The history of Bury’s first public baths at St Mary’s Place

THIS weekend the borough’s leisure centres started to reopen following the coronavirus lockdown.

But over 150 years ago a different kind of public health crisis was amplifying pressure to open leisure facilities for the public.

In the mid 19th century, infectious diseases claimed tens of thousands of lives as squalid slums and tenements were haphazardly thrown up to house labourers drawn in to mill towns during the Industrial Revolution.

Victorian society grew increasingly concerned about the emerging connection between the dirt of industrial towns and disease.

During the 1850s and 60s, after devastating cholera epidemics ripped through towns and cities, making no distinction between rich and poor, efforts to improve general welfare and health gathered apace.

Public baths emerged as one popular means of achieving these ends, becoming closely connected with cleanliness and public health.

Bury Times: ‘A court for King Cholera’ - Illustration by John Leech, 1852. Published in Punch, or, the London Charivari. Page 139, V23 (July-Dec 1852). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)‘A court for King Cholera’ – Illustration by John Leech, 1852. Published in Punch, or, the London Charivari. Page 139, V23 (July-Dec 1852). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

According to research by Jean Bannister, published in the Bury Times, at that time, Bury’s Improvement Commissioners were extremely cautious about adding to the rates ­— which they levied for street cleanliness, lighting and paving.

However, after they purchased the Gas Company in 1858, the commissioners found themselves with £2,000 profit in hand by 1861.

They tentatively suggested using it for the provision of baths and washhouses, and a public meeting was called to offer up two thirds of the costs of the public baths ­— provided that the other third was obtained through private subscription.

The crowded meeting saw all sorts of ideas put forward, from appeals to include a recreation ground and free library in the project, to an ingenious suggestion from a Mr Hitchinson that costs could be reduced by using condensed water from a factory.

The Rev EJ Smith approved of the idea of the baths but had doubts about the desirability of washhouses as they would “take women out of their homes”.

He also thought it would be especially useful for iron foundry workers “to visit the baths occasionally and have a very good wash”.

Fellow clergyman, Rev RW Thorburn added that he “sincerely hoped that the use of the baths would soothe the irritability which often led to the craving of strong drink”.

After much discussion the motion to open private subscription was carried, and the chairman, Mr John Walker, started the list with £100.

Bury Times: Bury Market Place in 1870Bury Market Place in 1870

In October a committee was appointed to draw up proposals for the baths, taking inspiration from the baths at Manchester and Halifax.

Two prizes, one of £25 and one of £10, were offered for designs. The specification included two ‘plunge’ baths, 40 private baths, a washhouse and drying court, and two first and second class Turkish baths.

Mr Maxwell, of Bury, won the design competition and the cost was estimated at £4,400.

However, subscriptions only reached £1,147, and depressed trade exacerbated by the American Civil War caused the cost to be reduced to £3,300.

Washhouse facilities were cut out of the designs, the private baths were limited to 20, only one Turkish bath was included, and the second class plunge was left untiled to bring down costs.

The baths were opened in St Mary’s Place, in May 1864, with a celebratory procession, gala and tea party, and initially proved more popular with men than women.

The beautiful building was rendered in red brick with a central pediment and sculptured heads and reliefs in stone ­— including of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

A swimming bath was added in 1894, followed by a second Turkish bath and a Russian or vapour bath ­— now called a sauna ­— in 1898.

After over 100 years of service the doors of the St Mary’s Place baths closed for good during the fuel crisis of 1973 and the building was demolished.

At the same time work was underway on new baths in Bolton Street ­— which later became known as the Castle Leisure Centre.

Bury Times: A view of the new Bolton Street baths in Bury from the spectator’s balcony, in July 1973A view of the new Bolton Street baths in Bury from the spectator’s balcony, in July 1973

These new £750,000 baths boasted a 33 and one third metre main pool, a variable depth teaching pool and a 12ft 6ins diving pool.

The swimming pool opened to the public in 1974 with the additional sports facilities coming on line two years later, including the squash and badminton courts and a sports hall.

It was also home to a library until 2017 when the provision was axed as part of cuts to the borough’s library service.

In 2015 the leisure centre was saved from the bulldozers after plans to build a new supermarket on the site and the town’s old, adjoining police headquarters, in Irwell Street, were shelved.

The Project had proposed to sell the old police station site to make way for the superstore and use the proceeds made from the sale to fund a new leisure centre to be built in Knowsley Place.

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