Today (June 16) in London History – Some good news at last

June 16, 1930 saw the inauguration of mixed bathing in the Serpentine Lido. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

What a difference one person can make. 

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re on the outskirts of June 16th – and look, there’s a big billboard welcoming you. And that billboard reads: What a Difference One Person Can Make.

That billboard’s one way of introducing this. Another way is to get you to imagine a gemstone setting. A prong setting. Three tines that stick up and hold the gemstone in place.

Those three tines are: James Joyce, Jane Austen, Ambrose Bierce. Yes, those three famous writers. 

Now James Joyce, Jane Austen and Ambrose Bierce may have just been stirring it. Then again, maybe they weren’t. I’m talking about the potshots they took at our canvas, our discipline, history. And to be fair, all three of them, in one way or another, fitted themselves up with a kind of heat shield. Some plausible deniability, so to speak.

James Joyce doesn’t pull the trigger. Neither does Jane Austen. They leave the down and dirty work to characters they created. And as for Ambrose Bierce, well, there’s no question but the vein he’s working is satire. Satire so savage only a dimwit or a fool would try to contest it. And that, too, is a kind of heat shield. All of that noted, what James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus and Jane Austen’s character Miss Morland have to say about history is worth giving some consideration to. As is Ambrose Bierce’s definition of History in his Devil’s Dictionary.

Bierce defines history as “An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

That’s pretty dark, pretty savage. But I think James Joyce’s pronouncement – in his great modernist novel Ulysses – is even more searing. 

“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And yes, strictly speaking, that’s Stephen Dedalus speaking. But it behooves us to keep in mind that the character Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce’s alter ego.

Finally, Miss Morland, in Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. Miss Morland let’s fly as follows: “History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good- for-nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.”

For my part, I – David – love history. At the same time, I don’t think Joyce and Austen and Bierce are whiffing. There’s quite a bit to be said for the positions that they stake out in those three pronouncements. Austen’s quarrels and wars and pestilences – basically bad things happening to people –yes, I’m afraid Miss Morland is on to something. These waters we’ve been fishing in – a whole lot of our catches have been grim, grisly and horrible. We’ve reeled in more than our fair share of mayhem and misfortune and suffering and cruelty and death and misery.

But today we’re somewhere else. We’re at a place that has a billboard on its outskirts that reads: What a Difference One Person Can Make.

So bearing that in mind, what’s not to like about this one?

It’s June 16th, 1930 and as London history goes, what happened on June 16th, 1930 is one hundred per cent “feel good.” 

It’s the inauguration of mixed bathing in the Serpentine. 

But steady as she goes. There might be some new kids on the block. So I think first off we should dive into some definitions.

The Serpentine is the recreational lake in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. It’s called the Serpentine because it’s got a sort of reptilian shape. The Serpentine was originally fed by two of London’s secondary rivers: the Westbourne and the Tyburn. The swimming area is in Hyde Park, on the south side of the lake. 

There, I said it: swimming area. Cue the Serpentine Swimming Club. The oldest swimming club in Britain. It got started in 1864. And no surprise this, it didn’t have any female members. In that respect, it was sort of like a gentleman’s club. London’s gentlemen’s clubs were often housed in magnificent buildings. Not so the Serpentine Swimming Club. It had to make do with the shelter provided by an elm tree. The elm tree did have a wooden seat surround – on it those lads, those swimmers placed their clothes. 

And that brings us to the nub of the matter. The Serpentine Swimming Club puts it in no uncertain terms: “It is unlikely that women swam in the Serpentine until the Lido was opened in 1930. A total lack of changing facilities would have precluded their presence in the waters.”

Oh look, there’s another billboard. And sure enough, it’s saying the same thing as the first one we encountered.

What a difference one person can make.

Ok, full disclosure time. The difference-maker was George Lansbury. He was born in 1859. In Suffolk. He was the son of a railway timekeeper. In his autobiography, called My Life, George Lansbury didn’t say much about his father, but he remembered the influence of his non-conformist grandmother and his mother. In 1884 the Lansburys emigrated to Australia. They had a bad time of it there. Couldn’t get work. Came back to England. Settled in the East End of London. George Lansbury campaigned for accurate emigration information for people. That was his entree into Liberal-radical politics. He became a socialist. Took issue with the Liberal party’s hostile attitude towards social reform, party democracy and women’s rights. He joined the Labour party. He campaigned for women’s enfranchisement. He became an MP. He was an ardent champion of the Women’s Social and Political Union. He gave a speech in the Royal Albert Hall that landed him in prison. His enemies said his speech sanctioned the suffragettes’ arson campaign. And look, for the record, Lansbury wasn’t a one-issue activist. In addition to championing women’s rights, he was staunchly anti-Imperialist and a supporter of nationalist movements, especially in Ireland and India. 

In 1929 Lansbury became the first commissioner of works. London loved him. Called him the Commissioner for Good Works. He was in charge of historic buildings and monuments. He dazzled London with a radical programme of recreational improvements for the public in the royal parks, including “Lansbury’s Lido” on the Hyde Park Serpentine. In due course George Lansbury became the leader of the Labour Party – in all probability he was the most honourable, decent politician this country ever produced. He consistently applied his Christian socialist principles throughout his life and his career. He sought neither wealth nor social status. As a cabinet minister he wore an old double-breasted serge suit and travelled by bus or train. He was, according to the great historian A. J. P. Taylor, “the most lovable figure in modern politics.”

We could certainly do with a George Lansbury today. 

And that’s all by way of saying, by way of repeating, really, George Lansbury took survey of the Serpentine – the bathing there – and saw that it was not good. Only men could swim there. George Lansbury said, that’s not right, that’s not fair, that’s not acceptable. I’m going to do something about that. And he did. He built the Lido, with its changing rooms for women. Photographs in the press on the Lido’s opening – on this day, June 16th, 1930 – showed throngs of women queuing to get in, to swim in the Serpentine. 

Two final thoughts. Both pretty obvious. 1. Good government can improve people’s lives. And 2. What a difference one person can make. 

And a Today in London recommendation: Fancy a swim in the Serpentine Lido?

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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