Tower Bridge is probably the most iconic of London’s bridges, and recognised worldwide. Even now after the river has been cleaned up and fishes swim in the waters again, it is perhaps difficult for us today to consider that an area in the shadow of the bridge was a popular bathing spot for Londoners as far back as the 18th Century. It offered an escape for East Enders, foremosttly women and children, to escape the claustrophobia of their dismal, crowded dwellings. The tidal nature of the Thames meant that it was only safe to bathe or sun-bathe for short periods. Even though stricter laws governing use of the shore had to be introduced in 1815 when men had started bathing in the nude, it was a popular place forwomen and children to relax.
In the early 1930s a local vicar noticed children swimming in the river by the Tower. Rather than trying to stop it he made efforts to make it safer. 1500 barge loads of sand were acquired and unloaded on the north bank between St Katherine’s Steps and the Tower. The beach was officially opened in July 1934 when King George V decreed that it was to be used by the children of London and that they should have “free access forever”.
Many people, especially those living in the East End, could not afford a holiday so Tower Beach as it was called became a hugely popular destination for sun-bathing, paddling, and swimming. Rowing boats and deck chairs could be hired, and the beach was equipped with lifebelts, beach wardens and a rescue boat. Street vendors plied their trade and amusements provided entertainment for the sunbathers. Photos of the beach from that period look like any other beach shots of the 1930s.
Tower Beach was closed during WWII but reopened in 1946. It stayed open until 1971, when concerns about the poor water quality of the Thames in London forced itts closure. Now the river has been cleaned up to the extent that fish once more populate the waters there are serious talks about re-opening a beach, economics permitting.
I chose to profile the 1950s era in my image, photographing women and children in vintage one-piece swimwear and period dresses. I photographed the men reclining in their business suits as would have been commonplace in those days. Interposed are some entertainments of the day, Punch and Judy shows, donkey rides, and the fast food on offer then,
from ice-cream and hot dog stalls. The stalls and equipment were specially designed to enable a hasty retreat from the beach when the tide began to rise. All this against the iconic background of the Thames and Tower Bridge.