In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield, with thanks to Sarah-Clare Conlon and the Victoria Baths team

The magnificent Victoria Baths opened in 1906 on Hathersage Road in Manchester and, described by the mayor at the time as a ‘water palace’, was built to provide swimming and leisure facilities for the area, which it did for 87 years. With its coloured brickwork, beautiful stained glass and Pilkington’s tiling, it is a Grade II* listed heritage building worth celebrating - and now has a Writer-in-Residence for the first time: Sarah-Clare Conlon.

Its location just outside the city centre, nestled close to Plymouth Grove – near the site of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House – gives Victoria Baths additional mysterious charm. Established as a facility for the local people of Longsight, St. Luke’s and Rusholme, when it first opened it offered an impressive array of three pools, Turkish baths, personal washing facilities and even a laundry.

Credit Andrew Billington

Although upkeep pressures caused it to close as a pool after 87 years, the efforts of local people – many coming together to form The Friends of Victoria Baths - has continued to keep the building and its culture alive and recognised. It is this deep connection with the people of Manchester, as well as the fascinating history of the building, which the new Writer-in-Residence Sarah-Clare Conlon will consider in her work.

Sarah-Clare Conlon (pictured below) is a prize-winning micro-fiction writer published by Salt Publishing and Dostoyevsky Wannabe, among others, with creative work in a range of magazines including Flash and Stand, and new anthologies Story Cities (Arachne Press) and Port (Dunlin Press). She has also performed as one half of the spoken word and music act Les Malheureux with fellow Manchester-based author David Gaffney, and is recognised as a key figure of the city’s literature scene, through her award-winning culture blog Words & Fixtures and as the host of Verbose for two-and-a-half years until 2017.

This experience in both creativity and curating events has seen Sarah-Clare bring so much to Victoria Baths already, as she is significantly behind the 3-day festival Weekend of Words (7-9 June). This will be an opportunity to celebrate literary culture in the city, including a range of writers, publishers and related events, all within the beautiful space. As part of this, on the evening of Saturday 8 June there is a performance event titled Re/Place(s) which will consist of six specially commissioned short stories inspired by Victoria Baths, featuring Sarah-Clare as well as Kate Feld, David Gaffney, Phil Olsen, Joe Stretch and Lara Williams.

Sarah-Clare Conlon by Gwen Riey Jones

There is certainly no shortage of historical inspiration for writers when considering the space either. Victoria Baths, despite the name, is actually an Edwardian structure, its construction led by Henry Price - the first City Architect of Manchester – who started work on it in 1902, with the baths opening in September 1906. The time taken marked the level of detail that had been involved in creating such a significant building, with the cost coming in at over £59,000 – more than double the usual sum for bathhouses at the time.

Yet it quickly became clear that Victoria Baths was to bring unique value of its own, not just a thriving community hub but also a site fostering achievement and even some historical firsts. For example, Sunny Lowry (born 1911) – the fifth British woman to swim the English Channel – began by swimming at the baths and the Olympic Swimmer John Besford also trained there. The Baths also boasted the first ever public Aeratone (an early Jacuzzi-type bathing machine) in the country when it was installed in 1952. Having a Writer-in-Residence for 2019 therefore marks another first for the building.

Although its time as a public baths came to an end in 1993, as the building became increasingly expensive to maintain, people’s love for the place carried on. The Friends of Victoria Baths was quickly established, seeking to find ways of preserving the building and its history. After a number of difficult years, September 2003 marked a turning point - with the Baths winning the first series of the BBC’s Restoration programme, as voted for by the general public and receiving £3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This meant extensive restoration work was able to go ahead, opening up the historic space as a venue for a range of cultural activities, including heritage open days, gigs, film screenings and even a gin festival. Victoria Baths is also open to the public for midweek tours and special weekend events, with more information available via their website.

Victoria Baths

Weekend of Words (7-9 June) is another exciting edition to the venue’s impressive cultural calendar, and HAUNT Manchester decided to speak to Sarah-Clare Conlon to find out more about it, her work and how she became Writer-in-Residence…

Hello Sarah-Clare! How did you go about becoming Writer-in-Residence at Victoria Baths?

“Gwyneth, who is Fundraising Co-ordinator at the Baths got in touch before Christmas 2018 – saying that she was planning a ‘Northern Literature Festival-type event’ to correspond with an open weekend in June 2019 (7-9th), and asked if I would be willing to help out in some shape or form. I said yes, definitely! They were thinking of having a kind of reading and performance event for example; a format I have experience in as I used to host Verbose. Then I asked: have you ever considered a Writer-in-Residence?  Gwyneth said she hadn’t but wanted to find out more about it… as did I, as although I knew people who had become Writer-in-Residence of places, I wasn’t necessarily sure what that fully involved.

“To find out more, I chatted to people who had recently taken on such positions, for example, Rosie Garland who is the first ever Writer-in-Residence at John Rylands Library. I also talked to Tania Hershman, Writer-in-Residence at Southern Cemetery. Both of them suggested that it was a position to make your own of… so I approached Gwyneth with the Writer-in-Residence concept and said something along the lines of ‘if you fancy trying this, then I’m up for it!’. That’s how we went forward, starting in March this year. The residency involves unearthing the histories and stories relating to the Baths – I have programmed some of the Weekend of Words with that in mind and it will also inform my own creative responses.”

Why do you think this is an important place – both culturally, and to focus on creatively?

“I’ve known of the existence of Victoria Baths ever since I came to study here in the nineties, even visited a few times for cultural events, but never knew much about its history beyond that. I hadn’t looked too much beyond the surface - but since getting the role, the more amazing things I have discovered. The more that I look at things, ultimately, the more I go ‘that’s amazing!’. The stained glass for example in what was the Males 1st Class Wash Baths and we now call the Pineapple Room, named because of the design of the fruit in the glass, is meant to be symbolic both of welcome and of affluence. In looking up we often discover the most interesting stories, and Victoria Baths certainly has opened up my eyes to new things I hadn’t noticed.

“It’s also worth acknowledging that the building was so significant at the time as it took quite a long time to build and a lot of people to build it - reliefs, stained glass, so many details of craftwork. It could be considered a jewel in the crown of public buildings, part of a culture of a particular pride that existed in Victorian and Edwardian society in the North: people had a certain amount of pride in wanting places to look nice. Consider Rochdale Town Hall for example: a massive building given the size of the town.Victoria Baths

“Focusing on place creatively is an ongoing relationship – and something I will try my very best with. From the outside Victoria Baths doesn’t look that big, but it certainly is deceptive... once I was on the inside, the first few times I kept getting lost!  It’s definitely been a place that has surprised me, not just the stories, but the structure itself… hidden places within a hidden place. The Superintendent’s Flat for example, is an amazing space with rooms over two floors. I had never ventured upstairs until the residency: I had no idea there would be that much space.

“I think it helps too that I’m definitely curious: if I’m not sure of something, I will go off and find out what it means, learn more about the history. All of this will be information that I will absorb, even the mysticism about things. I guess Victoria Baths will always be a part of my existence now really, as it is for all of the people who are involved here. I’ve been inspired by finding more about the lengths people will go to keep Victoria Baths in people’s line of vision.

“Building a human relationship with the fantastic team here is also important, they are a really nice group of people – and full of stories! They have taught me so much, often making additions such as ‘has anyone told you this yet?’ or ‘this happens on certain days’ etc. I kind of feel I wouldn’t know these extra details otherwise.”

How has the history of Victoria Baths inspired you – and do you think its location outside the city centre has given it a kind of ‘hidden history’ or secretive status?

“Learning more about the Baths certainly has been mind-opening! After all, it was built to be a functional building, for specific reasons – to allow the local population to swim, wash and to do their laundry. So many people came here, and they all have individual reasons and stories – certainly inspiring for a writer. Therefore, as Writer-in-Residence, I am not just thinking of the structure of the building, but also thinking about the people that made it the place that it was, pretty successful in its time. It housed so many different things, and I’m constantly picking up little snippets of new information.

“The changing status of the Baths over time is an interesting thing to think about – from its popularity on opening to its closure in the nineties. Considering that the Baths was a functioning place for much of the twentieth century, it means that it still is in relatively recent memory – and for those people who were users of the building, many probably saw it has a place of day-to-day life rather than anything necessarily special. For example, there are tales of mothers piling up prams with their dirty linens to clean in the laundry room and dropping their children off to wash. Hence, many people probably associated it with doing chores!

Credit Lesley Carr

“Therefore, it was these associations with the Baths as a place of everyday life that meant that its wider historical significance wasn’t perhaps recognised by more people. Also, in its modern day context, its location may seem a little bit  ‘out on a limb’ beyond the city centre – but actually Hathersage Road where it is, used to be called High Street, and much busier! At the time it was built, Victoria Baths was on a tram route, for example. The geography of the area around it is interesting though… apparently at the time there was some kind of bylaw stating that new industrial buildings weren’t allowed on Upper Brook Street. Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to see Upper Brook Street as almost some kind of weird boundary. Interestingly, the nearby Victoria Park area, as well as Plymouth Grove, used to be quite well-to-do-areas, especially in the nineteenth century. It has changed quite a lot since, Manchester is after all an ever-changing city, as I’ve seen even just in the time I’ve spent here since the nineties. It is constantly evolving, but that also means it is important that people hold onto places like this and celebrate their history here.”

Can you tell us more about Weekend of Words (7-9 June) – and why would you encourage people to come along?

The idea really is that there is a public open day (Sunday 9 June) and around that we wanted to give another experience of the Baths, another layer which gives people the opportunity to experience art and new voices in an unexpected way. Some people, for example, might turn up to the Baths thinking that just the building is just open for the day, and then be pleasantly surprised! Even if they wouldn’t necessarily seek out poetry and storytelling normally, this kind of format might draw them in.

“It’s also a very varied Weekend of Words, with something for everyone. On Friday night, for example, there is a concert in the Gala Pool with a harpist and flute – which will attract its own unique audience. The Saturday then has been curated so people interested in writing and reading can experience that within the context of Victoria Baths; for example writing about the place, with poetry and stories inspired by the subject of water. Saturday morning will consist of creative writing workshops looking at a number of forms – poetry, prose, creative non-fiction - this will also tie into our competition, seeing what the public can come up with about the Baths. Hopefully people will create something while they are here! In the afternoon on Saturday there will a poetry panel chaired by Clare Stuart, who directed Women in Words at Dunham Massey last year. We will hear work from a variety of poets as part of this, and hold a discussion, plus people can ask questions. A useful as well as pleasant experience! The building will be open all day on the Saturday, with the Re/Place(s) short story event in the evening in the Males 2nd class pool hall, which will also have a bar. A big feature of Weekend of Words after all is that things will take place in lots of different spaces around the building, creating different experiences and responses.

Books in The Baths

“In terms of Re/Place(s) – the ‘s’ stands for swimming, inspired by the Baths – this is me commissioning  people to write short stories; an ongoing project now in its third iteration. So that’s creating brand new work inspired by the place of Victoria Baths, based on what writers have unearthed when exploring, and there are so many different angles to approach it from!

The Sunday of Weekend of Words also offers a number of unique events. One of these is the Manchester premiere of the Victorian Women In Bed, lots of little plays within one big play – which will take place in what was the Females Pool… so that means a set with an actual bed, and the audience, in the pool (no water)! There will also be different kinds of pop-up performances throughout the day, including from The Other, which is an event that happens in the North a few times a year, often at The Metropolitan in Didsbury. The format is that different poets and prose writers offer to read and swap their work, then go on to read each other’s! They’re going to do some performances for an audience in one of the rooms in the former Superintendent’s Flat, signing people up in advance and then getting people to swap work on the day. It’s sure to be interesting.

“My Writer-in-Residence role means I will continue here beyond the Weekend of Words however, and I’ve already written a short-short story inspired by the place, not to be performed at this event – but at a future event we have planned. I guess working on the Weekend of Words is like making a big pastry pie, and then with the offcuts you make jam tarts… so there is more to come! My idea is come up with a bunch of flash fictions that will be related.”

Weekend of Words

Why do think Victoria Baths is a special place?

“It very much leaves an impression on people and is open to so much interpretation. For example, I brought one of the writers involved in Re/Place(s) – Joe Stretch (Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of Friction, Wildlife and The Adult) – and showed him round. We went into the Gala Pool, and it was a day when it was really warm and the light was pouring in. He mentioned to me that he was thinking of writing something about baptism and water inspired by the space… and it is true, there was a real church-likeness of the building at that point.

“People visit and revere churches after all not just because of their religious context, but because they are beautiful buildings, and I think that can be said for Victoria Baths. There is such a level of craft and skill in the likes of the tiling, mosaics, woodwork. Even now, as the building is maintained, it often requires specialist work. Some of the stained glass has needed renovating for example, which not only required significant fundraising but highly skilled labour. The stained glass expert is based in Bolton – and as part of his process, he collects stained glass from a range of buildings and matches little tiny bits to restore panels, fixing it like patchwork back together… some might call it a pane-staking job, ha! In the twenty first century, crafts like this seem like a dying art, and it is so important that they carry on.

“Yes, of course areas of the city change and develop, but also there is importance in recognising the value of place… if we were to tear down all the old buildings, everything would start to look the same. Victoria Baths is very much a special place.”

Photography Credits

Photograph 1- Copyright: Andrew Billington (also the featured image)

Photograph 2 - Sarah-Clare Conlon by Gwen Riley Jones

Photograph 3 - Victoria Baths Facebook

Photograph 5 - Lesley Carr




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