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Ladies’ Pond: how they splashed it!

Soon to be handed over to the Bishopsgate Institute, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond archive illustrates how the fight for women to use the unique waters is nothing new

29 October, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

SUSAN Halter had escaped her native Hungary when the Nazis marched in, and managed to find a safe haven in the UK.

Once in London, to make up for missing her regular swims in the flowing waters of the Danube, she found some solace to offset the terrible ordeal she had experienced by heading to Hampstead Heath and taking a dip in the ponds.

Susan would proudly go on to represent Hungary in the 1948 London Olympics, competing in the freestyle swimming events.

Around 50 years before Susan first leapt into the fresh waters of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, the women-only space had played host to the trailblazers of the Excelsior Club, a status quo-bucking group of Edwardians who bathed regularly and held their own swim meets.

Such stories of a place that has been held dear by generations of women abound – and now they are being safeguarded for future generations as the long and rich life of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond has been turned into an archive and presented to social history body, the Bishopsgate Institute.

Picture archivist Sarah Saunders took on the project with the help of other swimmers. They have been collating photos, documents and other items over the years – and in 2016, a swimmers’ group sorted through material and added to it.

Comprising papers, newsletters, press cuttings and photographs, it traces the life and times of what is the sole women-only outdoor swimming place in the UK.

“We have photo albums gong back to the 1930s – but our earliest picture dates from 1903,” says Sarah.

It depicts the Excelsior Club – but mystery surrounds who the women were and the background to their group.

Christmas 1931

“We know when it was taken, but not much else about them,” she adds. “It was in an unsorted pile of papers held by a swimmer and is one of a number. We decided the time had come to organise our archives and ensure they were properly cared for and accessible to study.”

The Bishopsgate Institute, in Liverpool Street, began in the 19th century as an educational resource for predominantly working-class people. The range of subjects it contains includes Suffragette artefacts, LGBT records, and more than 500,000 photographs.

And Sarah says the archive shows not only the joys of swimming on the Heath, but how hard women have had to fight to safeguard it.

“The battle to protect the ponds has been going on for longer than anyone thought,” she says. “There have been numerous attempts to stop us swimming.”

They range from a bizarre fear expressed as recently as the 1990s that cold water was bad for your health – a claim roundly debunked by personal experience – and medical research. Then there were attempts to close the ponds on the grounds of cost.

“In 2004, there were questions over whether to shut the ponds entirely, and then a year later the battle to stop the City of London introducing compulsory charging.

“If you are one of the many young women now flocking to the ponds today, you may not know this history. It has been a fight every step of the way.”

Swimmers at the Ladies’ Pond in 1928

The battle began back at the beginning of the 20th century. Though people have been leaping into the waters – built as reservoirs in the 1700s – since they were dug out, as swimming grew in popularity during the Victorian period, it led to attempts to regulate bathing.

“At one point, women were allowed sole access to the Men’s Pond on one day of the week,” Sarah adds. “We know in 1902 they would swim in what is now the Men’s Pond on Wednesdays.”

In 1924, this was expanded and in 1925 the Kenwood pond was opened as a women-only facility.

“It reflected how society was changing, “ says Sarah.

And the characters who have made the Ladies’ Pond home leap out: there is the story of Olga May, who in 1992 became the first woman to compete in the Christmas Day swims.

“She didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to be there,” says Sarah.

“She showed up, jumped in and set a new precedent without realising it.”

Other characters featured are not human: the archive recalls the strange story of Rupert the cockerel, a rooster who appeared overnight in 1986 and was carefully looked after by lifeguards. He disappeared a couple of years later, as mysteriously as he had arrived.

There was Pushkin the cat, who arrived in 1988 from a destination unknown. “When he died in 2002, he was so loved they erected a memorial to him.”

Then there were the terrapins: the craze for red-eared amphibians because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saw the ponds become a dumping ground for the creatures who had been cruelly deemed too much hassle.

Eventually, in 2007, Rangers caught them – and they were taken to a sanctuary in northern Italy to see out their days.

How the pond has changed over the years is also clear. Images show how 100 years ago the pond did not enjoy the seclusion it does today with tree cover around its fringes.

Above all, the archive underlines the importance of this unique space, says Sarah.

“The pond is a resource that has been hard fought for,” she says. “We must never take it for granted, Not everybody understands its value. Today, in times of difficulty, it is more valuable than ever – which is why the issue over the City of London imposing compulsory charges is so important to so many.

“It is hard to quite appreciate the pleasure and joy people get from it. It is completely unique.”

The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association archive is being launched at Bishopsgate Institute on November 12. The archive is at 230 Bishopsgate, EC2M 4QH. 020 7391 9200, enquiries@bishopsgate.org.uk, www.bishopsgate.org.uk

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