Friday, 9 November 2012

Review: Greater Manchester's Public Swimming Pools: A Pictorial Guide

The Shrieking Violet issue 15 featured a page about Levenshulme Baths, the historic swimming pool in the Manchester suburb of Levenshulme, drawn and written by John Mather, who got in contact after setting himself the challenge of swimming in each of Greater Manchester's 50-odd public pools.

His project is now complete, and the resulting guide, Greater Manchester's Public Swimming Pools: A Pictorial Guide, is out now. Mather's watery journey was a labour of love, and he fights the corner for what he terms “swimming's unique and often understated role in society” – the Guide is clear that the function of swimming reaches far beyond health and fitness to encompass social and community benefits. As well as acting as a guide to each building and each pool's facilities, Mather's book goes out beyond the pool doors to take a wider look at the people and communities they serve, taking care to include something memorable or special about each pool's location, from local landmarks to famous innovations such as Rolls-Royce (Stretford) and Stephenson's Rocket (Eccles), and show the “fascinating and diverse collection of towns and people” that is Greater Manchester. Each entry is handily annotated with essential information such as contact details, location and amenities such as parking.

Mather's love affair with swimming started when he learned to swim in Bury's old Victorian baths, which “seemed not just a place to swim but more like a landmark of civic pride and opulence”. Just as there is a huge diversity of towns in Greater Manchester, there is a great variety in the styles of pools found within them, from those associated with Manchester's first city architect, Henry Price, in the early twentieth century, with the old-fashioned pool-side cubicles remaining (Withington, Chorlton), to a number of pools built in the 1960s and 1970s – including Radcliffe Pool which, Mather said, set a benchmark for future pool building by local authorities – as well as recently opened, bang up-to-date facilities and even a pool in a converted cinema (Tyldesley). Mather views each pool on its merits, without expressing a preference for any architectural period or style.

The Guide is often humorous, and Mather slips in references to local celebrities, from the Rochdale Pioneers, who opened the first successful co-operative shop in the town, to Frank Sidebottom (Altrincham), John Cooper Clarke (Broughton) and George Formby (Atherton), as well as local personalities such as longstanding swimmer Sam Quinn, who has been a Broadway Baths regular for 75 years.

Dive below the surface, and you discover stories about the individuals who have used these pools over the years. Greater Manchester, Mather says, has a long tradition of swimming and Olympic success, a “long forgotten 'Golden Age' of swimming prior to the First World War”, when “Greater Manchester's swimmers literally led the world”. For instance, Henry Taylor from Chadderton, a swimming instructor for many years in the town, won three golds at the 1908 London Olympics. Today, the region's pools are used by everyone from learner swimmers to elite swimmers from national and international teams, and have hosted many Olympic and Commonwealth medallists.

Pool buildings have social history written into their brickwork and tiles. Now derelict, Collier Street Baths in Salford, opened in 1856, is Britain's oldest surviving swimming baths building. Withington Baths in Manchester, which still says 'Men' and 'Women' above the entrance where the sexes would once have been separated before entering the water, took the daring step of allowing the city's first mixed bathing in 1914. No visit to Manchester's pools, of course, would be complete without a reference to Edwardian water palace Victoria Baths (despite the current lack of water!), and Mather considers the past, present and future uses of the building.

I read the Guide as a call to action, a reminder to get swimming and use some of these pools before they disappear forever. Rochdale's spectacular art deco Central Baths, which were still in use as recently as this summer, have now been demolished. The futures of Levenshulme and Chorlton Baths are both uncertain, and there are plans to close the historic, much-loved Royton and Crompton pools in Oldham (Crompton Baths is the oldest Baths in Greater Manchester still serving its original purpose) in order to replace them with a single, modern facility.

Greater Manchester's Public Swimming Pools: A Pictorial Guide can be purchased for £5.99 at

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Olive Shapley poster for Shape & Situate zine

I have contributed a badly linocut poster about radio producer and presenter Olive Shapley to the new edition of Melanie Maddison's Shape & Situate: Posters of inspirational European women zine (as seen at the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention in May!), which will be launched at Leeds Zine Fair at Wharf Chambers on Sunday November 4.

Now in its fourth edition, Melanie's project celebrates underlooked women in all fields of society. I felt compelled to create a poster about Olive because I became intrigued by her during my involvement in the Manchester's Modernist Heroines project. Of all the women we focused on, Olive is the one I keep returning to and trying to find out more about, and my poster is inspired by the presence she still has in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury today – as well as being honoured by a nursery school bearing her name, there is a street named after her. Olive's former home, Rose Hill, where she housed Vietnamese boat people and single mothers, became Didsbury's first £1 million house in 2002. I have an unfulfilled ambition to procure some of Olive's radio programmes – particularly her 1930s Engels-inspired documentary the Classic Soil, and children's shows – with the aim of organising an Olive Shapley listening party, but they are proving hard to come by (the Classic Soil is available at the British Library, but apparently 'the ending is missing' from the recording, and I imagine it would be very expensive to hire copies from the BBC).

Melanie Maddison and Lindsay Starbuck will also be running a social history workshop at Leeds Zine Fair, entitled 'Remembering who we are', which will feature examples of inspiring social history zines and provide an opportunity to contribute to a collective zine being compiled on the day. The zine fair is being hosted by Leeds' Footprint Workers' Co-op, and will be well worth attending!