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Time Travel Explorer Blog

London's first lido

by Peter Watts 15. March 2011 11:43

Just behind Moorfields Eye Hospital off City Road is one of those London streets with an intriguing name. It's called Peerless Street, and a clue to the origin of its name actually lies in the name of one of the streets it ajoins - Bath Street. For here in Clerkenwell, just north of Bunhill Fields and adjacent to the unmappable confusions of Old Street roundabout, sat London's first public swimming pool.

The Peerless Pool opened in 1743 and can be seen in tremendous detail on our first Time Travel Explorer map of 1746.

This was the first open air pool in London for 'all gentlemen lovers of swimming and bathing'. It was fed by a nearby spring but there was a problem. The pond had been known as 'Perilous Pond' for three hundred years thanks to the number of people that had drowned there. However, a jeweler called William Kemp was not concerned. He converted the pond into a pool 170 feet long and 50 feet wide, filled the bottom with gravel and, in a stroke of marketing geniusm renamed it Peerless Pool.

The pool was advertised as a 'place where gentlemen could without danger learn to swim' and was a great success, surviving for more than 100 years.

Here it is in 1799, almost unchanged although with encroaching buildings hinting at what was to come. The pool is actually the body of water on the right with the distinctive semi-circular knob on the end; the water marked as the pool was a fish pond (as seen in the more accurate 1746 map) filled with carp and tench for anglers. The area also had a bowling green and dressing rooms.

By 1830, things were starting to change. Joseph Watts took over the pool and built Baldwin Street over the fishpond. However, Peerless Pool was still in regular use, even if it was now increasingly hemmed in.

Onward to 1862 and it's just hanging on, although its days are clearly numbered. Whereas the map of 1746 had shown Peerless Pool as a bucolic spot in the countryside with barely a house or road in sight, the view from poolside in 1862 is very different: streets and houses are all around; to the south looms St Luke's Hospital For Lunatics and the bowling green is now covered by almhouses. 

Which brings us today and those suddenly tell-tale names, Peerless Street and Bath Street, all we have remaining of what can rightly be considered London's first lido.