The West’s Past – Sea & River Experience
Extracted from “One Hundred Years of Scottish Swimming” – Peter Bilsborough (1988)
Sea and river swimming were popular activities with groups of boys and young men during the summer months for most of the nineteenth century.
In the west, Glaswegians used the River Clyde.
The Fleshers’ Haugh section of Glasgow Green was the busiest bathing spot. Here a grassy bank ran down to the water’s edge which allowed a timid person to select his depth while on the opposite bank the river was deep enough for a good plunge. A few yards down stream was Dominie’s Hole, a popular ‘plumb’ or ‘hole’ for proficient bathers.
Another favourite location was in the Gorbals area, where a cotton mill poured out a steady stream of hot water into the Clyde, allowing youths to indulge in a hot bath free of charge.
In the first half of the century, swimming was a simple recreational activity. There were no formal competitive events. It was popular because no specialist equipment was required, it was individual and improvised, relying on no other person to enable it to take place and it was free from financial restraint. Furthermore, it was an extremely refreshing experience to swim in a clear river with a sandy bed or in the sea on a hot summer’s day.
Steps were also taken to make it as safe as possible.
In Glasgow, the Glasgow Humane Society was formed in 1790 to reduce the number of drownings in the Clyde. It erected a boat house and a room for storing life-saving equipment in 1796 and by the turn of the century a life-saving officer was based in the Humane Society House. In addition, members of the public attempting to save swimmers in distress were offered financial rewards.
By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, various local groups of swimmers had gathered together to formalise their activities.
In Glasgow, the West of Scotland Swimming Club was inaugurated in 1866.
By the early 1870s open races were very popular with the best club swimmers.
Each club thought that its particular open races were sufficiently national in character to be declared Scottish championships.
For example, within the space of eight weeks in the summer of 1873, clubs in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen had promoted their own ‘Quarter Mile Championship of Scotland’.
To clear up the confusion and determine the rightful claim of swimmers to a particular championship title, a meeting of all Scottish clubs took place in Perth in February 1875.
Those attending included: Dee, Bon-Accord (Aberdeen); Arlington, Clydesdale, West of Scotland (Glasgow); Forth, Lorne (Edinburgh), Paisley and Tay (Dundee).
They agreed to establish a national organisation to regulate Scottish championships. They called it the Associated Swimming Clubs of Scotland. (A.S.C.S.)
It formulated rules for only one race, the ‘Half Mile Championship of Scotland’. It took place annually in the last week of July. The first prize was a cup worth 30 guineas.
The five other prizes of £5, £4, £3, £2 and £1 were to be given in cash or value’ as the winners preferred.
The championship venue was rotated annually between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.
The first race was swam in the Forth at the Chain Pier, Trinity in 1875. There were 15 competitors and the winner was Thomas S. Wylie from Glasgow. Another Glaswegian, Robert Wilson, won the second contest which took place opposite the Esplanade at Greenock. The championship contest was held for a few more years but it lapsed in 1881 with the demise of the A.S.C.S. which had failed to expand its membership and attract sufficient funds.
River swimming lost much of its appeal during the last quarter of the century.
In Glasgow, as the city’s industrial base expanded, good river bank sites were acquired by a variety of industrial companies resulting in a considerable increase in shipping. The once peaceful Clyde became a thronging industrial artery.
In such conditions swimming was not a particularly attractive prospect.
Moreover, for some new industrial processes the river became a convenient dumping site for waste products and consequently it became increasingly polluted.
At one competition held on the Clyde in 1888 the swimmers showed some concern over the condition of the water.
‘One thought it ‘unco thick’, another spluttered out, ‘I’m pizhined’; while a third was heard to remark, ‘It’s as bad as castor ile, an’ I’d rather swallow Gregory’s mixture ony day.’
Moreover, after 1878 a variety of newly built public indoor swimming baths provided a much more attractive alternative to a rather hazardous ‘douke’ in the Clyde.