From the Victorian period, the upper Thames was a popular destination for day trips. You could hire a boat or take a cruise in one, watch a regatta or take a picnic to the riverside. The centre of this activity was the stretch between Oxford and Teddington.
The first formal regatta was held in London in 1775; Henley began in 1839. The first Reading Regatta was held in 1842 and by 1869 there was similar events at Wallingford, Pangbourne, Maidenhead, Molesey, Walton and Kingston. Race days were popular, and thousands of people would line the bank.
Within decades use of the river by pleasure boats had soared. The period 1880-1914 is often known as the ‘golden age of the Thames’. The right to use the river for recreation was enshrined in the Thames Preservation Act 1885, which also laid down rules for doing so. Shooting was banned and the Conservancy given power to make byelaws preventing disorderly behavior, nuisances and trespass and protecting decency, plants and wildlife. All boats also had to be registered annually with them.
It is estimated that by 1889, when Three Men in a Boat was published, there were around 12,000 pleasure boats, 300 steam launches and 150 houseboats registered on the Thames.
Although these numbers have varied since, with a dip after the First World War and peaking in the 1970s – when over 25,000 craft were registered in an average year – boating on the Thames has remained popular. Since the 1920s the motor boat has gradually become the vessel of choice.
In the summer of 1973, the Conservancy undertook some market research along the river from Buscot to Sunbury. The report showed that the vast majority of boat users were happy and many were ecstatic in their enthusiasm for the river. Lock-keepers came in for particular praise.
Recreational fishing along the upper Thames has its roots in the 1830s. Wealthy gentlemen could pay professional fishermen for a day’s outing in a boat with bait provided.
The pastime was extended more widely by railway access to the Thames Valley. The Reading and District Anglers Association was formed in 1877. Shortly afterwards, the Freshwater Fisheries Act 1878 established a closed season on the Thames and other rivers, so that fish stocks could stabilise. This closed season, between March and June, is still in force for coarse fishing – those fish that are considered inedible. The Conservancy issued licences, and fishing was only permitted between the last hour before sunrise and the first hour after sunset. Young specimens were protected by regulating the size of nets used.
Unlike boating, recreational fishing grew further after the First World War and by the 1950s there were clubs along most stretches of the upper Thames, their anglers benefitting from the better health of the river away from London.
Bathing and swimming in the river were commonplace activities. This continued long after local councils were first permitted to provide pools – outdoors from 1846 and indoors from 1878. The growth of organised facilities along the river had much to do with safety and Victorian prudery.
One of the first byelaws introduced by the Conservancy, in 1887, stated that:
‘no person shall bath without proper bathing dress or drawers, bathe or prepare to bathe between the hours of eight in morning and nine in the evening during the months of June, July and August or during the remaining months between the hours of eight in the morning and eight in the evening, except in bathing places authorised by Conservators’
Naked swimming remained permitted at other times until 1889, when the byelaw was amended to forbid it completely
‘unless properly screened from view’.
Bathing places were gradually created along the Thames. There were open air places at Abingdon, Maidenhead and Windsor, while Reading had the first separate male and female bathing places at King’s Meadow, beside Caversham Lock, as well as three clubs: the Reading Swimming Club, the Island Bohemian Club and the Winter Bathers.
In the early 20th century many more local authorities built enclosed pools, encouraged particularly after the Education Act 1918 put swimming onto the school curriculum. River swimming gradually declined in popularity – though the opportunity to swim naked did not:
‘Sir I beg that at 2.45pm. this afternoon, P. Hore boatman of the district observed Mr Edward John Williamson, 46 Vauxhall Bridge Road, Westminster, in the river off the Recreation Ground at Teddington in a nude state.
At the time of the offence Police Sergeant Whapham, 117, stationed at Teddington was on duty at the Recreation ground and he took particulars of the offender.
The excuse made by Mr. Williamson was that his costume had come off in the river, whether such was the case I cannot say but as a rule costumes float and this one did not.
I am Sir, Yours obediently, H. F. Stapleton’Letter book of the Deputy Inspector (C District) Navigation Department, 1934-1936, D/TC/G1/4/1
River and open-air swimming fell out of fashion in the 1960s. There were now many indoor pools while the Thames was considered a dangerous place to swim because of its currents, locks and weirs, as well as its unfiltered contents.