Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Vestry of St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey, later the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, were rightly very proud of their public baths. The Vestry was one of the first local authorities to adopt the Bath and Wash-houses Act of 1846 which permitted local authorities to borrow against the rates for the purposes of building facilities where the poor were able to wash and bathe. This Act had been passed as a result of a Royal Commission into the Sanitary State of Large Towns and Populous Districts which identified lack of facilities where the poor were able to keep themselves clean as leading to ill-health and the spread of disease. Often living in densely populated and often insanitary conditions, access to cheap bathing facilities was seen as a means of enhancing health and well-being. The emphasis would be on the provision of amenities for the working classes who would pay a lower rate than the middle classes which led to the practice of both first and class baths being provided.
By 1851, Commissioners for Public Baths and Wash-Houses in Bermondsey had been appointed who advertised for a suitable plot of land. One was found on the corner of Spa Road and Neckinger where previously a tanners had been situated. The foundation stone was laid by Mr G Bevington of Neckinger Mills tanning family on 25 August 1953 and the baths completed and opened in July 1854. In the first six months there were 61,899 bathers and 4,236 using the clothes washing facilities which jointly produced an income for that period of just over £873. It was a simple, mid-Victorian building and The Swimming Baths of London, 1870 gives the following description of the interior and facilities:
“This bath is 13 yards long by 9 wide. The sides are of white porcelain tiles, the top row having an ornamental blue pattern. Bottom of white glazed bricks. Depth from 3 ft 6 in. to 5 ft 6 in. The ceiling, of tasteful iron work, nicely painted, forms a double slope, in which there is plenty of glass to illuminate the bath well. The bathing boxes, 34 in number, are at both ends of bath, 18 at the deep end, in two tiers, 14 at the shallow end similarly arranged. They are roomy, neatly painted, and are provided with mirrors and curtains in place of doors. There is a broad footway in front of the boxes, and a gangway across the water at one side, leading from one end to the other, and which, being about 5 feet above the water, may be used as a spring-board. Walls painted in oil colour rise from the water on both sides. The water is quite clear. There is a second class bath precisely the same in dimensions, the only difference being that the boxes are not painted nor furnished with mirrors or curtains, and that there is no ornamental border round the top of the bath.”
By 1920, the baths and wash-houses had become both dilapidated and out of date and Bermondsey Metropolitan Council decided to erect a new building “in keeping with more modern ideas and requirements.” A site was acquired on the corner of Grange Road and Bacon Grove and a grand building erected in a style to reflect the civic pride shown by local councils throughout the country at that time. The Bermondsey Guide of 1928/29 describes the new building at a time when it was estimated only one house in 500 had a bathroom:
“Unavoidable difficulties in obtaining possession of the site purchased for the new building in Grange Road coupled with the general strike of May 1926 delayed building operations but the work progressed rapidly once it was put in hand and the completed building was opened on September 24 1927.
“Externally the building, simple and dignified in design, is an ornament to the borough and one of the best pieces of municipal architecture in London. Internally it is the last word in fitting and equipment and all the more noteworthy because it was erected by direct labour – the only public baths to be so erected in London.
"Direct labour was employed not only in the general trades including the ferro-concrete construction work, the manufacture of the patent stone used and of the whole of the joinery. All this work was carried out by the Council’s employees in the council’s workshops or on the site. The electrical installation was also carried out by the borough electricity department by direct labour.
“The baths are a complete modern establishment in every detail and comprise slipper baths for men and women, two swimming baths, Turkish and Russian baths and a public laundry. The first class swimming bath is 100 feet long and 39 feet wide, and is equipped with a diving stage. It has a fine vaulted roof, a public gallery and rows of collapsible teak dressing rooms which will form a wainscot when the bath is in use as a hall. This splendid bath will be used in winter as an Assembly Hall when it will be covered a removable floor and thus be usable for dances, meetings and cinema shows. There is a fully equipped cinema room.
“Amongst numerous other striking features of these magnificent baths may be noted its vacuum cleaning plants, its intercommunication telephones and its emergency gas service. Its public laundry, too, with its forty drying horses, each operated by its own air heater and fan, its power driven mangles and electric irons is a boon which the housewives of the borough will not be slow to appreciate.”
The old baths in Spa Road had been demolished and grandiose municipal offices erected on the site which have now been converted into residential apartments called Bath House Lofts. The Grange Road baths suffered structural damage during World War II but were not closed until 1973. The building was demolished and is now the location for flats.