53. The Pee Hole / Bathing Place in the River Blackwater, 1880s to 1929
“And the boys used to swim in a part of the river, there’s a wide bit, which was deep, and if I may be so bold to call it, I think it was called the Pee Hole, but anyway it was deep enough for them to jump in and swim about.” This was described by Polly Wheaton, who always talks about Witham’s past so well. She and her friends collected tiddlers in jam-jars instead of swimming. Do they still called them tiddlers ? – tiny fish, anyway.
The Pee Hole was a special swimming place in the River Blackwater. It had been set up in the 1880s by the Witham Board of Health (which soon afterwards became the Urban District Council). There had been a request for it from 78 Witham inhabitants. The place is now at the top corner of Whet Mead.
Its official name was “The Bathing Place”, but the public called it either the Pee Hole or the Pea Hole. Ted Mawdsley told me “I have never been sure about the spelling of the Pea Hole – my uncle Albert Poulter always insisted that the cheekier section of the public preferred to use the double “e” version, so I guess it was interchangeable according to the individual”.
The location was probably chosen because it was the only place where the Board’s land (i.e. the Sewage farm) touched the river, as shown in the map above below, which also names the Bathing Place.
Building Plan ERO D/UWi Pb 1 88, dated 1897, reproduced with the permissiom of the Essex Record Office
Various suitable buildings were provided including “a diving stand, ladder, seat, and posts”. In 1889 they employed Mr Richards, a well-known local builder, to make improvements. He was to use the Board’s “Horses, Carts and Men”, and not to use his own, which would have cost the Council money. Later, the Witham Swimming Club offered to contribute towards repairs to the diving board.
There was no charge for swimming, and the site was open on all sides. It proved necessary to employ somebody “to watch the Bathing place on Sundays with a view to discover persons committing damage”. The watchman was usually Mr Hammond, who lived at the Sewage farm house nearby, and ran the Sewage works.
However, there wasn’t any safety system, and it would have been difficult to provide one in such an open area. Seven-year old Percy Kellock drowned here in 1915, having been playing and paddling near the bank. His two friends were too frightened to get help from some men who were working nearby.
Eventually the women’s desire to swim was recognised. In 1912, the Council decided that “At the request of the ‘Witham Swimming Club”, permission should be granted “for the use of the Bathing Place by Ladies for two hours on two mornings per week, also for the erection of the necessary notice boards at the club’s expense.”
During the First World War, the Pee Hole was particularly welcome to the hundreds of soldiers who were billeted in Witham. In August 1915 the Royal Engineers had a “Water Carnival” there. Local dignitaries were invited to watch, and the events included the “High Dive, Running Dive, Pillow Fight on Pole over river, Team Race, Mess Race, Barrel Race, Swimming Race and Life Saving Race”.
The pool was returned to public use after the War. Ted Mott (born 1913) told me that “The Pee Hole was, years ago when Joe Glover, if he’d been alive now he’d probably be about 110, but he was one of these old boys who used to swim in the mornings and all that. So they tell me.” (Mr Glover ran a large garage in Newland Street). “I remember going down there, oh very young, try and swim. That was a proper thing. There was a real, they had a couple of diving boards, that sort of thing, a spring board and a high dive board. There was a boys’ end further along then… It gets deep as you get towards the Mill. Blue Mills, towards that way. And the ‘Mouth’ you see is down there. We used to swim in that. Where the Brain and the Blackwater, where they join”.
After that, however, the Pee Hole started to decay. There was discussion about whether or not it was worth repairing, in view of the continual damage by “lads”. In 1929 the Medical Officer of Health was called in and found that the water was “not fit”. Bathing was to be prohibited and this was the end of the official use of the Pee Hole in the river. Though Ted and his friends still used to go there.
Since 1913 there had been increasing pressure from the better-off residents for a “proper” pool to be made out of some old water tanks behind the Swan. After a petition and a good deal of discussion, especially about the cost, a pool was opened there in 1933. I’ve written about that previously. And I’ve also written about Dickie Meads, where smaller children swam in the River Brain near Church Street.
We can see that the opportunity to get wet with their friends in the open air, gave some Witham people a great deal of pleasure. But Peggy Smith (nee Wood) was not one of them. She told me once that “Until I was getting on in years, I always thought over the Catholic bridge was the sea and you could drown in it. ‘Don’t you dare go over that bridge, the water’s that side, you’ll drown’. And that’s true, yes.”