Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Skating On The Moorfields: London's Peerless Pool


The city of London, England wasn't exactly a clean place centuries ago. With nothing that even resembled sanitation, the streets were muddied with sewage. At best, bathing was a 'luxury' that was afforded to residents once or twice a year. When they did bathe, it was often in the Thames, the same place many dumped human waste and the remains of animals from butcher shops. They didn't even have soap. Ian D. Rotherham's book "Roman Baths in Britain" explains that on top of it all "water, and especially deep, cold water with undercurrents, was a potentially lethal hazard. The consequences of this risk and the increasing interest in summer swimming are noted in the annual Bills of Mortality. Here there are 104 'melancholy accidents' (ie. drownings) recorded for one year in the 1700s. By the mid-1700s there were purpose-built swimming pools available in London: the Bagnio in Lemon Street, and the Peerless Pool in Finsbury. The latter offered both hot and cold baths and was developed from a natural pool popular with swimmers in the 1600s, but regarded then as a dangerous place to bathe or swim. As it grew, the new facility offered swimming lessons, model boating, fishing, and in winter, ice skating."

Although many Londoners seeming aversion to both bathing and swimming probably kept many away from Peerless Pool, it was certainly a popular spot with many and I found a really interesting account of skating at Peerless Pool that I think you'll find fascinating! George Walter Thonbury and Edward Valford's "Old and new London: a narrative of its history, it's people and its places..." explains that in 1415, a part of the city wall "betwixt Bishopsgate and the postern called Cripplesgate, to Finsbury, and to Holywell" was broken down by the orders of then mayor Thomas Falconer and the area called Moorgate became accessible for citizens to walk upon causeways to Iseldon and Hoxton. When the wall came down, Moorgate and Peerless Pool became accessible to London residents for not only swimming and bathing... but also skating when Dutch engineers were employed to drain the fens and brought their skates in tow.

Thornbury and Valford's book gives the account of Fitzstephen the monk who "describes Moorfields as the general place of amusement for London youth. Especially, he says, was the Fen frequented for sliding in winter-time, when it was frozen. He then mentions a primitive substitute for skates. 'Others there are,' he says, 'still more expert in these amusements; they place certain bones - the leg-bones of animals - under the soles of their feet, by tying them round their ankles, and then taking a pole shod with iron into their hands, they push themselves forward by striking it against the ice, and are carried on with a velocity equal to the flight of a bird, or a bolt discharged from a cross-bow." The monk describes the area that people skated as "the great Fen or Moor which watereth the walls of the City on the north side." The third edition of the "London Encyclopaedia" notes how Peerless Pond got its name, which asserts the areas reputation as dangerous: "It had originally been known as 'Perillous Pond because divers youths by swimming therein have been drowned.'"

Where's Peerless Pond today? Simply put, gone. In 1805, Joseph Watts had the fishing pond on the Peerless Pond site drained and built Baldwin Street. The swimming, bathing and skating pond area was closed in 1850 and built over. If you go to London today, Peerless Street marks the northern boundary of the pond and Bath Street the western one. London's first outdoor public swimming pool - and consequently one of its first outdoor skating rinks - may be no more, but that's not to say there aren't some pretty cool places to skate in the city. The Tower Of London, anyone?

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