Manchester’s ‘Water Palace’ seeks all who campaigned against its closure for a major new exhibition
It’s now one of the UK’s most celebrated heritage buildings, but Victoria Baths faced crisis in 1993 when its doors were closed after years of neglect.
On opening in 1906, the cherished community hub boasted three swimming pools, a Turkish baths, laundry facilities and later the country’s first Jacuzzi. Its fascinating history spans winter ballroom dances - when the main pool was floored over - to being the training ground for ‘Sunny’ Lowry, the first British woman to swim the English Channel. Also a great source of civic pride, the building (now Grade II* listed) was described by the 1906 Mayor as ‘a Water Palace’ due its opulent tile work and stained glass.
But Victoria Baths’ grandeur ultimately became its downfall: it was closed by the council, unable to maintain the venue, in 1993…albeit not without a fight.
Members of the local community, led by Chandy Coverley and Ann Graham, responded immediately, seeing the Baths’ closure as a threat to the wellbeing of everyone who used it. Thanks to their efforts then, and the role the community has continued to play since, Victoria Baths has been regularly opening its doors to the public since 2003; when it won the first series of the BBC's Restoration programme following a public vote. Its journey towards full restoration continues.
Now, to help tell its incredible story and to inspire others about the power of collective action and community, Victoria Baths Trust has commissioned a permanent exhibition that features some of the original photographs and banners from the protests to save the Baths in 1992/3. Organisers are hopeful that something might have survived the past 27 years in a cupboard, cellar or attic.
Jill Earnshaw, Chair of Trustees, said: “The way in which the users of Victoria Baths mobilised themselves and worked to get the message out there about the building was truly inspiring. They organised marches and collected 16,000 signatures, and all with no internet!
“It is a campaign that is far from over. Whilst Victoria Baths is now once again very much a part of Manchester life, like our early campaigners our desire is to see swimming take place at Victoria Baths again. All of our fundraising work goes towards the ongoing restoration of Victoria Baths, with the vision being that one day the Turkish Baths and at least one of the three pools will return to full and permanent use.”
Do you have any materials or stories on the saving of Victoria Baths? Then please email the team at email@example.com. They’d particularly love to track down the original of a grainy image that includes Chandy Coverley on one of the early marches: Coverley sadly passed away earlier this year, having continued to support the Baths ever since.
The exhibition will go on display permanently from 7 September, at the ‘Swim for Restoration’ weekend.