Victoria Baths, Manchester

Date Visited: October 2008

Victoria Baths is a former public baths in Manchester, completed in 1906 and closed in 1993 amidst a public outcry. They have been partially restored in the interim period and during the summer months, tours are given to the public every Wednesday - this visit was an organised trip with the forum. Full details of how and when to visit are here.

History taken from the official website

The plan to provide Baths to the three wards of Longsight, St Luke's and Rusholme was first considered by the Baths and Wash-Houses Committee of Manchester Corporation in 1897.

They advertised for offers of land in the district and purchased the site on High Street (now Hathersage Road) for £750 in 1899. The plans and estimates were then the responsibility of the City Surveyor.

In June 1902, Mr Henry Price was appointed as the first City Architect. He became responsible for carrying out this ambitious public building project, which would include 3 swimming pools, 64 wash-baths, Turkish and Russian Baths, clubrooms, boilers and calorifiers and a substantial 4 bedroomed flat for the Superintendent of the Baths and Wash-Houses.

The building of Victoria Baths was a contentious matter throughout the period of planning and building. The original estimates were £57,000, almost twice the usual cost of building a public baths. This sum was considered too much public money to spend and so the plans were amended. Messers Normanton & Sons were contracted as builders for the sum of £39,316 10s 0d. Building commenced and a foundation stone was laid in the 1st Class Males / Gala Pool in 1903.

During the building period, the cost of completing the Victoria Baths rose steadily. Whilst the city councilors were aware that they were spending rate payers money, and some deplored public expenditure on "expensive and unnecessary luxuries" other members enthusiastically supported the construction of a bigger and better public baths but also wanted to ensure that running and repair costs were kept to a minimum. So, for example, £4,788 was spent in boring a well and providing storage tanks, filtering and aerating plant. This well provided clear water and proved less expensive than the sometimes discoloured town water. All the wires for the electric lighting were placed in watertight pipes and Terrazzo and tiled floors were installed instead of the usual spar. There were many other costly features: stained glass windows throughout the building, floor to ceiling tiles in the 1st Class Males Entrance Hall and the Turkish Bath Suite, screens, rails and balustrading made of polished baywood and pitch pine and ornamental ironwork in the turnstiles and the gala balcony.

By 1905 the cost of completing the building had climbed to over £59,000 and The Baths and Wash-Houses Committee had to defend their decision to spend such a sum. The committee chair stated in a letter; "With regard to the total probable expenditure of £59,144, the committee beg to inform the council that their desire throughout has been to have these Victoria Baths properly adapted in every detail for the purpose they have to serve. This has increased the first cost, but the Baths are so constructed that it is anticipated that the cost of maintenance will be materially reduced"

From 1906 to 1993 the Victoria Baths provided the residents of Central Manchester with a wide range of facilities. At the time of opening, few of the houses in the area had bathrooms, so the slipper baths or wash baths were an important amenity, providing a 'real bath' for many people.

The Victoria Baths were built with three distinct sections - Males 1st Class, Males 2nd Class and Females. Each class of user had their own entrance, swimming pool and slipper baths. Mixed bathing was introduced in Manchester with great caution in 1914 and by the 1920's mixed bathing sessions were held every Sunday morning at Victoria Baths in the 1st Class Pool. This enabled families to swim together for the first time.

Very many children learnt to swim at Victoria Baths, often walking to the baths from local schools. Various incentive schemes encouraged children to develop their proficiency: in the 1930's pupils swimming 8 lengths before the age of 13 received a free 2nd class pass for a year. Those swimming 20 lengths by the age of 13 received a 1st class pass.

Victoria Baths continued to be used during the second world war, although the swimming club suspended activities. One Manchester resident recalls spending his Sunday mornings in the war years diving in the deep end of Victoria Baths for sixpence's thrown in by American GI's sitting on the balcony.

The 1st Class Pool was designed so that it could be floored over during the winter months and used as a venue for dances, concerts and lectures. In the fifties music was provided by the Phil Moss Orchestra, Henry Hall and other lesser known bands. Many a romance started at Victoria Baths as couples danced waltzed and later jived on the boards covering the empty pool. In the 1980's the 2nd Class Males Pool was floored over and the cubicles removed. This pool hall was then used as an indoor sports hall.

In 1952 the first municipal Aeratone therapeutic bath in England was installed at Victoria Baths. This is what we would now call a jacuzzi. Along with the Turkish Baths the Aerotone was a very popular facility and both were used right up until the time the baths were closed in 1993. The Turkish Bath, as well as providing rest and relaxation, has been a popular meeting place for business people over the years. It seems that many a deal has been struck, or a new business venture planned, whilst lying semi-naked in the hot rooms or whilst cooling off in the opulent Rest room.