Water palace

Victoria Baths, Chorlton-cum-Medlock, Manchester

Victoria Baths, Chorlton-cum-Medlock, Manchester

Building projects overrun their budgets more often than not, and sometimes the reasons are heinous.  Sometimes, though, whether through blameworthy incompetence or honest accident, the results are priceless.

When the Victoria Baths at Chorlton-cum-Medlock on the south side of Manchester opened in 1906, the Lord Mayor, Mr J Herbert Thewlis, called it “a water palace of which every citizen of Manchester is proud”.

The building was designed by the Manchester City Architect, Henry Price, in exuberant red brick and yellow faience, contained three swimming pools, Turkish and Russian baths in the grandest surroundings municipal enterprise could contrive.  It’s a festival of tiles, mosaic and church-quality stained glass.

However, the Manchester Guardian, while lauding the splendour of “…probably the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country…” added, “…But the cost has been heavy…”  The amount was reported to be £54,144 – double the average cost of such facilities at the time.

To the accusations of municipal extravagance the Chairman of the Baths Committee, Alderman Rothwell, retorted –

He would recommend the Baths Committee to do nothing that he would not do on his own account and he had gone so far as to say, in answer to these criticisms, that if Manchester City Council should happen to be dissatisfied with that institution and should pass a resolution to the effect that it was on sale, the City Council had a purchaser tomorrow who would pay them every penny it had cost.

It’s no accident that the Victoria Baths stood on the border between an increasingly densely populated working-class district and the more well-to-do but declining suburbs beyond.

It was actually three separate baths – the First Class Male Bath was designed with raked gallery seating for spectators, separate slipper baths, and a direct link to the Turkish Baths, the more functional Second Class Male Bath and, lastly, the Female Bath.

Fresh water was piped to the First Class Male Bath, from which it was filtered and transferred to the Second Class Male Bath, then passed finally to the Female Bath.  Oral testimony recalls that these changes of water took place on Thursdays and Sundays, and that local users tended to avoid swimming on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The Victoria Baths operated with few alterations until 1993:  its closure caused an immediate outcry and the formation of the Friends of the Victoria Baths and the Victoria Baths Trust.  Ten years later the Baths won the BBC Restoration competition, and since then £5 million has been spent making the place weatherproof and fit for further use.

There’s still some way to go before the Baths is fully operational again.  Details of the project and of opening-days and events can be found at http://www.victoriabaths.org.uk/visit.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

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