Kindred Spirits: Did you learn to swim at Fore Street Baths in Ipswich?

Fore Street swimming pool in a Victorian photograph taken soon after the opening in 1894.

Fore Street swimming pool in a Victorian photograph taken soon after the opening in 1894.

Just a stone’s throw from the waterfront of the former Ipswich Docks with its chic bars and bistros, trendy dance studios and ultra-modern apartment blocks stands Fore Street swimming baths.

Fore Street swimming pool in a Victorian photograph taken soon after the opening in 1894.

Fore Street swimming pool in a Victorian photograph taken soon after the opening in 1894.

Fore Street Swimming Baths opened in 1894 and provided a much-needed facility to the local community, writes David Kindred.

It was built in a part of town packed with small houses, most of which did not have a bathroom and the facility provided not only swimming, but also hot baths.

Ipswich banker and member of the Ipswich brewing family Felix Thornley Cobbold was then vice president of the swimming club.

He donated the site and £1,200 towards construction. The council funded the rest of the work which totalled £4,300.

Today the swimming pool is still in regular use.

Our photos show the baths and also Fore Street as it was in 1961. The shops on the left were Weston’s television engineers and The Record Collectors Shop that sold hi-fi equipment. These buildings have been replaced.

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This photograph awas taken as the street was decorated for a visit to town by the Queen.

Rod Cross, now of Botley, Hampshire, remembers walking from Clifford Road School, Ipswich, for swimming lessons.

Here he sahres his memories.

Recently, I visited (Fore Street) for the first time in decades and was surprised to see that amidst all the new development, the building had remained unscathed. Indeed, it appeared no different from the photographs taken soon after it opened in the mid-1890s.

The baths were built by Ipswich Corporation and principally funded by Felix Thornley Cobbold, one of the town’s great benefactors.

Cobbold was an extremely wealthy man and, in this instance, donated both the land and the sum of £1,200 towards the cost of construction.

Work started on March 1, 1894 and the following year, the Ipswich Journal reported: ‘The long talked- of swimming baths for St Clement’s Ipswich have at last commenced at a cost of £3,468. The pool is to be 70 ft long with six slipper baths on either side. When finished it will be a very welcome addition to the neighbourhood’.

Between 1880 and 1914, over 600 baths were constructed in Britain. Many were state-of-the-art at the time and Fore Street baths was certainly to the fore when it came to architectural design.

Described today as ‘an elegant, traditional Victorian style swimming pool’, it was given a stone fascia and an imposing entrance with nautical-style porthole windows peering out into Fore Street.

Nowadays, with swimming the most popular participation sport in the country and with public baths forming a vital part of community life, Fore Street baths is flourishing. It is now the second oldest operational swimming pool in the country and, after its total refurbishment in 2011, looks good for many years to come.

As with many children in the late 1950s who lived on the eastern side of Ipswich, my first experience of Fore Street baths was the weekly school swimming lesson. This took place during our last year at primary school and for me, came round every Tuesday afternoon. The routine at Clifford Road School, which I attended, never varied.

Our class-teacher would first call the register, then the children whose names came in the first half of the alphabet, would accompany him on the walk down to the baths.

The rest of the class remained at their desks ostensibly working at some pre-set task. The headteacher would check from time to time, but otherwise the children were generally unsupervised.

Meanwhile, the first group which included me, would arrive at the baths and be immediately enveloped in the warm, heady atmosphere, topped off by that overwhelming smell of chemicals. We would then be paired off and assigned a poolside cubicle in which to change.

After we’d emerged, the fortunate few who were competent swimmers were sent to the deep end of the pool and largely left to their own devices, whilst the non-swimmers were instructed to get into the pool. A few brave souls would jump in or lower themselves in from the side of the pool; the less confident would queue up at the steps and gingerly enter the pool, one step at a time.

Once everybody was in the water, the lesson began.

Nowadays, children are initially taught the crawl; we were taught breaststroke which required rather more co-ordination.

First, it was shoulders under the water to practice the arm stroke and then we held on to the trough whilst our partner supported us and we practiced our leg kick.

Combining the two should have produced a class of swimmers in no time at all. However, it never worked out like that. There was much kicking and splashing, but this was before the advent of polystyrene floats and few were brave enough to take both feet off the bottom at the same time. Some managed two or three strokes before spluttering to a halt, but the more timid attempted to swim in an upright position whilst hopping along on one leg.

The moment of dread was when our turn came to wade to the centre of the pool, don a rope harness and be pulled to the side by the teacher. In so doing, we were supposed to perform a passable imitation of a breaststroke, but we were so intent on reaching the safety of the poolside that the act of swimming was usually of secondary importance.

After our lesson, we changed, lined up and were sent back to school. It didn’t seem remarkable at the time, but in today’s climate, with its obsession for health and safety, it would be unthinkable for a group of over 20 primary aged children to be out of school unaccompanied by at least one adult.

Furthermore, the route was quite a hazardous one.

We walked past the overgrown graveyard of St Clement’s Church, crossed busy Grimwade Street and passed through the wasteland of The Potteries before reaching the comparative safety of Alexandra Park. Even then, we still had to cross Grove Lane, which was a main road and a bus route, before climbing Woodville Road and reaching base camp.

En route, we would pass the other half of our class heading for the pool, similarly unaccompanied.

Of course, there was far less traffic in those days; we knew nothing of such things as stranger-danger and there was safety in numbers. Everybody acted responsibly and to my knowledge, there were never any incidents.

Once safely back at school, we would catch up on the work the others had been doing, until the second group returned with the class-teacher. Apart from most children’s hair still being slightly damp and the faint whiff of chlorine in the air from wet towels and swimming costumes, it was as though our afternoon excursion had never happened.

I must confess, I never achieved the ultimate at Fore Street baths that year i.e. swimming an entire length of the pool unaided, but taught myself to swim the following summer, in the rather less friendly environment of the North Sea, at Felixstowe. However, our class visits to the baths had been a useful first step along the way and, if nothing else, provided a welcome diversion within the school week.

It has changing rooms both poolside and on the first floor. Today there are also showers and vending machines

Does Rod’s letter bring any memories for you? Send an email to Kindred Spirits