|Photo by Ruth Corney|
The Parliament Hill Lido – also known as the Gospel Oak Lido – was built during the golden age of lido construction, as part of a government drive to improve the nation’s health, and especially that of the working class. The aim was to produce a fitter nation with a far better ‘National Physique’ – and what better than to build outdoor pools?
Between 1930–39, at least 180 lidos were built in Britain, adding to the fifty built the decade before. And it was the London County Council that led the way. ‘I promised the people of London that the new LCC would make London a “City of Lidos”. Here we are,’ announced Herbert Morrison in the summer of 1937.
The LCC then submitted proposals for a chain of five open-air swimming pools, with the Parliament Hill Lido situated on 2.5 acres of land once known as the Salisbury Plain. It was designed by two LCC architects, Harry Rowbotham and T.L. Smithson, who designed all thirteen of the LCC’s lidos built between 1906 and 1939.
The press kept people fully informed about construction plans. Readers were repeatedly told the size of the pool – 200ft by 90ft – and its capacity, 650,000 gallons of water. There would be separate swimming hours for men and women and, most daringly, set hours for mixed swimming as well.
The pool would be open every day during the summer, when for five days a week men and boys could swim for free in the early mornings. On the remaining two days it was the turn of girls and women. The lido would also open for mixed bathing from 10 a.m. to closing time on four days a week and bank holidays, at a charge of sixpence.
The raised terrace around the pool was built as if for people to watch a performance, and on opening day on Saturday 20 August 1938 there was quite a show. Five hundred people packed the poolside as the Secretary of the Football Association, Stanley Rous, gave the opening address. He seemed a little confused as to why he’d been invited, saying he could see no connection between football and swimming, but ‘a great deal of money has been spent here and I for one feel that if 34,000 people learn to swim here in the next few years, it will have been money well spent.’
This was followed by a roll of drums by the Metropolitan Police Central Band and then a graceful double dive by Flying Officer C.D. Tomalin of the Highgate Diving Club and Miss J. Dixon of the Mermaid Swimming Club. The diving display also included ‘an hilarious mock life saving episode,’ according to the Ham & High.
The Mayor of St Pancras thanked the aquatic generosity of the LCC, while an LCC representative said it was about time the very poor had access to the sort of facilities normally only available to the very rich.
The ceremony over, the crowds waiting outside were finally allowed to enter; the doors opened and in they trooped cheering. No mention is made of any lifeguards in the press reports, and the lido was probably run by a park keeper; a white-coated individual who dealt with the machinery and who was unlikely to have known how to swim. But two ‘Keep-Fit’ instructors were present on certain days, with free ‘advice and hints’ on swimming, diving and life saving.
Yet while the lido opened with great fanfare, World War II was already on the horizon. The press had announced air raid precautions, the first million civilian volunteers had enrolled, shelters were being erected and plans made for the possible evacuation of children. Even before the lido opened, people were filling sand bags from the construction debris. ‘They had dug up where the pool would be,’ remembers Paul Thorogood, ‘and extracted soil to dig a hole, and there was a great heap of it near the railway line. People filled bags with sand or whatever it was. I was about seven years old and someone chucked a brick at me and I still have the scar today.’
During the long hot summer of 1939, London lidos still swarmed with life. But when war was declared in September, one by one the nation’s lidos began to close. The Parliament Hill Lido took a direct hit during the Blitz when, on 13 September 1940, incendiary bombs caused seventeen local fires. The last fell on the lido at 10.13 p.m., but the fire brigade managed to extinguish each blaze within twenty minutes, and the lido remained open.
This was much to the relief of local children. ‘In the summer of 1943 I visited the lido most days,’ recalls Roy Naisbitt, ‘I was thirteen and I remember how lively it was, full of children and families. I don’t remember people ever swimming up and down or across the pool, just a mass of people going in all directions, splashing around and enjoying themselves.’
When war ended in 1945, life remained hard for most people, the country was poor and food and clothes were still rationed. Few households had televisions or cars, and lidos became urban resorts for post-war babies. Leeroy Murray remembers his first visit to the Parliament Hill Lido in 1948 when he was three years old. ‘I sat down at the shallow end and I looked at the vast body of water that seemed to go on forever, it was a whole world. And then gingerly I got in.’