The Boulter’s to Bray Swim – or the ‘River Race’ or ‘Long Swim’ as it was known in those days – dates back to the 1800s and was an annual highlight of Maidenhead’s sporting calendar.
The event was organised by Maidenhead Swimming Club, which was very active competitively. While most of their competitions were held at the outdoor pool in Maidenhead, the long-distance races were held in the river, usually in late August or early September, rounding off the swimming season.
Split into two events, a one-mile course for ladies and a two-mile course for men, the long-distance river swims were usually held in the evening. Competitors dived into the Thames from the Boulter’s pontoon and each swimmer was accompanied by a safety boat (usually rowed by an enthusiastic supporter). Huge crowds would gather on Ray Mead Road, Maidenhead Bridge and along the tow-path to watch the action unfold: competition for the coveted first-place cup was fierce.
So popular were the Maidenhead Long Swims, with both competitors and supporters alike, that they were held every year until 1969 (excepting the war years 1940-1945). During this time some noteworthy characters emerged, not least the Badcock brothers, George, Eddie and Derek, who dominated the men’s event for an uninterrupted run of 13 years, not letting anyone else near the winner’s trophy from 1946 all the way through to 1958.
George, Eddie and Derek weren’t the first Badcocks to make their presence felt in the Boulter’s to Bray Swim, however. In 1923, their father, L Badcock, completed the two-mile course in a time of 40 minutes to take the win – and the coveted Dunkels Cup. Ernest Dunkels was a wealthy local resident with a keen interest in sport (he was president of Maidenhead Football Club in 1920, opening the new 500-seat stand in 1922). The Dunkels Cup was presented to the winner of the long-distance swim and inscribed with both their name and the winning time.
From 1927 to 1932, the Swim was dominated by Cyril Bright. A member of Maidenhead Swimming Club, he racked up an impressive collection of medals and trophies – not only in the Boulter’s to Bray Swim but also for water polo and life-saving. Probably his proudest moment, though, was taking part in the 1939 swim alongside his 13-year-old daughter Josie.
The ladies’ race that year was won by Mrs D Dodd (née Millward) who is probably the most successful swimmer in the history of the Boulter’s to Bray Swim, winning the ladies’ trophy a total of nine times between 1934 and 1949
The Boulter’s to Bray Swim wasn’t held during the war years but came back with a vengeance in 1946 – the first year in which the Badcocks made their presence felt. George, Eddie and Derek’s father – himself a winner of the event in 1923 – was Superintendent at the Maidenhead outdoor pool and both boys were members of the Maidenhead Swimming Club, which met every Tuesday. The Badcock boys used to train for the river race by swimming two miles of lengths up and down the pool. They would also swim against the flow in the River Thames from the Sounding Arch to Boulter’s Lock.
George Badcock took victory in the first post-war race held in 1946 and continued to win every year until 1952 when Eddie took the trophy for the first time. Asked how George felt to be beaten by his younger brother, Eddie said that he was ‘gracious as always’. The two boys were competitive, but always with a ‘good brotherly comradeship’. Eddie certainly did his brother proud, winning the race for another six years, right up to 1958.
Also competing in that first post-war swim in 1946 was 11-year-old Cynthia Brooks, who went on to win the ladies’ event in 1950 at the age of 15. A very talented swimmer, Cynthia ‘won with ease’, accompanied, as was the tradition, by a safety boat punted by her father and George Badcock.
Cynthia only got into swimming ‘to make up the numbers’ but turned out to have a natural talent for it and was hugely successful in a wide range of events. She certainly did a lot of training. In the winter months, she swam at the Slough pool three or four times a week, switching to the outdoor pool in Maidenhead in the summer. A member of Hammersmith Ladies Swimming Club as well as Maidenhead, she also trained in London every Monday evening. In 1948, Cynthia travelled to Belgium with Hammersmith Ladies and a number of other sports clubs, including QPR, to take part in a huge sports event aimed at restoring friendly relations post-war. ‘It was a great experience – and the first time I’d seen either ham or iced cakes,’ Cynthia recalls.
Despite her success in the long swim, Cynthia was not that keen on swimming in the river – she preferred the pool – but, as she said, ‘If there was a race going, I was up for it.’
Open-air swimming was a popular pastime in Maidenhead, recalls Wendy Cooke (née Stubbs), medal-winner in the ladies’ river race from 1963 to 1966, as the only swimming pool in the town was open to the elements. Set out as a lido with grassy areas to sit on, it was open from May to September. Unheated, the water temperature could be as low as 10 degrees at the start of the season, but it still attracted a crowd of teenagers and adults. Swimming stopped each winter and the Long Swim in the Thames marked the end of the season.
Wendy entered her first race in 1963, aged 14. It was held at about 6pm, after the boat traffic had finished for the day and when the water was at its warmest. That year – in which she finished 2nd in the ladies’ race – she recalls that there was a cover boat for each swimmer but by the time of her last race in 1966, increasing costs meant there were only a couple of boats to look out for everyone – not ideal, given how spread out the swimmers could be.
The men’s race in the 1960s was dominated by three men: ‘Rad’ Howard, Derek Harris and Mike Hughes. Derek Harris won the two-mile race twice, once in 1964, aged 20. ‘I personally did not enjoy long-distance swimming, so I only entered three times – once as a teenager, when I came second behind a guy named Richard Howard (nicknamed ‘Rad’) who was about four years older than me.’
Rad won for four years, from 1960 to 1963. ‘My first win in 1964 interrupted his winning sequence,’ said Derek. ‘Rad was always the man to beat.’
Rad Howard recalls the two swimmers’ rivalry. ‘After Derek won in 1964 I think it may have made me more determined to succeed, which I did in 1965 and 1966.’ It was a friendly rivalry, though: they played in both the Maidenhead water polo team and the Maidenhead 1st XV rugby team together, and Derek was best man at Rad’s wedding in 1965.
Apparently rugby and swim training didn’t go well together, making them much more prone to cramp in their calf muscles. ‘We swam in costumes only,’ said Derek. ‘No wetsuit / goggles / earplugs /swim hat. We dived into the Thames a few metres downstream from the Boulter’s Lock gates and formed a line for the start. The speed of the river’s flow had a major effect on race times. I seem to remember winning one year in less than 30 minutes, while my other victory was over 40 minutes.
‘As for preparation and training,’ added Derek, ‘there really was none for me, other than being in the swimming pool all summer with friends and playing water polo. Before I swam the race for the first time I tried a long-distance swim in the pool. I covered about a mile, which was the furthest I had ever swum, and decided that if I could swim a mile then I would probably be OK for the two miles or so in the river.’
Mike Hughes, who then lived in Westborough Road, won the long swim in 1967 and 1968, losing out to Dickie Boardman (sadly now passed away) in 1969, the last year that the swim was held. Mike was a member of Maidenhead Swimming Club, swimming for them competitively, and he also played water polo.
Mike continues to swim and in 2012, aged 74, brought the old event to life in a very real way by taking part in the first official revival of the Boulter’s to Bray Swim.