June: Swimming in St Neots 

This article has been prompted by a recent donation to the museum of some Edwardian glass plate negatives which show local people swimming in the St Neots stretch of the River Great Ouse and also by the arrival of some very warm summer weather.

Top Boardings about 1910

People must have been swimming in the river close to St Neots and Eaton Socon for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One of the new images shows women and children swimming beside the bathing shed once situated at the Little Paxton end of St Neots Common (Lammas Meadow) and known as ‘Top Boardings’.

The image reminded me of the struggles St Neots Urban District Council (UDC) had with the bathing places over the years. Once the UDC was established in 1894 they quickly tried to regulate swimming or ‘bathing’ in the local river and by 1895 bye-laws were being drawn up to control bathing.  Until the later Victorian period men and boys would have swum naked in the river, but as bathing at spa’s or the new seaside resorts developed during the Georgian period bathing costumes began to be considered necessary and by the mid Victorian period nude bathing and (horror!) mixed bathing were considered immoral.

Swimming in Eynesbury at the Conygeare ‘Bottom Boardings’ 1920s

St Neots UDC decided to erect changing sheds beside the popular bathing places on Lammas Common in St Neots and on the Coneygeare in Eynesbury.

‘Top boardings’ women swimming, about 1900

‘Top boardings’ with diving boards about 1900

The Eynesbury shed cost £24. 9s 6d to erect and diving boards were also erected until the shallow depth of the water at Eynesbury, only 3’6” to 4’ in depth, led to the removal of the boards. By 1902 the UDC had introduced specific time for women and girls swimming, so the photograph, which only shows women and children, must have been taken after this time. River bathing was very popular during the hot summers just before the Great War, although not without its dangers and the tragic deaths of two young men Ernest Wotton in 1904 and Scottish soldier Walter Taylor in August 1914 prompted extra safety measures at both sites. These included keeping ‘grappling irons’ at both places and in 1915 employing two young men of good character, who could swim, at the cost of £1 per week to be bathing attendants. Unfortunately while proving very popular with local swimmers the bathing sheds soon attracted vandalism and already by 1904 the UDC became aware that ‘indecent practices’ were taking place at the sheds (no details are given). In 1917 a seven foot high fence topped with barbed wire was placed around the Eynesbury shed, but stopping gambling at the sheds proved to be impossible even after the police agreed to keep an ‘eye’ on them.

St Neots was proud of its swimming facilities and celebrated them in the town’s 1938 official guide, stating ‘The river is clean, not too rapid and off sufficient depth to satisfy the requirements of good swimmers’. However, this was not the whole story and already by the mid1930s the local Medical Officer of Health was taking samples to check how clean water really was. Unfortunately it was obviously not that clean as during the summer the bathing attendants were asked to add bleaching powder to the river water every night. By 1939 the water at the Eynesbury coneygeare was considered suitable for swimming but the water from the ‘Top Boardings’ was said to be polluted. By this time the UDC were actively planning a new sewage treatment works to solve the pollution problem, but this had to be delayed in the lead up to the Second World War 1939 – 45 and in 1939 the UDC closed both bathing places and put up notices telling the public that they bathed at their own risk. 

Entrance to St Neots outdoor swimming pool, about 1970

When the pollution of the river first became a serious problem in the later 1930s (the stench from Hen Brook was said to be a scandal) the river was no longer considered safe for swimming and local people started a campaign for a swimming pool. These plans were halted by the outbreak of war in 1939 but revived in the later 1940s. From 1960 profits from the carnival, started in 1948, were put towards the cost of building a swimming pool and in 1961 the new St Neots Lido opened, removing the need for river bathing. The pool was run by St Neots Swimming Pool Trust and at the height of its popularity it attracted up to 800 people per day. However, the pool was not run commercially and the rising running cost meant it was unable to become self-supporting and it was eventually taken over by the UDC in 1974.

It finally closed in 2003 although its demise may have been sealed many years previously, when the need for a heated indoor pool had been recognised in the 1960s, although the Ernulf School indoor pool did not open until many years later. Much more recently plans for a new outdoor ‘splash park’, on the site of the old outdoor swimming pool, have been discussed and with support from St Neots Town Council may go ahead in 2023.

St Neots Swimming Pool in 2002