Swimming was a very popular summer pastime and the schoolchildren were taught to swim in the bathing pool along Chantry Lane. Other swimming venues were the River Pang at the Dairies near Hogmoor Bridge and the pen lock on the Kennet between Sulhamstead and Theale, this being then in the parish of Englefield.
The bathing pool in Chantry Lane was built by Richard Fellowes Benyon and was filled with water annually as soon as the weather allowed in May. Swimming was for boys only and towels and bathing drawers were provided. The Rector (Revd Arthur Heigham) supervised the swimming. Those at school had the use of the bath in the evenings and Saturday afternoons were reserved for those who had recently left school, although as these were much taken up with cricket the Rector was prepared to give an hour (6 to 7) on one other day in the week. In 1890 swimming began on 17 May when the water temperature was recorded as 65º, a few degrees above that of the air, and closed on 16 September. During that season a total of 30 boys bathed a varying number of times each, Fred Dixon managing 46. Nineteen of them could swim. The next year there were 36 boys’ names on the list for swimming, 20 of them requiring lessons, so that the Rector was in attendance at the bath twice a day, at 12 and 4 o’clock. The youngest bather was Stephen Claydon aged 4. In 1894 swimming went on until at least 12 October when six boys enjoyed a water temperature of 59º. In 1905 a total of 902 bathes were had by the end of August when swimming stopped, in the season from 1 June to 4 September 1908 there were 1014 and 1052 in 1913.
Girls also went swimming in the bath when the Girl Guides were begun in 1917, again supervised by Mr Claydon.
The Dairies had been the place for swimming before the swimming bath was made and was still used by those boys adjudged beyond the age for the swimming bath. The Rector notes the availability of the Diaries with some relief as “…with 36 boys constantly bathing the swimming bath must be emptied rather frequently.” The Dairies were available every day except Sunday but boys were cautioned against trespassing in the woods and fishing. They were also reminded of the need to wear bathing drawers, a pair of which could be borrowed for the season from the Club. Some 20 lads and young men took advantage of the swimming here in 1891. The prohibition on Sunday swimming at the Dairies did little to prevent it and in 1896 to prevent the annoyance of having lads all over the place all afternoon the swimming bath was opened for working lads on Sunday afternoon. The bath was also opened for them on Saturday at 6.30, an earlier time not being possible as some did not stop work until 5 pm. Saturday evensong was held half an hour earlier than usual, not later than six pm. After Arthur Heigham moved away from the village the duty of supervising the swimming bath was taken on by Mr Claydon the Club caretaker
The pen lock (seen in April 2014) was the weir where the Kennet and Avon Canal diverged from the river to go through Sulhamstead Widemead lock and was very much only for the older and better swimmers as the river was much wider and deeper here with several holes. The current could also be much stronger and a boy drowned here in the 1950s.
© 2019 Richard J Smith