On Sunday 14 May, you can help fundraising efforts by taking a dip inside the historic ‘water palace’
When Victoria Baths opened in Chorlton-on-Medlock in 1906, it was described as ‘the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country.’ A period profusion of stained glass, mosaic and terracotta - designed by Manchester's first City Architect, Henry Price - the building was ‘a water palace of which every citizen of Manchester can be proud.’
For 87 years, the baths remained a community institution, hosting water polo, mixed swimming and even a Turkish Baths suite. It also launched the career of channel swimmer Sunny Lowry and Olympians including John Besford, who pissed Hitler off when he beat German favourite Ernst Kuppers in the 1934 European 100 backstroke.
In the fifties, much like today, the pool was temporarily drained for other activities - including post-war dancing and various sports. Yes, Victoria Baths gives a whole new meaning to ‘multipurpose’.
By 1993, however, the expense of keeping the venue open proved too costly. Much to the chagrin of locals, it closed and is now confined to pop-up events like offbeat theatre, pop-up screenings and beer festivals. While the novelty of watching film classics in an empty swimming pool is admittedly unique, most agree that it doesn’t do justice to the baths’ rich history.
So, with plans to restore the Grade II-listed Edwardian treasure to full use, an intensive fundraising programme is now underway. From vintage fairs to open days and Indy Man Beer Con, popular events have abounded - but never have visitors been able to recreate yesteryears with a dip in the pool.
On Sunday 14 May, that’s all set to change when the bath hosts its first public swim in 24 years. For full authenticity, bathers can use the original changing cubicles (although there are no showering facilities or lockers) and the tea room will be selling hot drinks like Vimto and Bovril. Alongside the café’s usual snacks, fish and chips will be available too.
Funds raised from the event will go towards plans to restore the Turkish Baths, particularly crucial since a lottery bid to restore them was recently rejected. The Heritage Lottery Fund praised the project but, being oversubscribed three times over, sadly had to turn many worthy bids down.
Gill Wright, project development manager for Victoria Baths, says: “Lots of people enjoy visiting Victoria Baths, but it is a very rare opportunity for members of the public to be able to swim here. We are hoping to create an experience that enables people to relive the Baths in its heyday, and to demonstrate what a wonderful and unique swimming experience it offers.
“Theatrical performances, artistic installations and the occasion of our 110th birthday have seen the pool filled in recent years, but this is the first time since March 1993 that we’ve had a public swimming event. Looking to the future, our vision is for a time when the pool is fully in use, and we want to give people a taste of how special that will be.”
The water will be heated but the building isn’t, so swimmers (minimum eight years) are advised to treat the session as they would an outdoor swim, i.e. bring plenty of layers. Tickets go on sale on Wednesday 12 April at £15 plus booking fee, including commemorative certificate and free admission to the open day.