Sunday 27 January 2013

The Swimming Pool that Sank and other Watery Tales

Having a fascination with obscure - but atmospheric - vintage Paris postcards, I naturally couldn't resist this curiously framed river shot, taken from the bankside in front of the Hotel de Ville.

It is rare to see Paris cloaked in such a gloomy London-style pea soup fog, particularly in postcards, but the subject of this picture is not the weather. Instead, the photographer has focussed his camera on three fantastically grimy children onboard a barge.

'Les Berges de la Seine, Quai de l'Hotel de Ville, enfants de marinier' reads the legend, and this (undated) card gives a captivating glimpse into the life of river workers in Paris, surely some time around the beginning of the 20th century.

However, my main interest in this postcard, particularly in relation to this blog, was the vast hulk moored on the quai behind them. This was even more the case when I flipped over the card and read the message that had been added, probably by a previous owner of the card; 'Grand Bain Parisien 30 Cent, Quai aux Fleurs, maintenant Piscine Deligny'.

The Piscine Deligny is a famous name in Paris, and one with a fascinating story. But what was it doing in this location?

The history of the Deligny swimming pool began with Barthélemy Turquin (also inventer of the life jacket) who set up the city's first école de natation on a floating jetty on the Seine in 1785. Between 1801 and 1803, a man seemingly known to history only as 'maitre-nageur Deligny' (but who was also Turquin's son-in-law and heir) took over the management of the school and built a more permenant, solid structure alongside what is today the Quai Anatole France in the 7th arrondissement. His name stayed with the establishment throughout its history.

This was the case when in 1840 it was rebuilt once again by its new owners, the Burgh brothers, in an exotic and luxurious oriental style. Somewhat bizarrely, the new swimming pool used wood taken from a boat - La Dorade - that had recently transported the body of Napolean Bonaparte up the river Seine to Paris!

The institution became the 'école royale de natation', and swimming an essential skill to be learnt by the middle and upper classes, alongside fencing and horse riding. This is not to say though that it was a pleasant experience. The water of course came directly from the river, and as Eugène Briffault wrote in 'Paris dans l’eau' in 1844, the Piscine Deligny was "Sale, trouble, souvent fétide et malsaine" (dirty, cloudy, often foul-smelling and unhealthy).

Nevertheless, with its grandiose fittings, including private rooms and a restaurant, it became a fashionable location with regular visitors including Charles X, Louis Philippe and George Sand (dressed as a man?), even if most people came to lounge and smoke rather than swim.  

An etching of the Piscine Deligny, c1850

After hosting the first ever French swimming championships in 1899 (thus marking the passage of the activity from a 'hygenic' to a sporting one), the swimming pool remained fashionable well into the 20th century, even if it wasn't until 1919 that the water was first filtered. Throughout this century, regular users included Louis Aragon, Jean Marais, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Errol Flynn.

The more recent history of the swimming pool though was not about royalty and Hollywood stars, but about ordinary Parisians. On hot days it was of course a very popular attraction, but that wasn't to everybody's taste. At the beginning of the 1970s, one French politician, Emmanuel Hamel, wrote a letter to the Minister of the Interior complaining about topless sunbathing at the pool. His particlar concern about that? The French parliament, the Assemblée nationale overlooked the pool, and it was 'offputting'!

The top picture, taken for L'Express magazine in 1968 by André Perlstein (buy a copy of this print here), shows how busy the pool could be. It was though occasionally quieter, as the atmospheric shot just above shows (the photo seems to date from the same era, but I cannot find a date nor the name of the photographer).

Being a large, partly wooden, hulk on a busy river, it did suffer occasional accidents. It was partly destroyed by a fire at the beginning of the 1950s, then closed for a year in 1989 after being hit by a passing boat. The end of the swimming pool though came in the early hours of Thursday July 8, 1993 when it sank to the bottom of the Seine in less than 1 hour for a still unexplained reason. The following TV report gives some more details.

But was it the Piscine Deligny in my postcard, as the note suggested? It seems very unlikely. 10 years after its demise, when the city of Paris was discussing the possibility of rebuilding a pool* in the same location, one local politician pointed out that "from its creation until it sank it had never left the 7th arrondissement."  

Floating swimming pools on the Seine were also relatively common in the 19th century, as swimming in the river had always been forbidden, and it wasn't until 1884 that the first completely artificial swimming pool in Paris was built (Chateau Landon).

The photo below, taken from the Louvre by Armand Guérinet at the end of the 19th century, shows how numerous they were in the centre of the city, and this photo (from 1885) shows that there was another 'grand bain parisien' near the Pont de la Tournelle, very close to the Quai des Fleurs.

Although I have found no reference to a public baths on the Quai des Fleurs, it is likely that the pool in my postcard was simply another of these institutions that slowly disappeared from the river at the beginning of the 20th century.

Whatever this 'bain' was though, entrance would have been restricted to the middle classes** (30 cents would have represented a good percentage of a daily wage for workers) so it is unlikely that the children in the picture ever went for a swim!

*13 years after the Piscine Deligny sank, the Piscine Josephine Baker was opened on the Seine in the 13th arrondissment.

** See comments for an alternative perspective.


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I see from the previous comment that spambots are getting better....

Neat post--I know the Piscine Joséphine Baker, but I was unaware of the earlier floating pools. I wonder about your final comment, though, about the price. 30 centimes in the early 20th century would have been only 0.3 centimes after the introduction of the nouveau franc in 1960 (1 ancien franc became 1 nouvelle centime).

The Bulletin officiel for 1902 listed the hourly salary of a Parisian terrassier (unskilled road worker) as 0.55 Fr. 30 centimes would have been just over half an hour's wages for him, or about 6% of his daily wages (assuming a 9-hour day; the 8-hour day didn't become law in France until 1919). A visit to the pool wouldn't have been a daily activity for him, but it would have been an affordable luxury.

Frank Pleasants said...

Great posting. I have fond memories of the Piscine Deligny since my first trip to Paris in May of 1968 and all through the 1970's when it was THE place to go ... almost like a daytime Studio 54!

Anonymous said...

That was fascinating; thank you so much for doing all that research and sharing it all with us. I had no idea those swimming pools went so far back in time. Love the old postcards.

Tim said...

"Même les monuments coulent" to quote someone in that INA clip.

Another great post, some excellent archive pictures and I'm quite happy to go public here with a comment I made to you privately - you're on a definite roll right now what with the Albatros, Communist HQ and now this piece all coming in quick succession and all top notch.

And yes, those semi-customised spambot comments are getting annoying. That one further up the page almost had me choking on my can of delicious Cacolac.

Anonymous said...

After 1968 and into the seventies it was the Sunday meeting place of the chic-set, but in the eighties it was taken over by the homosexual community who went there to show off their bodies. Some of the bikinis the men wore left nothing to the imagination.

Adam said...

Brian: I bow down before your superior research! I will leave my concluding comment that it is unlikely that the children on that boat ever visted the pool behind them, but you have shown that it could financially have been possible (although I'm not sure whether children would have been admitted ot not).

Adam said...

Frank (and Anonymous): thanks for your comments. I have seen a lot of references to the 'life' at this swimming pool, but wasn't sure where to mention that in my post. I originally wanted to put this video into the post - which shows a little of the atmosphere there in the 1970s, but the post was already getting a little long!

Frank: thanks for your mail. Your blog is fascinating!

congokid said...

Great to find out more about the Piscine Deligny. I was there twice in the summer of 1984 near the end of a trip round Europe.

After checking in at a local youth hostel in rue de Vaugirard near Jardin du Luxembourg (which also seems to have gone), I asked about local swimming pools and one of the staff gave me a complimentary ticket to the Piscine Deligny. I think the regular price was about 20-25Ffr.

It was a wonderful place - painted wood in a style from another era, but very busy on a hot day, with packed sun decks, little changing cubicles around the perimeter, and lots of swimmers. Topless sunbathing was allowed. It was a challenge to find somewhere on the deck to spread my towel. And talking about skimpy swimwear, I ended up squashed next to a huge hairy man whose bright yellow costume was no more than a thong.

The pools was a real taste of old Paris and it's sad that it's no longer there.

Tiffany Fields said...

It is nice to find out more about the old sights in Paris, and it is indeed a shame that most of them did not survive the turn of the century. With all the history and number of locals that have swam and visited it before, it would’ve been a great thing if people could still visit it and reminisce about the old times. But unfortunately, some things must yield to progress, whether willingly or by force. Anyways, thanks for the great post. Cheers!

Unknown said...

A refreshing take on the history of the Piscine Deligny. Interestingly, I read somewhere that the Deligny was also a venue for the swimming competitions of the 1900 Olympics. It was actually one of the more popular public places at the time, and the fact that it had a restaurant and private rooms available for visitors made it an even more inviting place for a visit.

Luke Stephens

Unknown said...

It’s really sad that Piscine Deligny had to close down inevitably. It is one of the great wonders during the late twentieth century. I think it would be great if its layout and design were to be recreated; if not as a pool, then maybe as a museum or tourist spot of sorts. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

Peter Weiderman @ Guardian Industries

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magdalena said...

I found this post and to my great delight it had the information I was looking for. When I was young I worked as a model in Paris. I have some pictures for a magazine taken in this pool. So sad to see that it sank but I feel sort of special that I got to be in this great Parisian landmark. And I got pictures of it.

Unknown said...

I read in the Herald Tribune of its destruction while studying in Rome in 1993. I had discovered it in 1983, tipped by tiny hotel. As I remember it cost about 6 US dollars, stiff for me, so I went every other day and swam twice as long as usual, sneaking in food and drink. The water was very clean and crisp: I don't think it was chlorinated. It was cold enough that few swam and then not very long. I went before it opened in the a.m., swam and climbed out and over the mostly topless bathers. Much was funky: the exercise machines were rusty and little used. Middle-aged men ringed the surrounding upper deck, enjoying the view below.
There was an old plaque by the entrance detailing a long-ago swim competition, but I think something like an old world championship, circa 1900. (I hope some of this stuff was preserved). Moored behind it was a houseboat covered with toys, plastic and otherwise, and I exchange with someone going on it, but my French is practically nonexistent. it was right below the Musee de Orsay.
I have a postcard of it and there are at least a dozen photos online, but this is the best account yet of the warmest memory I have of Paris.

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Anonymous said...

I was a student in France in 1981 and also returned & hung out in Paris part of summer 1984 between jobs as well. This was THE place to hang out, tan and be cool on a nice summer day if one could not be at the Cote d'Azur. Full of waiters/waitresses, models/"beautiful people", idle rich, chics types/gay men and, of course, topless women. I preferred the upper deck for tanning and actually swam laps there, contrary to most. I always enjoyed the sign that disclaimed, in substance (translated), "the water in the pool has no relation to the water in the Seine". It definitely had old Paris/classic style and I am honored to have been able to experience it- and miss it whenever I go there since it is gone, especially on a hot day!

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Mr G said...

Anyone have any information about the Ecole de Natation de L'Hotel Lambert moored Quai d'Anjou, Ile St Louis. Apollonie Sabatier, artist model and poet's muse, swam there in the 1840s.

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