From Public Baths to Community Landmark: A Look at the Fascinating History of the Manchester Victoria Baths

Find out more about Manchester's historic swimming pool and its transformation into a popular heritage, events and community venue. A blog post by Tesni Boughen.

By Sarah Jones · September 14, 2023

Tesni Boughen is a MA Public History and Heritage student from Manchester Metropolitan University. Through her placement at Manchester Histories Tesni has been involved with doing some historical research on the museums, and libraries that form the HiDDEN network to produce a series of blog posts to promote their work. In her first post she explores the history of Victoria Baths.

Victoria Baths in Manchester is a remarkable example of 20th century municipal architecture. The Baths and Wash Houses Committee of Manchester Corporation first considered providing the baths in 1897 and in 1899 the site was purchased. The building was designed to cater to the needs of the local community, providing swimming and bathing facilities, as well as a Turkish Baths experience. In this blog, we will look into the captivating history of the building and look at the inspiring community that saved and helped the process of repairing and partially restoring the building.

The building opened in 1906, and Henry Price, the first person to hold the title of city architect for Manchester, oversaw the architectural design. The Baths were originally built to provide swimming and bathing facilities (slipper baths) during a time when private domestic bathrooms were scarce. The complex was designed with an ornate and grand structure, featuring a Turkish Baths suite, three swimming pools, the Males 1st Class (Gala), Males 2nd Class and Females, and slipper baths for individuals, as well as outbuildings containing coal-fired heating boilers, water tanks, filtration equipment and a laundry (which wasn’t for domestic use).

The building was used by people of all ages and social classes, and it became an important social hub. The Baths were particularly popular among working-class families, who did not have access to private bathing facilities. It also hosted various events from the outset, such as water polo matches, swimming galas and even winter dances and carpet bowls, when the Gala Pool was temporarily boarded over during winter.

Sadly, the building was closed by Manchester City Council in 1993. This was due to society’s bathing habits changing, causing the popularity of the baths to decline, combined with financial difficulties. The closure caused a major public outcry to save Victoria Baths, as it was an important part of the city’s social and cultural history and many people in the community recognised this.

The opposition to the closure was led by a group called the Friends of Victoria Baths, who campaigned tirelessly to save the building. They began lobbying the council to reconsider their plans, and organised public events and fundraising campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and generate support for their cause.

Their efforts were successful, and in 1993 the Victoria Baths Trust, a charitable organisation, was formed to oversee repair work and reopen the building. The Trust began work to secure funding for some restoration, which included applying for grants, public fundraising events, and corporate donations.

The initial restoration work was extensive and took several years to complete. The building had suffered significant water damage and decay, but many of the original features thankfully remained, including the amazing stained-glass windows. The Trust was committed to restoring as much of the building to its former glory as possible and preserving the historical and architectural significance.

Today, the Victoria Baths complex has been partially restored and is once again a vital part of the community. The building has been transformed into a unique events, arts and community venue, hosting weddings, exhibitions, concerts, meetings, fairs, market, festivals, conferences, filming, etc.

The Victoria Baths project is a testament to the power of community action and the importance of preserving our shared heritage. The building is not only an important part of Manchester’s history but also a symbol of civic pride and community spirit.

The efforts of the Friends of Victoria Baths and the Victoria Baths Trust have ensured that this important cultural and historical landmark will be enjoyed by future generations.