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Author Caitlin Davies looks back at Hornsey Road Baths: 'The best and most popular in Islington'

PUBLISHED: 13:17 02 December 2019

Hornsey Road baths. Picture: Joanna Gamper Cuthbert

Hornsey Road baths. Picture: Joanna Gamper Cuthbert

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Writer Caitlin Davies had forgotten about the baths where she swam as a young girl. That is until she went past it on the 91 bus and saw its iconic neon sign. Here, she recounts the history of the famous venue where some of the Victorian era's most famous swimmers performed

Agnes Beckwith greatist swimmer poster from 1885.Agnes Beckwith greatist swimmer poster from 1885.

In the early 1970s, I used to go for swimming lessons at the Hornsey Road Baths in Islington.

We had a strange instructor - let's call him Mr P. He said if we didn't do as we were told, we'd have to take off our costumes and swim around the pool naked. I was 10 and petrified. But Mr P couldn't destroy my love of swimming, and there was such a buzz at the Hornsey Road Baths with the happy shrieks of children echoing off the tiled walls.

At secondary school, we switched to a swimming pool in Kentish Town and, until I moved to the Holloway area 12 years ago, I'd forgotten about the Hornsey Road Baths.

Then one evening I was on the 91 bus when I saw the 1930s neon sign of a woman diving on the wall of the old baths.

Annette Kellerman.Annette Kellerman.

I found out they had closed in 1991 and been turned into flats. However, it was only when I started researching Downstream: a History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames that I realised how famous the Hornsey Road Baths had once been.

First opened in the summer of 1892, when swimming was all the rage in England, they had two pools for men and one for women, as well as a laundry and washhouse.

The baths were soon hosting popular sporting events and several local clubs made it their home, including the Finsbury Park Young Men's Christian Association.

In the spring of 1894, a "Grand Swimming Entertainment" included some of the top swimmers and performers of the day. Professor Jules Gautier, for example, a piano maker from Islington, performed "some outstanding under water feats".

Caitlin Davies. Picture: Florence AkanoCaitlin Davies. Picture: Florence Akano

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A few years earlier, he had found fame by swimming three and a half miles down the Thames with his wrists and feet bound with rope. There was a water polo match, club races, comic sketches and music by Mr Algernon Clarke's Orchestral Band. Doors opened at 7pm and entrance was one shilling. Top of the bill was Professor Frederick Beckwith and his "unrivalled troupe of divers, ornamental and trick swimmers".

The professor's daughter was none other than Agnes Beckwith who, in 1875 at the tender age of 14, had swum five miles in the Thames. It was a feat unheard of for a woman and Agnes soon became one of the most famous swimmers of the Victorian era.

The Hornsey Road Baths were now known far and wide. They were the best and most popular baths in Islington, according to the Gazette, and local schools sent hundreds of boys and girls to swim there every day.

In 1898, more than a quarter of a million people used the baths. A few years later, another famous swimmer performed at the Hornsey Road Baths - Australian Annette Kellerman. Born in Sydney, New South Wales, she had rickets as a child and wore leg braces until she was seven.

By 16, she was the 100 metres world record holder. In 1905, she came to Britain with her father and the British press reported "she will probably do some record breaking while in England".

Kellerman started by giving exhibitions at indoor baths, with a debut that included the "standing-sitting-standing honeypot" dive. In September 1905, she performed at the Hornsey Road Baths, by which time a second pool for women had been added.

Disappointingly, she was "unfortunate enough to touch the bottom with her head" during a dive. She went on to complete numerous long distance open water swims, designed the first one-piece costume for women and became a Hollywood film star, performing her own stunts, including leaping into a pool of crocodiles. I loved the idea that the baths I had swum in as a child used to be so popular and had hosted so many amazing swimmers and divers.

So, when I decided to write a novel inspired by the life and career of Victorian champion Agnes Beckwith, I wanted to set a pivotal scene at the Islington pools. Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World is based on the careers of several Victorian swimmers and divers.

The Hornsey Road Baths certainly have a chequered history - built in Victorian times, bombed during the Blitz, renovated in the 1970s, closed in the 1990s and partly demolished in 2006. Now when I pass it on the 91 bus I think not only of my primary school days but also of Agnes Beckwith, champion swimmer of the world.

This is an edited version of Caitlin Davies' piece that first appeared in the Journal of the Islington Archaeology and History Society. See caitlindavies.co.uk.

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