Swimming up hill: the tribulations of Hertford’s Swimming Pool

Susan Payne

Hertford swimming baths on Hartham (HALS doc ref DE/X1025/2/39/208) nd [early 20th century]
Hertfordshire Archives & Library Service
Detail of 1881 Ordnance Survey map of showing the location of Hartham Swimming Bath, Hertford
Susan Payne

Hertford has never been short of water, especially where the rivers Beane, Lea and Lea Navigation run close together at Hartham. The town’s inhabitants will have taken advantage of the shallow, smooth-running streams for bathing for the centuries, but the first bathing facility was not created until 1843. It was created along the Paper-Mill Ditch just before it joins the Beane, by deepening and widening the channel.

Why was a new swimming pool needed?

By the summer of 1850 the early bathing place was causing concern. Reports suggest that boarding erected around the site did not prevent the exposure of the bathers to passers-by: “Something must be done to remedy this nuisance at once or ladies will be entirely excluded from a delightful walk throughout the entire summer”1. There were calls for bathing to be forbidden in all but the most secluded streams, in the cause of public decency.

A decade later, the issue had broadened to include public hygiene and health. In 1863 the Hertford Labourers’ Friend Society proposed a glass-covered swimming bath, hot water baths and wash-houses2. Stories (possibly fanciful) were reported of judges from the local assizes, being unable to find suitable facilities in town, taking a refreshing dip in the King’s Mead3.

Who will pay?

The rather humble 1843 bathing place was paid for by subscription, but where were the funds for a permanent, more substantial structure to come from? The suggestion was to utilize the compensation money paid by the railway companies and the New River Company for land they had taken in King’s Mead and Hartham. This sum (£1400) had been given to the safe keeping of the Town Council by the landowners (Lord Cowper, Lord Salisbury and Baron Dimsdale) some years before and now it seemed that the time had come to use it. However, it transpired that that money had already been used in the construction of the Corn Exchange, in 1857-59.

In 1863 the decision was made to pay for the new baths through a limited liability company, using money raised by the sale of 500 shares offered at £1 each4.

Where will the water come from?

Despite the amount of running water in Hartham, this was going to be a problem. The New River Company objected to any proposal that meant water used in the baths would be discharged back into the River Lea. This ruled out a simple plan of using the natural river flow to refresh the bathing water. Another proposal to use water pumped up from the aquifer and allowed to drain into the river was also refused. The final plan was to take water pumped by the old waterworks (by Port Hill) for 3 hours every day, to pass into the baths, and out to the sewer.

Pool Opening

In November 1875 a lease for the site was granted to Hertford Swimming Bath Company. By May the following year the company was advertising for a married couple to take charge of the facilities and teaching swimming.

The new baths would open every day of the week during the season, but women were only permitted for 2 hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays. Standard tickets cost 6d each, but season tickets for families and schools were available.

Finally, on 22nd June 1876 the Swimming Baths were formally opened by the mayor, Mr. William Plumer Willson, in a speech that acknowledged the time it had taken to reach this point. Celebrations continued with swimming races for men and women. Then came an aquatic performance by Professor Beckwith: “The professor, who was fully attired in ordinary dress, dived into the water smoking a cigar, and on coming to the surface floated down the length of the baths, still smoking”5.



1 Hertfordshire Mercury 22/06/1850 pg. 2

2 Hertfordshire Mercury 03/10/1863 pg. 3

3 Hertfordshire Mercury 25/07/1863 pg. 2

4 Hertfordshire Mercury 25/05/1867 pg. 3

5 Hertfordshire Mercury 24/06/1876 pg. 3

This page was added on 24/03/2023.

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