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Ipswich Icons: Weekly wash at Fore Street Baths was a boost for workers’ health

PUBLISHED: 15:45 16 January 2016

Fore Street Baths

Fore Street Baths

Archant

What was it that caused Victorian entrepreneurs and successful business owners to become philanthropists later in their lives? writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Fore Street BathsFore Street Baths

Perhaps it was a guilt complex that the vast sums they had accumulated from their endeavours had been acquired by exploitation of the workforce. Certainly the vast majority of the employed were paid a pittance (by comparison to the earnings of the company owners). Those in work earned enough to maintain an existence but insufficient to purchase anything other than life’s essentials.

A typical example is the contributions that Felix Thornley Cobbold made to the development of Ipswich, he purchased and presented Christchurch Mansion to the town, he gave the 45-acre Gippeswyk Park and donated the cost of the clock and carillon in St Clement’s church. A carillon is a mechanical contraption that plays a tune on the church bells; I’ll leave you to guess the tune played at St Clement’s.

Cobbold also gave the land and a £1,200 financial contribution to the construction of Fore Street Baths (I refer to the establishment as ‘baths’ rather than swimming pool because a weekly wash for locals was its primary purpose). Cobbold was an extremely wealthy man, not only because of the family’s brewing interests, but also because of his investments in the railway, the Wet Dock and in banking among many other commercial interests.

Towards the end of the 19th Century vast numbers of Ipswich’s working population lived in ‘The Potteries’, an extensive area of terraced housing immediately to the north of Fore Street in St Clement’s Parish. These houses were packed close together and frequently had additional residents in the court yards (shared back gardens). These were usually single men living in crudely constructed shelters much like the shanty towns close to the big cities of the third world.

Inside Fore Street BathsInside Fore Street Baths

The houses didn’t have inside toilets, and the few facilities that existed were shared between a number of families and their lodgers. Water was drawn from a communal well, frequently contaminated by the nearby toilet and, inside the house, bathrooms were non-existent. The concept of a tin bath in front of the living room fire was a rare occurrence.

Cobbold could see the health advantages of his workforce taking a weekly wash, and his contribution to the baths was as much out of self-interest as philanthropy. A healthy workforce would turn up for work regularly, maintain production and contribute to the turnover of the company.

St Clement’s Baths were of, what could be called, ‘traditional construction’ although public swimming pools were a rarity when they opened in 1894. They had been brought about by the Baths and Washhouses Act of 1846, (which didn’t include swimming pools). An amendment of 1878 allowed the construction of indoor pools.

Their size, 25 yards by 7ft (four lanes) was typical of the day, as were the porthole-style windows in the façade. When built they featured ‘slipper baths’, so called because, although they were what we would recognise as a standard domestic bath they had a high end to lean against and were partially covered at the ‘tap’ end. This was for modesty and to keep the heat in.

There were no taps; the bath was filled from a faucet, an overhanging spout controlled by the attendant outside the room. The bath was filled while the customer undressed, first a few gallons of hot, then cold until the bather shouted stop. Frequently mother and daughters would share the facility and use the same water. The boys could avoid a bath by going for a swim. The male changing room was upstairs (if the girls went swimming they would change in a poolside cubicle). No lockers for valuables, but patrons had very little by way of possessions.

The pool is 6ft at the deep end, much too shallow for diving boards which have long since been removed, understandable given that foolhardy young men would climb onto the handrail, which was 3ft higher than the board and a greater distance to the water surface than the pool was deep!

I was disappointed, when I called into Fore Street Baths earlier this month to note that they had removed the Brylcreem dispenser (two old pennies for a dollop), one of a number of improvements that has brought the pool into the 21st Century.

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