BARTON HILL SWIMMING BATHS

To understand the history of Barton Hill Swimming Baths one has to look at the history of the provision of Baths in Bristol and of the social conditions of Victorian and Edwardian Bristol. The houses of industrial areas were quickly built and only a few would have had running water and the weekly bath would have been in a portable tin bath. At that time sanitary conditions and personal hygiene was very poor. There were no adequate arrangements for the disposal of waste and sewage, consequently the spread of diseases such as cholera was rife.

It was because of this that Town Councils came under increasing pressure to improve public health facilities. In 1846 the Baths and Wash Houses Act was passed forcing Councils to form a Committee to provide washing facilities for the poor. The first washhouse put into Bristol was at Broad Weir in 1849 after two severe cholera epidemics. This was followed by the Mayors Paddock Baths in 1870 which provided for first and second class bathers. These early baths were used mainly by women for washing clothes and by young boys, most men and older boys from this area would have used the Feeder and other parts of the River Avon.

During the 1870s and 1880s sport as a form of recreation became important. Schools began to use the Baths. In 1883 of the 10,305 boys in Elementary Schools in Bristol only 384 could swim but it wasn't long before many more learnt to swim. Soon Swimming clubs were formed outside school hours and competitions between different parts of Bristol developed. During this time the water supply improved in quality and the number of houses that had running water increased. The City Council recognised these improvements and made a radical change in their approach to public health. They moved away from the idea of just improving the health of the community to the development of the physical health of the individual through exercise and leisure. The first major project was the opening up at great cost of Jacobs Wells Swimming Baths in 1884.

Taking into consideration that more of these facilities were needed, in 1898 Bristol's Bath and Wash Houses Committee were prompted to travel throughout the City studying possible sites for new bathing units. Maze Street was chosen as an adequate site for development. During August and September of that year the early preparations went ahead, additional land was purchased including a saw mill adjacent to the gardens of the vicarage of St. Luke's Church and by 1898 the early plans were drawn up and accepted by the Council. The plan consisted of a swimming pool 75 feet in length and 30 foot in width. There was to be six first class private baths for men, 18 second class, 10 womens' baths and 12 spray baths. The estimated cost was twelve thousand one hundred and five pounds.

From the original plan many changes were made. In order to gain extra revenue, the Council fealt that the pool could be used in the closed Winter season (October to April) as a public hall for various types of entertainment. So the new plan added galleries and a moveable floor.

The first foundations were laid in February 1902, this was over three years since the plans were drawn up. The Barton Hill ratepayers' association continually wrote to the council to speed up construction but construction progress remained just as slow. The Council pressurised the builders for an opening date of July the 11th. 1903. The pool was opened on that date but it was not until a year later before it was fully completed.

The baths were constructed principally of red brick fronting onto Maze Street with slate roof and red brick chimney stacks. It was a plain industrial looking building lacking any elaborate decoration. A cluster of ancillary buildings, of varying sizes flanked the main pool. These buildings contained the boiler rooms, washrooms, bathing rooms and laundry facilities. The south gable wall of the main pool contained a large semi circular window. The tall red brick boiler chimney was an especially prominent feature.

Inside there was a gallery on three sides with iron balustrades carried on cast iron columns. The gallery was accessed by an iron spiral staircase at the south wall end. The changing cubicles ran alongside the pool underneath the gallery. The cubicles were plain, marked out by slender iron columns and wooden dividing panelling. Ancillary areas matched the functional approach of the rest of the complex.

The Maze Street Baths as it was known by the Council, were rented out in Winter under the name of the Assembly Rooms for 2 10s a night, with a special discount for religious purposes. The price of hire was very high, but many groups did use the facilities. Swimming clubs such as the Shaftesbury Swimming Club led by the legendary Billy Harris and the Dolphin Swimming Club were regular users. The Salvation Army used the Assembly Rooms and even tennis was played there. Between 1908 and 1910 the South African Animated Picture Company used the hall for Cinematograph, however this did not last long due to poor attendances. The Baths were also used for political meetings, dances and boxing matches. Large wooden boards were put over the top of the pool for this purpose.

In the Edwardian period the baths were open from 7 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. (except Sundays) Fridays and Saturdays the baths stayed open until 9.30 p.m. the price of admission to swim was 2d for men and 1d for boys, women and girls. It cost 2d for a bath, 1d to hire a towel and 1d for soap, of course you could save money by taking your own soap and towel. By the end of the week the bottom of the Baths was black with dirt.

Over the years the Baths underwent several alterations. In 1969 the original open void timber roof, with ridge skylights, supported by iron tie beams was enclosed by a suspended ceiling and the old cubicle curtains were replaced by more modern orange and blue ones. Then in the late 1980s the old balconies and changing rooms were removed.

Despite this modernisation after a short period of time the building was listed as 'of no special architectural or historic interest' so Maze Street Baths were closed, and in 1997, what was once a Barton Hill landmark and central to the social history of Barton Hill was demolished. Now Barton Hill School occupies part of the land on which the Baths once stood.