Mud and Maniacs: A History of Swimming at Wellington

08 June 2020

Normally at this time of year, Wellington’s outdoor pool is busy every day, with hardcore ‘Maniacs’ doing their two lengths before breakfast, and many more students enjoying a refreshing dip before dinner. Sadly at present the pool is empty and deserted, but in this week’s ‘Out of the Archives’ podcast, Archivist Caroline Jones looks back at the pool and its history.

When Wellington College was built in the 1850s, a series of lakes were created from the marshy ground nearby, by means of dams and excavations. The lowest of these was designated ‘the Bathing Lake’, and despite its muddy bottom and murky green consistency was always popular. The changing facilities were also rudimentary, as this letter to the Wellingtonian in 1881 reveals:

‘May we venture to suggest in your valued columns, that some improvement be made in the flooring, if it may be so called, of our bathing shed. At least in the removing of the long nails that are occasionally trodden on by naked feet, or, in the filling up of the numerous holes, in which many ankles are mercilessly twisted. Another melancholy example of a wound caused by a rusty nail has occurred which has tempted us to write and we beg to sign ourselves, A CHORUS OF LACERATED BATHERS.’

Improvements happened, but slowly. In 1884 part of the lake had the sides and bottom cemented, and in 1911 a new changing room finally arrived. At last, in 1934, the present pool with its full concrete construction and water filtration plant was opened.

The ‘General Bathe’ when all were allowed in the pool was a Wellington tradition for many years, even occasionally happening on Speech Day. It could, however, be daunting to the uninitiated. In 1962 an article in the Wellingtonian entitled ‘My First General Bathe’ described the experience: ‘the surface… was just a flying sheet of spray. I reached it, but just as I was inhaling deep breaths of air, someone, doing a fast crawl, bumped into me, and I went under again… The next ten minutes were thorough hell. I was ducked, kicked, splashed, jumped on, surfaced under and ‘run over’. By the end of it I had learnt to stay under-water as long as I could, because it seemed safest there.’

For most of the twentieth century, outdoor swimming was the only option at Wellington. An indoor pool built in 1880 was closed during the First World War and never re-opened, while the present Fisher Pool did not open until 1980. Wellingtonians had no choice but to be a hardy bunch; but nowadays there are many who voluntarily brave the chilly waters each morning of the Summer half-term for no greater reward than a Mars Bar.

You can learn much more about the pool and the history of swimming at Wellington in Caroline’s podcast here: