Swimming is Britain’s most popular participation sport. Nearly one in five people swim at least once a month, with around 80 million visits to swimming pools recorded every year.
But what of the pools themselves? For some swimmers historic public baths are aquatic palaces to be preserved at all costs. For others they bring back chilling memories of chlorinated water, damp cubicles and sagging woollen costumes.
Surprisingly, although public baths have formed a vital part of British life since an 1846 Act of Parliament, their story has never been told in popular form. Until now. In Great Lengths, Dr Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis trace the social and architectural development of indoor public baths and pools, from the earliest subscription baths of the Georgian period to the current generation of leisure pools with their flumes and potted palms.
The golden era of pool design fell between 1880–1914, when over 600 baths were constructed, many rich in architectural detail and technological innovation.
In Manchester, the magnificent Victoria Baths, completed in 1906 – and in 2003 the winner of BBC Television’s Restoration series – set new standards for opulence, with three separate First and Second class pools for men and women, Turkish Baths, gorgeous tiling and extensive laundry facilities. Birmingham’s Moseley Road Baths (1907), London’s Haggerston Baths (1906) and similar establishments in Hull, Nottingham and Glasgow equally reflected the civic pride of their creators, as greater awareness of hygiene and physical fitness brought safe swimming and recreation to the urban masses.
A further burst of activity between the wars saw a new generation of concrete and glass Art Deco baths in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as Northampton, Wakefield, Rochdale, Crewe and Blackpool. In the 1960s these were joined by classic Modern designs in Coventry, Crystal Palace and Edinburgh.
Great Lengths is no exercise in nostalgia. Although over a hundred pre-1945 baths remain in active use and are much loved by swimmers, many more are under threat, or are closed and the subject of long running campaigns, in Glasgow, Bristol, Manchester and London. Numerous post war pools have also closed. For this reason, as well as telling a fascinating tale, Great Lengths offers an important reference for anyone involved in the current debate, whether as swimmers or providers.
Packed with archive and contemporary illustrations, and with 56 case studies of surviving historic baths, Great Lengths is the companion volume to Liquid Assets, an earlier Played in Britain title, concerned with outdoor pools and lidos.
Dr Ian Gordon, a former competitive swimmer, is the Chief Medical Officer for British Swimming and has been researching the history of swimming pools for over 25 years. Great Lengths is the first time his knowledge and archive has been made available to the public. Simon Inglis is the editor of the Played in Britain series and an architectural historian specialising in sporting and recreational buildings. Rebecca Adlington learnt to swim at the Sherwood Baths in Mansfield, built in 1934, and is the first British swimmer to have won more than one medal at an Olympic games since 1908.
Great Lengths: The historic indoor swimming pools of Britain by Dr Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis, foreword by Olympic double gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, is published by English Heritage. Visit www.playedinbritain.co.uk to order your copy