New book celebrates 100 years of Henleaze Swimming Club

When all-season swimmer Susie Parr set out to write a history of her club of 30 years, a rich cache of documents, stories and memorabilia awaited - as well as tales of bust-ups over biscuits. Here she describes capturing its rich history for The Lake, which marks the club's centenary.

In 2012, a committee member of Bristol’s Henleaze Swimming Club asked me if I would be willing to write a book marking the club’s centenary, coming up in 2019. As a dedicated club member (swimming every day through the season, in all weathers) and author of The Story of Swimming – a social and cultural history of open water swimming in Britain – he felt that I was well qualified to undertake such a task. I knew that trawling back through the club’s history would be a massive undertaking. But I decided to go ahead; this would be an opportunity to honour an establishment that I have grown to love over my 30 years of membership.

There began a period of extensive research, mostly carried out during the winter months when swimming and gardening were off the agenda. Deciding to go back to original sources, I read through one hundred years’ worth of minutes, struggling to decipher the copperplate hand-writing in the earliest record books, many of which were – fittingly – defaced by water damage. I read through boxes of correspondence and sorted through amassed photos and club memorabilia. I did extensive newspaper research, in the library and online. Together with a team of volunteers, I interviewed people who had been members back in the early days. Slowly, and with the help of the afore-mentioned committee member, I built up a picture of this unique institution, documenting how it started, its struggles and successes, and key turning points in its history.

Established in 1919 in a flooded limestone quarry, Henleaze Swimming Club was absolutely of its time. Sited in the middle of a newly developing, affluent suburb of Bristol, this open-air swimming club was considered progressive because it was open to women members from the start. The club was, in part, a response to the public appetite for relaxation and entertainment after the horrors and deprivations of the war years. Against a backdrop of industrial unrest and economic hardship, it encouraged sporting competition and put on events that attracted hundreds of spectators. It also promoted the practice of life-saving and the teaching of swimming, essential given the lake is both deep and cold. 

Swimmers at Henleaze Lake

“This open-air swimming club was considered progressive because it was open to women members from the start”

The resulting book –The Lake – looks at the social influences that shaped the club and charts its main developments decade by decade. In the final chapter, I describe the club in its one hundredth year, trying to paint a vivid, intimate picture of the people, activities and environment that make the lake such a special place. My reason for writing the last chapter in this way is simple. I profoundly wish that someone had done the same a century ago. I hope that, in another one hundred years, people will read The Lake and get a real sense of what day-to-day club life was like back in the early 21st century. 

The Lake also features iconic photographs from the club’s history and showcases some of the extraordinary artefacts in its archive including posters, the water-damaged minute books and the membership cards. The final chapters are illustrated with photos by club members and by my husband – Martin Parr, acclaimed photographer and confirmed non-swimmer.

Many fascinating stories emerged from the research. People storming out of an early committee meeting following a contretemps about biscuits; a bottle of brandy being kept in the superintendent’s hut as a restorative in case of emergency; England being thrashed by Sweden in a post-war water polo match; plaintive requests from naturist groups being repeatedly turned down by affronted committee members; bad language and high jinks in the gentlemen’s changing quarters; interlopers storming the club and dancing naked on the diving boards. 

Last swim of the season at Henleaze Lake, 2018.

There is also plentiful evidence of members’ utter dedication to the club through the decades; when times were hard, it kept going largely thanks to their efforts. Building walls, laying lawns, clearing scrub, selling geraniums, mending deck chairs, re-tiling roofs, fixing frozen pipes, designing diving boards, establishing native plants and trees, improving water quality- the work of running the club was – and is – never-ending; much of it depends on members’ time, energy and skill.

I wanted to be sure that the book was not just a history of the club, but a beautiful object to be treasured. Bristol-based designer Alejandro Acin’s research into books published around 1919 led to the arresting design of the cover, with its gold stamped figure mid swallow dive. As the book evolved, Alejandro patiently accommodated the changes in structure that emerged.

Having gone through a number of difficult patches in previous decades, Henleaze Swimming Club is now thriving. Just a few miles from the city centre, it is a green oasis, a peaceful environment for swimmers, anglers and wildlife alike. I hope The Lake proves a fitting tribute to this beautiful, special place. Bristol is lucky to have it.


Susie Parr