The History of Public Swimming Baths in Manchester

Great Britain and in particular Manchester has a rich history in public swimming baths. The country’s first public baths was developed in Manchester in 1781 by the Manchester Infirmary as a way of raising funds for its medical work and went under the auspicious tile of the ‘Manchester Infirmary, Lunatic Asylum and Public Baths’. The Baths were located at what is now Piccadilly and were recorded by the Manchester Guardian as still in use until 1845.

The early public baths in the UK were primarily funded by the private sector during the late 18th Century. It wasn’t until passing of the Baths and Wash Houses Act of 1846, which empowered local authorities to borrow or raise funds to construct public baths, that the development of public baths really took off. Unlike other cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool however Manchester did not adopt the 1846 act and the only public baths in the City were developed by local philanthropists. Sir Benjamin Heywood gifted Miles Plattiing Baths in 1852 and the charitable organisation the Manchester and Salford Baths & Laundries Company developed Greengate Baths, Salford (1880) Mayfield Baths, Ardwick (1858) and Leaf Street, Hulme (1860). Greengate Baths still stands derelict today, Mayfield Baths was destroyed in an air raid in 1941 and Leaf Street was demolished in 1976.

In 1877 Manchester Corporation made a decision to become actively involved in the provision of public baths and acquired the assets of the Manchester & Salford Baths and Laundries Company. The Corporation also embarked upon a programme of developing its own facilities and by 1894 it had 9 operational baths. An active swimming network developed between baths with a regular programme of gala’s, championships and water polo matches. At New Islington Baths the world’s first swimming record was recorded in 1889.

During the early part of the 20th Century Manchester became Britain’s leading authority in baths provision operating more indoor pools (32 in total) than any other authority. Six new pools were built between 1904 and 1913 with the jewel in the crown being Victoria Baths in 1906 at a cost of £59,939, the equivalent of £35 million today. Upon opening Victoria Baths was described by the Manchester Guardian as “probably the most splendid bathing institution in the country”.

In 1904 the district of Withington became part of the City of Manchester and in 1913 the City built Withington Baths for the princely sum of £17,426, equivalent to approximately £10m in today’s terms. Withington Baths were designed by the City Architect Henry Price and boasted 2 pools, male & female and 28 baths. Withington went on to become the first baths in the country to introduce mixed bathing.
Today Withington is the one of only 3 pre-1914 Manchester Baths remaining and the only one still in use as a swimming baths. Of the other two Harpurhey has been subsumed within the Manchester College Campus and Victoria lies empty.

The interwar years saw Manchester develop three more new baths at Levenshulme, Chorlton and Moston which with two outdoor pools meant the Manchester Baths Committee operated a grand total of 35 pools in the City, the highest number in the country.

Mayfield Street and Leaf Street baths were lost to 2nd World War air raids however Sharston Baths was built as a temple of modernity in 1961 complete with Olympic size pool, high diving boards and under floor heating.

The decline of Manchester’s swimming estate began during the economic recessions of the 1970’s and 1980’s which saw 8 of the City’s pools close with more to follow gradually. The flagship Sharston baths lasted just 28 years and was demolished in 1989 and despite a public protest the former civic monument Victoria Baths closed its doors in 1993.

The Thatcher years saw the introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering legislation which resulted in many swimming pools falling out of the direct of local authorities including Manchester where Serco, private facilities management company, manage the Councils leisure offer.

In 2000, as part of the new Commonwealth Games facilities, Manchester opening the Aquatics Centre and today, from a peak of 35 pools just 7 public swimming facilities survive.

In late 2012, in response to central Government funding cuts, the City Council announced their intention to close Withington, Levenshulme, Miles Platting and Broadway baths with imminent effect and Chorlton in 2015 to be replaced with new pools at Levenshulme, Hough End and Beswick.

Following considerable public protest against the proposal to close Withington Baths the Save Withington Baths campaign was formed and after some negotiations the Council agreed to give Withington Baths a two year stay of execution with a view to the community looking to operate the baths thereafter as a community enterprise. The Love Withington Baths organisation was then set up to pursue this objective.

Levenshulme, Broadway and Miles Platting baths were also subsequently granted reprieves.

English Heritage’s research on historic British pools ‘Great Lengths’ notes that Manchester’s great achievement in the creation of the greatest British estate of wonderful swimming pools for its citizens was “a product of Mancunian drive and determination which embodies so many of the qualities, beliefs and talents that made British urban life the benchmark for other nations to follow at the dawn of the 20th Century.”

English Heritage goes on to state that our British swimming pools “are buildings for which, quite literally, local authorities, architects and engineers, builders and craftsmen, and most importantly rate payers have gone to great lengths to procure, and which generations of superintendents, attendants, engineers and maintenance crew have nurtured with skill and dedication. It no wrests with the current generation to ensure that their efforts are matched by our own.”

With this in mind it is also noting the comments of Keith Ashton Chief Executive of S&P Architects the architects behind many of the country’s most recent and high profile pool developments most notably the 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre:

“pool designers of today can no longer assume it is better to demolish and rebuild rather than to preserve and upgrade existing pools.

The re-use of historic pools can and do deliver economic and social sustainability, not only by investing in the fabric of buildings but also by ensuring that there core activities are more directly targeted to the needs and demands of the community.”

The history of Withington Baths >>