50 Years in Baths – By Alf Thacker

Photograph Alf Thacker

This First article of a series of five was Published in Baths Service Vol.27 No.12 December 1968 p268 to 270.

Alf Thacker worked for Liverpool City Council Baths Department for over 50 years.

The ‘Fill and Empty’ Days

Apart from wages and working conditions which have changed considerably over the past fifty years, I wonder what would be the answer to the question; ‘What do you consider to be the greatest “break-through” or advance in the Baths Service during the past half-century?’

The answers no doubt would be many and varied but many will agree with me when I say that it was the application of continuous filtration and chlorination to swimming baths throughout the country which was introduced generally in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

This is not meant to imply that there were no continuous filtration plants in swimming baths prior to 1920; in fact a number of authorities had these in operation. The first in Liverpool was installed in 1909 but although Liverpool Baths Committee built four covered swimming baths between 1906 and 1909, only the last one had such a plant. A Royles, with the Aerator fitted on the roof, which was a source of wonder, not only to us ‘kids’ attending the baths, but to many others who had no idea what it was.

At this establishment the two plunge baths were filled with fresh water at the beginning of the season and to this was added seven tons of brine salt. These salt water baths then operated on the continuous filtration system and were emptied only at the end of the summer season when the small bath was closed for the winter and the large bath was converted to a public hall for dancing, lectures, etc.

Prior to the publication of the ‘Report on the Purification of Water of Swimming Baths’ by the Ministry of Health in 1925, most swimming baths operated on the ‘ Fill and Empty’ system. All those in the Baths Service in the ’30’s are well aware of this method whereby the bath was filled with fresh water usually at the beginning of the week.

At those establishments with only one plunge, clean water day was First Class, the next day Second Class and, if the water after two days did not appear dirty enough to warrant throwing away, then Second Class was continued. Where there were two plunge baths, one would be designated First Class and the other Second Class. The First Class was reserved for those who could afford to pay a higher admission fee for which they generally got good value, larger and more commodious dressing boxes, two or more towels, one large Turkish or diaper and one crush or linen. These towels were under the control of and issued by the Attendant and for an occasional 3d. tip a bather would be allowed to just help himself.

In addition there was the more important privilege – the exclusion of those dirty rough children from the local Board Schools who didn’t even wear bathing drawers and who thought nothing of splashing your clothing when you were leaving the bath – horrid children.

Of course girls from the local High School were permitted to use the First Class Plunge. This plunge was reserved one day per week for Ladies and the Second Class plunge two days per week for Girls.

 At these establishments it was customary for one plunge to be emptied each night including Saturdays and Sundays during the summer season. When the bathing was heavy then the First Class plunge had to take precedence for clean water and the Second Class had to be kept another day. ‘The rule of thumb for emptying the Second Class plunge was whether you could see the bottom of the deep-end. If the answer was ‘Yes’ and a quiet day was anticipated for the following day, well you just did not empty. Such a decision often led to many, anxious moments, especially if the day turned fine with the bathing heavier than expected and on occasions it would be necessary to place an extra attendant at the deep end to see that all those who dived in came up again.

During my fifty years there was one occasion when a body was found on the bottom of the bath after closing time but possibly there may have been others throughout the country which may have had some influence on the Ministry of Health and led to the publication of its 1925 Report.

A Ladies’ Swimming Team of the early twentieth century – Liverpool Baths Source Baths and Wash Houses Historical Archive

A Chore Removed

The constant filling and emptying of the plunge bath created extra work for the attendants who, when all the bathers had Ieft the water, had to open the main outlet valve to the drain and then chivvy the bathers out of the dressing boxes while they waited for the water to recede sufficiently for them to walk on the bottom of the bath at the shallow end. All the tiles on the bottom and walls had then to be scrubbed with deck brushes and chloride of lime. Particular attention being paid to the ‘tide-line’ and then the whole of the bath had to be hosed down. This cleaning process usually took about an hour for the large plunge and approximately 45 minutes for the smaller plunge which meant that when the last ticket was 8.30 p.m. You rarely got away before 10 p.m. This is certainly one chore now removed for which attendants should be grateful to the continuous filtration plant. However, even with the best filtration plant and the latest surface scum removal systems, it is still necessary for the attendant to clean the tide-line, which he now does every day by bending over from the bath side but it can be done in the morning before the bath opens rather than late at night when every­body else has gone home.

Another chore of the fill and empty system was the regular night duty for the stoker who had to manhandle anything from ten to twenty tons of fuel per week heating the plunges by direct steam injection ready for opening time next day. No wonder those were the spartan days of water temperatures in the order of 76o F September to April, 74o F. May and August, and 72o F. in June and July. At the present time temperatures exceeding 80o F. are quite regular. In this connection however far greater attention is now paid to the temperature of the plunge hall than in the ‘30’s when a shivering bather left the building much quicker. The new comfortable conditions have, of course, led to considerably increased attendances.

The Ministry of Health publication led to the installation of many Chlorination and continuous Filtration plants and from 1931 to 1936 17 such plants were installed in the Liverpool Baths, six of these were in open air baths and the period of turnover averaged four hours. Today it varies from 21/2 to 4 hours according to circumstances.

The continuous chlorination and filtration system produces bath water which is always safe and attractive in appearance and a plunge bath may not have to be completely emptied for several years unless there are essential repairs to be carried out. The millions of gallons of water which have been saved by the continuous filtration system must run into astronomical figures and those authorities who pay by the 1,000 gallons metered must have recovered the cost of the plans several times over. As the Liverpool Baths Committee does not pay directly for the water consumed or metered in its, estab­lishments then it could quite reasonably be expected that the Water Committee should have contributed to the cost of these plants. It is understood that this suggestion was put to the Water Department unofficially but the reply privately was not suitable for publication.

In the immediate post-war (2nd World War) period came the introduction of Break­point Chlorination which was a major ad­vance in the method of water sterilisation enabling plunge hash water to conform to Class 1 Drinking Water standard.

The next great change, whether this is termed progress or is just natural evolution of mankind, following the emancipation of women which began nearly 100 years ago, is in female bathing. Most baths establishments built in the 19th century and some built early in the 20th century had separate entrances for ‘Men’ and ‘Women’. One bath built in Liverpool in 1906 had the entrance for women way down the side street, the segregation of the sexes being a strict Victorian rule. In Liverpool it was not until early 1914 that, after much Committee discussion and argument, Family Bathing was permitted. Regulations con­trolling admission during these periods were strictly applied; males had to be accom­panied by females, young boys and girls with their Mothers and Fathers. This rule, of course led to the ‘adoption ‘ of many children at the baths entrance.

Males were restricted to entering or leaving the water only on one side of the bath and women on the other side, and heaven help the poor unfortunate male caught attempting to get out of the bath on the wrong side; he would he told to get dressed and leave the building immediately – he was a ‘Bounder’ who was up to no good.

Following the first-world-war many of these restrictions became just farcical and were ignored, until about 1925 when Mixed Bathing became a regular feature at those establishments where there were two plunge baths, one plunge being retained for use by males on four days per week and females on two days per week. Now of course mixed bathing is the order of the day in all baths.

The bathing attire of fifty years ago, and even twenty-five years ago, with costumes from neck to knee, contrasts greatly with the present two pocket handkerchiefs.

The Liverpool Ladies’ Rhythmic Swimming Team 1951 Source Baths and Wash Houses Historical Archive

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