Victoria Baths was, until 1993, a public swimming pool and sports venue in Manchester.
The building officially closed on 13 March 1993 because it had become too expensive for the City Council to run. Campaigners trying to save the baths at the time formed Friends of Victoria Baths and the Victoria Baths Charitable Trust. Holding steadfastly to their aim, the tireless work of these organisations has helped to secure funding for the building’s restoration.
The ultimate goal is to reopen at least one of the swimming pools and the Turkish Baths at some point in the future.
As is always the case with restoration projects of this scale, the vision of reopening the baths cannot be fulfilled overnight. A business plan and lottery bid were submitted in 1998 with a view to restoring the building for use as a healthy living centre. The bid was rejected but the building received a grant from English Heritage, which enabled essential work to be undertaken.
The baths caught the attention of the BBC, which in 2002, featured them in its Restoration series. They captured the imagination of the viewing public, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of the baths as the building they would most like to see restored
The first stage of the restoration began in 2007 and was completed in 2008 . The baths were able to secure funds for stage two the following year.
While the restoration work continues the building is opened for public events between April and October each year, and the funds raised help to support its upkeep and drive forward the restoration plans.
The Vintage Home Show, which I have now attended several times, was the event that led me to pay my first visit to the baths.
Whilst there I took up the offer of an organised tour, which explained the restoration programme, and more importantly, the rich history of what was described when it opened in 1906 as, “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country.” Such is the progress of the renovations that it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see why.
The high quality materials have stood the test of time and the baths are beautiful for their many decorative features, including the striking green tiles which line the entrance halls and stairways.
I haven’t managed to find out whether there is any significance of the green tiles, but similar ones appear in many of Manchester’s historical buildings including the Onward Buildings, the outside of Pevril of the Peak Pub, and in the entrance to the Council Offices that now contain Levenshulme Antiques Village. Maybe it was the fashion of the time, or maybe it was just what was most easily accessible.
I love wandering round Victoria Baths and taking in all the nooks and crannies, like the Turkish Baths, which still contain a whisper of opulence, despite being empty at the moment.
The Aerotone, which I can’t quite figure out if it would be like having a really good sports massage, or just plain scary.
I love the fact that the changing rooms beside the pools are still in tact, many with red and white striped curtains.
One of the original entrance ways has been restored and the reception room has even been supplied with a reel of tickets, just as visitors would have purchased in order to bathe.
It’s easy to get a sense of the history of a place, which has been at the heart of many great swimming careers.
Sunny Lowry, the fifth British woman to swim the English Channel, began her swimming career at Victoria Baths and is remembered in commemorative stained glass.
Other famous swimmers have included John Besford, who beat the Germans to win a swimming trophy that had been commission by Hitler to demonstrate Germany’s greatness at swimming before the Second World War. Roy and Jean Botham, children of Frank Botham who was the Superintendent of Victoria Baths from 1945-1960, were the first brother and sister to swim in the same Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952.
Much like today, the baths used to be used for activities other than swimming. In 1946, the Gala pool was covered with a floor and used for dances. In the 1950’s the pool was used for bowls in winter and in 1986 the Male’s 2nd Class Pool was converted in to a sports hall. No doubt all of these alternative uses were intended to bring much needed revenue to the baths, particularly during the coldest months.
Nowadays the baths are open for public events on the first Sunday of every month between April and October. Tours can also be booked during the week and the swimming pools have been used as unusual theatre spaces, (including recently in Romeo and Juliet as reviewed by Creative Tourist), to host beer festivals
and craft fairs.
The baths have also featured as location filming in many well known television programmes. You can even get married there.
The aim of bringing at least one swimming pool and the Turkish Baths back in to use one day remains and I get the sense that it might just happen.
Of course, it is essential that support from visitors continues. Whilst the baths are now largely closed for winter, you should definitely place a visit or two in to next year’s diary.
Before you leave the area, why not take a stroll to nearby Elizabeth Gaskell House, which is also being lovingly restored.
To keep up to date with events at Victoria Baths, you can visit the website here.
Fireplace and Beer fest photos courtesy of Chris Murren