Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Old Swimming Baths in Kilburn

Today there are no swimming baths in Kilburn and the nearest is at Swiss Cottage. If you are old enough you may remember the Granville Road Baths, but there were two older baths which have now been completely forgotten. One was on the Hampstead (Camden) side of the Kilburn High Road and the other, on the Willesden (Brent) side.

The Kilburn Baths
The first to open on 1 April 1868 were in a small building constructed by local builder John Cawley in Osborne Terrace, Goldsmiths Place on the Hampstead side. Today their site lies under the rear of the SO Quartier Maida Vale block at 34a-36 Kilburn High Road, near the Old Bell pub.
Advert for Kilburn Baths (c 1870)

In 1870 Dr Dudgeon described the pool as follows:
‘It is 15 yards long by 6 yards wide; constructed of cement rounded off at the angles. Its depth is from 3 to 4 and a half feet. The boxes are at the entrance end, 12 in number, with three quarter doors, plainly painted buff, without mirrors. The floor here is of cement or asphalte (sic). Round the other side of the bath is a narrow ledge, and at the further and deeper end is a spring-board. The walls, coloured with light blue size, (then used to prepare plastered walls for decoration) rise up from this ledge and support a doubled sloped ceiling braced with light iron rods. The top of the ceiling is of glass along its whole length, giving sufficient illumination. The water is tolerably clear and fresh; but the cement of which the bath is constructed, being discoloured, gives it a dirty look. The ventilation is not good; it has a stuffy feeling. This bath is reserved for ladies on Monday till 2 o’clock. It is first class on three days of the week, second class on the other three.’

At the time it was rented by Sidney Fuller from Cawley but he only stayed a few years and left to become a coffee house keeper in Whitechapel. The next proprietor was a interesting man called Alfred William Ward, who was a professional swimmer and diver. He had various trades before becoming a teacher of swimming about 1876.

The Regents Park Disaster
In January 1867, before he came to Kilburn, Ward worked for the Royal Humane Society (RHS) as an ‘iceman’, someone who tried to keep people safe and help skaters in trouble. As soon as rivers or lakes froze over hundreds of people took to the ice. Heavy snow had blanketed London during early January 1867. The lake in Regent’s Park was thronged with skaters and sliders but by late afternoon on the 14 January, their numbers had dwindled to a few hundred. The centre of activity was a broad sheet of ice in front of Hanover Gate. Hundreds of spectators lined the shore to watch friends and family, as enterprising salesmen hired skates to eager customers. But the condition of the ice wasn’t good and it was getting worse. That afternoon, several people had fallen through into the water. They had got out safely but groups of skaters rushing to see what had happened put the ice under more stress. The icemen on duty repeatedly tried to get people to leave the ice. Alfred Ward had warned skaters in no uncertain terms, ‘For God Almighty’s sake go off, or there will be a general calamity before long.’ In return, all he got was insults. Disaster struck soon after 4pm: the ice collapsed, plunging about 200 skaters into the lake, which was 12 feet deep in places, with a thick layer of mud on the bottom.
The Regents Park Ice Disaster (IPN 19 January 1867)

There was complete chaos as the terrified skaters thrashed about in the freezing water, weighed down by heavy clothes and skates. Within minutes around 100 people had struggled to the shore or one of the islands where they waited to be rescued while others lay flat or clung to pieces of ice and floated to the edge. But some became chilled and let go, with ‘the most piteous calls for help and then sinking with dismal wailings to their death.’ A joined-up rope was stretched from shore to shore, and a few skaters managed to grab it. The RHS had a couple of wicker boats and there were other beached pleasure craft that were launched, but it was hard to push them through the partially broken ice. It was in the middle of the lake that the tragedy played out, where rescue ladders were useless and the broken, lumpy ice hindered the passage of any boat.

‘Women rushed about on the banks screaming out that their children or husbands, or brothers were drowning, and imploring the bystanders to save them. Boys and girls stood hysterically crying and wringing their hands, and between their sobs exclaiming, “Oh, look at father!” Strong men appealed to those who had no had no means of help and pointed out friends and relations struggling in the agonies of death’. Once enough ice had been cleared, the grim task of recovering those who had drowned could begin and went on for several days: ‘All that remained was floating hats and sticks’.

40 skaters and sliders died making this the worst ice accident in the UK’s history. Ward rescued a number of people from the freezing water and was one of several men paid a reward by the RHS. Others were awarded medals. There were no women or girls among the dead, most of whom came from Marylebone, Islington, Camden and Kentish Towns: working men, students and a few professionals. The youngest was Charles Jukes, age 9; the oldest 40. Nearly half were under 20. A black retriever dog, thought to belong to one of the dead, remained by the lake for several days, in great distress and refusing food.

In the 1881 census Alfred Ward aged 37, a teacher of swimming and dancing, was living at 8 Prospect Place, which was later numbered as No.62 Kilburn High Road. Ward and seven or eight of his children became professional entertainers as ‘Ward’s Water Wonders’, swimmers and tank divers, appearing at many venues including Hengler’s Circus in Argyle Street on the site of the later London Palladium.

In 1883 Ward and his 9 year old son Alfred junior, who was wearing Ward’s patent waterproof life saving dress, attempted to cross the Channel. A newspaper gave a report:

‘At 2.15 on the afternoon of the 12th September a lad named Alfred Ward landed at Folkestone, having paddled in a lifesaving dress from Dover. He left Admiralty Pier at 10.30 and consequently was nearly four hours on the journey. The boy was accompanied by his father and a Dover pilot, Thomas Betts. The temperature of the boy’s body was well sustained but be appeared much fatigued. He had intended to try to cross the Channel but has now given up the idea.

The apparatus somewhat resembles that used by divers, only it is much lighter. Made in one piece, it closes round the neck, a thin elastic helmet fitting down over the head and partly hiding the face. Beside this there are a thin pair of India rubber half shoes, a pair of gloves and a paddle. The lad is held up in the water in an upright posture by a cork life buoy.’

Alfred’s daughter Minnie Ward became a famous swimmer who appeared in ‘Professor’ Frederick Beckwith’s (champion of England in 1861), ornamental swimming show with other female swimmers. She toured around the country with the show between 1889 and 1893.

Alfred Ward was at the Kilburn Baths from at least 1875 to about 1886. It had struggled to make money, closed and was eventually taken over by Ropers, the large Bon Marche store on the High Road.

The Pembroke Road Baths
The second baths in Kilburn were built in 1882 in Pembroke Road by Charles Kellond. It was described as a large swimming bath, 64ft by 33ft with an average depth of 6ft. Pembroke Road, which had been laid out in the 1860s, was renamed as Granville Road and the baths were renumbered as Nos.56-58. In November 1893 after refitting, it became the ‘Kilburn Gymnasium and Athletic Institute’ for physical exercise and boxing, both professional and amateur. Boxing was very popular in the heavily working class area of Kilburn. There was seating for 700 people and large crowds turned up to see local fighters. Ned Flynn, an omnibus driver who was also a competitive race walker, ran the Kilburn Gymnasium. In 1898 a local committee held a benefit concert to raise money for Ned who had been unwell and off work for several months.
The empty Pembroke Road Baths in 1901 (Martin Percival)

In 1901 the building was bought by the Kilburn Times who published their paper from there. In September 1944 the print works was hit by an incendiary bomb. In 1952 the company decided to move to Newspaper House at 313 Kilburn Lane, and the first issue was printed there in March 1955.

The Granville Baths
Co-incidentally the third baths were also in Granville Road, these were the last to be built in Kilburn. Many houses in this congested area did not possess bathrooms and Willesden Council decided they would build a swimming pool for leisure and exercise but also provide a laundry and 48 slipper baths for washing. Eventually by means of a compulsory purchase order, the Council acquired a row of terraces with stables and cottages at the rear, and the building was designed specifically for this confined site.
1950s Map, with the old Pembroke Baths now Kilburn Times Print Works (Red), and the Granville Road Baths (Blue)

The baths were next to the Duke of Cambridge pub on the corner with Cambridge Road. The swimming pool was opened 3 July 1937. Dimensions were 100ft x 33ft with depth of 10ft at the deep end. The pool had a 5 metre board, 3 metre and 2.5 metre platform boards, plus 1 and 3 metre springboards. The Southern Counties Diving Competition was held here. In 1949 Willesden Council published a user survey showing the slipper baths were not well patronised by residents, nor were the swimming facilities here and elsewhere in the Borough, but the laundry was popular.
Granville Road Baths (nd)

The Granville Road Baths were demolished in 1990. Flats were built together with the Tabot Centre (1998), a youth centre for after school hours projects. Most of Granville Road has been redeveloped apart from the Duke of Cambridge pub, which today is a residential property.

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