Kidderminster

Kidderminster Town Baths

Kidderminster Corporation Baths Mates Guide to Kidderminster – 1907

Article from Michael Loftus.

Kidderminster became one of the first town of its size (it had a population of about 20,000 people at the time) to have baths, wash house and swimming pool, when the Town Baths opened In Mill Street July 1855.

The move to establish the baths began when some 400 residents submitted a ‘memorial’ to the Town Council in 1851 requesting that the 1846 Baths and Wash Houses Act be adopted (this request itself might have been a response to an outbreak of cholera in the town two years earlier). The Town Council embraced this proposal with enthusiasm and set about to implement the idea.

This initial enthusiasm cooled more than a little when the prospective costs became clear particularly at a time when the Town’s economic bedrock – carpet manufacture – was facing fresh challenges from a new wave of mechanisation. Indeed the Council tried to abandon the idea of the Baths altogether but were advised that they couldn’t ‘un-adopt’ the legislation and that they needed to heed the strong public support for the baths.

The next few years were spent selecting and acquiring a site and negotiating a loan from the Public Works Commission. Ashpital and Whichcord, the leading architects in the field were appointed to design the facility. The project cost £3,335 3 shillings and 5 pence with the balance over a government loan of £3,000 being met directly from the rates.

The Baths comprised a swimming pool measuring 36 feet by 23 feet 6 inches and fifteen slipper baths (three male and two female in the first class and eight male and two female in second class). It was just a little smaller than the baths that Ashpital and Whichcord had designed for Bilston and Maidstone which each had 18/19 slipper baths. There were wash house facilities. In the first 28 days of operation there were almost 5,000 bathers – and within this total over 3,500 swimmers are recorded.

Ashpital and Whichcord had been convinced that the baths would cover their operating costs. They specifically advised that, in a more densely populated industrial area such as Kidderminster, this outcome should be even more assured than in Maidstone where they had a sense of income and costs from actual operational experience. This proved not to be the case; however, in Kidderminster, and by 1861, the Council were looking to close the baths on account of the losses being incurred.

A mechanical problem seemed to provide them with their opportunity and they determined not to replace/repair a boiler that had failed and thus cease the baths operation.
Public opinion swung again in to the fray. A new petition expressed concern at this step and stressed that ratepayers would be prepared to support the baths losses in view of the wider benefits to the community that were provided.

The Council also discovered that the 1846 Act required them to operate for a minimum of seven years (i.e. at least until 1862 in their case). Faced with this requirement and the views in the town, they reversed their decision and met the repair bill. They did however take the opportunity of losses made to close the wash house operation in 1864.

The views of the town came into play once again in 1870 when a petition requested the Council to establish Turkish Baths in the Mill Street Building. There was a (presumably smaller) counter petition against the Turkish Baths but the proposal went ahead and the former wash house space was converted into Turkish Baths – at a cost of some £400. The difference of opinion about the Turkish Baths continued for decades – some Councillors were very bemused, it would seem, by the ‘exotic’ nature of the practice of those fellow citizens and Councillor colleagues who frequented the Turkish Baths. Others, more prosaically, were agitated by the inappropriateness of municipal ownership of a facility they thought should be provided commercially if there was a demand (the Baths in Kidderminster seem unusual in being from the outset a public sector enterprise). The other side of the argument, supporting the Turkish Baths operation, solicited and received the strong support of the town’s medical practitioners as to the many benefits to health and general wellbeing of regular recourse to Turkish Baths. In any event, despite this ongoing debate they remained in operation.

Turkish Baths notwithstanding, from the 1880s onwards as the facility aged, as other towns built more modern facilities and, in particular, as swimming grew rapidly in popularity, the need to replace the Mill Street operation was a recurring topic.

In 1886-7, a proposal to build new baths (swimming, slipper and Turkish) to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was proposed to general delight but foundered in the face of business rate-payers opposition to costs and the general unwillingness to contribute the project via a public subscription to reduce the potential rates costs.
The next significant attempt to replace Mill Street came in 1900-01. Again the prospective costs were resisted by the business community but the Council were persuaded to take the somewhat ingenious measure of opening a redundant reservoir which at least provided additional summertime swimming facilities from 1901. These were described at the time as being the largest open air swimming pool in the Midlands.

The reservoir had been constructed in 1870-1, as one element of a comprehensive water supply and sewage management scheme. This whole scheme was badly engineered and was a major contributory factor to a serious outbreak of typhoid in 1884. Its remodelling required a new reservoir which opened in 1886. The ongoing need to fund the borrowing costs on the initial scheme and the later amendments were a not insignificant source of resistance to incurring further debt to build new baths.)

A decade or so later another attempt to build new baths was gathering force but was put in abeyance with the outbreak of the 1914-18 War.
Then finally, in 1931, some half dozen resolutions went back and forth through the council chamber in the course of less than a year, approving, cancelling and then approving again the construction of new swimming and slipper (but not Turkish) baths.

The well-rehearsed arguments from the past against the building of new baths due to the impact of costs on business were aired again as was the state of the national economy (in the depths of the 1930’s economic collapse). A final approval (by one vote) was eventually forthcoming and the new Castle Road Baths opened in August 1932.
Mill Street continued to function until 1935 for swimming and general bathing though the Turkish Baths there closed at the end of 1932. When Mill Street finally did close in October 1935 it had served the town for over eighty years.

The site of the old baths is currently occupied by a private leisure and fitness centre providing perhaps a modest measure of continuity with the old Town Baths.

(The open air swimming baths, provided as a temporary measure in 1901, continued to operate each summer until 1936 when the cost of providing filtration was seen as a barrier to further use and they closed. The site was eventually drained and used for housing development some twenty years later.)

 

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