Lifesavers make a splash

Learning to swim on the canal

Les Pugh

Lifesaver's chance to make a splash

Generations of Eastington boys learned to swim in the Stanley branch of the River Frome which flowed from Beard's Mill, near to the railway viaduct, through Millend in Eastington. This section, known as The Ketch Pools, flowed over a bed of gravel that acted as a filter leaving the water crystal clear.

An ideal place to start

The depth of water in summer was about two feet six inches (76 cm), which was ideal for boys aged eight to ten to learn to swim with safety.

No teachers

There was no formal tuition but one older boy would supervise the younger ones. No floatation aids were used and the dog paddle was the first stroke to be mastered. The older boy would put his hand under the young one's chin and say "Get your feet up and kick!" If you really wanted to swim, and most did, you could manage to dog paddle a few yards after about two weeks' tuition.

Moving on

When you felt reasonably confident you joined the older boys who were swimming in the Stroudwater Canal above WestfieldBridge; in the lock if it was full or above it if it was empty. At this stage a rope was tied under your armpits and you were supported in the very deep water by an older person and yanked out when you had taken in several mouthfuls of water. As you became more proficient and it was seen safe to do so, the rope was discarded and you were left to your own devices and to learn the various stokes as best you could.

From dog paddle to crawl

The general progression from the dog paddle was to the breast stroke, side stroke, over arm stroke, crawl and finally the back stroke. You then learned to dive and swim underwater. When you became proficient at all these strokes you felt really at home in the water.


It was then that you learned that most useful discipline of all. This was how to save a person drowning in deep water. In retrospect, this may seem to be a strange thing for a young boy of probably 11 to 12 years of age to do. However, it felt perfect­ly natural for us and would indicate, using today's hack­neyed terminology, that all those years ago we were a 'caring society'.We were taught to approach the drowning person from behind so that he or she would not grab you and possibly drawn you both, and then either to hold his or her head above water with both hands while swimming to the bank using only the feet movement of the back stroke or to hold the head above water with your left arm while swimming the side stroke with both feet and the right arm.

A forgotten incident

We practised this extensively in the Westfield lock, naturally with both parties being able to swim, until we had really mastered the procedure. I thought that I would never use the ability that I had gained until one day while a pupil at Marling School in my early teens I was swimming in the canal with the Stonehouse Swimming Club at their headquarters near the branch railway line ‑ now the Ebley bypass bridge.  It was then that a young lad named Gilbert Lusty from Kings Stanley, who was a non ‑ swimmer, was pushed in while fooling about on the bank.I saw that he was on the point of drowning and, being on the towpath at the time, I dived in and swam side stroke with him to the tow ­ path bank. After much coughing and spluttering he recovered, said thanks and went back to King's Stanley.


About 30 years later in the late 1950s when I was shop superintendent in the R A Lister Dursley Iron Foundry, the company's personnel manager sent a big hefty man, whose name I recognised, to me for further interview for a very hot, heavy and dirty job charging materials into the Cupola Melting Furnaces. I considered that he was suitable for the job and advised him that he could start immediately. He then said: "Are you Mr Les Pugh from Eastington?" I said "Yes," He said "Do you remember when you saved my life in the cut?" This brought memories flooding back and we had a brief chat about the incident.

The whole point of this little story is to implore all those very able young swimmers of today to learn life saving. You never know when it may prove to be use ­ ful.

Les Pugh

First published by Stroud News and Journal, 6 October 2004. Reprinted with my permission.

This page was added by Judy Chorley on 04/06/2009.

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