One of the reasons I enjoyed Georgette Heyer’s Frederica so much was because she included vivid descriptions of London as Lord Alverstoke squired Frederica’s two young brothers to places of boyish interest. One of their destinations was the Peerless Pool, a once popular pleasure spot that has faded into distant memory since its closing in 1850.
Perilous Pond, an ancient London spring whose overflowing waters formed a pond near Old Street, was a noted place for duck hunting in the 17th century. The pond acquired a dark name because of the many youths that had drowned in it. In 1743, a local jeweller named William Kemp converted this pond into London’s first outdoor public swimming pool, renaming it the Peerless Pool. Situated behind St. Luke’s hospital, the newly embanked pool was 170 x 108 ft in dimension and from 3-5 feet deep. Bathers would dress in a vestibule made of marble, and descend into the waters by marble steps to a fine gravel bottom. A screen of trees and an arcade that surrounded the pool provided both privacy and shade from the sun. Adjacent to the pool, Kemp constructed a grand artificial canal stocked with carp, tench, and other fish for cockney sportsmen. Similar to the pleasure gardens described in the previous post, visitors could expect other attractions in the form of a small library with light literature, bowling green, and “every innocent and rational amusement”,* including ice skating in winter.
At the annual subscription rate of £1 10s or one shilling per visit, the costs were prohibitive for all but the upper and rising middle classes.
During the time that Jane Austen visited her brother Henry in London and in which Georgette Heyer set Frederica, the fish pond no longer existed:
Around 1805, the lease was acquired by Joseph Watts who drained the fish pond and constructed Baldwin Street on part of the site. William Hone visited the pool in 1826 and found that very little had changed:
“Trees enough remain to shade the visitor from the heat of the sun on the brink. On a summer evening it is amusing to survey the conduct of the bathers; some boldly dive, others timorous stand and then descend step by step, unwilling and slow; choice swimmers attract attention by divings and somersets, and the whole sheet of water sometimes rings with merriment. Every fine Thursday and Saturday afternoon in the summer columns of Bluecoat boys, more than a score in each, headed by their respective beadles, arrive and some half strip themselves ‘ere they reach their destination. The rapid plunges they make into the Pool and their hilarity in the bath testify their enjoyment of the tepid fluid.” – Lidos in London no longer open
The Peerless Pool attracted a variety of visitors for over a century, including those boys from the Bluecoat School as previously mentioned. The attraction was closed in 1850 and built over, and the trees removed. No traces of the old site remain except for the names of Peerless Street and Bath Street. Ironically, the Old Fountain Public House situated on Baldwin Street today maintains an indoor fish tank.
Read more about the Peerless Pool in these links:
- * Lidos in London no longer open
- ** In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays by Augustine Birrell
- Derelict London: Public Pools and Baths