When Nude Sunbathing Caused A Riot In Hendon

By M@ Last edited 22 months ago

Last Updated 22 August 2022

When Nude Sunbathing Caused A Riot In Hendon

"Duck them in the lake!"

"Drive them out of Hendon!"

Early summer 1930, and an angry mob had gathered on the banks of the Welsh Harp Reservoir. Some people were sunbathing. A few were naked. Local residents were so incensed that they turned up every weekend to shake their fists, jeer and take photographs.

"[I should] get the lot of you locked up for indecent behaviour in public," shouted a Mr FG Biddle of Bell Lane, Hendon. A crowd of more than 200 people had joined him at the reservoir, intent on turfing out the reclining troublemakers.

After a tense stand-off, the Forces of Decency moved in on the sunbathers. "A mass attack occurred," reported the Hendon and Finchley Times. "...the men were hustled, beaten and pushed over. One man's clothes were seized and scattered, and another was kicked as he lay on the ground." How had it come to this?

Members of the Sun-Ray Club and New Life Society had gathered on the banks of the reservoir for years. Here, close to Cool Oak Lane, men and women could relax in the sunshine in various states of undress; naked, if they chose. Their resort was on private land, reportedly 300 yards from any public path. Plenty of warning was given.

"We put up notices warning people that sun-bathing is taking place, but they will come and stare at us, and some of them even take photographs," secretary of the clubs, Captain HH Vincent, told the press. "The objectors are ignorant people, with whom it is useless to argue."

Novelist Evelyn Waugh also attributed the local attention to a kind of warped voyeurism: ‘The people who made such a fuss at the Welsh Harp simply detest the spectacle of bodies of any kind, beautiful or ugly. But do they cherish their over-delicate sensibility and avoid places where they are liable to be shocked?... No. These astonishing people assemble in a large crowd at the one place where they know they will see the very thing which displeases them."

Hints of voyeurism among the objectors were reinforced by the press. This typo is so delicious, one wonders if Kingsbury was deliberately misspelt:

The letter from Disgusted of Kinksbury, continued: "Why is nude bathing permitted in the Welsh Harp reservoir without some enclosure where sexual maniacs can perform out of view of the more respectable members of the community?"

Sexual maniacs. On the one hand, the language is reflective of the repressed and conservative views of the time. On the other, you could totally imagine that sentence appearing in certain newspapers today, and in a leader rather than a letter.

A cartoon of the time, working hard for its pun.

The controversy raged all through the summer of 1930. The sunbathers were, for a time, afforded police protection, but the council was growing increasingly wary of the embarrassment. Things came to a head in early September. Captain Vincent and chums were in their customary state of waterside déshabillé, enjoying the late summer sun. Without warning, council officials and police officers swooped in. The sunbathers were driven out of Hendon, and their bathing huts torn down.

A year later, the field was declared public land and any nudity was forbidden under public indecency laws. Even so, the sunbathers returned in smaller numbers. Eventually, a compromise was found where people could sunbath in a specially demarcated area, so long as they kept their naughty parts covered. The pragmatic solution killed off the fun, and the Welsh Harp's days as a naturist destination were over.