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

1 comment:

Trekker said...

Met last night at swim session. Especially like your pool zones. Lovely graphics and interesting 'pool' news.
I would like to send you a couple of pics....but this will depend on my 'tech ' skills. Anyway hope to see you at next swim ..........and meal afterwards.

In sisterhood....trekker....I signed in but keep being knocked back.