Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A walk around Victoria Baths

Prior to last weekend’s local history fair, volunteers at Victoria Baths received the portrait of one of Longsight’s most famous sons – an Olympic swimmer who learnt his strokes in the Edwardian pools. Michael Pooler went along for viewing and took a tour around a building steeped in local history and sociological significance.

Last wednesday saw the arrival – or rather the long-awaited return – of Rob Derbyshire to Victoria Baths, in the form of a portrait painted in 1948. Rob was the son of the first ever superintendent of the baths and won an Olympic gold medal as part of the GB water polo team in 1900, as well as later on taking them to the 1936 Games as trainer. Depicted proudly in a swimming suit bearing the insignia of Great Britain the portrait is a fitting tribute to a man who was once a feted star in this part of Manchester.

My volunteer tour guide, Barry Johnson, tells me that the seated balconies which encircle the principal pool would be teeming full of supporters at water polo matches – back then a hugely popular sport.

“In those days Rob Derbyshire would have been a local hero, like Premier League stars today.”

The first part of the tour consists of visiting the basement archives which house hundreds of documents and objects related to the baths such as trophies, swimming costumes and minute-books of association meetings. It also boasts a large audiovisual collection with interviews from older local residents recounting their memories of the baths. Much of the archives relate to ordinary peoples’ experiences and Barry is keen to impress the importance of this aspect of social history, with particular emphasis on maintaining the oral tradition of passing history from one generation to another by spoken word.

“Whereas most organisations involved in the preservation of sports facilities focus only on the records and achievements of celebrated sportsmen and women, we are interested in ordinary people and their experiences.”

“In this respect the baths are fascinating as they are rich in social and political history.”

Upon walking through the main entrance of the baths you are struck immediately by its magnificence: brilliant emerald green tiles fired in Salford adorn the walls; floors covered by mosaic patterns; and luxurious fully ceramic banisters lead upstairs. It is little wonder that the building is Grade II listed. So it remains a matter of some mystery why to this day it has only been partially restored. Built in 1906 by the Council, it was the main swimming pool in Manchester for 86 years until its closure in 1993 when it was considered too expensive to keep running. Since then a dedicated group of volunteers – the Friends of Victoria Baths – have worked towards its restoration.

As we talk about the origins of the baths, my guide puts to rest oft-repeated myths which portray Public Baths as a benevolent gift from philanthropists of the period. While this was a factor in their creation, there was also a degree of self-interest – namely, concerns of public health and hygiene.

“In Manchester at the turn of the 20th Century the working and middle classes lived in greater proximity to one another. The wealthy were worried about diseases spreading from the lower class areas to their own and so the baths were built as part of a public health programme.”

The baths originally consisted of three pools: men’s first class, men’s second class and the ladies’ pool. While it is easy to attribute the gender separation to prevailing social cultural norms of the era, the distinction of quality – based upon the ability to pay – is revealing of social attitudes and how class played a defining role in society.

For even the engineering of the swimming pools tells uneasy truths about social stratification of the day and sheds light on the treatment of lower social classes – especially women. The pools were fed with water for many years by a nearby Artesian well, dug deep into the ground. Water would be pumped into the first class pool and, on entering its filtration system, would then be recycled first into the men’s second class and finally the ladies’. What this meant was men who could not afford the most expensive tariff would swim in increasingly dirty water while women were effectively treated as sub-citizens, permitted only to bathe in the muck of others. This is echoed in the decoration: while the first class entrance is one of breathtaking Edwardian elegance, the others are far less ornate and more functional.

Such an arrangement would of course be unthinkable nowadays in our society where equality and eliminating discrimination are sacrosanct. But it requires no more than a quick examination of private member gyms’ facilities compared with decrepit public leisure centres to see how new forms of social division manifest and justify themselves.

From this perspective the building is a case study in how the manipulation of public spaces has a subtle – but extremely powerful – effect of social control and segregation. The easing of gender segregation began a gradual process from 1914 onwards, however my guide tells me of how there is a growing demand for women only swims nowadays in particular from the Muslim community.

The bathing habits of users is another factor indicative of prevailing living conditions of the early 20th century Manchester. On the day before the weekly change of the water, so-called 'Dirty Day' due to the rank state of the water, entrance was cheaper. These days were far busier, highlighting the paucity of disposable income of Mancunians and where priorities lay. Before the introduction of chlorine in water for reasons of hygiene, breakouts of infectious diseases caused the baths to be closed for reasons of public health.

Equally, the existence of slum houses without basic wash facilities across Manchester accounts for the continuing use of individual cubicles with bathtubs until the early 1970s. Barry tells me an anecdote of a young man from the west coast of Ireland, a region marked by indigence, who had come to work as a labourer in England. He was thrilled by the facilities, commenting “you get your own bathtub; there’s a towel and everything!”

This aptly illustrates how the two-fold nature of the function of the baths was played out along socio-economic lines. While the middle and upper classes – who largely had access to baths at home – used the baths as a source of leisure and recreation, for many families during industrial times it was a necessary amenity for hygiene.

That the baths hosted a broad spectrum of Manchester society from working class families to the upper echelons of business and even the criminal fraternity is symbolised by the once-lavish Turkish baths. Local legend has it that well-known gangsters would seal their deals in the hot dry heat, reserved for those who could afford the expense.

The establishment was also pioneering in the domain of hydrotherapy, being the first municipal baths in Britain to have installed an ‘Aerotone’ in 1952. This device, consisting of a steel tank sunk into the floor in which springs of hot water were pumped, is similar to a modern-day Jacuzzi. It was used to rehabilitate and treat injuries; among its users at one point were the players and physio staff of football clubs Manchester United and Manchester City, many years before the explosion of revenues in football meant they could afford their own facilities.

The ultimate goal of the Friends of the Baths is to restore the building to its former functional glory. A massive step was taken in this direction when it became the first project to win the BBC2 Restoration series which saw funding to the tune of £3.5m in 2003. It currently receives support from the Lottery, English Heritage and Manchester City Council.

Nowadays the building is home to various activities: from exhibitions of up and coming artists, a performance space for secondary school amateur dramatics and the local history fair to being used as a scene for shooting of TV drama Life on Mars.

So what does the future hold? As of today there is still no national swimming museum in Britain and the grandeur and history of the baths justifies its consideration as a potential site. But the existence of other, more modern swimming pools and the increasing popularity of private membership gyms pose an obstacle to funding.

“We are working with the Council to decide on a future use for the Baths, as well as improving access for the community. It is a fantastic building, rich in history, that deserves to be preserved and restored,” says Neil Bonner, the project manager.

Until then, volunteers will continue to service a grand building which offers a penetrating and stirring snap-shot of Mancunian society across a broad time-span.

Words: Michael Pooler
Images: Courtesy of Friends of Victoria Baths

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