46. Wild Swimming

“We used to go down to what we called Dickie Meads. Now, that’s the river down by the Cherry Tree. You go down there, straight down there to the river. Now we used to dam the river up. Right.

The River Brain near Dickie Meads, looking towards Chipping Hill, in 1988
The River Brain near Dickie Meads, looking towards Chipping Hill, in 1988

So we used to have about four foot of water. Well, we all used to bathe in there, nothing on; we never had no costumes or nothing. Never used to have no costumes, no, we couldn‘t afford one, could we? We used to bathe in the nude. And down there, there used to be lotta lotta watercress. We used to go down there, and, and get these bunches, and I used to take them round Church Street and sell them for about penny or tuppence a bunch, a big handful.”

These were memories of Walter Peirce, who was born in 1908 and  lived in Church Street. Dickie Meads was a small section of the river Brain. Its name came from Dick Mead, the meadow through which the river flowed. Nowadays the swimming area is rather overgrown; it is behind Glebe Crescent, which was just a big field when Walter was a boy. A number of people still remember it, so they know far more about it than I do !

The river Brain near Dickie Meads in 2015, looking ratheer overgrown
The river Brain near Dickie Meads in 2015, looking rather overgrown

Mrs Dorothy Ireland (nee Goss) was older than Walter, being born in 1894. She remembered the same place, but rather forlornly. She said “And then there was a bathing place, and we called that Meads. That was a lovely place. Yes, but we didn’t go there, because the boys, you see, they didn’t have bathing trunks, the boys were naked.” I have been told that in later times there was actually a girl who visited the swimmers, but I’ll say no more about that.

George Hayes (born in 1904) also remembered Dickie Meads. “Further along, we daren’t go further along because of the gamekeeper after you.  But this one nobody used to take any notice. I’ve been there hundreds of times. In fact it’s where I learned to swim down there and never see anybody after you. Only thing was that some of the boys used to go across and raid old Ledger’s orchards the other side. They knew they couldn’t get caught because they was in the river.”

The serious polio epidemic of 1952  interfered with the regular use of Dickie Meads for swimming. A boy in Braintree and a boy in Witham both contracted polio. It turned out that both of them had been swimming in the river, albeit eight miles apart, and the authorities decided that there could be a connection.  Swimming pools were widely feared in the country as a whole as well.

So Dickie Meads was a little boys’ swimming place for at least fifty years. We don’t really know when it began, or indeed when “wild swimming” first started in Witham. It could have been centuries before. Maybe more information will come to light one day. In 1745 there was a terrible accident, when “Elizabeth, John and George, children of John Holyday, were all drown’d at once” in what is now Forest Road Pond, which used to be very deep. But we don’t know whether they were swimming, or just fell.

In 1762 the Vicar had a small cold water bath near Dickie Meads for the sake of his health. But that was a rather exclusive arrangement, and can’t really be used to deduce anything about children’s swimming habits. In the 1880s the Council established an official “Bathing Place” in the Blackwater, which I’ll write about that another time.

These boys could well have been habitual swimmers at Dickie Meads. Some of them look as if they were wishing they were there, enjoying the water, instead of having their school photo taken. They were at Maldon Road School in about 1920
These boys could well have been habitual swimmers at Dickie Meads. Some of them look as if they were wishing they were there, enjoying the water, instead of having their school photo taken. They were at Maldon Road School in about 1920

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in August 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.