The Day that Alice learnt to swim

I often mention how my Grandparents (well more my Grandmother) ran a Boarding House in Simon’s Town, Cape Town, from the early 1930s as the UK prepared for war. The town was a strategic naval base for the Royal Navy, and eventually its Allies. Many UK expats arrived as the Dockyard (under the Royal Navy’s control) expanded to be able to accommodate more ships and personnel. Accommodation was needed before they settled and with my grandfather being a very “sociable” fella, their boarding house was a very popular place to stay at. The first house they had was “Nicoldene”, situated where today’s Simon’s Town High School is, which is close to Seaforth Beach (now, that’s another story). The house had 2 domitories, one for the single ladies and the other, for the single men (when I say single, I mean people travelling on their own), as well as family-rooms and the family’s private quarters. My mother spent her childhood racing from the house to the beach and back in just her swimming costume, only coming home to be fed. No hat, no towel, no sunscreen, no water – just flip-flop, or slops as we called them and they were worn only because of the hot ground.

Listening to my mom’s tales of her childhood, I loved hearing from her all about the different characters that came and went through the house. Two such characters were two Naval PT Instuctors that mom adored, she was about 4 or 5 years old when they arrived, because they spent a lot of their time on Seaforth Beach, not only wowing the local girls, but helping her with her swimming. Over supper one night, Gran did breakfasts and suppers for the visiting residents, it was revealed to these two PT Instructors shock and amazement, that my Gran, Alice, had never learnt to swim. Alice was a farm-girl who had always lived inland so had never had the opportunity to learn except for the occasional picnic & a paddle in the river or dam. The game was on for these competitive guys. Their mission was that Alice was going to learn to swim, and they were going to teach her! Alice was game but only on one condition – she was not going to learn to swim in the seawater in front of everyone! Not a problem they said.

So everyday swimming lessons took place on the swivel, round piano stool in the living room. Now Alice was not a small girl, but she gamely got on the stool, on her tummy, and learnt to do all the swimming strokes combing it with the kicking actions. This went on for a few weeks until her instructors deemed her ready to go into the water. My grandfather, Reg, was duly ďispatched to the ladies’ clothing store to buy a swimming costume because Alice was too busy running the boarding house. For days Reg would traisp backwards and forwards until eventually Alice was satisfied with the style, size and colour (only made in black like the Ford car and one style, but still there are different levels of black & looks). Don’t forget this was the 30s, money was tight and a swimming costume was considered a luxury. The big day finally arrived, and the family, together with some of the house residents, made their way down to Seaforth Beach to the quieter side of the beach. Mom, with her friends, went straight into the water bopping up and down like little seals. Alice tentatively waded in wearing her brand new swimming costume and swimming cap, with the instructors carefully guiding her. I can so hear her in my head with that English/Dutch accent she had, passing remarks as she waded in. Bravely she lowered herself into the water and moved onto her tummy as one of the instructors carefully placed his hand under her for support. Off she went! She did all the strokes and kicks like an expert having been taught so professionally on that piano stool. Go Alice! Everyone was encouraging her, especially all the kids as they dived in and out of the water around her like enthusiastic dolphins. Slowly the instructor withdrew his hand and still Alice kept on going with everyone shouting encouragement until she realised she was swimming on her own. She let out a yell which promptly caused her false teeth to fall out! No one saw this, but no problem to Alice, she immediately dived below the water coming up a few minutes later with the set in her hand. She popped them back into mouth, and with great dignity strode out of the seawater never to return. The two instructors were gobsmacked. Not only had she proved she was a good swimmer but she had made the best dive they had ever seen for a beginner.

Needless to say, Reg was dispatched back to the ladies’ shop because the swimming costume was on ‘appro’ and Alice wanted her money back. Alice never, ever attempted to swim again or go to the beach in a swimming costume to the day she died. Only walks to the beach were deemed acceptable, particularly when the family came to visit from the inland parts of the country and Alice was always, always fully clothed.

Nicoldene, Seaforth Beach, South Africa 1930s
Irene, Instructor & admirer 1935 Seaforth Beach

Alice with 2 Instructors, Reg & Residents Seaforth before THE swim
No more swimming costumes (the sister-in-laws, Alice, Aunt Charlotte, Aunty Ivy (Sophie) and cousins (Desmond, Irene & Marie)

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