I don’t normally update posts but four years ago, when I last visited the Jubilee Pool in Penzance, it was closed and storm damaged. A fundraising campaign was in place to secure its repair and re-opening. Well, last week I saw that the campaign had succeeded magnificently so I’m pleased to add to that earlier post and bring things up-to-date. (The revisions are in italics.)
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.
The pools also reflected a greater independence enjoyed by women – a cultural shift but, in this context, a practical one too made possible by new swimwear designs which allowed them to take up swimming in addition to the more sedate bathing previously judged more seemly.
As we saw in Victoria Park, East London, 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 officially opened on 31 May, 1935. It was, the programme stated, ‘ the consummation of one of the most important projects undertaken by the Borough of Penzance’ . The celebratory prose went on to praise the clearance of the:
slum property that had marred the eastern approach to the Promenade – today this depressing and unattractive scene has been swept away and a complete transformation effected.
A full programme of activities followed with the accompaniment of the Penzance Silver Band. ‘Professor’ Hicks, ‘the Cornish Veteran’ and former West of England swimming champion whose swim career had begun in 1868 was present and his inaugural laps were followed by a ‘programme of aquatic sports and exhibitions’ including races for ladies and girls. The ‘Beauty Parade of Bathing Belles’ was perhaps less of a blow struck for feminism.
Prices, at 6d (2.5p) for adults and 3d for children, were relatively high but more controversial to some was the fact that the pool was to be open on Sundays and Councillor Birch went so far as to proclaim that ‘people in favour of Sunday labour were tyrants’. The Mayor himself declared he would rather the pool be permanently closed than open on Sundays but later took part in the opening ceremony nevertheless. By 16 votes to 9, the Council overruled the primarily religious objections to Sunday opening (4a)
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 by seven sluice gates. The size was designed to meet national and international standards for swimming and water polo matches.
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 programme, in full awareness of these artistic credentials, commented conversely on ‘the cubist style … adopted in the interior in the matter of diving platforms and steps’.
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.
A £3m renovation programme, supported by the Coastal Communities Fund and matching funding from local authorities and the Friends of Jubilee Pool, was completed in 2016 and the pool reopened in May that year.
The Pool is now owned and managed by the Friends of Jubilee Pool operating as a Community Benefit Society committed its survival as a community asset. The latest stage in this is the drilling of a geothermal well to provide renewable energy which will enable part of the pool to be heated. A fundraising share offer is in place to complement the grant funding provided by the European Union. (6)
Finally, that future is properly supported by a celebration of the Pool’s past. ‘Jubilee Pool Stories‘ is a project to create a digital archive as well as new media work and exhibitions. If you’re interested or can contribute your own memories, please follow the link. My thanks to them for providing the historic photographs included in this post.
The amended post benefited from an exhibition in the Penzance Exchange gallery, ‘The Jubilee Pool: Then, Now, To Come’, which is running till 22 September 2018.
(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
(4a) ‘Penzance Town Council. The Bathing Pool’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 15 May 1935
(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.
(6) Visit the Jubilee Pool’s dedicated website for full details on past work and future plans.
With planning permission granted for the proposals, Dezeen have just published ‘Penzance could become “spa town of Cornwall” with revamp of art-deco sea pool’