Caitlin Davies is the author of Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (Aurum, 2015) and Taking the Waters: A Swim around Hampstead Heath (Frances Lincoln, 2012).

Not far from where I live in north London is a deep, cold pond on Hampstead Heath known as Highgate Men’s Pond. In Victorian times it was here that the English public were treated to breathtaking displays of swimming and diving. But even more importantly, it was at this pond that William Henry introduced lifesaving to the masses. ‘The ability to save life is the glorious privilege of a swimmer,’ he wrote in 1893, ‘Courage and presence of mind are essentially needed.’

William was an incredibly versatile man – English Salt Water Champion, Long Distance Champion, Olympic swimmer, author, expert Scientific Swimmer, and water polo champion.

Born in 1859 in London, he learnt to swim at school and then joined the Zephyr Swimming Club. As a competitive swimmer he took part in Amateur Swimming Association Championships: both indoors doing freestyle, and outdoors in the River Thames. He won around 600 trophies, and at the 1906 Olympic games in Athens, at the age of 47, became the oldest person ever to win a swimming medal.

But it is as the founder of the Royal Life-Saving Society that he is best remembered and, when it came to life saving then William and his colleagues were ahead of their time.

By the middle of the 19th century swimming had become a recognised sport in England. Competitions were held at indoor baths, and soon swimmers flocked to race in rivers and lakes. When in 1875 Captain Webb crossed the Channel, swimming became the mania of the hour. Hundreds of clubs were formed across the country, and lessons were beginning to be taught in schools.

downstream front with skyline

But around 3500 people drowned every year in the UK’s inland waters, while methods of trying to ‘restore life’ – such as blowing air through one nostril with a pair of bellows – were downright dangerous. Then in January 1891 William Henry, along with Archibald Sinclair, called a meeting ‘to encourage the art of swimming and the saving of life from drowning.’ The following month the Swimmer’s Life-saving Society was formed.

It was William who came up with the idea of public displays, to raise swimming ‘above a mere competitive sport’ and ‘to make its practice of use and benefit to the nation at large.’ In order to do this, he needed a venue, and so he chose a large deep pond on Hampstead Heath, the Highgate Men’s Pond.

The pond officially opened in 1893 and it was here that the society organised massive galas, featuring champion divers from all over the world and displays of life saving techniques by local school children and uniformed police. When in 1904 the society became the Royal Life Saving Society its galas at the men’s pond – a mixture of instruction, sport and entertainment – drew 70,000 spectators, with William Henry patrolling the banks and keeping everyone informed by megaphone.

People were now far better educated in life saving techniques. Men in the Royal Navy were instructed in lifesaving and classes for park keepers were held at London’s public baths. And it’s all thanks to William Henry, champion swimmer and lifesaver.

So when I walk around the Highgate Men’s Pond today, I think of William and what he did to improve swimmers’ safety, by founding a movement that spread quite literally around the world.

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Twitter: @CaitlinDavies2