They’ve done a pretty good job with the recent £16.5m refurbishment of the Ironmonger Row Baths in Islington (Finsbury as was). The new facilities are smart and state-of-the-art but the ‘municipal’ look and feel of the exterior (which was Grade II listed in 2006) have been respected.
Times change. Now the Baths are operated by a social enterprise. There’s a privately run-spa which makes the old Turkish baths look a bit Dickensian in hindsight. But if our Municipal Dreams are to be more than mere nostalgia, perhaps these are necessary – or, at least, unavoidable – changes and it seems to me that the Baths still pay some proper regard to the ideals and intentions of the Finsbury Borough Council which opened them in 1931.
By then, the case for public baths and washhouses was long-established. Liverpool corporation led the way with the first publicly-funded public baths in 1828 and went one step further with the opening of a combined baths and washhouse (laundry) in 1842.
In London, an Association for Promoting Cleanliness among the Poor was founded in 1844. And Parliament passed permissive legislation empowering local vestries and corporations to use local rates to finance building in 1846 and 1852.
The stated aims of the 1846 Public Baths and Washhouses Act capture well the glorious mix of condescension and elevation that characterise Victorian social reform:
To promote the health and cleanliness of the working classes, and as a necessary consequence, improve their social condition and raise their moral tone, thereby tendering them more accessible to and better fitted to receive religious and secular training.
If we baulk at the patronage and thinly-veiled social control on display here, we should remember that these pious middle-class reformers were, for all that, on the side of the angels.
Angels, however, were thin on the ground in Finsbury. The borough council began discussing the erection of public baths within months of its creation in 1900. In 1902 plans were prepared by AWS Cross, the leading architect of the day in the field, but shelved. Five further schemes were debated in the years immediately following…and nothing happened.
By 1918, every town of over 200,000 population had either a public baths or laundry, as did every borough in London but Finsbury – one of the city’s poorest. Discussions began again in 1923 but talk was cheap, building expensive. Again the matter was shelved.
The politics of the borough were shifting however. From its inception, the council had been firmly in the hands of Conservatives, Municipal Reformers and Ratepayers – varying labels for a single politics – but the Labour Party had been gaining ground since the war. In 1928, Labour took control – narrowly (by 29 seats to 27) – and resolved to act.
The case seemed unarguable given the statistics presented by the new Baths and Washhouses Committee. Of 20,005 families in the borough, 4917 shared a single room and 7253 lived in two rooms. Of 12,000 dwellings, just 500 – only 4 per cent – had private baths.
Land was purchased and AWS Cross was commissioned once again – though now in partnership with his son, KMB Cross – to do the design. In October 1929, the Council voted to implement the Crosses’ plans using direct labour, accepting the Borough Engineer’s tender of £53,200. Labour argued ‘in this way the Council would be finding work for Finsbury unemployed, it would mean a better job’ and it would save money.
Unfortunately, the last point was not – in the strictest accounting terms – accurate. A lower private tender of £48,426 had been received. The Ratepayers’ Association (the current incarnation of the local Conservative Party) complained to the Ministry of Health of this waste of tax-payers’ money and the Ministry refused the necessary loan unless the cheapest tender were accepted. The Labour majority was forced to back down. It’s not clear whether their face-saving stipulation that the contractors give work – at this time of severe depression – to the local unemployed was acted upon.
After all the politics, the Baths were formally opened by the Mayor of Finsbury in June 1931. The official programme of the event eschews rhetoric but then the dry detail – 18 washing compartments, five washing machines, three hydro-extractors, 30 drying horses and ironing tables with electric irons in the laundry; 40 slipper baths for men, 40 for women – meant more in practical terms.
The baths were open seven days a week, the laundry for six, with long hours and low prices that did their best to address local needs. At the height of the Great Depression, the Council provided free access to the baths to the local unemployed and pensioners.
A planned second phase of building – and what leant the Baths their especial character – was completed in 1938. Full-sized and children’s swimming pools were opened…
…and the most unusual new feature: Turkish baths containing a ‘Russian Vapour Room, three Hot Rooms and Shampoo Room’, open to men and women on alternate days at just 2/6 (12.5p).
In the official programme of the opening ceremony, the Council proclaimed its vision (1):
Believing that facilities for healthy recreation and personal cleanliness are essential for the health and well-being of our people, the Council for some years past have rigorously pursued a policy of providing modern public baths in the Borough, easy of access and within the reach of the most slender purse.
And then, in a sense, the Baths embedded themselves into the community. The Turkish Baths became one of only three public facilities in London and attracted a loyal clientèle Into the 1960s, admission stood at 6 shillings (30p); a pot of tea could be had for a shilling and poached egg on toast for 1/4 (6.5p). They were a place for gossip or deals but above all for a little pampered relaxation in lives full of care.
Times change. Numbers attending fell, prices rose (though remained a far cry from their private spa equivalents) and the clientèle evolved. By the 1990s, one observer noted the ‘City fat cats’ and ‘more affluent Islington residents’ who populated the Baths.
The swimming pools remained a great resource for local schools and clubs and enthusiasts. And people still needed to do their laundry – a fact recognised in the modernisation and extension of the laundry in 1960 and its retention even in the new set-up. And when people did their laundry, they chatted and made friends.
The Ironmonger Row Baths were a social space – a statement which, when so much of our lives is privatised, is not as banal as it sounds. This aspect was recognised by Islington and the architects commissioned for the refurb. So, while the facilities are ‘more pleasant, more comfortable, a bit more pampering’ now, they are not ‘too posh’ and those spaces where people gather have been retained.(2)
Still, part of you can’t help feeling that something is lost. The Spa does, nevertheless, seem pretty posh and the three young women in the sauna discussing art installations in Shoreditch light years away from the grounded realities of the hard lives of the Baths’ original patrons.
But then you give yourself a little shake and ask what precisely are you being nostalgic for – childhood rickets and a lack of indoor sanitation? Wouldn’t those Finsbury councillors be celebrating the progress made in the lives of so many (though not all)?
In the end, I think the Ironmonger Row Baths represent what local councils can do best – address local needs in a collective fashion in changing times.
(1) Programme for the official opening ceremony, 22 October 1938.
(2) Adam Goodfellow of Tim Ronalds Architects quoted in Plunging into History
Especial thanks to the helpful people at the Islington Local History Centre for access to relevant archives.
The Rowan Arts’ Plunging into History – Stories from Ironmonger Row Baths and Beyond project is a wonderful source which provides detail and colour and much more information on the local area and people than this brief blog entry could.
Esther Oxford, ‘Bath Time: faded grandeur…‘, The Independent, 3 August 1994, captures the Baths well before their refurbishment. Hugh Pearman, ‘Scrubbing up nice‘, Riba Journal, is informative on the rebuild.
The amazing Victorian Turkish Baths website will tell you about Ironmonger Row and more historic and surviving Turkish baths in the UK than you could ever imagine.
The Baths and Washhouses Historical Archive is a superb and comprehensive resource on the subject more generally. Do visit it.