Bathing at Lord Williams’s Grammar School, 1900-1928

From Derek Turner, School Archivist.

This short history, based on entries in the school magazine The Tamensian, begins in 1900 with the first mention of swimming in the Thame river and ends with the opening of the school’s own swimming bath in 1928.

It is probable that that boys swam in the river Thame from the time that the school moved in 1879 to its new premises in Oxford Road but there are no references to swimming before 1900 when The Tamensian was first published.

The first reference is in issue 2, which describes the school’s ‘aquatic sports day’, taking place in ‘Jemmott’s Hole’, a modest size natural pool in the River Thame, a few hundred yards across the fields opposite the school. The nickname was from the name of the farmers, the Jemmott family, who owned the land. The Jemmott name can be found in Thame at least as far back as the mid 17 century.

The sports day was held on 30th July 1900 and established a tradition of holding the sports near the end of July during the last week of the summer term. In 1900 the events included an 80-yard race and a competitive swimming display, which later entries meant putting together a medley of various swimming strokes and termed ‘fancy swimming’.

It is probable that the aquatic sports day was held annually at the same time but the next reference is not until issue 14, July 1906, which states that bathing began on 4th July with the sports day fixed for the end of the month “and was indulged in at every possible opportunity”. Swimming practice replaced ordinary gymnastics – a popular sporting activity at that time. The Tamensian makes no further reference to swimming until issue 28, July 1911, when the sports day was held on 25th July, despite the level of the water being ‘rather low’. The events included 60 and 30 yards races, ‘fancy swimming’, diving – despite the low water level – and a water polo match. There were only two competitors for the fancy swimming, one of whom, the runner up, was a French pupil, Ferdinand Raillon, who later served with the French forces in WW1. Uniquely until the opening of the swimming bath in 1928, the Tamensian gives a detailed account of the sports day.

John Howard Brown, writing in 1929 about the school during WW1 – he was appointed in 1913 – says: “Swimming was indulged in, by permission of Mr H N Castle when weather and the state of the river allowed, in Jemmett’s Hole, and there the swimming sports were held under difficulties. The reference to Castle suggests, wrongly as it turns out, that ownership had passed to him, but the 1911 census shows that Nathanial Merry Castle, though also living in Priest End, was employed as a ‘farmer’s assistant’. Maybe the Jemmett family had handed over the day-to-day running of the farm to him. Interestingly, the term ‘employed’ is not one that was supposed to be used in the census. The alternatives were ‘employer’, ‘worker’, or ‘own account’; his house had six rooms, excluding ‘scullery, bathroom and closet’, and he could afford a servant, so he was clearly something more than the usual agricultural labourer.the next entry in the Tamensian is not until issue 55, September 1923, which records that poor weather delayed the start of the swimming season. The weather in the summer of 1926 was also bad and caused some of the events on the day of the sports, July 27th, to be curtailed.

The year 1927, by implication as there is no mention in the Tamensian was the last in which boys from LWGS used the river Thame for bathing. Construction of the school’s own swimming bath probably began later that year as the grand opening was fixed for the remarkably early date in 1928 of 12th May. The pool was not heated so, unless the weather was unseasonably warm, the water must have been distinctly chilly. The reason for the early date is explained in the magazine. The Athletics Sports Day normally took place at the end of the spring term, late March or early April, and the Aquatic Sports at the end of July. The school felt that parents of boarders who often lived quite far away would not be able to visit the school twice within a few months but would not want to miss the grand opening of the bathing pool. The 12th May date was therefore fixed for both athletic and aquatic sports. The opening ceremony is described in considerable detail in the Tamensian, issue 70, September 1928. Thereafter, the swimming gala is regularly described in the magazine, which lists the results. The most gifted swimmer of the 1930s was another non-English pupil, John Octave Claes, always known as Johnny. His mother was Scottish and his father Belgian. In the early 1930s Johnny won almost all the swimming races, setting and then breaking his own records in three successive years. He later became known as a pioneer jazz band leader and Formula 1 racing driver.

Plentiful photographs exist in the school archives of swimming galas but none unfortunately of LWGS boys swimming in the river Thame. However, a photograph from the 1920s shows primary school boys from ‘Thame Church of England School’ swimming in what is almost certainly Jemmott’s Hole. This photograph is reproduced in Malcolm Graham’s, Oxfordshire at School, 1996, where the caption comments that swimming costumes were later painted on to those boys who were swimming naked, presumably because their parents could not afford a swimming costume; a comment on both the 1920s views of propriety and the standards of living at that time.

Oxfordshire at School also features a photograph of pupils of the Girls’ Grammar School learning to swim; not in the river but in their own school swimming bath, part of the High Street premises where the school was located. This photo is undated but most probably was taken about 1909, as part of a set of photos of the school’s buildings and facilities. If so, the Girls School’s swimming bath pre-dated the boys’ by nearly twenty years.

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