I didn’t learn to swim until the final year of Junior School when I was eleven years old. I remember that we all looked forward to moving up to class seven so that we could have an hour or so away from the class room and be taken to the public baths in Regent Street in Rugby.
Rugby had two public swimming baths, the indoor pool and an outdoor Lido on Newbold Road but we didn’t go to either very often. Once one summer we went to the Lido when I was about seven and as we stood by the water’s edge, just for a joke, my dad said “go on then jump in” and I did. I don’t think he expected that because firstly we were standing near the deep end and secondly and perhaps more importantly I couldn’t swim and after going under several times he had to jump in himself and pull me out!
I remember that episode being rather a shock but everyone else seemed to find it amusing.
The odd thing about swimming is that is like riding a bike – once you can do it it is so very easy but learning how to do it seemed to take several weeks.
Anyway, the hire bus would turn up shortly after morning assembly and we would line up with our duffel bags and make our way to the worn out old coach that would take us the two mile twenty minute journey into town along the Lower Hillmorton Road.
The Regent Street Baths were a functional brick built building that had been built in the early 1930s and opened in 1932. Public baths in the 1930s were built for sanitation and public health and hygiene so they weren’t the sort of place that you would go to enjoy yourself as you would today.
We clicked one by one through the iron turnstile, through the double doors and then the boys filed away to the right and the girls to the left to their respective changing rooms. On public swimming days there was a locker room with an attendant who handed out wire baskets for our clothes but on school swimming lesson day there was no need for this so everyone found one of the individual cubicles that ran down each side of the pool and being careful not to drop our clothes on the wet floor we changed into our swimming costumes, hung our clothes on a peg and then went to the side of the pool and stood rather nervously and self-consciously and waited for the swimming instructor.
This was Mrs Dick who, rumour had it, had once been a professional swimmer and had represented England but I’m not absolutely sure if that was true or not. Mrs Dick used to frighten us, she had very short cropped hair, wore shorts and a track suit top and had a silver whistle hanging around her neck and when she gave the first shrill blast that was the signal to go down the steps into the icy cold water.
There was always a sign up which made some preposterously exaggerated claim about the temperature of the water but I swear it was hardly ever a degree or two above freezing. To be fair it must have been a devil of a job keeping the water room because they didn’t have pool covers in those days and the baths were a big high building with an awful lot of glass so any heat must have just gone literally through the roof.
I don’t really remember the process or the sequence for learning to swim but I do recall that it seemed to involve a lot of wasted time hanging on to the rail at the shallow end and trying to lift our legs out of the water to see if we could float. I think they may even have taught us how to tread water before they progressed to anything ambitious like strokes. Once we had overcome our fear of the water and could bob about a bit then we progressed to leaving loose of the rail and going to the centre of the pool with a polystyrene float to hold on to as we got used to kicking with our legs and one by one over the weeks everyone (well, mostly everyone) started to swim unaided and the first test of competence was coming up.
This was being able to demonstrate that we could swim the colossal distance of a whole length of the swimming pool – thirty-three and a third yards. We started at the deep end underneath the shadow of the three stage diving platform and set off one by one towards our target at the shallow end. Some failed the first attempt and had to be fished out of the water by a long pole and some just gave up and had to be thrown a polystyrene float but I am fairly sure that I did it at the first attempt and a few weeks later was rewarded by being awarded a certificate that was signed by several important civic dignitaries including the Chairman of the Baths Committee and the Town Clerk of Rugby Borough Council although looking at it again now the Town Clerk’s signature appears to be a stamp rather than genuine.
After the lesson Mrs Dick would blow her whistle and we were sent to the showers to warm up and to try and get rid of the smell of chlorine that stuck like glue to our hair and bodies and then it was back to the bus and the journey back to Hillmorton County Junior and Infants School.
It was a good thing to learn to swim because after that I was allowed to go the swimming baths with my pals David Newman and Tony Gibbard on a Saturday morning and we used to catch the R76 bus into town and visit the Regent Street Baths by ourselves. During the summer we wanted to swim outdoors but by now the Newbold Road Lido had been demolished and turned into a waste transfer station so we used to cycle eight miles to the Daventry outdoor baths instead. Once or twice we swam in the canal near David’s house but quite frankly, when I think about it now, that was very dangerous and not such a clever thing to do and if we’d ever been caught by our parents we would have been in an awful lot of trouble that’s for sure!
The Regent Street Baths stayed open for about forty years and then in the early 1970s they were replaced by the Rugby Sports Centre in Whitehall Road Park and with no further use they were demolished and the land turned into a public park called Jubilee Gardens where there is a statue of Rugby born poet Rupert Brooke.
The Rugby Leisure Centre later became the Ken Marriott Leisure Centre in memory of one of the Councillors and that only lasted forty years as well as it was closed in 2013 and demolished to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Leisure Centre.
The picture of the indoor swimming baths is not Rugby baths.
I went swimming every week and I’m 100% this isn’t rugby
But it is very similar!
I also learnt to swim in Rugby baths at the end of Regent Street. i was a pupil at Harris School 1960-65 (Northlands and Bloxam schools before that) and the school bus would take us each week for our lesson. This was always exciting for me as my parents owned Tudor Bakeries at 3 Regents Street. I would always try to spot my mum who ran the shop as we drove by.
Thanks for adding your memories to the post Bob.
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I loved swimming and took to it like a duck to water. I too learnt how to swim during school swimming lessons when I was about nine years old. We walked to our local public baths just ten minutes away from home. It’s still there today, an old stone building that looks as though it was built in Victorian times. I went swimming with the next brother up from me almost every day of our school holidays. Always finishing with a cup of Bovril and a Wagon Wheel! Happy Days!
Thanks for adding your memories to the post.
It was great to relive them even if only in my head.
Your memory for the details is impressive, Andrew. 🙂 🙂 There’s a sad old former public baths alongside the river in Durham. It could be such a beautiful building if someone would take it on.
Probably listed and too expensive to restore Jo.
OK, I’ll confess. In the summer of 1952 I taught myself to swim in Wimbledon Swimming Baths in Latimer Road. This was necessary because I had to pass the Scholarship to go to Grammar school and I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able get past it if I couldn’t swim. Perhaps, with that mindset, it is surprising that I did actually pass it 🙂
Thanks for adding that Derrick, always good to have other memories attached to the post.
You still have your swimming certificate!
I have all 3 levels Sheree. My Dad was good at hoarding things.
My mother in law died recently and the depth of her hoarding was revealed including my husband’s first swimming certificates.
Did she work for the National Records Office by any chance?
My Dad kept everything and I am glad about that now because it gives me things to blog about whilst I cannot travel!
I have inherited his squirreling habits so my son is in for a shock when I have gone!
No, she didn’t but both of my hubby’s parents were hoarders a habit they’ve passed on to him. I’m the complete opposite.
I confess that I am a hoarder but I am trying hard to be more selective.
It’s difficult though isn’t it?
I never learned as a child as I hated my mustard coloured woollen swimming costume so much I used to hide in the showers and so missed the lessons – but I can still smell the Dettol and bleach or whatever they doused the place in. Later, as an adult, I spent a small fortune trying to learn to swim but to this day I can’t. Loved the post, it brought back so many memories. Why were all swimming instructors cut from the same cloth? Mine was just like yours.
Thanks for adding your story to the post.
This post bought back very unhappy memories of school swimming lessons. I can still remember our fearsome teacher Miss Gearing who managed to put me off swimming for life. I did learn to swim but, to this day, I remain a very unconfident swimmer who still longs to do the crawl. I took my sons swimming before they could walk because I didn’t want them to be like me and they are both confident swimmers – thankfully! When I became a teacher myself I knew who I wouldn’t be using as a role model! Great post.
Thank you for adding your story to the post.
No swimming pool for us, Andrew, or stern-faced woman with a whistle. The ice cold sounds familiar. The first swim of the season was a big thing for us. It was at the local pond know otherwise as The Pond. We would take off our clothes and jump in naked, seeing who would be first to break the ice that covered the shallows by maybe a quarter of an inch. My older brother disdained to teach me how to swim (no parents were around) and that chore fell to my dog Tickle, a feisty Cocker Spaniel who happened to be an expert at dog paddling. So dog paddling was the stroke I learned. 🙂 –Curt
Thanks for adding this Curt, I always appreciate memory contributions!
It was fun for me to have my memory tweaked, Andrew. There was a swimming pool in Placerville three miles away, but I preferred the ponds, creeks and rivers in our area. I picked up my scout merit badge by swimming in a lake. –Curt
Parents wouldn’t allow it now Curt.
My daughter certainly wouldn’t. I think that both of my parents were so relieved to get kid-free time that they pushed us out the door. 🙂
This prompts many memories! My uncle taught me to swim in the Hector McNeil Baths in Greenock when we visited our Scottish family in the summer holidays. Brand spanking new in the 60s, they have long since been demolished. Our baths at home were more like the Regent Street ones with cubicles down the side. I had forgotten about the wire baskets, but had not forgotten white Morris Travellers like the one in the last picture. We had that exact model, I even remember the reg number KVK 275D.