Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Dulwich Public Baths on Goose Green and Camberwell Public Baths just off Camberwell Church Street are the oldest public swimming baths in London still in use as public baths. Built as a means to improve the health of the working classes, the emphasis is still on health for the local community but activities like yoga and weights have replaced the more basic need to keep body and clothes clean.
Dulwich and Camberwell Baths (together with the public baths in Old Kent Road) were built as a result of the Camberwell Vestry adopting the Bath and Wash-houses Act of 1846 which permitted local authorities to borrow against the rates for the purposes of building facilities where the poor were able to wash and bathe. This Act had come into being as a result of a Royal Commission into the Sanitary State of Large Towns and Populous Districts which identified lack of facilities where the poor, living in densely populated and often insanitary conditions, were able to keep themselves clean which led to ill-health and the spread of disease. Access to cheap bathing facilities was seen as a means of enhancing health and well-being. The emphasis would be on the provision of amenities for the working classes who would pay a lower rate than the middle classes which led to the practice of both first and class baths being provided.
The Borough of Camberwell did not become overcrowded until towards the end of the nineteenth century and it was not until February 1887 that Councillor Sears proposed to the vestry that “it is most desirable that public baths and wash houses be established in the Parish of Camberwell and that a Committee be appointed by the Vestry for the purpose of considering the best means of giving practical effect to this proposal.” (Quoted in Bird, see below). Sears became Chairman of the Committee that was set up which found “the present bathing accommodation is altogether inadequate and is beyond the means of vast numbers of people.” It was decided to build three public baths, one each to serve Camberwell, Peckham and Dulwich.
The Committee visited 12 other vestries that had already built public baths including Greenwich who advised Camberwell the best sites would be those alongside main roads which would lead to an increased income from both bathing receipts and renting out the boarded over main swimming pool for public events in the winter.
A site for Dulwich Public Baths was found on Goose Green adjacent to a mineral water works but enclosed by an end of terrace house in Crystal Palace Road which was compulsorily purchased to create a rear exit. The architects Spalding and Cross were appointed who designed the building in the Queen Anne Style. The completed building boasted 60 slipper baths for men and women, and first and second swimming pools, laid out end to end and accessed by a long corridor.
The building was opened at the end of June 1892 by Councillor Sears accompanied by various local dignitaries and music supplied by the P Division Police Band. The opening ceremony attracted 1,000 onlookers and various entertainments were laid on. Mr G A Blake, the English plunging champion made the first plunge into the pool at 63 ft 2 inches, 12 feet below his record. A series of races for both children and adults were held, together with a life saving demonstration. A detachment of Royal Engineers constructed a raft within the pool.
Camberwell Public Baths opened a little while after Dulwich Baths in October 1892, by which time 50,000 people had used Dulwich Baths. The same architects, Spalding and Cross, were appointed who designed the building in what has been described as the Flemish Renaissance style. It had first and second class swimming pools, 64 private baths for men and 32 private baths for women. Public laundry facilities were provided, which were not provided at Dulwich, comprising 69 washing compartments and steam drying horses and associated mangling and ironing equipment.
The opening ceremony at Camberwell appears to have been a glitzier affair than that at Dulwich and performed by the Lord Mayor of London.
“The Chief Magistrate of the City and his attendant bodyguard descended upon Camberwell amid quite a glow of civic brilliance. The blare of brazen instruments, the prancing and curvetting of sleek City horses, gorgeous equipages, ornately attired footmen, flags and banners – flying very limp and dank in the moisture-laden air – all tended to lend animation and picturesqueness to the gay scene, while the march of armed men was set music to those who dote upon the military. It was in all truth a spectacle dear to the heart of the average Briton, who only need the added – but unfortunately upon this occasion absent – charm of bright skies to complete the moving picture.” (South London Press, 8 October 1892)
There were delays to the building of the third public baths to serve Peckham and the baths housed in a grandiose building in Old Kent Road did not open until 1905.
Both Dulwich and Camberwell Baths, now renamed Leisure Centres, have been refurbished and reconfigured several times over the last 100 plus years. The first class pool at Dulwich, which had been boarded over during winter months and used for non aquatic sports such as bowls and boxing, concerts and dances, was finally permanently closed in the early 1980s. Similarly, Camberwell’s second class pool has long been closed although a smaller pool for learners has recently been opened. At one time, it appeared that the future of both baths was in doubt but both have undergone major refurbishment over the last few years that includes a new modern extension added to Dulwich baths facing onto Crystal Palace Road. Both remain popular venues that have evolved over time and now in keeping with the activities of the 21st century. Both buildings are Grade II listed.
Polly Bird (1993) Making a Splash: The History of Dulwich Baths
Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis (2009) Great lengths: the historic indoor swimming pools of Britain,