When it opened in 1906, Victoria Baths was described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country” and “a water palace of which every citizen of Manchester can be proud.” The building provided spacious and extensive facilities for swimming, bathing and leisure. It was built of the highest quality materials with many period decorative features: stained glass, tiles, and mosaic floors.
Victoria Baths served the people of Manchester for 87 years and established itself in the affections of many who used the facilities.
Step back in time into the Victoria Baths building, and the many uses of it since, including:
- 80s and 90s
- Gaining Support
- The Trust takes over
- Restoration : Phase 1
- Arts and Events
- Victoria Baths Today
Planning the Build
The plan to provide Baths to serve the three wards of Longsight, St Luke’s and Rusholme was first considered in 1897 by the Baths and Wash Houses Committee of Manchester Corporation and in 1899 the site was purchased.
In 1902 Mr Henry Price was appointed as the first City Architect of Manchester and became responsible for the Victoria Baths project. Building commenced in 1903 and a commemorative terracotta coat of arms was installed at the deep end of the Males 1st Class pool.
By the time the Baths was completed, the cost had risen to over £59,000, which was more than double the usual price of building a public baths. But the Corporation were clear in their justification for the expenditure – they had indeed created a ‘water palace’.
State of the Art Plant
Galloway boilers were installed in 1906 along with sand filters for filtering water from the well sunk at the rear of the complex. These boilers produced the hot water and heating for the building and were fired by stokers who shovelled the coal by hand into the furnaces.
Turkish Baths Suite
The Turkish Baths suite at Victoria Baths was one of several built by Manchester Corporation. It contained three hot-rooms, a shampooing room, a douche (shower), Russian bath (steam room) and two Rest Rooms. You can find lots more information about Victorian Turkish Baths at www.victorianturkishbath.org
Water Polo and Swimming
Manchester boasted many leading swimmers in the early 1900s including Rob Derbyshire, who lived at Victoria Baths while his father was the Corporation’s Superintendent of Baths & Wash Houses. Rob was a very successful swimmer and water polo player, competing in four Olympic Games.
Mixed bathing was introduced in Manchester with great caution in 1914, and by the 1920s sessions at Victoria Baths were held every Sunday morning, enabling families to swim together for the first time.
Progress in Water Treatment
The treatment of pool water progressed over the years and aerators were introduced to freshen it up so that it could be re-used. By 1930 Victoria Baths had a chlorination plant which helped to control any bacteria in the swimming pool water.
Sunny Lowry swims the Channel
Channel swimmer Sunny Lowry (1911 – 2008) began her swimming career at Victoria Baths. She succeeded in swimming the channel on her third attempt in August 1933, becoming the fifth British woman to do so.
John Besford wins the Eagle Trophy
Olympic swimmer John Besford trained at Victoria Baths. He infuriated Hitler by winning the 1934 European 100m backstroke title, held in Germany. Hitler had commissioned a magnificent 1cwt bronze eagle trophy on the assumption that German favourite Ernst Küppers would win.
Zilpha Grant travels to Australia
Zilpha Grant first swam at Victoria Baths with her school, St Paul’s, Withington. She was taught by Mrs Eleanor Redfearn and encouraged to join South Manchester Swimming Club. Zilpha went on to win a silver medal in the freestyle relay at the 1938 Empire Games, Australia.
The Gala Pool was floored over during the winter months and used as a venue for dances, particularly in the post war years. In the 1950s music was provided by the likes of Percy Pease, Phil Moss and other local bands.
Like so many other romances that began at Victoria Baths, Beatrice Hooley and Bill Ramsden met on a blind date at one of the popular dances in the Gala Pool. The courtship blossomed, they married and went on to have a beautiful baby boy, Russell.
Victoria Baths was also a special place for Agnes and George Woodall.
Bowling at the Baths
In the 1950s, bowls became a popular activity, making use of the Males 1st Class / Gala pool when it was covered over in the winter months.
The Botham family
Mr Frank Botham was the Manchester Corporation’s Superintendent of Baths & Wash Houses and lived at Victoria Baths in the Superintendent’s four bedroom flat between 1945 – 1960. His eldest son Roy and youngest daughter Jean were the first brother and sister to swim in the same Olympic Games, in Helsinki 1952.
80s and 90s
Sports Hall Conversion
The Council renovated the Males 2nd Class pool and converted it into a sports hall. The pool was covered over and then used for five-a-side-football, badminton, netball and basketball.
Swimming World Champion
James Hickman had a long and successful swimming career spanning three Olympics, three Commonwealth Games and many World Championships. The Bax Shield that he won in 1991 is held in the Victoria Baths Archive. James is a patron of Victoria Baths.
Campaign against Closure
Local residents tried to prevent the closure of Victoria Baths but the council couldn’t justify the expense of keeping it open. The building sadly closed on 13th March 1993. The charitable Trust was formally constituted later that year.
When Manchester City Council decided it had to close Victoria Baths in 1993, there was a vigorous reaction in the local community. Manchester residents greatly valued the Turkish baths, the Aeratone, the swimming facilities, and the building itself.
The campaign to try to prevent closure formally became the Friends of Victoria Baths and the Victoria Baths charitable Trust was set up, with the aim of restoring the building and bringing the Turkish Baths and at least one of the swimming pools back into public use.
Our story has many ups and downs, including the amazing success on the 2003 BBC Restoration programme. The building is partially restored and we continue to work towards repair and preservation.
Years of Neglect
Virtually no maintenance was carried out on Victoria Baths for six years following closure, so the building deteriorated rapidly. But the Friends were determined to save the building.
Saving Victoria Baths
The Friends carry out lots of work on the building – cleaning it up and clearing out rubbish that had been left when it closed, to make it safer for public access.
We know that public support for Victoria Baths is vital – and that the best way to encourage this support is to enable people to come and see for themselves this wonderful building.
The Victoria Baths Trust partners with Community Health & Resource Centres and the City Council to develop plans for restoring Victoria Baths as a Healthy Living Centre. A business plan is drawn up and Heritage Lottery bids prepared.
Recruiting more Friends, and Artists…
We expand our membership by recruiting local residents and other visitors who attend Open Days. Swimmers Sunny Lowry and James Hickman give their support. Artist studio ‘Pool Arts’ begin to use the building.
TV companies see the potential of Victoria Baths as a film location. Filming for the crime drama City Central led to the cleaning of the Gala pool and the clearing out of the pigeons!
The Trust Takes Over
Manchester City Council gives the Trust formal management responsibility for Victoria Baths, to improve security and raise grants for repairs. We carry out more cleaning work and hold many community events.
Thanks to English Heritage, the first major repair work is carried out on Victoria Baths since closure – to patch all the roofs and treat dry rot. But our major Lottery bids for the Healthy Living Centre project are unsuccessful.
Filming for Restoration
We were chosen as one of the buildings to appear in the BBC Restoration series. Griff Rhys Jones visits the Baths for the filming.
BBC Restoration gives the public the chance to vote for the building they would most like to see restored. We spend the summer campaigning and Prince Charles visits. Victoria Baths wins by a huge margin, with more votes than all other finalists combined.
The Antiques Roadshow is held at Victoria Baths. The Friends publish a book which tells the history of the Baths, written by Prue Williams.
Barclays Make a Difference
60 enthusiastic volunteers from Barclays Bank spend the day at Victoria Baths in November. They transform the laundry and other parts of the building that were previously no-go areas.
Whilst the Trust plans the first phase of restoration work, the building becomes increasingly popular as a venue for a wide range of arts events.
Life on Mars
More TV filming takes place at the Baths. We all become Life on Mars fans.
VE Day Dance
We mark the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe with a VE Day Dance.
Celebrating the first 100 years
In the countdown to Restoration phase 1, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of Victoria Baths by filling the Gala pool for the first time since 1993 – with water, and art.
100 years : 100 Faces
Portrait exhibitions are held in the building by Liz Lock, Mishka Henner and Theresa Holt to commemorate the Baths 100 year anniversary.
Restoration : Phase 1
Phase 1 begins
At last! Work begins to completely restore the outside of the front block of Victoria Baths. William Anelay are the main contractor and a range of specialised sub-contractors are kept busy renovating the remarkable architectural features.
Phase 1 complete
The first phase of restoration is completed successfully – on time and on budget. The Culture Minister, Andy Burnham visits as we celebrate.
Phase 1 +
Funds are secured for the next phase of restoration work – to renew the roof of the Males 1st Class / Gala Pool. And the Trust moves its project office to the Baths.
Arts and Events
More and More Popular
The Baths becomes more and more popular as a heritage visitor attraction and an arts venue. We exceed 10,000 visitors in the year.
Becoming a Licensed Venue
Victoria Baths becomes licensed for arts events, enabling more regular performances. Many groups take advantage of the inspiring spaces to stage remarkable events.
The Year of the Wedding
As the Trust develops its new strategy for the future of Victoria Baths, 10 couples plan their special day by booking weddings at Victoria Baths.
Who Let the Dogs Out
More filming takes place at Victoria Baths, this time for CCBC’s Who Let the Dogs Out? which sees three kids and their furry friends battle it out to take home the trophy.
Romeo And Juliet
One of the most iconic events to take place at Victoria Baths; HOME’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which culminated in the dramatic finale over the Gala Pool.
Phase 2 Starts
A major project designed to complete the restoration of the Turkish Baths with brand new spa facilities – planning work, consultation events and fundraising continued until the pandemic, at which point the Trust was forced to re-assess its vision for the future of the Baths.
Surveys on the building continue, including at the top of our octagonal, 115 feet high chimney. While significant work on it is needed, it could form part of a future heating system.
The Other Side of Midnight
Boiler Room teamed up with The Warehouse Project to bring an Acid House special within its spiritual home of Manchester. The event marked 30 years since ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ party, filmed in Victoria Baths and hosted by Tony Wilson.
Image: Peter J Walsh
Tile Giant Collaboration
We teamed up with Tile Giant to create a range of beautiful tiles inspired by Victoria Baths! Every purchase from the Victoria Baths inspired tile range helps to support our work (and brings some vintage glamour to your home).
Last Stained Glass Window Restored
Thanks to everyone who donated to our Amazing Glazing crowdfunder and some generous individual donors, we commissioned Design Lights to restore all six of the pool hall large stained glass windows. The final window to be refitted was in the Females Pool in 2019.
Victoria Baths today
Temporarily Closing the Doors
Along with the rest of the world we had to close our doors, cancel events, and keep our fingers tightly crossed that we would make it through the Covid-19 pandemic. With support from our community we won a Best Wedding Venue award, opened an online shop, and prepared to reopen in 2021.
Thank you everyone who cheered us on and (virtually) held our hands through 2020.
VB reopens with a Creative Makers Fair
Over Covid we moved our events online, with popular talks and story sessions to explore the history of the Baths remotely. Finally, 17 months since the last public event, the Baths reopens, with a ‘Creative Makers Fair’.
The Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair make Victoria Baths their new permanent home in 2021, following their successful event here.
Return of the Baths
2022 saw our public events come back with a bang. We reopened the doors with our VB events, a host of nightlife events including Red Bull Unlocked, cinema screenings, theatre performances, the return of our annual swim ‘Big Splash’ and much more.
With a record number of ceremonies taking place across our wedding season, it was also the year of the weddings.