‘They claimed the hint of mud added to the liquid’s vital properties.’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 24: The Floating Baths
The rise of swimming as a leisure activity in the metropolis, during the second half of the nineteenth century, went hand-in-hand with the building of grand public baths by local authorities. There were, however, some commercial speculators who tried to cash in on the craze for ‘natation’. One such was the Floating Swimming Baths Company.
The Company had a retired admiral as its (suitably nautical) chairman and its ‘Floating Bath’ was tethered to a pier beside Charing Cross Railway Bridge in the spring of 1875. The structure was 135ft by 25ft, with an elaborate iron and glass exterior, like a miniature Crystal Palace floating on the Thames (the base was not glass, but an iron hull). The swimming pool inside sloped from 3ft to 7ft in depth, and was heated. The water came from the Thames itself, filtered and circulated by fountains ‘to remove all mud and other matter that may be in suspension’. This supposedly allowed the pool to retain the ‘natural salts and soft refreshing qualities’. The proprietors, however, could not remove the muddy colour of the silty river (the Thames had, at least, already been purified of more dubious contents by Bazalgette’s sewers). They claimed the hint of mud added to the liquid’s vital properties.
The Floating Swimming Baths Company talked of opening more facilities, and professed regret that the ‘great cost of the first bath, combined with limited accommodation, has rendered it necessary to charge a price above the reach of the poorer classes’ – but the wants of the poor were never its real concern. The charge for admission would remain one shilling. In the winter months, the baths were converted into a more seasonal use – a floating ice-rink, created by latest technology, ‘the circulation of a current of glycerine and water through a series of metal tubes immersed in water, which is converted into ice’.
The baths had a decade under the railway bridge; but declined in popularity, due the diminishing novelty factor, and the profusion of public pools (which, if nothing else, were better insulated against the British climate). In 1885, an attempted sale by auction failed to meet the asking price, and later in the year the baths were purchased by the South Eastern Railway Co. and scrapped. Another short-lived floating baths appeared near Somerset House in 1891 – an ‘eyesore’ which the London County Council outlawed in 1892.
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.