Celebrate this local institution and see wonderful pictures from the past.
Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool celebrates its 150th Anniversary in 2020. During the season from May to September, various events will celebrate this milestone, alongside what we hope will be another memorable spring and summer. The brief history below gives a flavour of some of the stories we are uncovering from the past 150 years, and we will be pleased to explore these in more detail for media features. We hope that the many members of the community who have enjoyed and endured the pool, will add further anecdotes to our collection.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PAST TIMES AT THE BATHS
‘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 &c 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.
Our 2020 Season will run from Thursday 21 May to Sunday 13 September. Birthday celebration events will take place during the season, when we will acknowledge our debt and gratitude to all those whose determination led to the creation of the Baths and its continued existence as Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool. 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.
We will be pleased to share more of the stories we have uncovered of past times at the Baths, and hope that our visitors will bring more memories. Most importantly, in looking back at the role the Baths have played in the social history of Cirencester, we hope to cement and secure a successful future for Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool.