The Baths - Through the Ages
A History Lesson
Chester’s first public swimming-pool was simply a floating construction, moored on the River Dee.
The bath is a cellular iron structure, the pontoons of which surround a space of 70 feet long by 30 feet wide, which forms the water area of the bath. The bottom of the bath is formed of wood planking, resting on iron beams, and set on an incline, so that the depth of water at one end is 6ft. 6in., and 3 feet at the other; but the bottom is not made up solid, the planks being 1-inch apart.
Cheshire Observer – Saturday, March 10th, 1877.
The Floating Baths
It had a deep end and a shallow end, and river water was let in – along with so much mud and silt that wider holes were made to speed the flow of river water. At this time there was a growing interest in swimming, with more people reaching the seaside by train and more people at home seeking swimming-pools in towns. Eleven years after its launch, in 1894. Chester Amateur Swimming Club was formed, based at The Floating Baths which was open in the summer only.
At their first AGM, the members invited Mr R. A. Yerburgh, MP for Chester, to be president. He responded by donating a trophy for a race across the river and back, close to the original suspension bridge. The bath was open 6am to 9pm with separate sessions for ladies. A season ticket cost five shillings.
Sinking of a Swimming Bath
An alarming occurrence took place during Saturday night on the Dee, at Chester. On Saturday afternoon and evening, a swimming gala was held, at which there were 240 persons present in addition to a number of competitors. By daybreak the baths had, from causes yet unknown, sunk no less than six feet, the water reaching nearly to the roof of the dressing cabins.
Edinburgh Evening News – Monday, August 24, 1885.
Chester City Baths, 1893 onwards
Mr. J. Jones – The Councillor for Boughton said ‘It was a disgrace to Chester that it had no public baths.’
Cheshire Observer - Saturday 16th September, 1893.
In 1896, as membership of the club increased, an annual race was set up in the river from the Suspension Bridge to the Floating Baths.
In 1897, permission was obtained to play water-polo in the baths.
In January 1899, a very strong tide caused the bath to break loose from its moorings.
Narrow Escape of the Floating Baths
As a result of the heavy rain experienced this month the Dee rose to an unprecedented height on Sunday. The waters continued to rise in the evening, and about eight o'clock the iron chains mooring the City Floating Baths to the bank yielded to the extraordinary pressure. The chains snapped like pieces of string, and the unwieldy structure swinging round, drifted broadside on to the weir, where it fortunately stuck. Shortly after 10 o'clock some excitement was occasioned among the spectators by the approach down the raging torrent of a dark looking object, which proved to be Major Bryan Johnson's steamboat shed. Cannoning off the Baths, the shed went full tilt at the centre of the Dee Bridge, and amid a grinding of timber it passed through one of the arches and sailed off triumphantly to the sea.
Cheshire Observer – Saturday, 28th January, 1899.
A photo of the Floating Baths shows it caught on the top of the weir. Considerably damaged, it was nearly scrapped, but it was repaired, then sold as scrap shortly after the opening of indoor baths on Union Street in 1901, to which the club transferred.
For three whole days and nights this week, the water in the river has been maintained at a uniform temperature of 72degrees F [22degrees C]. Crowds of bathers have patronised the Floating Bath, which, not withstanding its numerous detractors, has been viewed as a great boon by the swimming community.
Cheshire Observer – Saturday, August 5th, 1899.
By 1898, the Corporation engaged the architect John Douglas and his partners for the construction of the indoor baths, which we still have in use today. One swimming pool was named "Atlantic“, cost 2d per session, with galleries for spectators. The second pool was named “Pacific" and cost 6d per session.
There were also "slipper baths" in which individuals would wash themselves clean. A useful facility in the days when few homes had a bathroom.
‘The Sheriff said that the Baths question had now been before the public for half a century. He traced the history of the movement, which had had a very chequered career, from January 11th, 1850, when the Council adopted the Baths and Wash-houses Act, until the present scheme was adopted by the Town Council on September 20th, 1899.’
Cheshire Observer – Saturday, June 30th, 1900.
CHESTER'S NEW BATHS. FOUNDATION STONE LAYING
On Thursday the Mayoress performed the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the public baths in Union Street. The usual uninteresting little street had been made quite gay for the occasion with a plentiful supply of bunting, and an awning had been erected over the stone. The Mayor and the Mayoress were the central figures in the proceedings. They were attended by the sword- and mace-bearers.
Cheshire Observer - Saturday 30 June, 1900.
A hundred years ago, few houses had their own bathroom, so people would visit Chester City Baths to bathe themselves.
On the first-class side, there are four ladies' slipper baths, four men's slipper baths and a vapour bath, while on the other side there are seven men's slipper baths and a vapour bath.
Chester Courant. 4th September, 1901
Evidence of the slipper baths can still be seen in the office at the City Baths.
1914 – 1918
During the First World War, swimming galas were held at Chester City Baths in order to raise funds to help servicemen who were serving their country. The Roll of Honour is on display at Chester City Baths.
More Recent History
In 1975, the Chester City Council announced the closure of the City Baths, scheduled to coincide with the opening of the Northgate Arena Leisure Pool, which was then under construction. The local swimming clubs realised that the Northgate Arena pools would be unsuitable for competitive swimming and water-polo, which meant that the old baths had to be kept open to ensure the future of these sports in Chester.
With this object in mind, an Action Committee consisting of four members each from the Cheshire Dolphins and Chester Amateur Swimming Clubs was set up. The original members of the Action Committee were P. Dawson, M. Bowler, P. Measures, A. Howie, T. Neve, K. Rowlands, P. Fisher and F. Morris.
After a number of meetings and much discussion, the Local Authority were adamant that they could not afford to operate both the old and new pools, but accepted a proposition from the Action Committee to allow them to manage the old baths independently for a trial period.
The Action Committee convened a General Meeting at which the Chester Swimming Association was formed. A constitution was drawn up and charitable status applied for. A lease was subsequently agreed, and signed by both parties which resulted in the Association taking over the management of the baths on the 14th April, 1977.
Due to much hard work by the volunteer labour force, the first few years were so successful that the City Council had no hesitation in extending the lease, a situation which has continued to the present day and will hopefully continue in the future.
Since 1977, Chester Swimming Association has implemented numerous improvements to the building, which include the installation of gas fired heating, the building of a licensed social club, the provision of a cafeteria and kitchen, the building of a gymnasium, the installation of a new water filtration system and the strengthening and refurbishment of the pool halls and structure.
The year 2013 brought new challenges to the future of the City Baths as it became apparent that the building was in desperate need of refurbishment, so was closed to the public. With a shortage of available pool-time, Cheshire West and Chester Council ensured that the future of the baths was secure by undertaking major repairs to the structure of the building. Chester Swimming Association would like to express their thanks to the council for their support.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused the closure of both pools from March onwards, but moves are afoot to re-open the Atlantic Pool as soon as Government Regulations allow us to do so.