PATRICIA Eustace’s life has been very closely tied to the River Thames. This charming 86-year-old has spent all her life living beside the river – 60 years in a lovely house overlooking Shepperton Lock – and she was one of several readers who responded to my invitation to share their memories of learning to swim in the Thames.
Swimming was a big part of her family’s life as Patricia recalled.
“My mother, Pansy Seaby, regularly swam in the Thames,” she told me. “About the time of the First World War, she swam from Raven’s Ait in Kingston all the way to Chelsea – a distance of 17 miles – in a little under seven hours.
She won the Surrey Ladies’ Long Distance Swimming Championship as a result.”
But her mother’s swimming prowess also lead to a darker chapter when, shortly after her long-distance feat, she tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue a young lad who had fallen into the river by Walton Bridge.
“My mother spent a long time diving into the water to try to find the boy,” Patricia said, “and all the while there were men on the bank just watching her – no one tried to help her. She was really traumatised by the event.”
As a result, when Patricia was taught to swim – from the Halliford Steps close to the Red Lion pub in Shepperton – her mother insisted that she was attached to her by a piece of rope.
Patricia, who met her husband, Edgar Eustace when they were both youngsters playing at Shepperton Lock, went on to swim regularly in the Thames.
“All the young people used to gather at Pharoah’s Island – right beside the house called Sphinx – and we’d swim there all the time. It was just lovely.”
Another with memories of swimming in the river is Dorothy Humphreys of Addlestone who took her first dip at the tender age of just six months.
“My mother was determined that we should all be able to swim,” says Dorothy, and she apparently had me in the Thames as a small baby.”
From that early start, Dorothy remembers regularly swimming at Laleham right up to near the end of the Second World War.
“There was a polio epidemic in 1944-45 and the authorities thought it might be transmitted via river water so we were told not to go in any more,” she said.
Harry Flett, an 88-year-old ex-Royal Marine who now lives in Molesey contacted me to say that he and a group of friends also used to swim in the Thames – by jumping off the parapet of Lambeth Bridge in London into the river (health and safety officers, turn away now!)
“There was even a chap with one leg who used to do it,” recalls Harry.
Can you imagine being allowed to do that nowadays…?