During research into the recent story on William Henry Babington, the Sheffield photographer, this grainy image from a copy of The Swimming Magazine in May 1916 came to light.
This intriguing photograph features members of Sheffield Water Rats, an ‘all the year round bathing club’, whose members enjoyed themselves in the “fine open-air pool in Endcliffe Woods, about a couple of miles from the centre of town.”
The Water Rats were an all-male club and to qualify for entry into this select family of ‘rats of the pool’ one had to swim winter and summer in Endcliffe Bathing Pool for a period of six years. The ‘King Rat’ was Mr Walpole Hiller who had started about 1894, although he was surpassed by Mr C Foster who taken his first all-year round dip in 1891.
“How many persons would come down to the pool on a foggy autumn morning almost before it was light, plunge into the water, only to find they had a companion in the way of some poor suicide, and yet turn up the next morning as if nothing had happened?”
A tradition for the Water Rats was to take a plunge on Christmas morning, often reported by local newspapers. The custom was to take a dip at 9.30am and afterwards indulge in mince-pies, rum, and coffee.
“They quickly undressed, posed for a ‘snap’ on the edge of the pool, and then plunged in and swam their morning round, coming out glowing with health to dress leisurely and have their customary ‘constitutional ‘swallow.’ There was no shivering or trembling; they behaved with the aplomb of the summer girl basking in the sunshine on some seashore.” – Sheffield Daily Telegraph – 2 January 1923.
Members became older and more ‘youthful’ ones couldn’t make up the numbers. By 1937, the Water Rats tended to only venture out at Christmas, unlike the newer Spartan Swimming Club that had started taking to the open-air Millhouses Bathing Pool every morning.
Endcliffe Bathing Pool had opened after Sheffield Corporation purchased 20 acres of Endcliffe Wood from the trustees of Robert Younge of Greystones. William Goldring was commissioned to adapt the land for public use in 1886, part of which was converting Endcliffe Wheel mill dam as a place for boys and men to bathe.
However, the bathing pool always attracted unwanted attention due to mud and debris washing into it from the adjacent banking.
“I think it is most disgusting,” said one correspondent in 1896, “the water is almost stagnant, in some parts the floor is quite a foot thick with mud and refuse, whilst in other places there is nothing but glass and stones.”
“This pool would be a source of health-giving pleasure to hundreds of men and boys, were it only made clean and wholesome, and the supply kept free from the rubbish which now pollutes it,” said another in 1904.
“A type of woman, and also girls, whose idea of modesty seems to be at a low ebb, persistently come behind railings on the far bank, and also into the enclosure itself. Many of the men are nearly naked, and some of the boys quite so. A park keeper reports coarse language at times,” reported somebody else in 1909.
Endcliffe Bathing Pool closed for cleaning in 1938 and appears never to have reopened. It was filled in and today is understood to be the site of the children’s’ playground.
Occasionally, we stumble upon a Sheffield character who has been air-brushed by time. This can be said for William Henry Babington, a striking figure, who was easily identifiable as he moved about the city with his long grey hair, moustache, and an old-fashioned flowing cape. He was seldom seen out of doors without his camera.
William was a photographer, and it is quite sad that an article about someone who loved his craft cannot be supplied by a photograph of the person himself.
He was born in Leicester in 1856 and ran away to London at the age of 14, arriving penniless and with nowhere to sleep. His final choice of resting place was under a slab at Billingsgate Market, until he was ‘washed out’ the following morning. Two days of this life in London were enough, and he found his way back home by the same means as before.
Afterwards his father always derived pleasure from recounting how “that mad son of his had ‘done’ London and back on his own.”
It was after experiences in Manchester, Derby, and Normanton, during which time he spent some years on the railway, that he came to Sheffield.
William worked at Pawson and Brailsford as an account collector, and in 1895 joined the Sheffield Telegraph, acting as manager of the Zincographic department and as a staff photographer. (Zincography was a printing process that used zinc plates) As such, he was one of the original members of the Sheffield branch of the National Union of Journalists. He eventually devoted his time taking photographs and left in 1917 to set up as a freelancer.
He was an ardent collector of old Sheffield prints, and at the time of his death had accumulated a collection of about 300 valuable negatives. Historians often turned to him for old photographs to illustrate their work, and lantern slides from his archive were often used by lecturers.
This charismatic person liked to entertain people with reminiscences and wrote a series of articles for the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star in 1930 with memoirs drawing on more than half a century as a camera man.
“In the early Press days there were but few daily newspapers that either had their own photographer or zincograph staff and plant. It was my good fortune,” he stated, “to obtain a position on the staff of a leading provincial daily paper. The Sheffield Telegraph and the Leeds Mercury being the first newspapers to attach a photographer to their staff.”
As an example of the high speed at which the press photographer worked, William recalled a photograph he took of Mr J.F. Hope when he was standing for Parliament. He took only 25 minutes getting it to the Telegraph office, and within ninety minutes it was published in the paper and on sale.
“At races, photographs of the finish did not worry me. I preferred to hunt about the crowd for well-known personages, who sometimes objected to being photographed, as they were supposed to be at business.
“When only one goal was scored at a football match, the photographer was always at the other end. That was no excuse when I got back to the office. The editor wanted to know why. When a reporter was late for an event it did not matter much, he could always obtain the story, but the press photographer who arrived late was finished. He had no second chance.
“The Sheffield police have done all they can to help me, so long as I did not try to photograph things, they did not want photographing.”
One of the more interesting of his recollections was an incident which occurred at the conclusion of a visit of a female member of the Royal family.
“I was the only camera man near,” he wrote, “when she was seated in her carriage, and I was offered without words the opportunity of a close snap. I don’t know what most people would have done. All my plates had been exposed but I took the opportunity given me on a plate already exposed. I could never disappoint a lady.” After that, whenever Royalty was in evidence, he always kept one plate unexposed until the departure.
“In my early days I had to rely upon the hire of any vehicle for transit. Eyam, historic for its plague epidemic, was holding a Sunday commemorative service, and a reporter and I were booked to attend. We hired an early edition of a motor-car, and, through some defect, had the pleasure of pushing it up most of the hills and running down to catch it when it descended on the other side.”
Such was William’s unique appearance in Sheffield that on one occasion a popular cartoonist, a friend of Babington, sent him a letter, the envelope of which bore a sketch of ‘Babs’, together with one word. ‘Sheffield.’ The letter was promptly delivered.
In his spare time, William was fond of the game of chess, and was a member of several old clubs, but as old age approached resorted to watching the game instead.
Today, we should be grateful for his work. Old images survive on Picture Sheffield, and books and magazines still use his black and white photographs. Many of the photographs taken of the Sheffield City Battalion while they trained at Redmires prior to World War One are attributed to him.
William lived at 59 Thompson Road, near the Botanical Gardens, and died, aged 76, in 1932. He was buried at Sheffield General Cemetery.
Finally, we have a mystery that somebody might be able to solve. Whatever happened to his extensive collection of old Sheffield prints and the vast library of photographs taken by him? Are they stored in an archive somewhere, or were they lost forever?
Banner Cross is long associated with Ecclesall Road. It is infamous for being the scene of the murder committed by Charles Peace, the notorious criminal, in 1876.
In the time of Queen Elizabeth, nearby Banner Cross Hall was known as Bannerfield, but referred to as Banner Cross in the times of James I.
There appears to be no clear account of how Banner Cross got its distinctive name. ‘Banner Cross’ seems to suggest battles and campaigns, but the most likely explanation appeared in Hunter’s Hallamshire in 1819.
“This is one of the ancient esquires’ seats in the manor of Ecclesall. It stands near the chapel, and not far from the turnpike road to Manchester, from which however it is shut in by plantations, while its front presents a pleasing feature in the landscape to the traveller on the opposite hill along the road to Chesterfield. The name might tempt an antiquary to wild conjectures, especially when he stands on the base of an old stone cross still remaining, and looks along Salter (perhaps Psalter) Lane, towards Sheffield.”
It refers to an old stone cross that once stood near the previous hall, and quite possibly the ‘Banner Cross Stone.’
In the early part of the twentieth century, William Henry Babington, a Sheffield photographer, took images of a piece of stone, and labelled it as being the ‘Base of the Banner Cross Stone, now on terrace of Banner Cross Hall. Removed from Banner Cross Hall Gardens.’
If this was the original ‘Banner Cross,’ how likely is it that the base is still at Banner Cross Hall?