Hilsea Lido ‘was the place to see and be seen’

111756-688_AG_LIDO_SR_13/5/11'Jane Smith at the Hilsea Lido 75 anniversary exhibition at Portsmouth City Museum.''Picture:Steve Reid 11175688
111756-688_AG_LIDO_SR_13/5/11'Jane Smith at the Hilsea Lido 75 anniversary exhibition at Portsmouth City Museum.''Picture:Steve Reid 11175688
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Back in 1935 there was only one place to head for in Portsmouth if you were a bright young thing.

When Hilsea Lido opened just in time for the summer rush on July 24, the fashionable flocked there to soak up the sun and the atmosphere.

111756-697_AG_LIDO_SR_13/5/11'An early photo of the Hilsea Lido .''Picture:Steve Reid 111756-697

111756-697_AG_LIDO_SR_13/5/11'An early photo of the Hilsea Lido .''Picture:Steve Reid 111756-697

Between 1929 and 1933 Portsmouth City Council had already created gardens, a tennis court and a hard levelled area intended for roller skating and dancing.

But the addition of the swimming pool, cafe and splash pool took its popularity to another level.

In its heyday, the lido’s main pool could hold 750 swimmers and 1,000 spectators.

People would come from all across the city to enjoy a swim or to sit at the poolside watching the world go by – making it a fashion fan’s paradise.

‘It really was the place to see and be seen,’ says local historian Jane Smith, the woman behind an exhibition celebrating the history of Hilsea Lido, on display now at Portsmouth City Museum.

‘The main pool became the setting for the fashionable outfits and accessories of the day.’

The exhibition features a number of photos that reveal what the lido was like when it first opened.

An aerial shot shows just how big and grand this Art Deco leisure complex really was. And a young Sean Connery rising from the pool adds an extra touch of glamour.

But it’s a collection of hand-knitted swimsuits – made specially for the exhibition – that really help sum up what lido life must have been like in the 1930s.

The brightly-coloured, bottom-covering costumes show how important keeping up with the latest styles was and how much fashions have changed.

Even the idea of swimming in a knitted woollen costume seems odd now. But before the days of nylon and polyester, there really wasn’t any alternative.

With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, volunteers used 1930s knitting patterns to recreate the bathing costumes and it turned out to be a real labour of love.

Janice Burkinshaw, 65, from Milton, Portsmouth, spent 50 hours knitting a dark blue men’s costume.

‘We used the original patterns,’ explains Janice, who modelled one of the costumes at last year’s Southsea Carnival.

‘It took a lot of time to knit one costume but that’s what people had to do, they couldn’t just buy them, they knitted their own.

‘The holes in the side were to make sure the costume wasn’t too heavy when it got wet.

‘The patterns showed women were definitely smaller than they are today. A 34-inch hip was the largest ladies’ size.’

Knitters Nora Edmonds, Lin Goodyear, Iris Groom and Linda Hedley also set to work on recreating a bit of 1935 bathing history.

Jane had got hold of the patterns a couple of years ago but hadn’t known what to do with them until the idea for the exhibition came about.

Seasoned knitter Ann Partridge spent around three weeks on each of the three costumes she made for the exhibition.

‘The patterns were hard to understand at first,’ adds Ann, 69, from Milton, Portsmouth. ‘I consider myself an experienced knitter and I found it hard.

‘But once we got the hang of it, it was easy. I’m quite proud to see the costumes in the exhibition now.

‘I remember going to the lido when I was a little girl and it was a fabulous place. I remember the fun and excitement of going and the crowds as well – it was always packed.’

Another knitter, Val Payne, 75, from Drayton, Portsmouth, agrees: ‘I remember it being very packed. I used to go down to the paddling pool with my mum and everyone would dress up.’

The exhibition will stay up until the autumn and other items of interest include that photo of Sean Connery. The actor was in the Royal Navy and training at Portsmouth’s HMS Excellent when he was snapped rising from the pool in 1949. Friend Larry Hudson took the picture years before Connery went on to find fame as James Bond.

With its three-metre springboard, plus five and 10-metre diving platforms, the lido was a place for young daredevils. But those who wanted to indulge in more gentle activities could take a trip on the mini railway which ran alongside the lido at one time, or enjoy a splash in the fountain.

The pool was designed by city engineer Joseph Parkin and the lido also featured in Ken Russell’s 1975 hit film Tommy.

‘It was a big pool and built for a large number of people,’ explains Jane. ‘I remember it in its heyday in the 1950s.

‘I was about 10 at the time and it was just wonderful for children. There was such a mix of things to do there and it was a wonderful asset for Portsmouth.’

A souvenir booklet has been published to accompany the exhibition and is available in the museum shop, priced £4.50, with all profits going to the Hilsea Lido Trust.


Hilsea Lido was closed by Portsmouth City Council in 2008.

A year later, ownership passed to a registered charity, the Hilsea Lido Pool for the People (HLPP), and the group now plans to restore and reopen it.

The trust has a 99-year lease on the pool and the Blue Lagoon, which regularly hosts music events and other fundraising evenings.

HLLP needs to raise money to pay for repairs and refurbishment at the lido.

Its next event will be a fundraising open-air concert at Hilsea Lido on Saturday, from 3pm until 7pm.

The all-ages concert is an opportunity for the whole community to show their support for the revival of the lido.

Four Portsmouth bands will play and there will also be a barbecue, face painting and children’s activities.

Tickets cost £8 for adults and £5 for children and are available from the Wedgewood Rooms in Southsea.

For more information call 07503 124185 or email info@hilsea-lido.org.uk