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Reviving a Victorian swimming club

Fed up with the nine-to-five grind, Emma Hardy quit her day job and is now reviving a Victorian swimming club

In the golden age of Queen Victoria’s reign, numerous London swimming clubs were established, including the London Swimming Club (LSC), founded in1859 to promote the “noble, healthful and pleasant pastime” of swimming. Having all but disappeard by the early twentieth century, in 2017, three swimmers are on a mission to bring it back.

Former professional triathlete Rick Kiddle runs the National Open Water Coaching Association (NOWCA) and London Royal Docks Open Water Swimming (LRDOWS); Emma Hardy and Alice Tomlinson were working as graphic designers in the same publishing house when Alice, an experienced outdoor swimmer, got Emma hooked on the sport. Emma and Alice both left their jobs to pursue life away from a desk, and ended up working at LRDOWS together. Wanting to know more about the history of swimming at the docks, they came across a poster for The London Swimming Club in the London Docklands Museum, and from there the idea to revive the club was born.

LSC placed swimming as a life saving skill at its core, regularly offering free tuition to children in the City of London Baths. It was also renowned for its swimming fete held at the East & West India Docks, where swimmers would chase a ‘duck’ (a fellow swimmer in a silly outfit) around in the water and take part in other serious challenges such as ‘scientific swimming’ where a swimmer would perform a variety of tricks, including eating Victoria sponge under water.

We spoke to Emma to find out more about the club’s revival, her leap of faith to a new life encouraging others to enjoy the water and to confirm whether LSC will be continuing its important duck chasing and cake eating traditions.

How did you get hooked on outdoor swimming?
Alice has been swimming since she was a kid and has swum the Dart 10k twice. She convinced me to sign up for the 6k Bantham Swoosh. When I started training I couldn’t do 50m of continuous front crawl, but with Alice’s coaching I managed to do the Bantham Swoosh in just over 2 hours, which was a very proud moment for me.

Why do you love open water swimming?
When training for the Bantham Swoosh, I found swimming in indoor pools a bit like running on a treadmill. But every weekend we would either go to Tooting Bec Lido or the London Royal Docks and that’s when I realised I really loved swimming outdoors. I liked how cold it was, and the exhilaration of having all your senses turned on and fully alert. I particularly liked the Royal Docks because we were in London, but in this amazing swimming location with tons of space.

LSC’s original founder is thought to be Ernst Ravenstein who was born in Frankfurt, but at the age of 18 emigrated to London where he worked as a cartographer and geographer. He went on to form the National Olympics Association alongside William Penny Brookes – this association was instrumental in forming the modern Olympics as we know it today. Growing up in Shropshire, Emma’s journey to London water life wasn’t quite so far, but is similarly gutsy.

What prompted you to give up your office job?
While working as a graphic designer, I found the work relatively interesting but not challenging and quickly discovered that sitting at the same desk for eight hours a day drove me slightly mad – my anxiety levels went through the roof, so to counteract this I took on lots of hobbies and extra projects to try and keep my mind occupied, including learning front crawl …Then finally it dawned on me that if I really needed all these things to make my day job bearable, I should probably be doing something else.

How did you end up working at LRDOWS?
After one of our training swims we got chatting to Rick and asked whether they ever needed any help work-wise. He decided to let us start running Monday sessions. Then it sort of grew from there: we discussed the idea of LSC with him and he was immediately really excited so we decided to set it up as a joint venture.

The 2017 LSC team believe that learning to swim not just in a pool, but outdoors, helps build respect for the water. And as well as supporting improved safety of people around water, they are keen to focus on the power of open water swimming to help with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. The social side of LSC will remain at its centre and the team are looking forward to bringing back the summer fete, including scientific swimming tricks and ‘chase the duck’ races.  

Find out more at: thelondonswimmingclub.co.uk

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.