Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Unexpected Origins of Victorian Swimming Baths

My neighbour has three young girls and every Saturday morning, the family set off to the local pool for swimming lessons. It makes sense. We don’t live near the sea, but swimming is an invaluable skill for children to learn. The idea of the swimming pool as we know it originated in the 19th century – but their original purpose is perhaps unexpected because the very first public baths came about because of cholera – or rather to prevent it.
An original Victorian swimming pool

Shortly before Victoria came the throne, in 1832 an outbreak of cholera killed hundreds of thousands of people. This was at a time when few ordinary people had a bathroom to keep clean in, and the poor lacked even basic facilitates such as a “copper” to boil water to wash their clothes.
At the time, no one knew how cholera spread but most people believed that boiling bedding and clothing went some way to protecting them – and remember at this time many people relied on second-hand clothing and bed-sharing.
Kitty Wilkinson
"Saint of the slums"

Kitty Wilkinson and her husband Tom lived in a poor street in Liverpool. However, they were better off than most in that they owned a copper. In an effort to help her neighbours avoid cholera, and at personal risk to herself and her husband, she invited her neighbours to use her wash facilities (for a minimal payment to cover the cost of coal).
The story of Kitty’s generosity spread and the press took up her story. She became labelled “the saint of the slums”, but more than that the idea took hold of providing public facilities for washing. A movement a Public Wash and Bathhouse movement was born.

Ten years later, in 1842, the first public bathhouse was opened – in Liverpool, with Kitty and Tom Wilkinson as curators. By 1846 a legal act passed through Parliament which empowered local authorities to build equivalent facilities, paid for out of local taxes.
The first baths to open in London in 1846, in Glass House Yard, then Goulston Square in Whitechapel – serving some of the most deprived slums.
The baths had male and female areas, and were subdivided again by price. There were spacious baths supplied with hot water for those with cash to spare, or the economy version which was cramped – and you guessed it – supplied with cold water.

In addition, and cheapest of all, was the public plunge pool. This cost just 1/2 d and was within the reach of young working boys. No soap was allowed, it being said a brisk rub down was adequate for a basic bath. The same unfiltered water remained in the pool for a full week (!) during which silt and dirt accumulated.
But the boys who used these plunge pools weren’t all that bothered about cleanliness- because splashing around in the water with their friends they had fun. They larked around and spent rare moments of fun playing together. Getting clean was a secondary consideration to them.
Bradford, Manningham Pool

But other bath users were less than impressed and bigger plunger pools were built and the boys sidelined to smaller pools. But over time, the idea of having fun in water stuck and it was the baths that suffered and fell out of use, leaving the plunge pools to be enjoyed as “swimming pools”.

The first few swimming pools were relatively small, but as their popularly grew, they became larger and larger – and recognised as the forerunner of the swimming pools my neighbour visits every Saturday morning. 

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