Lean in (17)15: The Jonathan Swift Workout

If your 2021 fitness goals are unappealing, you could do worse than take a look at this London-based regime from an unlikely guru.

It’s nice to see Joe Wicks back on our screens. Half an hour of his PE thing every morning has probably done more for national wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic, than any amount of well-intentioned official advice. It’s certainly a better way to spend half an hour than clicking anxiously on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Map. Or trying to work out the legality of stopping your daily exercise to ingest your daily Scotch egg allowance .

Joe walks on hallowed turf of course, the latest from a noble line of fitness gurus. Who can forget the Green Goddess? Or Mr Motivator? Or the Reverend Dr Jonathan Swift, 43rd Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin?

Portrait of Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift .1Portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas, oil on canvas, circa 1718, NPG 278. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Jervas was a fellow Irishman and a friend of Swift, who later became Principal Painter-in-Ordinary to George I.  He completed a translation of Don Quixote which was the definitive version until the 20th century, when it fell out of favour. (You can still buy it in Oxford World’s Classics, and it is still attributed to Charles Jarvis -the original printing was incorrect and was never rectified.) 

Yes. That Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Author of numerous satirical and political works, most famously Gulliver’s Travels. A man who grappled with various maladies throughout his life, while wearing heavy clerical garb. It would be hard to imagine a less likely fitness instructor. There is no ‘Lean like the Dean’ workout pamphlet in his 14 volumes of collected prose works. But Swift was a lifelong advocate of health and exercise in his native Ireland. And during one his lengthy stays in London, between 1710 and 1715, Swift led a one-man exercise revolution which feels surprisingly modern. There was even step-counting of a sort. I road tested some of his workout earlier in 2020, and it stands up very well today.

Time to limber up.

‘I trust to air and walking.’

Swift rented  various lodgings in central London as a player in  the political and social action of Queen Anne’s reign. In 1711 he wrote in the Journal to Stella that he had decided ‘ to go lodge at Chelsea for the air, and put myself under a necessity of walking to and from London every day’.2 Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. Harold Williams, 2 Vols, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1948).

Chelsea at this time was a semi-rural location, still to succumb to the inevitable massive expansion of London housing. He arrived on the 26th of April during a spell of bad weather.  Like the best of us, he soon found excuses to dodge his plans:

‘We have had such a horrible deal of rain , that there is no walking to London… and besides, the whelp has taken my lodgings as far from London as this town could afford, at least half a mile further than he need’.

The ‘whelp’ was Swift’s servant Patrick, who appeared in his London journals and correspondence regularly, usually as scapegoat or culprit.  He was frequently drunk, missing, or misbehaving. But he was also valued by Swift as a source of gossip, and an implacable barrier against unwanted visitors. Patrick’s ambiguous status would prove essential to Swift’s Chelsea workouts.

It was still raining on the 30th of April, and to make matters worse, all available coaches had been taken by the locals. On this and other occasions Swift got a lift in from obliging gentlefolk, undermining his goal of walking to and from town daily.  

Engraving of Chelsea from the opposite bank of Thames
Chelsea, 1750s. 3Chelsea: viewed from the Surrey bank with boats on the river. Engraving, 1755, after J. Maurer.  Wellcome Collection. Attribution (CC BY 4.0). John Maurer, active 1713-1761

Even so, he was well aware of the benefits of even a little exercise on his well-being: ‘My head is better, though not right, but I trust to air and walking.  I have not the opportunities here of preserving my health by riding &c. that I have in Ireland’. Swift was a chronic sufferer from Menière’s Disease, although it would not be identified as such until 1861. He instead attributed his symptoms  of nausea and dizziness to eating too many apples, stolen in a juvenile prank. 4Menière’s Disease is an  incurable condition affecting balance and hearing in the inner ear.  Named after Prosper Menière (or Ménière) who first identified the combination of symptoms in the 19th century. Swift gives detailed accounts of its impacts throughout his correspondence: he suffered typical symptoms of giddiness and nausea, and, in later life, deafness.

As the weather improved, so did the walking.  ‘I had a charming walk to and from town to-day: I washed, shaved and all, and changed gown and periwig’. Swift also stood out from his contemporaries with his excessive personal hygiene.  As well as bathing every other day, he kept a change of clerical clothing with friends in town, so that he could ‘freshen up’ before attending to matters of Church and State.

Swift at this period held Church livings in Ireland, and with his connections, was becoming invaluable to the establishment there. His particular commission was to gain for the Irish church the remission of the ‘First Fruits and Twentieths’ – an analogue to ‘Queen Anne’s Bounty’. The Irish settlement should have been a simple matter, but took Swift and his colleagues numerous attempts at Court. He was more rapidly successful in political circles, his writing and social skills much in demand with the incumbent Tory ministry. His gradual migration from Whig to Tory sympathies during the London years imperilled many friendships, notably with The Spectator’s Addison and Steele.

Soon the walking was providing other diversions.  Chelsea in the early eighteenth-century was rural in parts, and the footslogging  involved pleasant vistas of hay making and the scent of spring flowers.5For a description of Chelsea through the ages, see Edward Walford, Old and New London (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878) Vol V, Ch 5, from British History Online .

drunkenness in typeface
6Eighteenth-century printer’s ornament from the book: Wo to drunkards. Two sermons testifying against the sin of drunkenness: wherein the wofulness of that evil, and the misery of all that are addicted to it, is discovered from the word of God. By Increase Mather, D.D. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, April 2020.

There was fecklessness, too:  ‘Going this morning to town I saw two old lame fellows walking to a brandy-shop, and when they got to the door, stood a long time complimenting who should go in first’. On a walk back at night – with Patrick along, for safety – they observed a parson and a seaman having a fight. Patrick broke it up (another of his useful skills was knowing exactly what to do with a drunken sailor), allowing the parson to take refuge in a nearby house.

Every successful exercise regime needs a companion diet, but Swift’s isn’t recommended. Although he avoided ham, pigeon, pease-soup, stewed beef, cold salmon and snuff (mostly), and claimed to drink in moderation, there were numerous examples of his fall from grace.  He dined out abundantly most evenings, trading on his place as a fixture on the social and political scene. He even kept a stock of wine in a friend’s cellar, but it went to waste before he could enjoy much of it.  

When he did opt for abstinence, he made sure to bemoan his lot in the modern style. ‘My breakfast is milk porridge: I don’t love it, faith I hate it, but ‘tis cheap and wholesome’. He wasn’t any happier when  he allowed himself a treat, a Chelsea bun for a penny, which turned out to be stale.   

‘I shall be so sun-burnt, the ladies won’t like me’.

Map of Chelsea 1745
Pall Mall to Chelsea, 1745.7Roque’s Map of London. Detail of Pall Mall to Chelsea taken from Stanford’s Maps of Old London (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908) and retrieved from Gutenberg, April 2020.

Spring 1711 turned unseasonably hot, and Swift lost no time in skiving off again, this time taking to the water to travel to town. He took stock of his progress:   ‘I fancy I begin to sweat less in the forehead by constant walking than I used to; but then I shall be so sun-burnt, the ladies won’t like me’. To worsen matters, Patrick one day went missing with Swift’s wig and gown, so he had nothing to change into in town.  Patrick’s departures were common, but in exasperation Swift cancelled a suit of livery he had ordered for his servant. 

Then a new idea took shape. 

‘I had a mighty mind to go swimming’

In her excellent book Downstream, Caitlin Davies highlights the popularity of the Thames around Battersea and Chelsea for swimming. 8 Caitlin Davies, Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames (London: Aurum Press, 2015).Swift choose to swim in an area favoured by Charles II before him, and Benjamin Franklin afterwards. In more recent times, John Prescott used it as a launch spot for a protest swim against nuclear dumping at sea. (The 1983 TV-am pre-swim interview pits a wetsuit-clad Prescott against a ruthlessly colour co-ordinated Nick Owen.)

If swimming from this location had a long history, swimwear had not. Swift adopted the standard practice – stark bollock naked – but he did customise his look : ‘I am just this minute going to swim.  I take Patrick [presumably back in the good books] down with me to hold my nightgown, shirt and slippers, and borrow a napkin of my landlady for a cap’.

Swift’s attempt was not without incident.  ‘I have been swimming this half-hour and more; and when I was coming out I dived, to make my head and all through wet, like a cold bath, but as I dived, the napkin fell off and is lost, and I have that to pay for. O faith, the great stones are so sharp, I could hardly set my feet on them as I came out.  It was pure and warm.’ (It would be another 250 years before the heavy industrial impacts on the Thames would lead to its being declared ‘biologically dead’ in 1957.)

He tried the experiment again but it soon went amiss. Patrick once again played a role in Swift’s misfortunes:

‘I did [swim], but with so much vexation, that I think I have given it over: for I was every moment disturbed by boats, rot them; and that puppy Patrick, standing ashore, would let them come within a yard or two, and then call sneakingly to them….!’. At least he was able to keep hold of his napkin this time and save further expense.

‘A very scurvy place for walking’

After a while Swift tired of his retreat. He was missing the action in London.  His dislike of Chelsea was not confined to the buns: ‘I have been walking about [Chelsea] to-night and it is a very scurvy place for walking.  I am thinking to leave it, and return to town’. By 5 July he had packed up and returned to a lodging on Suffolk Street, off Pall Mall.  But he didn’t abandon the habit of exercise, or of proselytising. On the 22 September he dragged Erasmus Lewis, The Earl of Oxford’s secretary, around Windsor, but soon ditched him for walking too slowly,  and went a further  5 miles by himself. 

By late 1714 Swift’s London life was almost over. The death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tory ministry put paid to his chances of preferment in England, and he eventually returned to Dublin to take up full time his post of Dean of St Patrick’s – at first with little enthusiasm.  He barely returned to England and took no further significant role in its political life; yet this was the time that produced legacy works like The Drapier’s Letters, Gulliver’s Travels, and A Modest Proposal.   

But Swift also stayed true to his  exercise goals:  ‘I have seldom failed being on horseback, and have my health well enough’, he wrote to a friend in 171510The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-65).

In fact, Swift went on to lead a very active life in Ireland, eating, drinking, riding, walking, exhorting others to do the same. He often did so as a semi-permanent houseguest at various country retreats, which could prove a strain on friendships, something he does acknowledge11 Pat Rogers, ed., Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems (London: Penguin, 1983).

The house accounts are daily rising,

So much his stay does swell the bills

My dearest life, it is surprising

How much he eats, how much he swills

‘Lady Acheson Weary of the Dean

Swift’s health kick even found its way into his works. In Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel outlines the way of life of his beloved Houyhnhnms, and their scheme of education for young people, which places as much emphasis on exercise as on hard work and modesty.   Gulliver is a source to be treated with caution – a dubious narrator, championing a reversed hierarchy in which a kingdom ruled by horses is unable to countenance the idea of humanity (Yahoos) doing anything worthwhile. But it seems that Swift was unable to resist an oblique reference to his philosophy of health and fitness even in his most fantastical work.

‘Five thousand seven hundred and 48 steps’

current walk map from Pall Mall to Chelsea

Swift anticipated the age of the fitness app by making  his own calculation of the time and effort it took to walk from town to Chelsea.  On 15 May 1711 he went by his usual route; ‘up the Pall Mall, through the Park, out at Buckingham-House, and so to Chelsea a little beyond the Church: I set out about sun-set and get here in something less than an hour; it is two good miles and just five thousand seven hundred and 48 steps’.

It’s not as simple, on a January morning, some 300 years later, to find Swift’s route under the mass of streets in contemporary Chelsea and Belgravia. Old maps of the London suburbs are uncommon. The invaluable mapping resource, Layers of London, has brought many of them together. Roque’s famous 1740s ‘Map of London and Environs’, shows fields and parks rather than houses, even 40 years after Swift’s stay.12Pevsner provides a comprehensive account of the major street and house building activity that took place from the second half of the eighteenth century, transforming Chelsea from a riverside village of 300 homes in 1705 to a sizeable suburb of 12,000 inhabitants a century later, and 88,000 by the time of the 1881 census. (Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry, London 3: North West:  from Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of England, 5 vols, (Harvard: Yale University Press; rev. edn 1991).

It all starts off well enough in St James’s Square – looking springlike, with  its statue of William III in the centre. 

The walk down Pall Mall reveals a few buildings that would have existed at the time, notably St James’s Palace where Swift’s good friend Dr John Arbuthnot had an apartment (during his spell as Physician-in-Ordinary to the Queen) which served as the hosting place of meetings of the Scriblerus Club.13The ‘Scriblerus Club’ comprised Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, Thomas Parnell and the Tory Treasurer/First Minister, the Earl of Oxford.  The group met frequently in 1714, and randomly thereafter. Their creation, ‘Martinus Scriblerus’, was a dilettantish totem employed to show up the latest idiocies in learning and religion. His ‘oeuvre’ includes The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus and The Art of Sinking in Poetry. 

Cleveland Row opens up to a pleasant view of the park.  The area still known as Constitution Hill (and once a favoured duelling spot) is the only real prospect of green that is freely available for the whole walk, in marked contrast to Swift’s experience. 

Needless to say, it’s busy on a bright winter morning, lots of runners, walkers and cyclists trying to get to grips with the Dean’s regime.

The pinch point comes at Buckingham Palace.  What was once an open park that he would have walked across, is now enclosed and surrounded by roads.  I can’t replicate Swift’s amble through meadows any more, instead navigating a tunnel and countless building works.  The most scenic route (so the one I follow) is through Belgravia and down the Royal Hospital Road. The King’s Road, although marked ‘private’ on Roque’s map, was available to Swift, but I doubt he would have used it if he could wander over fields. 

Most green spaces along the route are notable for being closed off and fenced round, unless you are a gardener, or  have a key and a tiny dog to walk. Near the Belgrave Gardens, a statue of Christopher Columbus waves  the rest of us away. 

This area enjoyed a surge of house building in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and it’s striking in its own way. Nearer the Hospital are a few buildings that would have been known to Swift, including the Chelsea Physic Garden, opened in 1673. And some more welcome traces of greenery.  

I find the likeliest point at which Swift did his swim. This isn’t  part of the reconstruction.  Swimming in the Thames is now prohibited between Putney Bridge and Crossness. Besides, the contemporary river has been embanked to the point that it would be impossible to see the precise spot where Swift lost his napkin.  Although the foreshore is still full of the kind of sharp stones he felt underfoot.

I arrive at my destination – and not far behind Swift.  According to the basic app on my phone it’s taken me 1 hour 4 minutes, to go a distance of 2.8 miles, using 6464 steps.  With a bit of licence taken on my route, that’s a pretty accurate prediction by Swift sans app.  He went at a fair pace too. He was in his mid-forties at the time, and, we hope, wearing more clothes than for his swim. On a hot day that would have been a testing walk.

Looking over the bridge now, there is little sense of the village of the early 1700s –a hint of a street pattern around  Chelsea Old Church, but most of the buildings have gone. Swift’s domicile came well after the Thomas More years, and long before the impacts of World War Two. Both have left permanent imprints on the area.  

In Roper’s Gardens (named after More’s daughter, Margaret Roper), a relief by Jacob Epstein marks the sculptor’s time working in the area, from 1909 to 1914. The memorial to auxiliary firewoman Yvonne Green, one of five fire watchers who died when bombs were dropped on the Old Church in WW2, relates that Yvonne was not expected on the watch that evening, but had swapped shifts with another warden. (The names of all five are commemorated inside the Church. )

There is no reference to Swift anywhere. His stay was perhaps  too brief, although he certainly made the most of it14Memorials to Swift are all in Northern Ireland and the Republic, in places he resided or preached; including his self-penned tomb inscription at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (he would not have trusted the writing of an epitaph to anyone else). A forward thinker, he left a considerable sum towards the founding of St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin, which is still operating as a provider of mental health services. Or as he put it in ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’ : ‘He gave the little wealth he had, / To build a house for fools and mad’.

Workout concluded. Calories burnt: some. Despite the built-on fields,  the sad lack of open greenery, and the incessant traffic, it is possible to reconstruct an interesting walk around the neighbourhood in the footsteps of this most unlikely of health pundits.

Linking up to a tie-in recipe book may be a bit of a stretch however. Swift loved his exercise, but he didn’t seem to approach his food  in the same spirit at all.

ON rainy  days alone I dine,
Upon a chick and pint of wine
On rainy days I dine alone
And pick my chicken to the bone;
[…] In weather fine I nothing spend,
But often sponge upon a friend.
The Author’s Manner of Living’.


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