Swimming and Bathing

Cambridge District Scout Archive

 ‘In June 1911 (the Coronation year) came our first Troop Camp at Houghton, near St. Ives; but alas! it was cut short by a tragedy. HARRY BENTON, a former Choir boy, was helping us in Camp; in my absence, he went to bathe and got cramp; Mr. WALTER SEARLE, of Pembroke College, a visitor acting as A. S-M., tried to save him, and both were drowned’.                                                                                                           C T Wood History of the 9th Cambridge

‘only one Cub could who could swim was allowed to bathe’                                                                                                                                     26th Cambridge        Wolf Cub Log 1931


In Scouting for Boys BP writes ‘Every boy should be able to swim.’  The reasons he gives are not being able to join in the fun (and looking a fool), not putting others at risk to save you and the awful prospect of seeing someone drown because you cannot swim.

It was a requirement for a 1st Class Scout to be able to swim 50 yards.  Optional proficiency badges for swimmer and rescuer existed but the core 1st Class work insisted on this skill. 

No records exist of the numbers of Cambridge Scouts who could swim.  The proportion of First Class Scouts can only provide a lower estimate.  In 1932 -33 eleven First Class Scout badges were awarded and ten Swimming badges were awarded that year to the 691 Boy Scouts in Cambridge District.

1926      7th Cambridge (County School) Court of Honour proposed that ‘3 marks be taken off every person who cannot swim by the first week of camp’.  The Court had recently passed a proposal that swimming commence ‘as soon as the temperature of the water definitely rises to 57°F (14° C).’

1929     ‘I also started to learn to swim for my first class, this was an extended effort during the summer at Jesus Green Baths (No heated pool in those days).  In the end I just struggled to do the 50 yards.  I must admit I have never swum more than this distance.’           Ken North 1978

1931 A note in The Scouter ‘In Surrey swimming has now got on to a popular and established footing.’ Whatever the expectation the organised activity took local amenities and time to become available and accepted.

1935    A letter to District stated that Cub swimming races were held in other districts and that caution was necessary as to distance and evidence of strain.  The first Cub swimming recorded was 1936.

1934    A letter introducing parents to the first camp of the fledging 1st Harston, then a patrol of the 56th Cambridge , the ASM wrote ‘All possible precautions will be taken to ensure the Health and Safety of the scouts especially with regard to bathing’.

1947    Concern was raised in the District Executive that rules on bathing were being breached.

2nd Cambridge 1950’s After the swim

1969    Cub Leaders Minutes ‘part of our job is to teach Cub Scouts how to swim.

See also separate page Activities/ Sports/ Swimming

Life Saving in Cambridge

Of the nine Cambridge recipients of the National Scout Awards (Bronze Cross, Silver Cross, Gilt Cross, and Medal of Merit) between 1916 and 1970 eight were for saving or attempting to save someone from drowning.  A cursory reading of the wider Gilwell Archives suggests that this is the most common reason for an award in this era.

1920    ‘Scout F Newman had rescued ladies from a boat…’   ‘apply to HQ for some recognition.’                                                                                    District Minutes

In 1922 DC CT Wood wrote to Scouters echoing Headquarters concerns about ‘bad’ camps.  Emphasis was placed on the dangers of scouts drowning.  C T Wood was keen on swimming for Scouts, his experiences (above) inevitably influencing his views.

In 1926 Ken North recalled a camp                ‘On Sunday we attended Church parade at the village church where we heard that two boys had been drowned in the weir at the mill on the Sunday, it was a noted danger spot…’

C T Wood’s Album No. 276

1938 A catalogue advertising a Scout book on swimming claimed that ‘Over 1000 people have been saved from drowning by Boy Scouts’.

1950    ’ The Hounds (a patrol) disappeared somewhere beyond Shelford (where they distinguished themselves by rescuing a toddler in difficulties in the river and salvaging clothes.)’           5th Cambridge

1951    A camp report in ‘The Link’ the 12th Cambridge newsletter stressed that all safety rules had been followed.

The Clark Trophy for proficiency in life saving was awarded from 1966 – 1989 to the Group with most Royal Life Saving Society awards in a year.  The Royal Life Saving Society, founded in 1891, is the UK drowning prevention charity. 

1978    The Buddy system was introduced but Districts concern was that it was ‘largely ignored’

1979    ‘after lunch on the 2nd day of rain it was decided to take all the Scouts to a local swimming bath, they were all piled into the back of the Luton van and off we went.  At the swimming pool the attendants took one look at the Scouts and upped the Chlorine level in the pool!       28th Cambridge  Geoff Oliver

1997    ‘The pool was outside so it was freezing.  I had to jump in and out several times to get used to it.’           28th Cambridge

Swimming Sports in Cambridge

1912    Swimming and lifesaving competitions (reported in 1st Annual report)

1922    Swimming as a Cambridge Scout District competition has been recorded since 1922 the Swimming Shield being presented by the Cambridge Rovers in 1925. 

1937    Cub swimming is recorded from 1937, the Trophy in the Cambridge collection dating from 1965. 

1947    The competition was recorded as being held in the worst storm in living memory.

1951    5th Cambridge recorded 60 swimmers in its Troop and 12 who wear a swimmers badge but couldn’t raise a team.  They had nine large Scout patrols at this time.

District competitions continued with occasional gaps, the last being in 2014. 

The competition was held in the river three years after the completion of Jesus Green Pool.  This Cambridge lido replicates the neighbouring river being 100 yards long and 15 yards wide.  It is not known if the choice of the river over the lido was for reasons of cost, tradition, availability or because it set a realistic test for swimming and life saving.  Rivers, ponds and the sea were where most people swam and most drowning incidents occurred.   The competition was held in Jesus Green Baths by 1933.

Swimming for all

The details of the competition in 1926 show a strong emphasis, in the last line, on the ability of every Scout to swim, ‘In awarding the shield notice will be taken of the number of boys in a Troop who cannot swim – as evidenced by their non entry’.

It was on 1954 that ‘This year as an experiment the Novices Width is being swam as a race’.  Before this date it appears in some years that completion of the width earned a point or later a certificate.  This scoring also placed greater emphasis on the ability of many to swim than the ability to swim fastest.

Swimming as washing

Camp sites were often in the fields and farms of supporters and most did not provide washing facilities.  The river or stream was a ready form of washing and fun.  Maybe the overlap did not generally require comment; the dual meaning of ‘bathe’ does not help clarify the intent. 

1918    The river was two miles off so bathing was seldom possible. But we had two glorious 60 gallon tanks provided for us one for drinking water and the other for bathing in.  And the sounds of the bathers almost rivaled the sound of the guns in Flanders (which we heard incessantly).’     Fotheringhay Flax camp

1926    Camp programme for one day ‘07.20 ‘bathing etc’. ’15.00 Games, bathing etc’

1930    ‘we all bathed in the pond…with some of the Barton boys’              26th

1930 ‘2″ of snow and still Aldis bathed.’ University Rovers sailing on the Norfolk Broads

1932    Trio of 2nd Cambridge photos labelled ‘Going to Bath/ The Bathing/ After the Bath’

1932    ‘A return visit was arranged for his boys to visit our camp for a sea bathe and tea’  

1932    ‘Bathing was excellent, most of us bathed twice a day’                    7th

13th Cambridge 1930s

1939    ‘In this (Scottish) burn we would enjoy our morning dip before hastening to take refuge from the midges in the smoke’                                                      5th

1950    ‘…swimming parade each day (voluntary).’                                       12th

1951    ‘Several of the crew decided that a swim before breakfast did rather better than washing, besides being easier.’  Cruise of the Adventurer 12th Cambridge

1974    ‘The boisterous pleasures of the morning bathe’                              5th

Swim wear

Swim wear was initially a full costume, later just trunks and these possibly discarded for the full wash. The clearest official allusion is the Camp Rules for Abington Campsite c 1932       No 8. Bathing rules must be strictly observed.  Bathing costumes or slips to be worn after 08.30.

1932    ‘…to direct him to Miss Long’s (CM 42nd Cambridge) camp to pay them a visit’, ‘she was with her Cubs bathing so I took him down to the beach where we found “Longy”, she was wearing, what was considered in those days, a very brief bathing costume and had only a towel about as large as a pocket handkerchief to cover her modesty!’                    Ken North

An advert from The Rover, c. 1935, for chocolate

1935    Scout Shops advertised bathing costumes ‘strongly made of well shrunken wool’ in navy blue at 5/- (five shillings or a crown {a coin not in general circulation although the half crown [2/6 or 12½p] was}).  Home made woollen swimming wear were not ‘well shrunken’ and sagged significantly when waterlogged.  However, with a married mans wages at about £2 – £3 a week, homemade costumes for boys were common.

JWR Archivist Jan 2020

 Swimming, service to the empire and Baden-Powell’s youth movements: Abstract

While the Royal Life Saving Society was the agency that developed life-saving drills to ensure the safety of the public and sought to spread instruction throughout England after 1891, other social organizations also saw swimming as a valuable skill that should be widely taught because of its utility. Foremost among these organizations were the youth movements created by Robert Baden-Powell, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides. Right from the start both organizations promoted the learning of swimming as a social good that everyone should aspire to. As part of their service to the community Scouts and Guides were expected to be able to swim so that they could render assistance in time of need. This article is an examination of the manner in which swimming was promoted in Baden Powell’s youth movements, and argues that the promotion of swimming in the Scouting and Guiding movements was firmly rooted in ideas of service to others and humanitarianism. https:/ www.tandfonline.com /doi.org/10.1080/09523360601183277

Town Sheds: Swimming in the River Cam Then and Now

The Town Bathing Sheds and diving boards which stood on Sheep’s Green have long been demolished.  For centuries, until the public pool at Jesus Green was constructed in 1923, people swam in the River Cam.  Ten minutes’ walk from the city centre, in the 19thand much of the 20th century local children took their first strokes in a side stream known as the Snobs.

“Children had to show they could swim confidently in the Snobs before they were allowed to swim in the main river where they would be out of their depth”. Swimming galas and races took place on the river right up to the 1970s with one of the annual races being along the Backs right through the town.