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13 November 2014

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You are in: Manchester > Places > Manchester places > Victoria Baths: a brief history

pool inside Victoria Baths, Manchester

The gala pool at Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths: a brief history

In 2003, Manchester’s Victoria Baths won the first BBC Restoration programme and with it, £3m of Heritage Lottery funding. Here, we look back at the history of a much-loved building, known as Manchester’s Water Palace.

Between 1906 and 1993, Victoria Baths on Hathersage Road in Chorlton-on-Medlock were used by thousands of people for swimming, bathing, washing, dancing and relaxing.

The building, now in the process of being restored to its former glory, is much loved by Mancunians who campaigned for its restoration and is now widely recognised as the most intact and lavish example of municipal swimming pool architecture in the country.

A brief history

- The Victoria Baths was designed as a prestigious baths complex by Manchester's first City Architect, Henry Price back in 1902.

Victoria Baths

The brick and terracotta exterior

- Opened in 1906 by the then Lord Mayor J. Herbert Thewlis who described it as a 'water palace of which every citizen of Manchester is proud'.

- Built at a cost of £59,000, no expense was spared. Its facade was constructed in red brick and terracotta and its interior spaces clad in glazed tiles from floor to ceiling. Most of the windows had decorative stained glass including the famous Angel of Purity.

- For 86 years the Victoria Baths provided both essential and leisure facilities. At the time of opening, few of the houses in the area had bathrooms so its 64 slipper baths or 'wash baths' were an important amenity.

- There were also three Olympic-sized swimming pools originally designated for separate use by 1st class Males, 2nd class Males and Females only.

Swimmers in the pool of Victoria Baths

The Baths were hugely popular

- Mixed bathing was introduced with great caution in 1914 and by the 1920s mixed bathing sessions were held every Sunday morning enabling families to swim together for the first time.

- The 1st Class Pool - or Gala Pool - was designed so that it could be floored over during the winter months and used as a venue for dances, concerts and lectures.

- Victoria Baths also boasted a suite of rooms known as the Turkish Baths comprising three hot rooms with levels of rising heat – the Tepidarium, the Calidarium and Laconicum. There was also a wet steam room known as a Russian Bath and a Rest Room or Cooling Room used to acclimatise yourself after using the Turkish Baths.

Angel of Purity stained glass at Victoria Baths

Angel of Purity stained glass window

- Sunny Lowry born in Jan 1911, learnt to swim at Victoria Baths and went on to swim the English Channel (on her third attempt) in 1933.  She then dedicated her life to swimming, becoming a swimming and life-saving teacher.  She was fit and healthy well into her 90’s and actively supported the Victoria Baths campaign until her death in February 2008.

- In 1952 the Victoria Baths installed the first public Aeratone in the country - a precursor of the whirlpool bath.

- In 1993, Manchester City Council decided to close the Baths could not justify the high cost of maintenance and remedial repairs. The decision prompted huge protests including an effort to occupy the building. Despite this, the Baths were closed on 13th March.

- The Victoria Baths Trust was formed in 1993 and began to investigate the possibility of running the Victoria Baths independently, supported by The Friends of Victoria Baths. The Trust was registered as a charity and in 2001, was granted a licence to use the Baths.

Sunny Lowry

Channel swimmer Sunny Lowry

- In September 2003, Victoria Baths won the BBC’s landmark series Restoration with a massive 282,018 votes from the public.

- As a result of the win, the Heritage Lottery Fund earmarked £3 million and the BBC’s Restoration Fund raised nearly £500,000 for the restoration of the Turkish Baths at Victoria Baths. English Heritage has also supported the project with a grant of £450,000.

- There have been over 50,000 visitors to Victoria Baths since 2003.  Most visitors have a guided tour which explains the history of Victoria Baths, its use over the years and the campaign to save the building.

- Victoria Baths has been used as a film location for programmes including Prime Suspect 5, Sherlock Holmes, Now Voyager (Barry Gibb), City Central, Funland and Life on Mars.

Green tiling in entrance to Victoria Baths

Lavish tiling in the entrance hall

- The first phase of Restoration work at Victoria Baths which began on March 2007 was completed on 17 September 2008.

- Initial works included opening up and investigating the roof structure in the Turkish Baths, propping up the floor beneath the mosaics in the First Class entrance, as well as work on sections of the floor.

- The terracotta and stained glass windows in the front of Victoria Baths have all been fully restored. The roofs on this section of the building have been re-slated and the original lead and cast iron rainwater goods refurbished.

last updated: 22/09/2008 at 15:29
created: 17/09/2008

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