It is called Manchester’s Water Palace but even that undersells it.
Victoria Baths, a magnificent edifice which sits quietly on an unassuming inner city street, is a glorious building. On opening in 1906, it was described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country”. The swimming, bathing and leisure facilities were instantly popular, replete with stained glass, terracotta, tiles and mosaic floors. Victoria Baths served the people of central Manchester for 87 years until it was closed and fell into disrepair.
Today, thanks to a team of committed staff and volunteers, Victoria Baths is close to capturing its early 20th century glory. Now a sought after venue for an eclectic range of events, including marriages, craft fairs and beer festivals, this Victorian monument can be enjoyed by people of all ages. But what of its contemporaries? Those once splendid public baths, the irreplaceable institutions that once provided municipal pools and a lifeline for the working classes?
There are 116 listed baths buildings in Britain, most built before 1936, of which only 52 are operational or in the process of being refurbished. Northern Soul spoke to Gill Wright, founder of Historic Pools of Britain (and development manager at Victoria Baths), about the future of these integral parts of our collective history.
Northern Soul: What is the current situation with the North West’s historic pools?
Gill Wright: Well, it’s not all bad. Certainly we have lost a lot of historic pools over the past 20 to 30 years, but the rate of pool closures has now slowed down. And the number of pools which have been saved, despite closure being threatened, has increased significantly.
Taking Manchester – Victoria Baths and Harpurhey Baths were closed many years ago – Victoria Baths is partially restored and will be an operating pool again one day, and Harpurhey is partially demolished and in use now as an arts and drama space for Manchester College. In the last couple of years, four more of Manchester’s historic pools have closed, so the council no longer operates any pre-war pools. But of those four, two are now being run by community trusts – Broadway Baths and Withington Baths. These groups join a growing number of community run pools around the country, especially in the North.
Twenty years ago, community run pools were quite a rarity. There was Chester City Baths in the North West and Congleton pool, that was about it. Tyledsley Baths near Wigan was taken over by a trust in 2012, Haslingden Baths in Rossendale is now well on the way to being re-opened and there are good number of community run pools in Yorkshire too, notably Bramley Baths in Leeds and the Zest Community pool in Sheffield.
The larger, older buildings remain quite a challenge in terms of re-opening or re-use. Whitworth Baths on Ashton Old Road is likely to be demolished soon and Collier Street Baths in Salford is in a really poor state.
At Victoria Baths we are encouraged what we see happening elsewhere. The re-opening of the Turkish Baths is the next phase of our restoration, and we are really excited about that, but we also look forward to swimming at Victoria Baths in the future.
NS: Why do you think it’s important to save these pools, and how can they become viable in the future?
GW: Many reasons. They are important as part of our built heritage, even the more modest buildings have fascinating period features which relate our social history. And some, like Victoria Baths, are architectural gems. They are just as important a part of our national heritage as stately homes and castles.
Historic Pools hold our social and sporting history. They were built to address public health issues and gradually took on the role of providing sports facilities too. They were the places our grandparents came for a bath, the places where our parents learnt to swim and the places where our swimming stars of the past trained and competed. We’re actually a great swimming nation – both in terms of swimming being the most popular participative sport and in terms of Britain leading the way, in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the development of competitive swimming. Our public pools played a big part in both. And historic pools were important social spaces. They had other facilities such as public laundries and some were used as dance halls in the winter months. They are rich in history and each pool has its own stories to tell.
They contribute to our sense of place and pride in local communities. Swimming plays a part in most people’s lives in some way and historic pools are highly valued by their local community, hence the large number of campaigns to save them. Historic pools are capable of providing services closely matched to local needs and run by communities themselves. The model of a social business is a good one for pools, though not the only successful model for running historic pools.
NS: What about the thriving pools in London and elsewhere?
GW: Historic Pools of Britain is collating data on the number of pools, the rate of closure and the successes. We don’t have firm information yet but I would say that the picture is somewhat different in the South. Leisure trusts now play a very important role in running public leisure facilities, they grew in London earlier and quicker than elsewhere and many historic pools in London are now run by leisure trusts.
Leisure trusts have proved very successful in optimising the commercial viability of pools and at the same time responded to local need. Indeed, I would say it is because they have responded well to local need that they improve viability. Leisure trusts have brought in much needed capital investment to historic pools and added new services to increase income. This has happened in the North West to some extent, but I would say less. The economies of running pools are different here.
Historic Pools of Britain exists to support all historic pools, whatever their operating model. We want to learn from each other and one of the important roles we play is bringing together the different sectors, private sector, not for profit, community and public sector, all of which are capable of running historic pools successfully.
NS: How have pools’ campaigners made a difference in bringing these pools back from the brink and raising awareness of this situation?
GW: By not giving up when a local authority says that a pool isn’t viable. By being determined to save important local facilities, by recognising the historic significance of their local pool as well as its value to the community as an operating facility, by researching, collecting, recording and sharing the history of their building, by recognising the important role these pools play in addressing local health needs. By doing it! Getting together, sharing skills, giving selflessly of their time to ensure pools are refurbished and kept open or re-opened, and continuing to do this to keep the pools running. It is not an easy task. But it is very worthwhile.
NW: How can Historic Pools of Britain help the communities that are fighting to keep their local pools open?
GW: We are facilitating mutual support by putting people in touch with each other and organising events so that people can learn from other pool operators or pool campaigns how they have achieved success. There is plenty of scope for being inspired by what has happened around the country.
Historic Pools of Britain is providing a collective voice for historic pools and achieving great media coverage. So the profile of historic pools is growing. This has to be a good thing and will provide a very positive influence, for example with politicians and funders. We are also working on shared promotion. We are going to set up a website which will complement pools’ own websites and begin to show the national picture, and we are looking at joint marketing exercises.
Historic Pools of Britain was founded by Gill Wright and is managed by Fido PR, Manchester
Photo Credit: Jon Parker Lee photography and the individual swimming baths