Our vintage baths

Alan Clawley on the role our past can play in the present.


Most of us like to keep some reminders of the past around us. Life would be poorer if, for example, there wasn’t a single car or motor-cycle more than 50 years old left in the world to grace our roads every now and then.

We might think these ageing machines technically obsolete and wouldn’t swap them for the latest models, but they remind us of where we came from and how much has changed since those pioneering days. At some point they became collectors items, painstakingly restored to their original condition, and treated like antiques. They have become part of our history. We might even have owned one once and now regret sending it to the scrap yard before it attained lucrative heritage status.

It’s the same with old buildings and other structures, such as canals and railways. Some old buildings can be moved into a museum such as Avoncroft and the Black Country Museum or put in a conservation area such as Coventry’s Spon Street, but most have to be looked after where they stand. The National Trust’s back-to-backs in Hurst Street are a good example.

Birmingham’s Victorian and Edwardian public baths were built more than a hundred years ago when the poorest houses had no bathrooms and there were no natural rivers or lakes nearby for people to safely swim in. The building of public baths followed the outward growth of the city. The very first was in Kent Street which was opened 1851, followed by Woodcock Street in 1860, Northwood Street in 1862, Monument Road, Ladywood in 1883 and Victoria Road, Aston in1892, They were all demolished, one by one, between 1920 and 1950.

A new series of public baths was opened during the first decade of the new century, the Edwardian era. Green Lane, Small Heath, was opened in 1902, listed Grade 2 and sold in a derelict state for a mosque/community centre. Tiverton Road was opened in 1906 and is due to be cloesd in 2015. Grove Lane, Handsworth, was opened in 1907, partly demolished, and adapted for social housing in the 1990s. Moseley Road was opened in 1907, listed since at Grade 2* and also due to be closed in 2015. Nechells was opened in 1910, closed in the 1980s and adapted by Birmingham Foundation as community resource centre in 2007.

The need for washing baths declined sharply when the inner city slums were cleared away and the Urban Renewal programme got going in the 1970s. Cheap air travel also made sunny bathing beaches easier to get to. The result is that Moseley Road, Birmingham’s only remaining example of an Edwardian public baths, faces an uncertain future at the hands of the City Council.

Perhaps an Edwardian-style swimming baths is not what Birmingham people have been led to expect for their regular recreational swim, but it is highly likely that many of them and even more from far away would love to visit and swim in a beautifully restored vintage swimming bath if not every week, at least now and then. The people who flock to the Severn Valley Railway or the Black Country Museum testify to this phenomenon. People visiting heritage attractions will almost certainly get there using the latest means of transport and go home to twentieth-century houses.

There is no contradiction in this. We don’t have to give up everything that’s old to enjoy the new. A wealthy country such as ours can surely afford to have both. 

4 thoughts on “Our vintage baths

  1. I am sure the well watered denizens of comfy suburbs like Dorridge or Sutton would rise up in arms if they were left with a crumbling under funded 100 yr old baths. Why must poor folk get left with someone’s idea of bathing in history. Give inner city Bham decent clean modern pools

    • Speaking as one of the ‘poor folk’ of inner city Brum, my son and I swim there every week and love it. It gives us both a sense of belonging, that this beautiful, grand and elegant space was built for people like us to enjoy. He’s only 2, but the ritual of walking up the road, paying for our ticket, chatting with the staff and then gazing up at the ceiling and splashing in the space full of natural light is so much a part of what we enjoy about our neighbourhood. We usually couple it with a visit to the ‘vintage’ library next door. Give me that over the crowded, cold ‘fun’ modern pool I endured a few months back. The suburbs can keep their modern pools thank you very much.

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