Fringe Box



Baths Were For Making Waves Or Having A Good Wash

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012

by David Rose

At one time Guildfordians went to a public venue in the town for one of only two things – to have a swim or a good wash!

The public baths in Castle Street were a far cry from today’s Spectrum leisure centre with its four pools, ice rink, sports arena, tenpin bowling, fitness studios and other attractions; and nothing at all like the impressive Surrey Sports Park.

The baths, that occupied a single-storey red-brick building near the Castle Grounds, served the town well for about 80 years.

During the mid-19th century the benefits of learning to swim, for reasons of health, recreation, and perhaps more importantly safety, were increasingly being recognised.

Furthermore, the Public Baths and Washhouses Act of 1840 was aimed at improving the cleanliness of the smelly lower classes!

Public baths were built in towns and cities throughout Britain, many by local councils and corporations.

Guildford did not get its public baths until 1889. Until then those who were keen to take a dip and practise their strokes used the River Wey.

The town’s borough surveyor, Henry Peak, designed the Castle Street baths. They were just one of the many building projects he was involved with in Guildford. These include the laying of the High Street’s granite setts, the layout out of the Castle Grounds, plus numerous private contracts for houses, pubs and office buildings.

There are few pictures of the baths from the outside. Thanks go to fellow local historian Stan Newman who has this one in his collection. The entrance was on the right of the building. Also, note the chimney.

The baths opened on October 25, 1889, and the swimming area measured about 20 yards by five yards. At the deep end it measured six feet.

In fact, the build was not quite true as the pool was a little longer down one side than the other!

The baths were heated by a coke-fired boiler. There was a brick chimney that can often be seen in the background of 1900s picture postcard views of the bowling green in the Castle Grounds.

This rare snapshot shows the changing cubicles.

Men’s changing cubicles were on one side of the pool, with the women’s changing cubicles on the other side. There were no lockers as such, but it is recalled that rubber wristbands were issued to swimmers – a feature common at today’s public pools.

A swimming lesson in progress in the 1920s. Note the shafts of light coming through the glass panels and the skylights on the roof.

If you did not go there to swim, you went for a nice soak in a hot bath. My father was born in 1921 and lived, until he married my mother in 1947, in Falcon Road, Guildford. When he was growing up his parents did not have a bathroom – only an old tin bath. It was hung up outside the back door and brought into the kitchen perhaps once or twice a week when it was filled with kettles of hot water for all the members of the family to wash in, one after another.

So, a visit to the Castle Street baths and a big porcelain bath with piping hot soapy water to wash in must have been a real treat.

However, the pool was often closed during the winter months, as it was too expensive to heat. But by the early 1950s it appears that the heating was back on throughout the coldest months.

Maurice Quittenton was a founder member of Guildford Swimming Club.

Guildford Swimming Club had been formed in the same year the Castle Street baths opened, but to begin with, its members were content to swim in the river.

The club was formed by a group of young men led by Maurice Quittenton. His family ran an umbrella making and repairing business in Guildford. The family business was at a number of different locations in the town over the years. (See my book Memory Lane Guildford & District, Beedon Books 2000).

Members of the swimming club met at 7.30 in the morning and swam in the river near Leroy’s boathouse. According to a history of the club (now Guildford City Swimming Club) these early members taught themselves and others lifesaving. The club’s members included men from the borough police force. They also played water polo.

By 1892 the club had moved to the Castle Street baths. Perhaps they were not convinced of its facilities when it first opened?

The anomaly in the length of the pool down one side caused problems when the swimming club held race meetings. A rope had to be laid to level off that part of the pool for one-length races, or a time allowance made for longer races.

Baths superintendent William Whitbourn is sitting in the centre. These three are the same trio seen in the picture at the top of this story, preparing to dive into the pool.

The baths were closed and demolished in 1969, to be replaced by the Guildford Sports Centre in Bedford Road that was officially opened by Princess Anne in 1972.

Having some fun in the pool at the Castle Street baths in the 1920s.

The Castle Street baths are a feature of Guildford’s more recent history of which little appears to have been recorded. One or two of the photos here have been published more recently, others, to my knowledge, have not been widely shown before.

I have my own, somewhat scary, memories of the pool; having been taken there by my dad in an attempt to teach me to swim in what must have been a year or two before it closed. I had a bad experience of being accidently ‘ducked’ by someone and still have the memory of being under the water for what seemed like an age and the feeling of “this is what it must be like to drown”. I guess I was only under for a few seconds, but it put me off learning to swim until the new pool opened in Bedford Road.

Martin Giles also recalls having school swimming lessons at the Castle Street baths. “I liked it because I used to come from our home in Mytchett to St Peter’s School in Merrow by bus, train and then another bus, so going to the baths in central Guildford was much easier. I remember being struck by how old fashioned it was and that you could step straight from the changing cubicles into the pool. When you did jump in the water always seemed warmer than other pools.”

I am interested in hearing from anyone with other memories of the baths, especially if you actually went there for a bath!

I imagine the washing facilities, if not the pool itself, was open during the winter and those baths had hot water during those months!

Can anyone recall how much it cost to have a swim?

As there appears to have been no lockers (certainly in earlier times), did you hang your clothes up in the cubicles?

If you can add any details or have any photos, please leave a reply below.

3 Responses to “Through Time: Baths Were For Making Waves Or Having A Good Wash!”

  1. Fred Smith says:

    I learnt to swim at the Castle Street Baths in 1947, and wore a little black woollen costume with a badge
    on its front which said ‘Guildford Swimming Club’. I also remember how bitterly cold the water was, and it
    didn’t help me that I was rather thin. My teeth used to chatter and I gradually turned blue.

    To teach the breast stroke the instructor put a canvas belt, on a length of cord, round one’s waist and dragged
    one along through the water from a short distance out from the side of the pool back to the side again. I think in that era the instructor was called Vic Hoad. The session last about 20 minutes and I was rather glad when it had to stop so the water polo team could practice.

    I never did learn to do the crawl, the other one was cruel enough for me!

  2. Roger Bull says:

    I learnt to swim there in about 1947. We used to process down from Holy Trinity School once a week for lessons under Mr. Gilmore. The water in the pool didn’t feel as if it was heated at all. I, too, remember the wire baskets that had to be carried up the freezing stairs. It cost 4d to swim, and for another 1d you could get a really big squirt of Brylcreem from the machine. At least one member of the Whitbourn family attended HT school, and a Lizzie Boxall used to clean at the baths.

  3. Jyl Wheeler says:

    I learnt to swim at the Castle baths in the early 60?s. We had to put our clothes in a wire basket and leave them, in what we referred to as the ice cave…it was sooo cold in there! The room (if you can call it that) was situated diagonally opposite the main door to the pool area, top right hand side at the end of the girls cubicles. Ahh, what memories!

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Responses to Baths Were For Making Waves Or Having A Good Wash

  1. Steven Best

    June 2, 2012 at 10:47 am

    I wonder if anyone can help me.I went to these baths in the sixties but seem to remember we called them by another name which I just can’t recall.
    Any ideas?

  2. Mark Knight

    June 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Once a week, grandad and I would go off to the baths… For full comment see “Letters’…