Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Rotherhithe Vestry adopted the Bath and Wash-houses Act of 1846 in 1878, many years after their neighbours in Bermondsey who had adopted the Act by 1851. The Act 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 been passed 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 were able to keep themselves clean as leading to ill-health and the spread of disease. Often living in densely populated and often insanitary conditions, 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 Rotherhithe Vestry adopted the Act at a series of specially convened meetings in 1878. Mr Francis Bisley was the driving force who was not only well prepared with costings, a source of finance (the Metropolitan Board of Works) and figures regarding income from entrance fees from Bermondsey’s Public Baths as a comparison but also made a persuasive argument how the health of parishioners would improve as a result of access to public baths. Commissioners were appointed and when it became clear they would not be able to obtain the freehold of a suitable site, the Lord and Lady of the Manor, the Carr-Gomms, offered a lease of 99 years on generous terms for a piece of land on the corner of Lower Road and Gomm Road where previously Augusta Lodge and Hope Cottages had stood. Elkington and Son were appointed architects and Mr William Shepherd of Bermondsey New Road appointed for the building works.
The foundation stone was laid by Francis Carr Gomm at a ceremony in 1880 and just under a year later the completed baths and wash-house were open for the public. The new building and facilities were described by the South London Press in their edition of 11 June 1881:
“The exterior of the structure presents a handsome appearance and will long continue to be an ornament to a parish which does not, as yet, boast of many public buildings. It is situated in the Deptford Lower Road, at the corner of Gomm Road, and extends to a distance of nearly 180 feet. Passing in at the front entrance, we find that the left leads to the men’s first class department, and the right to the second class. In the former there are26 private baths each one being fitted with electric bells and every other modern improvement. There is a large swimming bath, 70 feet long, and holding 70,000 gallons of tepid water. The depth at one end is five feet six inches, and at the other three feet six inches, the bottom and sides consisting of glazed tiles, while ranged on each side of the bath are 50 dressing boxes. The second class department is similar to the first class, and the accommodation is precisely the same. On the second floor is the women’s department where there are a like number of private baths.
Rotherhithe Baths in 1930. The row of prams was probably for the tranpsortation of washing rather than babies! Southwark Collections
“Passing in at the Gomm Street entrance, one is led to the washing and drying department, where for the modest charge of one penny per hour, a woman may “wash, wring, dry, mangle, iron and fold,” the wringing and mangling being done by the most improved machines, which are worked by steam. A great [advantage] in this department is the lofty roof, by means of which the women are able to work without being surrounded by a “halo of unlovely steam.” There are also lifts from one part of the building to another – in fact, every improvement has been adopted which an inventive mind could suggest; and it would not be too much to say that there are few establishments of this kind in the metropolis which can equal that at Rotherhithe. “
A month after opening, the baths' superintendent reported that the number of visitors to the baths were at least equal, if not greater, than the highest numbers anticipated.
To celebrate their eldest son’s coming of age in 1898, the Carr Gomms presented the freehold of the property to the Rotherhithe Vestry.
The baths suffered damage from a nearby V1 bomb attack in July 1944 but were not demolished until 1963 when the present Seven Islands Leisure Centre was built which opened in 1965. This was just before the amalgamation of the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe into the newly created London Borough of Southwark. Knowing their days were numbered, the former borough’s coat of arms were proudly displayed on the new building and still remain today.