HISTORY, ROMANCE AND...CATS!
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a vet by day and author of intelligent historical fiction by night. Grace is an avid reader and believes that smart people need to read romance - as an antidote to the modern world!
Grace is also obsessed by all things feline.
The Unexpected Origins of Victorian Swimming Baths
My neighbour has three young girls and every Saturday morning, the family set off to the local pool for swimming lessons. It
makes sense. We don’t live near the sea, but swimming is an invaluable skill
for children to learn. The idea of the swimming pool as we know it originated
in the 19th century – but their original purpose is perhaps
unexpected because the very first public baths came about because of cholera –
or rather to prevent it.
An original Victorian swimming pool
Shortly before Victoria came the throne, in 1832 an
outbreak of cholera killed hundreds of thousands of people. This was at a
time when few ordinary people had a bathroom to keep clean in, and the poor
lacked even basic facilitates such as a “copper” to boil water to wash their
At the time, no one knew how cholera spread but most
people believed that boiling bedding and clothing went some way to protecting
them – and remember at this time many people relied on second-hand clothing and
Kitty Wilkinson "Saint of the slums"
Kitty Wilkinson and her husband Tom lived in a poor
street in Liverpool. However, they were better off than most in that they owned
a copper. In an effort to help her neighbours avoid cholera, and at personal
risk to herself and her husband, she invited her neighbours to use her wash
facilities (for a minimal payment to cover the cost of coal).
The story of Kitty’s generosity spread and the press took
up her story. She became labelled “the saint of the slums”, but more than that
the idea took hold of providing public facilities for washing. A movement a
Public Wash and Bathhouse movement was born.
Ten years later, in 1842, the first public bathhouse was
opened – in Liverpool, with Kitty and Tom Wilkinson as curators. By 1846 a
legal act passed through Parliament which empowered local authorities to build
equivalent facilities, paid for out of local taxes.
The first baths to open in London in 1846, in Glass House
Yard, then Goulston Square in Whitechapel – serving some of the most deprived
The baths had male and female areas, and were subdivided
again by price. There were spacious baths supplied with hot water for those with
cash to spare, or the economy version which was cramped – and you guessed it –
supplied with cold water.
In addition, and cheapest of all, was the public plunge
pool. This cost just 1/2 d and was within the reach of young working boys. No
soap was allowed, it being said a brisk rub down was adequate for a basic bath.
The same unfiltered water remained in the pool for a full week (!) during which
silt and dirt accumulated.
But the boys who used these plunge pools weren’t all that
bothered about cleanliness- because splashing around in the water with their
friends they had fun. They larked around and spent rare moments of fun playing together.
Getting clean was a secondary consideration to them.
Bradford, Manningham Pool
But other bath users were less than impressed and bigger
plunger pools were built and the boys sidelined to smaller pools. But over
time, the idea of having fun in water stuck and it was the baths that suffered and fell out of use, leaving the plunge
pools to be enjoyed as “swimming pools”.
The first few swimming pools were relatively small, but
as their popularly grew, they became larger and larger – and recognised as the
forerunner of the swimming pools my neighbour visits every Saturday morning.