History of the Pool
The following articles have been written by local Cirencester people on the history of the pool
A Brief History of Past Times at The Baths written by Barbara Chamberlain
‘Beckwith is coming’ ran the teaser in the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard of 8 August 1874, heralding an announcement the following week that the services of Professor Beckwith and his self-styled ‘Beckwith frogs’ family would perform their wonderful feats of ornamental swimming, diving & floating in Cirencester Swimming Baths.
Whilst it might seem odd to us that people would pay to watch the demonstration of perfect swimming strokes, at this time few people could swim, and those who could were able to make a good living by swimming demonstrations and vaudeville shows. ‘Professor’ Beckwith was a celebrated sportsman who staged elaborated demonstrations of swimming and brought his children into the act.
Reports of the day confirmed the extremely novel event was an unqualified success, observed from a large temporary grand stand by distinguished visitors and a large number of ladies. Professor Beckwith, for many years the Champion swimmer of England, opened proceedings and plunged in attired in a full suite of clothes, which he removed, garment by garment, landing them safely on the bank, amid applause. He demonstrated long and steady swimming strokes, then, to much laughter, illustrated the amusing attempts made by learners to swim, after which he went up and down the bath in a peculiar manner known as ‘waltzing’. Thirteen-year-old Miss Agnes Beckwith, “the mermaid”, the most accomplished lady swimmer in England, gave her display of ornamental swimming and floating, some of which was adjudged ‘very excellent’. Young William Beckwith, considered the third best swimmer in England and the champion swimmer of The Serpentine, gave an exhibition race of fast swimming, before gallantly rescuing his father, who was impersonating a drowning man, in the most approved fashion. The report praises the enterprising and energetic committee, noting that ‘the Bath has become such an institution of the town that description of it is entirely needless.’
One imagines the gratification of Mr Thomas Cox and his fellow entrepreneurs who, in 1859, embarked on the project to create a Public Bath in Cirencester, countering opposition from such as the millers to the use of the water. Eventually, in 1869, the Cirencester Baths Company Limited was formed, proposing the Bath as a sanitary agent for a population of 6000, deriving income from annual subscribers and the public, anticipating a handsome dividend on the capital invested. In May 1870, the Swimming Bath, ‘as fine as any in the kingdom’, opened, with good attendance from the general public, although the cold easterly winds initially deterred the ladies from frequenting the ‘Corinium Baths as Roman ladies did of old’.
The successful 1874 Gala was the first of many over the years up to the First World War, during which a Swimming Club was established and Water Polo matches were played against teams from Cheltenham, Stroud and Gloucester. In 1912, the ornamental swimming champion of the world, Miss Florence Tilton of Gloucester, gave an exhibition which included drinking a bottle of milk under water, eating a banana under water, sewing under water, ‘seal at play’, ‘the porpoise’ and swimming like a fish one length of the bath (a style in which she had offered the champions of America and Australia, 20 yards in 50).
In 1908, Cirencester Urban District Council took over the Baths, which were emptied of water on a Saturday evening and refilled during Sunday from the adjoining well. Hardy bathers in the early part of the week endured ‘icy cold water’ until it gradually attained a more tolerable temperature. The Council decided to improve the facilities and, in 1931, hosted a re-opening ceremony heralding the installation of a heating system to maintain the water temperature at not less than 60 degrees (around 15 degrees Celsius), a shallow pool for young children and dressing boxes for both males and females to enable arrangements to be made for mixed bathing under proper regulations. A kiosk opened soon after selling soft drinks, buns, cups of tea and cigarettes.
1936 brought a technological development eloquently described in the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard as attributing to ‘an unusual glint on the water which was of an unaccustomed limpidity.’ The ‘water’s pellucidity’ resulted from a new purification plant, placing the Cirencester Baths in line with the best in the country. The article explained that the water is filtered in a huge tank containing 11 tons of special sand, then ‘aerated’ to give it life, before being sterilised via a process of chlorination, ‘a process so delicate that its results are calculated in decimal points’. ‘The result is conditions as hygienic and salubrious as modern science can make them, while bathers experience a tonic effect entirely lacking before’.
Over the following decades, the Swimming Club and Water Polo teams continued to thrive, promoting Life Saving and encouraging people of all ages to learn to swim. Local schools used the facilities, leaving some pupils with enduring memories of enforced chilly swimming lessons.
In the 1970s, further repairs were needed and, in 1972, the Council built the indoor swimming pool, proposing to close the outdoor baths. Substantial opposition culminated in the Council handing the outdoor pool over to the ‘Open Air Swimming Association’ for a peppercorn rent and this formidable group of volunteers somehow ensured the continuing operation of the pool and developed a more structured organisation. In 1983, Charitable Status was granted and succeeding Trustees continued the sterling work to make the operation more sustainable. A major fund-raising exercise in the 2010s, generously supported by many organisations and individuals in the community, culminated in the opening of new changing rooms in 2016, followed by the addition of pool covers (to help reduce heating bills) and improved access to the site for disabled people.
150 years after Cirencester Baths first opened, we continue to welcome visitors to enjoy the idyllic facilities, including the popular kiosk, now known as the Tuck Shop. Water is still drawn from the original well, purified via the filter tank installed in 1936, and now is heated to around 25 degrees Celsius. ‘Dressing boxes’ are Changing Rooms built in 2016 including hot showers and disabled facilities and mixed bathing is now taken for granted. Advertising regulations restrain us from promising a ‘tonic effect’ from immersion in the limpid water, although several of our regular swimmers describe the pool as their ‘happy place’. Our trained Life Guards encourage everyone to enjoy their visit, whilst observing sensible, modern safety policies, which necessarily exclude some of Professor Beckwith’s and Miss Tilton’s ‘fancy’ frog feats.
Since 1973, dedicated volunteers have taken responsibility for organising day-to-day operations during the summer, and maintenance and fund raising during the winter. The only paid staff are the Life Guards and any specialist service providers needed for the maintenance of the pool.
Barbara Chamberlain, April 2020
Our Journey So Far by Winifred Waites
It was in May 1869 that a group of businessmen in Cirencester endeavoured to promote a private enterprise that was to benefit Cirencester town right up to the present day, well over a hundred years.
They had conceived the idea of providing a "swimming bath", and approached Lord Bathurst for help in finding a suitable site. Finally, it was decided that the best place was the meadow at the rear of the Barracks Yard, which was approached by a footpath from Thomas Street, by way of the path beside the stream leading to the Mill in Barton Lane. Lord Bathurst also made a donation of £25 towards the scheme, and a prospectus for launching a limited company was published, offering for sale shares at £5 each. Apparently, the project was regarded with much favour as within a day or two, a large proportion of the shares were taken up. On July 10th 1869 the Company was registered with limited liability. The Directors appointed to act until the first general meeting were:
Mr. T. Cox (who may have been the second husband of Daniel Bingham's mother). secretary,
Mr. C. Hoare junior.
Mr. John Mullings,
and Mr. Zachary.
In September 1869 the Directors held a meeting at which it was decided to enter into a contract with a Mr. James for the building of the swimming pool. Mr. James had already built a bridge over the stream giving access to the site, and although his was not the lowest tender, it was felt he would make an excellent job of building this bath, "so noble in its proportions".
Moreover, they added, it would be a great 'boon' to the inhabitants and no doubt the forerunner of other sanitary and hygienic improvements. The report of this meeting appeared in the local press, and inspired a letter from someone who signed himself Y.Z. He pointed out that a boon was a gift or a present, and since the shareholders were conducting the affair on a commercial basis and obviously hoped to receive a good return on their money, the only 'boon' given to the town was from Lord Bathurst who had not only donated the land, but also £25 toward the project.
The swimming bath was built during the winter of 1869/70. It was ninety feet long by forty-five feet wide and contained 100,000 gallons of water. It was well constructed being lined with white glazed bricks, with a springboard at one end and dressing boxes along the side. The water was pumped by steam power from a near-by well. In due course it was opened and continued to function for the next few years, but whether the shareholders reaped any interest on their investment is not known, but I suspect not.
Steps were taken in 1884 to form a swimming club, and excellent contests took place, and prizes were given. Nevertheless, the swimming bath project was never wholly successful, and as repairs became necessary it was used less and less as the years went on. On the 30th May 1896 that the Cirencester Urban District Council set up a committee to consider the advisability of providing Public Swimming Baths, and whether the present one was available and if it could be repaired satisfactorily.
Other sites were discussed, but as the original shareholders were willing to wind up their affairs, it was decided to take over the existing baths in accordance with the Baths and Wash-houses Act. It was thought that the chief reason for the non-success of the baths was because the water was obtained from a well which was very cold, but the Surveyor had taken levels and thought that by raising the bottom of the baths eighteen inches it could be filled with warmer water from the Mill stream by gravitation. The cost of this, together with repairs to paving and the footbridge over the stream was estimated at about £700, which if taken up on loan over twenty years at 3 1/2% would represent an annual charge of about £50 a year which equalled three fifths of a penny rate.
The Baths now in the hands of the Urban District Council were re-opened. Evidently, they had trouble with youngsters misbehaving themselves, because the Council were forced to make a public statement pointing out that the baths were not a playground for boys, but to be used for bathing purposes only. Regulations were made which allowed a maximum of forty-five minutes spent on the premises, and twenty minutes only in the dressing boxes. There was of course, no mixed bathing, a timetable showing when men could bathe and women could bathe being rigorously adhered to. In the mid-twenties when I first went to the pool, there was no chlorination or water circulation. Instead, it was filled every Sunday morning and emptied every Saturday evening. At the beginning of the week the water would be clean, but the temperature painfully low, about fifty-eight degrees if you were lucky, fifty-five more likely. By the end-of the week, the water might have crept up to the early sixties if the weather had been warm, but it had got increasingly dirty, until on Saturday afternoon, covered with a green slime and full of leaves, bathing was free for those males who were not too fastidious.
Every Tuesday and Friday we schoolgirls used to march in a crocodile from the Grammar School in Victoria Road to the Swimming Baths, carrying under our arms our neatly rolled towel with bathing costume, not forgetting the cap. Our costumes were all one piece, navy in colour, they modestly came high up around the neck, and the legs reached well down towards the knees, leaving a minimum of thigh visible.
Plunging into the icy water especially on Tuesdays, under the watchful eye of the teacher was an ordeal indeed. We stayed in the water about fifteen or twenty minutes, and to the beginners who could not swim this seemed an eternity. Wet and shivering, we endeavoured to dry ourselves in the ten minutes we were allowed, and I can still feel the cold damp of my partially dried body and the numbness of my posterior as we marched back to school. We were not allowed to run, which might have warmed us up, as that was not considered ladylike.
I learned to swim a few puny strokes that first summer, and discovered that as a Grammar School girl I automatically had a season ticket, so whenever tile weather was suitable I spent a considerable amount of time at the pool during the long summer holidays. Lots of other girls did the same and we had some jolly times. Most of them were much stronger swimmers than I was, and spent their time jumping or diving in at the deep end. I looked on, wishing I could do the same until one girl, Vera Porter who lived in the Barracks, the great bastion which overlooks the pool like some benevolent watch-dog, said to me "Oh come on, jump in with us, we'll all hold hands". Trustingly I did so, but of course as soon as they were in the water they let go of my hands and swam for the side, leaving me spluttering and choking and trying frantically to coordinate my ineffective strokes. It was a very long time before I ventured tip into the deep end again.
In 1931, the lease of the land from Lord Bathurst expired, and so the Urban District Council decided to purchase it. They then carried out many improvements.
They added a shallow pool at one end for small children, and installed a heating system, sufficient to ensure that the temperature never fell below sixty degrees. Extra dressing boxes were built, enough to accomodate male and female at the same time, so mixed bathing was possible. The water, 'now taken from the town's supply was chlorinated and circulated. The hey-day of the outdoor swimming pool had begun. A very strong swimming club and water polo club was formed. Tiers of seats were placed around the edge to accommodate spectators on the many gala nights. A sundeck for sunbathing was laid out on the roof of the store and engine rooms behind the diving tower at the deep end.
A kiosk was opened for selling soft drinks, buns and cups of tea. Quite a busy social life developed around the pool. People went there to meet other people or on warm summer days just to sit and read, or watch the swimmers and some of the more spectacular divers. Mothers took their children after school complete with picnic, and chatted whilst their offspring splashed about in the children's pool. Apart from the fact there was no sand, it was, as one Mother said "just like the sea-side".
Then came the Second World War. The Pool was now more popular than ever, as service men stationed in the district made good use of it, and generation after generation of Cirencester boys and girls learned to swim in it. Over the years various alterations took place. The entrance was changed to the Northern end of the pool, and the general layout of dressing boxes altered to better advantage. The diving tower was removed, because it was said it was dangerous to dive from such a height into only six feet of water. Yet in all the years the diving tower was used I had never heard of anyone being hurt.
Just as the pool was reaching its centenary, it was found that a lot of water was being lost daily, and the supposition was that the concrete base had cracked and was beyond repair. The heating system was not too reliable and so many other things needed attention that the Council decided to replace the old pool with a new indoor one. Much discussion with the townspeople took place, much of it heated, but plans for a new indoor pool were put in hand and was all but completed in I972.
The old pool which had served the town so faithfully for over a hundred years was under sentence of death. But the people of Cirencester were loathe to part with it. There were meetings voicing opposition, petitions, letters to the local press and local councillors were lobbied on all sides to keep the old pool open. "Why not keep both pools going " they argued. "Too expensive" came the reply, "besides the old pool has broken its back and is beyond repair".
The little band of open-air swimmers refused to believe this, and would not give up. At a meeting of the Council in May I973, to which the representatives of the Outdoor Swimming Pool Group had been invited, it was suggested by the Council that they might like to take over the old pool at a peppercorn rent and run it themselves. Undaunted by the prospect that the pool might be in need of considerable repair, they accepted the offer.
A letter was sent to the local press, advertising the pool and asking for subscriptions of three guineas minimum for a season ticket, by which means they hoped to obtain some cash in hand to meet the running expenses for the summer. They were doomed to disappointment. The response was not nearly so high as had been hoped, and it seemed that after all the hard campaigning, the pool after all, would have to go. Then magically, almost like a fairy tale, a lady living in a neighbouring village, who enjoyed outdoor bathing, offered to stand surety for the running of the pool up to one thousand pounds.
Immediately the committee, many of whom were middle-aged, or retired people living on pensions, set to and cleaned and painted and repaired wherever it was necessary. Finding a leak in a pipe in the ladies' toilets, they got it repaired, and immediately the heavy loss of water ceased. So the pool had not broken its back as was supposed, and the Open Air Swimming Pool Association as they called themselves felt all was well.
In order to save water rates, they reverted to the use of water from the well as the first swimming bath company had done, but as it was now heated, the texture was delightful, and felt soft as rose petals to the skin while swimming. Numerous money making activities were devised, rummage sales. dances and galas, and the gallant little band of campaigners emerged after that first summer with some money in hand, not having had to touch a penny of the thousand pounds surety.
The following summers were not always so good. A new heating system had to be installed, new changing rooms built as the old boxes were slowly rotting, and many other improvements were made.
Nevertheless, with ingenuity and hard work, and because they gave their services in manning and maintaining the pool voluntarily, they have survived. Now Cirencester still has a fine outdoor pool, built in 1869 by private enterprise, and kept going by private enterprise more than a hundred years later, having gone full circle.
It is a marvellous success story of a courageous little band of people who stood firm against bureaucracy, and by whose efforts Cirencester has retained a popular amenity which costs the ratepayer nothing whatsoever. I for one, when on a fine sunny summer morning jump into that inviting blue water, soft as silk, with the blue sky above, the sun on my face, the birds singing, and the lap of the water as I swim, have reason to be grateful to them. As I look up and see the massive walls of the Barracks towering over the pool, and look through the trees and see the tower of the Parish Church just as it must have been over a hundred years ago for the first swimmers in this pool,
I sincerely hope it will remain so for another hundred years, and that future generations of Cirencester people will gain as much pleasure from it as I have.
Cirencester Open Air Pool Memories by C. W. Maslin
I well remember the Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool way back in the late nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties when the cost of a season ticket was only a few shillings and there was no mixed bathing permitted until the early thirties.
The water heating and purifying systems were installed in the early nineteen thirties and I understand that some of this equipment is still in use to this day. Prior to this time the pool would close I think at 6 p.m. on Saturdays to enable Mr James who was then the pool attendant to empty and clean the pool ready for it to be refilled with fresh and very cold water from an adjacent well on the Sunday. Sunday bathing in those days was not permitted and changing cubicles enclosed the pool on both sides.
It was in the early nineteen thirties that Mr Eric Cole started the Swimming and Water Polo Club which received excellent support from many quarters. A water polo team was formed and entered the Three Counties League where after a few seasons began to meet with quite some success. Matches were played against teams from Bristol, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Swindon, Hereford, Chippenham, Stroud, Worcester and Evesham. At Stroud we used to play in the canal and at Chippenham in the river before both clubs had their swimming pools installed.
I have been told that a photograph of the 1938 water polo team is on display in the Cirencester Museum. (I have never thought that I would become a museum piece.)
In the latter 1930’s a winter bathing section was started and I well remember us having to break the ice across one end of the pool on many occasions before we could have our swim. I remember the first morning when ice covered the pool and Archie Hughes dived in without clearing the ice away and he received rather bad cuts about his body which necessitated hospital treatment. One winter morning we received a visit from a member of the local police force who said that a resident in the barracks in Cecily Hill had complained to them that she could see us running around the swimming baths in the nude (we used to do this after our dip to set up a wonderful glowing feeling and we never wore any costumes for our dip) so he had gone to her flat to investigate. On looking out of her window he told her that he could not see into the pool, but her reply was “oh! You have to stand on that chair!”
I understand that the pool is no longer owned by the local council but is managed by a consortium of local people to whom I wish every success for the future.