printing firm Blackie and Sons.
Religious organisations were another popular focal point. Churches and chapels established sports clubs in order to maintain church solidarity and attract new recruits. Woodhead S.C. was formed in 1887 by the clergy at the Glasgow Free College Church Mission. Two years later Fairfield S.C. was established by leaders of the Bible Class at Fairfield United Wee Church. The club was very popular with shipyard workers, the majority of whom were skilled tradesmen.
A number of other organisations formed swimming sections.
Clubs such as Govan Conservatives A.S.C., Socialists Sunday School A.S.C. and Glasgow Socialists A.S.C. were quite clearly composed of swimmers whose primary interest was in matters political. Some other clubs were set up by men who lived in the same district.
The siting of public baths in city suburbs was particularly conducive to the development of neighbourhood clubs. Clarendon S.C. was formed by a group who took swimming lessons in the North Woodside Baths while Eastern S.C. consisted of a collection of east-end enthusiasts who met regularly in the Greenhead Baths.
The clubs using public baths adopted and expanded the competitive practices of the private baths clubs. They taught members to swim and provided additional coaching for more skilled swimmers. To maintain interest and raise standards they introduced a range of intra-club scratch and handicap competitions.
There were contests for club members throughout the season. Races ranged from 50 to 300 yards with the winners often receiving medals or cups donated by club patrons or honorary members.
In every club the highlight of the season was the annual club gala where a selection of confined events guaranteed a healthy entry from swimmers of all ages and abilities. Galas were also used to raise money to sustain club funds and increasingly programmes included an open event to which champion swimmers were invited, a water polo game and a display of some kind.
Displays were particularly popular.
Visiting entertainers toured clubs attempting a variety of underwater feats which ranged from pipe smoking, slate writing and dancing to cake eating, drinking tea and escaping from a sack.
More realistic, practical demonstrations such as graceful swimming, plunging and diving were also included.
In Glasgow after 1885, spectators were treated to well organised club galas every week of the season. They attracted enough public support to ensure the financial stability of the organising clubs.
By the 1890’s, a set of aquatic activities had emerged which formed the basis for all club swimming programmes until the 1940s.
The main features, which had evolved to meet the tastes of both swimmers and spectators, consisted of intra-club events, one or two open contests, a display of ‘scientific swimming’, a novelty item and a game of water polo.
Clubs issued fixture cards and an annual swimming season was established that began in April and continued until early October.
Although swimming was the principal activity of the majority of members, clubs were also focal points for numerous other pastimes. Dances, dinners, smoking concerts and conversaziones (photo) were popular during the winter months. They were a useful way of raising money and they also provided opportunities for consociation and conviviality outside the home or the workplace.
After 1870 some clubs started to organise rambles. They were really popular because they allowed members to spend relatively long periods of time together at weekends and holidays taking part in a variety of sporting, intellectual and social events.
The activities of Western A.S.C. Rambling Section typified the growing social importance of membership. Trips with an educational emphasis were arranged to local beauty spots and industrial sites. In 1903 the club visited Campsie Glen, Mugdoch Water Works, Huntershill Quarries and Craighead Coal Mine. On some other rambles a swim or a game of football was organised. For the last ramble of the season on the Glasgow Autumn Holiday in 1903 the club’s ramblers travelled to Ayr where, ‘In the forenoon the harbour was visited, and all enjoyed a short swim’.
As relationships between members developed and matured, the club organised outings during annual holidays . Some other clubs in Glasgow also established similar events and the local swimming fraternity began to develop healthy inter-club sporting and social relationships.
During the Glasgow Fair Week in 1904 members of Western A.S.C. Rambling Section spent a week at ‘Gordon’s Camp’ at Tarbet. (photo)
‘All the members of the camp, or the big majority, were members of Glasgow Swimming Clubs, and a right cheery and pleasant party they formed.’
Clubs, at both local and national level, had created a healthy camaraderie which went a long way to help the growth and development of Scottish swimming.