Abbey Meadows Bathing Station 1904-1938

Bathing in the River Soar was a popular practice for working class men and boys in the nineteenth century. Indeed, before the arrival of public baths there were no places set aside for bathing so the river would have proved a very popular spot. However, the problem with Abbey Meadows was that it was open to public view and it was common practice for men and boys to bathe naked.

Joseph Dare in his reports on Working Class Life in Victorian Leicester expressed his concern in the 1870's that although Leicester was now a large manufacturing town there were no suitable places set aside for bathing.

‘I have seen fellows splashing about up to the North Bridge in full view of the public road and contiguous factories; and other like disgusting exhibitions at the top of Soar Lane coal wharf, and near the end of my own garden adjoining the new mill, where hundreds are passing to and from their work all day long. Certain classes of roughs can only enjoy themselves by annoying decent people. The bathing in the pasture also deprives respectable females of the pleasant recreation of boating, and shuts its use on summer evenings from the nurse-girl and adjacent householder.’

In 1868 local authorities were given powers regarding behaviour in parks on the grounds of danger or indecency. This included being able to prohibit bathing in watercourses and to regulate it where permitted.  In September 1868 Leicester Town Council passed an act limiting public bathing to three places and made it clear that its main concern was indecency.  Interestingly, it was not until 1938 that danger to health became the main consideration in controlling bathing in the river. In 1875 a bye-law was passed prohibiting bathing in any water in the park or recreation ground except in areas which had been set apart for the purpose.  In 1881 Abbey Park was established and bathing in the river within the park was seen as such a nuisance that in 1904 a bathing station, which included changing cubicles, was built near to the Abbey Meadows Pumping Station and out of sight of the park.

Abbey Park Show, August Bank Holiday 1905.  Competitions included a swimming gala and the English half-mile championship was won that year by B.B. Kiernan. Competitive events were also held a little further downstream at the Abbey Meadows Bathing Station. (Photograph courtesy of collection by Don Wix, Pauline Shacklock and Ian Kiel in The River Soar in Old Photographs, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. 1992)

In October 1930 Leicester City Council applied for a provisional order authorising the compulsory purchase of four and a half acres of land adjoining the river to the north of Abbey Park Road for the establishment of an “up to date open air bath”.  The site was bought but never used for open air bathing due to anxieties over the suitability of the water for safe bathing.

The quality of the water had deteriorated with the increasing use of the river for carrying away effluent from sewage works serving residential areas outside the city. In 1938 the City Analyst reported that samples of water taken from the river at the Council’s two existing open air bathing stations at the Bede House and at Abbey Meadows were found to have very high bacterial counts and as a result both of the stations were closed to the public.

With thanks to Bridget Masters.