Municipal Dreams is on holiday this week but the Jubilee Pool in Penzance is so municipal and so dreamy it just had to be shared. Opened in 1935, the pool is maybe the finest of Britain’s open-air lidos – a beautiful Arc Deco memento of a municipal commitment to health, fun and modernity that illuminated an otherwise gloomy decade.
Penzance became a borough in 1614 and seems over the years to have been a rather enterprising one – a reservoir to supply the town with water was constructed in 1759, the first gas lighting arrived in 1830. In 1849, the Corporation was one of the first to form a local board of health and numerous improvements followed.
Fishing, minerals and trade formed the basis of its early prosperity but the Napoleonic Wars (which prevented the wealthy travelling to watering places on the Continent) opened new possibilities as one commentator praised the town for ‘the mildness of its air, the agreeableness of the situation and the respectability of its inhabitants’. He dubbed it ‘the Montpellier of England’. (1)
The Corporation built a seaside promenade to the west of the town in 1843 and the first Borough Surveyor built wide new roads to its rear from the 1860s. The rail link to London established in 1859 made these aspirations to resort gentility far more realistic. The first large hotel, Queen’s, opened in 1861. In its interwar resort heyday, Penzance was hailed as the ‘Cannes of the Cornish Riviera’. (2)
To its working population, Penzance was less idyllic. Battery Square – an area of run-down cottages and industrial works to the south of the town centre and adjacent to the promenade – was ‘one of the slummiest parts of the town’. (3)
In 1933, it was cleared. In a couple of years, large new municipal housing estates were built on the outskirts of town but meanwhile the Corporation focused on Penzance, the resort. Where Battery Square stood, the Borough Surveyor, Captain Frank Latham, created pleasure gardens and – a sign of the times – a car park.
At this time, Penzance was also lamenting the ‘unkind act of nature’ which had destroyed ‘the lovely beach which once ran from the Battery Rocks to the Tolcarne river’. A solution suggested itself – a lido built on the Rocks themselves.
In this, Penzance was following the fashion of the day: (4)
By the early 1930s, open-air pools had become emblems of municipal modernity and of faith in a brighter, more enlightened future, in much the same way as public libraries had become a generation or two earlier.
As we saw in Victoria Park, Herbert Morrison – leader of the Labour administration which ran the London County Council from 1934 – had declared London would be ‘a city of lidos’. In the year that the Jubilee Pool opened, the Tinside lido was opened in Plymouth, Saltdean in Brighton and open-air pools in Ilkley, Norwich, Peterborough and Aylesbury.
The Jubilee Pool was 330 feet long by 240 feet wide at its greatest extent, not the biggest of its time but, apparently, the largest by volume of water – seawater regularly replenished.
But beyond the dry detail, the pool is a thing of beauty, spectacularly sited on Battery Rocks with commanding views of Mount’s Bay, resting, in the words of the latest Pevsner:
sleekly like a liner at anchor projecting into the sea…a subtle Art Deco composition of curvilinear concrete terraces in cool blues and whites, separated to accommodate sunbathers below and spectators of the arena-like space within or views of the town without.
As the local press noted at the time, the pool wasn’t ‘only a fine piece of engineering’. It was also:
a work of art. The monotony of straight walls and right angles – the domain of the compass and ruler – has been entirely avoided. Instead there are graceful curves and pleasing lines.
The architect of this masterpiece was Borough Surveyor, Captain Latham. He usually gets a name-check in descriptions of the pool but I’m intrigued by him. He had been appointed to the post in 1899, aged 25. His rank came from a commission in the Royal Engineers during the First World War. He retired, awarded the Freedom of the Borough, in 1938 and died in 1946.
In his younger years, he had written The Construction of Roads, Paths and Sea Defence, published in 1903. That expertise was clear in the skilful use made of Battery Rocks for the pool’s foundations. The same local press report was pleased, more prosaically, to record that, as a result, the whole project cost £14,000 whereas comparable pools elsewhere had cost over £100,000.
Latham – as I imagine him, this practical man and local government bureaucrat – somewhere possessed the soul of an artist. The design of the Pool was inspired, so he said, by watching a gull alight on the sea. Its architecture is a beautiful confection of Modernism and Art Deco, typical of its time but all of its own and making superb use of its site.
It represented too, in the fashion of its day, fresh air and healthy exercise. As the mayor opined at the pool’s opening, ‘there can hardly be any better form of bodily exercise than swimming’. In any case, he added, ‘people who live by the sea and those who live on the sea should be able to swim’.
But the pool – which had seemed such a benefit to the town and its inhabitants and visitors,‘an event of the greatest importance’ as the headline proclaimed – had come by the 1960s to seem a ‘white elephant’.
The lido craze didn’t last. War broke out within four years. The post-war world of foreign travel and indoor leisure centres – and, always, the vagaries of the English weather – contrived to make these outdoor pools seem old-fashioned, even rather uninviting. Somehow, the Jubilee Pool survived but, by the 1990s a sceptical local council reckoned each swim cost the local ratepayer between £16 and £18 and the case for closing it seemed strong. (5)
The Friends of Jubilee Pool were formed in 1992 and they achieved their first victory in the following year when the Pool was Grade II listed. Major funding followed from English Heritage and the European Regional Development Fund and a grand re-opening took place in May 1994.
Now lidos and open-air pools up and down the country are enjoying a revival though many are still dependent on the voluntary efforts of local enthusiasts. The ups and downs of the Jubilee Pool itself continue. February’s storms caused significant damage to the Pool and have prevented its opening this year.
The most recent news is positive, however. A joint bid from Cornwall Council, Penzance Town Council and the Friends of Jubilee Pool for £1.95m funding from the Coastal Communities Fund was approved by the Department for Communities and Local Government this month.
The Friends are continuing their own fund-raising campaign to ensure that the Pool will be reopened with a wider range of activities that should safeguard its future in years to come. Captain Latham and the enterprising councillors whose vision created the Jubilee Pool in the 1930s would be pleased.
(1) WG Maton in 1794, quoted in Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner, Cornwall (2014)
(2) JH Wade in 1928, quoted in Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Cornwall and Scilly Urban Survey Historic characterisation for regeneration: Penzance (September 2003)
(3) The quotations are taken from ‘An Event of the Greatest Important’, The Cornishmen, a June 1935 newspaper report republished online in The West Briton, May 27, 2010
(4) Janet Smith, Liquid Assets: The lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain (English Heritage, 2005) quoted in Tom de Castella, review, New Statesman, 29 August 2005
(5) See Martin Nixon, ‘Jubilee Pool: Enormous Liability or Massive Opportunity?’ for some of this later history. The figures are taken from the de Castella review.
Do visit the Friends of the Jubilee Pool’s website for more information and the latest news on the pool.