Today (July 23) in London History – bathing there was a capital offence

The Children’s Beach on the Thames foreshore by the Tower of London opened on July 23, 1934. The Today in London History podcast for July 23 tells the story.


Free access forever for the children. Well, it was a short forever – from 1934 to 1971. With a seven-year gap early on. 

Now it’s just a London memory. But a London memory that’s worth preserving, that should be kept alive. It’s a tale worth telling – in so many ways.

I’m talking about the transformation of the Tower foreshore into the Children’s Beach. 

Today’s its birthday. It opened on July 23rd, 1934.

As is so often the case in London’s history, it was a couple of determined, tireless visionaries who made it happen. One was the much-loved Reverend P. B. Clayton of Toc H fame – look that up if you don’t know the story. Tubby Clayton, as he was affectionately known, was the vicar of All Hallows, Barking-by-the-Tower. The other was the oil industrialist and philanthropist Lord Wakefield. Would every capitalist have Lord Wakefield’s sensibility. In the words of his biographer, “for a businessman, he had an unusually well-developed sense of obligation to the state as a guardian of society: he settled his tax bills without fuss or delay and strongly disapproved of covenants to avoid income tax on charitable donations.”

Anyway, the parent project was The Reclamation of Tower Hill. Its battle cry was ‘execute buildings not people.’ The buildings being eye-sores, ugly warehouses and the like. 

The little people’s project was ‘the children’s beach.’ 

The historical undercurrents of the children’s beach project could hardly have been more compelling.  For starters, in medieaval days persons bathing there were liable to the death penalty. The enactment of that penalty was meant to frustrate attempts to rescue prisoners by water. 

The full picture, though, is that Reverend Clayton and Lord Wakefield and their backers secured two beachheads that summer. In addition to getting the foreshore legalised they made it safe for children. 

The chief danger came from the rising tide. Both Tower Stairs and Irongate Stairs there were rendered inaccessible from the beach before the beach itself became submerged. That danger was overcome by the provision of a ladder-cum-stairway connecting the beach with Tower Walk. And just as well too, because in the words of a contemporary newspaper account, “there have been many fatal accidents.”

Whoa! Let’s regroup. A ladder-cum-stairway. I know, I know – Health and Safety today would be having fits. But back then they weren’t the sissies we are today. And they weren’t any illusions that life could be made risk-free. Oh, almost forgot, the powers that be also laid on an official boatman to patrol the beach.

Lastly – circling those opening day preparations – everything that had to be got into place – you simply must not forget the Constable of the Tower. Gratitude for the new privileges was due to him. The King’s direct representative, the Constable of the Tower was supreme within its precincts. The Tower – let it never be forgotten – is a royal fortress and palace. And the foreshore, up to dead low tide, is thus vested in the crowd.

Anyway, let’s leap ahead. Let’s jump o’er times. See how the Children’s Beach fared. 

In five words, it was a huge success. As a newspaper headline put it, “joyous scenes where bathing was once a capital offence.”

The contemporary newspaper accounts are very moving.

In April 1935 a piece in The Times described the children’s beach as one of the most delightful features of London’s teeming life. In less than 3 months last year approximately 70,000 children used the beach, including over 3,000 on one day. The Times speculated that this year, with a full-length season, probably the beach would welcome over 200,000 little guests. A year later the Times reported, “experiments are being made this week with a view to improving the beach by laying down a top dressing of fine sand from the Essex coast. It quickly added, though, “whether the sand will remain on the beach has yet to be ascertained.”

And then at summer’s end – I was so moved by this – the Times’ man on the scene reported, “the children looked a bit thin and pale but with such places as this beach they will change for the better.” 

I didn’t make this point before – I’m not sure it needs making – but if it does, the point is the Children’s Beach was for London’s poorest kids, East End kids. Kids whose parents could never afford to give them a seaside holiday.

Three final points. Not in exact chronological order. The beach closed during the war. It reopened in 1946. As did the Tower of London generally. Astonishing to think that for six years the only people who got into the Tower of London were people in uniform. Mostly American soldiers, airmen and sailors.

It closed for good in 1971. What did for it, in the end, was pollution. 

What moved me close to tears, though, was a brief announcement in The Telegraph’s Friday, October 21st edition. 

It’s headlined: A.R.P. Sand Sent to Children’s Beach.

A.R.P. is of course the acronym for Air Raid Protection.

The story – it’s just a will o the wisp – just a couple of sentences – reads as follows:

“The children’s bathing and paddling beach in front of the Tower of London is reaping great benefits from the peaceful ending to the crisis. Some 250 tons of sand bought by business houses and individuals for air raid defences have been sent to the Tower Hill Improvement Trust for the beach. A further 100 tons have been promised and it is anticipated that hundreds more will be given.”

Let the date that story ran sink in. It was October 21. Three weeks to the day after the Peace in our Time Munich agreement. Londoners – and London businesses – thinking war was imminent – had been buying sand for sandbags and makeshift air raid protection shelters. The promise of the Munich agreement was that the war had been headed off. No need to build those shelters. No need for that sand. Send it to the Children’s Beach. The sense of relief – of joy – isn’t almost palpable. It’s palpable. We of course know what they didn’t know – we know the awful truth. That that agreement was just a stay of execution. That in no time at all – in 45 short weeks – this country would be locked in a desperate life-and-death struggle. That already the sands were fast running out of that death’s head hourglass. 

Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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