Built in classic red brick, embodying Art Nouveau elements and designed by City architect John Henry Price, Withington Baths on Burton Road has an impressive history behind it – the foundation stone dated 11 November 1911. Visitors can still swim here, making it the only fully in-use Edwardian pool in Manchester. Inside, impressive tiling, stained glass and a glorious pitched-roof pool highlights a building that has brought the local community together for over 100 years.

Withington Baths

 It is the local community after all which fought to save the Baths, forming Love Withington Baths when it came under threat of closure in the early 2010’s – and now people can not only swim there, but enjoy a range of gym and leisure facilities. Visitors may well find themselves impressed by the decorative entrance hall, whilst a bright and airy ground-floor studio offers an ideal space for meetings and events. There has even been the recent installation of the first co-working space in Withington, in a former warden’s flat that is truly historic.

Withington Baths is a poignant symbol of both a building and a community that fought back against the forces of cuts to secure and celebrate hidden heritage; a living example of survival against the odds. In the 1990s, the building was already faced with compromise, Council cuts leading to one of its interior pools being drained and boarded over, whilst in 2013 it was threatened with closure entirely.

However, the Love Withington Baths and the local community were quick to respond, marching through the streets in peaceful protest. A petition to save the Baths attracted over 8000 signatures, delivered to City Council Leader Richard Leese on Valentine’s Day of that year.

Although this force of support helped the Baths stay open for longer, the Council still intended the building to close by 2015 – as a new facility was being planned at Hough End. However, Love Withington Baths did not stop there and formed a core committee that went on to become a Charitable Trust; successfully applying to take over the day-to-day running of the Baths in 2015. This means that it now operates with all profits going back into maintaining the building, operated by the community, for the community. Fascinating stories of community and culture is after all where the history lies…

Withington Baths Date Stone

When it opened in 1911, Withington Baths surely attracted plenty of popular attention. It was designed with civic pride in mind, the appointed architect John Henry Price also responsible for designs including the nearby Withington Library and also Victoria Baths. So why the M20 location? In the early 20th century, Withington was seen as one of the most desirable districts in Manchester, referred to by accounts at the time as ‘a kind of upper-class Olympia’, amongst other things! This was reflected in the interior of the Baths – initially having both a First Class and Second Class Pool. A rather gritty detail however is that whilst clean water was used by the First Class Bathers, it was then re-used in the Second Class Pool!

The surrounding area also has some rather unusual stories associated with it. Facing the Baths is Brigadier Close, formerly the site of what was the Waterloo Inn/Hotel. It was believed that this pub took its name from the annual Lancashire game-coursing (where dogs would chase and catch prey) event the ‘Waterloo Cup’, popular in the 19th century. Why? The story goes that the local William Foulkes took in a stray dog, called it ‘Brigadier’ and trained it up –this dog going onto win the Waterloo Cup in 1866. When it died in 1877, Foulkes buried it in a marked grave; now where Brigadier Close stands. These local stories and community history enrich the area further.

A key piece of history is associated with Withington Baths for example, is that a milestone was set there...proving both significant and scandalous at the time! Despite having separate entrances for men and women (as can still be seen in the details above the outer doors) in 1914 it became the first Baths in the Manchester area to allow mixed male and female bathing; whereas in another pools the sexes had separated designated areas to bathe. Although this would be seen as progressive today, at the time it attracted a certain extent of scandal! In 2014, the Baths marked the centenary of the significance of this decision.

Over the course of the century, the Baths has continued to persevere against a range of pressures. In 1940 during the Second World War, an air raid shelter just in front of the baths took a direct hit, with seven ARP Wardens tragically losing their lives.Withington Baths Pool

During times of difficulty, Withington Baths has played a vital role in providing a valuable haven for the community and connection. The Manager even used to live within the building itself, in a specially designed first floor flat. In the 1930s and ‘40s for example, Alan Mather used to live here when his father was the Manager – Alan reflecting on his own experiences and the social significance of the Baths when he spoke at the centenary party held back in November 2011. It is that upstairs flat which has since been converted into Withington’s first designated co-working space: Withington Works (pictured below). Complete with an outdoor terrace and kitchen area, the space retains key historic features including beautiful stained glass and stonework, as well as newly-installed shined wooden flooring and ample desk space.

What is clear is that Love Withington Baths as a Charitable Trust have not only saved the building, but have ensured its ongoing development in-line with maintaining its history. By developing a detailed business plan to ensure the continued trading and community success, the Trust has seen further transformations take place at the Baths including restoration of the shower area, with plans for the Sauna next. New sports equipment worth £150,000 has also been installed and Withington Baths has won a range of awards including Manchester Sports Award 2017, Sporta ‘Social Enterprise Improvement Award’ 2017 and most recently Buzz Community Champion Award 2018.

What else can we expect from Withington Baths? Well worth a visit (the opening times are available on the website), it has seen many local schoolchildren and adults learn to swim over the years and still offers swimming facilities, as a well as a gym and leisure classes. These include yoga, Zumba and aerobics as just some examples, whilst there is also a running club and physiotherapy sessions.

Withington Works

This Edwardian wonder combines sporting opportunity with creative links too; Withington Baths being the finishing point of a recent storytelling walk ‘This is Where It happened’ led by Manchester theatre company Powder Keg – starting out at Didsbury Library, a building also designed by Price. Visitors may also notice a ‘Memory Tree’ set up near the entrance hall, offering a space for people to put down their memories of the baths – young and old alike. A gardening club has recently been set up and more events are expected, with a key highlight of Withington Baths being that anyone can become a member.

A historic gem with hidden prospects? Find out for yourself, especially as further exciting development plans are underway…​

By Emily Oldfield

All photographs (except image 3) thanks to Wilkinson Photography

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1 Comments

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  1. Dave
    I learnt to swim here in the very early 60s and would attend the baths regularly every Sunday with my father and brother. Afterwards, visiting the sweet shop on Burton Rd towards Palatine Rd.,and the delights of the Penny Tray!

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