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A short History of Jesus Green Lido

A short history of Jesus Green Lido

When it opened in 1923, Jesus Green Bath, as it was originally known, was one of the longest swimming pools in Britain. At 100 yards (91.5 metres) long – and 100 years old – it remains among the longest. Its slender width, just 15 yards (14 metres), was designed to mirror the experience of swimming in the River Cam.

The Bath needed to nestle close to the Cam because the river provided its water. Despite swimmers complaining that they swam with small fish, only after the Second World War was the pool filled from mains water. The pool holds 2.4 million litres of cold water and takes five days to fill, and while swimmers no longer see fish darting below, at quiet periods it’s not uncommon to see ducks bobbing on the surface.

Although it needed to be close to the Cam, there was much debate in the early 1920s about where to site the new Bath. Morley’s Holt, further downstream, and Midsummer Common were both considered but Jesus Green was chosen for its proximity to many Cambridge schools.

As well as providing facilities for school children, its construction provided much-needed work during a period of high unemployment. The pool was dug by local men who had returned from the First World War and who went on strike for an extra farthing a day. Today the pool’s profile – shallow at each end and deep in the middle – seems puzzling, but reflects an era when men and women swam at separate ends.

Jesus Green was dug a decade before the trend for building lidos up and down the country. Built at a time when classes were still segregated in municipal swimming pools, it showed how swimming brought people from all walks of life together. The creation of Jesus Green Bath was part of this new awareness of both the physical and mental benefits of swimming. It brought town and gown together in a democratic watery oasis.

Jesus Green Lido pictured in the 1970s.
Jesus Green Lido pictured in the 1970s.
A newspaper cutting showing men in the 1920s cleaning the lido, which has been emptied of water.
A newspaper cutting showing men in the 1920s cleaning the lido, which has been emptied of water.
A newspaper cutting from the early 1920s showing excavation work being carried out for the new Jesus Green Lido in Cambridge.
A newspaper cutting from the early 1920s showing excavation work being carried out for the new Jesus Green Lido in Cambridge.

The Bath was opened on 30 August 1923 by the Mayor of Cambridge who, fearing the water was too cold, declined the invitation to swim. Thirteen year-old Arthur Mansfield needed no encouragement. Speaking at the pool’s 75th anniversary in 1998, he told Alexandra Buxton: “Word got around that the pool had opened. We rushed over and had a swim. It was tremendously exciting. I had already learnt to swim in the Cam at Sheep’s Green. Children started off in a shallow part known as The Snobs. Once you could swim across and back, you were allowed in the big river.”

Many children, however, could not afford to pay to swim, he recalled. “There were as many swimmers in the river as in the pool. Lots of children didn’t have the entrance charge, although it was only a penny.” Later, many of these took advantage of the free sessions on Saturday afternoons (alas no longer).

Known for its excellent University and myriad cyclists, Cambridge has a long tradition of swimming too. Winding its way through the city, the River Cam has facilitated a culture of bathing stretching through the centuries. The Art of Swimming – the original guide to swimming – was first published in Cambridge in 1587. Written by Everard Digby, a Latin scholar and Fellow of St John’s College, the “treatise provides his readers with the means to learn how to propel, manoeuvre and enjoy themselves in the water”. 

Jesus Green Lido, as it’s now called, celebrates its centenary in 2023. Over the past 100 years it has brought joy and happiness to a diverse group of swimmers of all ages. We hope that it continues to thrive, providing health, wellbeing and belonging to our ever-growing community of swimmers.

Happy 100th birthday Jesus Green Lido!