With the newly reopened Hub in Victoria Park, it seems fitting that we remember something old and largely forgotten there too. Taking a dip into the history of the Victoria Park Lido and its predecessors the old swimming baths, we can fully appreciate Victoria Park’s long and continuously changing story, and be glad that we have such easy access to showers in our own homes.
The ‘evil plexus of slums’
Victoria Park was one of the first parks designed and built to serve the people surrounding it. In the 19th Century, East London was crowded and overwhelmed; even the authorities were concerned with the densely populated slums and the possible repercussions of the overcrowding, like lower life expectancy and the spread of disease into other parts of London.
Arthur Morrison, in Tales of Mean Streets wrote in 1895 that East London was, ‘an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin… where every citizen wears a black eye and none ever combs their hair.’ While we can’t be sure of just how accurate that hair snipe was, the hygiene conditions in Victorian East London were shockingly bad due to the lack of bathing facilities available.
The old public bathing lakes
Hygiene needs were so desperate that while Victoria Park was being designed in the early 1840s by James Pennethorne, who also designed Battersea Park, men would illegally bathe in Regent’s Canal. This canal was rather unclean itself, and yet was still considered an improvement. Police attempted, and failed, to put a stop to this illicit bathing done in the nude, as swimsuits weren’t yet in use. Imagine if you will Victorian police officers chasing naked men along the canal waters of East London.
Perhaps it was this picture that many had in mind when they urged the board in charge of the park planning to consider putting a bathing lake into the park. The board conceded to the idea and when the park opened in 1845 it approved a single large bathing lake to be built in the open eastern section, available for bathing from 4am-8am for men and boys in the summer. This lake was immediately popular. Tens of thousands turned up every morning to use the baths in that small window of time.
The bathing lake was so popular that it quickly became filthy, and a second larger one was built to the south with larger feed pipes creating a greater flow of water, to prevent the second bath becoming as filthy as the first. The lakes were later improved further so that 30,000 gallons passed through them between 6-8am everyday.
Trying to stay ahead of the popularity of the lakes, a rustic wooden pavilion was built for ‘winter bathing’ so that people could dress and dry. Finally, at the eve of the 20th century, women were allowed to clean themselves and were given their own pool. They used the original bathing lake, as it was surrounded by trees and shrubs. It wasn’t until the 1900s that swimsuits came into proper use and a Victoria Park bathing rule was put into place for anyone over 10 years old.
The baths were used daily until 1934, when they were closed because of new standards in hygiene regulations.
The Victoria Park Lido: loved and lost
The bathing lakes were replaced with the Victoria Park Lido, opened in May 1936 by Herbert Morrison, the Labour leader of the London County Council which took over control of the park in 1892.
The Lido was part of a three year Labour plan to improve health in London. It could hold up to a thousand people, and spanned some 200 feet across. Serving as a little East London coastline, the lido became a small beach in the midst of the busy landlocked London.
According to Charles Poulsen’s Victoria Park: A Study in the History of East London, it had its own filtration plant, wading pool, terraces for spectators and sun-bathers, showers, refreshment facilities and, controversially for the time, mixed gender swimming.
The Lido held 65,000 gallons of water and was the gem of Victoria Park. This completely changed the purpose of Victoria Park waters, and brought swimming, not just bathing, to the people of the East End.
The Victoria Park Lido was badly damaged during the Second World War, but was reopened in 1952 following repairs. However, partly because of further damage from storms in 1987, and partly to make space for a car park, the Victoria Park Lido was demolished in 1990. This loss is still felt by much of the community today, who can still remember the Lido from their childhood.
For this article we once again owe our thanks to the Tower Hamlets Archives and Library. If you enjoyed this piece you may also enjoy learning about the Victoria Park alcoves