In June 2020 I started cataloguing the Greater Manchester Oral Histories. This collection of MiniDiscs and CDs was brought together by the North West Sound Archive. It contains interviews from a range of small oral history projects including the Hat Works museum, Gorton Monastery and the Friends of Victoria Baths. The latter is a series of interviews relating to Victoria Baths in Chorlton, Manchester. I did not know anything about this building, or why the oral history project had started, but after hearing the interviewees reminisce I wanted to find out more about this ‘Water Palace’.
audio – Mr. H recalls going to the baths on the first day they allowed mixed bathing and the attention it caused. (AP_OH-1550a_s1_f01_v1_e01)
Victoria Baths were opened in 1906 and provided a wash-house and three swimming pools for the local community. There was also a Turkish bath with Russian bath and later the first public Jacuzzi was installed. The Edwardian building itself was constructed using bricks and terracotta with glazed tiles and stained glass windows. I also heard stories of the large main swimming pool being covered over in the winter months for dances to take place!
audio – Mrs D. talks about attending dances at the Baths with one of the pools covered with wooden boards. (AP_OH-1527_s1_f01_e06)
Despite local opposition, Manchester City Council closed the Baths in March 1993 due to expensive running costs. Months later the Victoria Baths Trust was set up as a registered charity and a campaigning group, the Friends of Victoria Baths were formed. Both of these groups combined with the aims of saving the Grade II* listed building and running the leisure facilities independently. The group embarked on various fund raising applications and initiatives, with little success.
However, in 2003, the Baths appeared on the first series of BBC television programme, Restoration. Viewers could vote for the listed building they felt was in most need. Victoria Baths won the public vote and the funds raised by the programme to save it from dereliction. The Heritage Lottery Fund also awarded the project a £3.4 million grant. Major work was carried out in phases, with fund raising continuing to make improvements. Today, restoration is still ongoing and the building operates as an arts and events space run by the charitable trust. Volunteers also regularly give guided tours throughout the year.
audio – Mrs S. shares her memories of being part of the ‘Water Babies’ group. (AP_OH-1551_s1_f01_v1_e03)
Victoria Baths has an archive of photographs, documents and objects; some of these were found in the building after it closed and some have been donated by visitors and supporters. The Friends group researched the history of the Baths and started oral history interviews with people about their personal connection to the building, from learning to swim in the pool as a child or attending the social events held there from the 1950s onward.
audio – Mrs W. remembers school swimming lessons at Victoria Baths (AP_OH-1501_s1_f01_e01)
The interviews I was listening to and cataloguing were among the first arranged by the Friends group. They were conducted between 2000 and 2001 and were later deposited at the North West Sound Archive. I contacted the group via the Victoria Baths website, partly to see if there was any other information they could tell me for the catalogue and partly to let current staff and volunteers know that these interviews were being preserved as part of the UOSH project.
A member of staff soon replied to me and I shared a couple of the interviews. She recognised some of the voices on the recordings and was keen for staff and volunteers to hear them for the first time in many years. Ideally, I would have loved to have visited the Baths in person to share the audio and to see their reactions for myself. Sadly a visit is just not possible at this time. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, I’ll be able to attend a tour and see for myself the beautiful building that I’ve heard so much about with such warmth and affection.
Many thanks to Isaac Hart for making short audio clips from the Victora Baths interviews as part of his student placement with our hub. Isaac has also gained experience of digitising MiniDiscs for our project. Read his excellent guide to the process here.
Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.
Photographs of Victoria Baths are from the Manchester Local Image Collection https://images.manchester.gov.uk/index.php?session=pass
You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
References and Further Reading
BBC Two, Restoration Revisited https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00k2f87 [accessed 29/09/2020]
Manchester Archives+, Victoria Baths flickr page https://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterarchiveplus/sets/72157628231808123/ [accessed 29/09/2020]
Victoria Baths, History timeline http://www.victoriabaths.org.uk/history/ [accessed 29/09/2020]
Williams, Prue, ‘Victoria Baths: Manchester’s Water Palace’, Spire Books Ltd, 2004