Victoria Baths, the complex designated a “water palace of which every citizen of Manchester can be proud” by the city’s Lord Mayor upon its opening in 1906, swept to prominence when the public voted it the winner of the first series of the BBC’s Restoration programme in 2003.
The victory was lucrative – the Heritage Lottery Fund gave conservators at the site £3.4 million, and a further brush with fame followed in the form of a celebratory visit from the Prince of Wales.
But bucking the usual trend, small screen glory was only the beginning of the story for these echoey Turkish baths. A decade of sterling work is paying further dividends for the people who have campaigned to re-open the construction by Henry Price – the first City Architect, who also created the Harpurhey Baths and the Pump house – since its closure in 1993.
“There are weddings held in the baths virtually every weekend,” says Gill Wright, speaking on the 10th anniversary of the show. As Project Manager of the Trust campaigning for its reopening, Wright leads a team of around 100 active volunteers.
“Participating in the show and ultimately winning it not only raised the profile of Victoria Baths on a national scale – it also provided the funds to take on the most substantial work carried out in many years and secure the future of the building.
“Before then, the building had been derelict since it closed and was falling into disrepair.”
It’s not all about marriages. “The baths have remained a vibrant part of the community and are used for all sorts of purposes by all sorts of groups during the warmer months,” explains Wright.
“Local schoolchildren stage plays here, university students show their work here in exhibitions, performances by music ensembles take place throughout the year. It’s part of Manchester’s history and is loved by all who visit it.”
The doors to the terracotta building are usually opened once a month, but a public programme will take place during September. Cellists, synchronised swimmers and costume displays are on the horizon.
“It was the public vote which secured the funding of the restoration back in 2003 and our month of events invites them to share in the celebrations.
“Many visitors to our open days still recall the programme and speak about the lasting impression the baths left on them, so it really is a key milestone in our journey.”
Encouraged by a count of around 20,000 visitors a year, the Trust and Friends groups are hoping to re-open at least one of the pools along the way.
The frontage of the buildings, the glass roof of the gala pool and the famous stained glass windows enveloping it have all been restored within walls Wright admits comprised “a virtual shell” ten years ago.
“The Aqua window had been missing since the baths were closed, and we’ve had to delve deep into the archives to find out what it might have looked like originally.
“The window is particularly significant because it has been paid for by donations generated through our public stained glass appeal, which is testament to the building’s tendency to capture people’s hearts and imaginations.”
Glass specialists from Bolton crafted a depiction of a mysterious water creature in the window, cast in 493 individual sections of glass within 12 panels.
“The size, scale and quality of the materials used in the building made it unique,” says Wright.
“Stained glass was fitted throughout the entire building – not just at the front. It’s incredibly sumptuous and has stood the test of time where many others have not.”
Later home to England’s first, incredibly popular aeratone – a bubbly hot tub and the forerunner to the Jacuzzi – these baths were built to improve community health at a time when housing conditions were notoriously cramped and unsanitary.
Lacking central heating, boards placed over the pool allowed it to become a venue for dances, bowls, film screenings and more. After more than a century as the focus of a community, its best days could still lie ahead.
- Tours, performances and exhibitions take place at the Baths throughout the month. Visit victoriabaths.org.uk/visit for full details and to book.
Five Victoria Baths facts:
- One of the greatest champions ever to train at Victoria Baths was Sunny Lowry, who swam for 16 hours straight to become only the fifth English woman ever to swim the Channel in August 1933. Lowry fought to defend the Baths from closure before her death in 2008.
- The pools were divided up for first class males, second class males and females. Men in the first class pool had the pleasure of swimming in the water first before it would be drained into the other two pools.
- The baths have been used as a filming location for a number of well-known TV series over the years including Life on Mars, Silent Witness, Sherlock Holmes, Prime Suspect and Antiques Roadshow.
- Singers to perform at the baths have ranged from the Bee Gees to Will Young. Barry Gibb filmed part of a concept video for his Now Voyager album in 1984 when the baths were still open.
- Notable Olympians to have trained at the Baths include Margery Hinton, who at the age of 13 is still the youngest British competitor ever to swim in an Olympic Games in 1928 (Amsterdam), and James Hickman, a five-time world champion in the 200m butterfly who completed in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004.
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