Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The History and Future of Laurie Grove Baths


The recent Goldsmiths graduate art show provided a rare opportunity for the public to explore the grandeur of Laurie Grove Baths in New Cross.

As stated in a recent planning application (of which more later)'The swimming baths, slipper baths and laundries were designed in 1895-98 by Thomas Dinwiddy, a local architect and commissioned by the Vestry Board of St Paul’s Deptford (the precursor to the Borough of Deptford) under the Public Baths and Wash-Houses Act 1846 following the rapid population growth in the area since 1862, which is illustrated in the map extracts opposite. The building is of Jacobean style with separate entrances, originally for men and women leading to two main pools housed in roof lit double height spaces, each with changing cubicles around the perimeter and balconies above. The pools closed in 1991 before being taken over by Goldsmiths, University of London in 1994'.


Today the building is used for art studio space, but the original features of the baths are intact. Indeed the students are each allocated one of the old changing cubicles to store their gear in.


The building has rich history. The baths could be boarded up for dances and concerts. In 1936, the South East London Dance Band Championship was held there with Black American jazz musician Benny Carter present as a judge - though he declined requests to play 'on account of being much out of practice and not having his instruments with him' (Melody Maker, 11 April 1936). US rock’n’roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis played there in 1964.

In the early 1950s, at at time when black people were banned from many pubs and clubs in the area, the pioneering Anglo-Caribbean Association (which fought against the colour bar) held some of its events there.


In 1932, the baths hosted unemployed demonstrators. 130 marchers from Kent taking part in a national hunger march arrived in Deptford 'accompanied by police. Two thousand unemployed met them at Woolwich, and marched with band playing to Deptford Town Hall'. The marchers ‘all wearing red rosettes in their caps’ were put up at the Borough Hall, Laurie Grove, being given dinner, a mattress for the night and free use of the public baths. The next morning they 'joined the main body of unemployed at the Broadway and, nearly 2,000 strong, set off for Hyde Park, headed by a drum and fife band. They marched along Queen’s Road and Peckham Road, accompanied by a large force of foot police, several mounted police, and preceded by men with collection boxes’ (South London Press, 28 October 1932).


The building even has its own ghost legend: 'Peter Powers grew up in the baths, his father was the last official manager, and he lived in a small flat in the building between 1969-87... Peter told us that during the eighteen years that his father managed the baths numerous members of the public - even several police officers - witnessed strange phenomena. Almost always at night, these included lights coming on suddenly, doors opening or slamming for no reason. The said 'poltergeist' was affectionately known as 'Charlie' because he was given to whistling the tune 'Charleston.' Three members of staff left because of Charlie's antics, two without giving notice. We've not seen anything of Charlie but as Peter has told us his antics were usually confined to night time and Sundays' (Goldsmiths history of Laurie Grove Baths).

Old picture of pre-Goldsmiths swimming pool:




The baths are recalled in 'Sundays we wore white', Eileen Elias' reminiscences about a New Cross childhood before and during the First World War. As a pupil at Aske's Girls' School she went swimming there regularly, but didn't have very fond memories: 'The local Baths at Laurie Grove were within walking distance of our school. They were huge ugly buildings, with forbidding marble portals, through which we went, in an orderly queue, sniffing the peculiar smell of chlorine. I was wary of the Baths. I didn't like the muffled shouting and screaming that you heard on the way to the changing cubicles; I didn't like the claustrophobic feeling of undressing on slippery wet duckboards in a little wooden cubicle with curtains over a stable-door; most of all I didn't like the first moment of coming out onto the tiled verge and catching a glimpse of that expanse of water below, grey-green and faintly rippling , and cold, cold, cold like the North Sea'. It's interesting that in 1978 she saw the buildings as ugly, as many people regarded Victorian buildings in the post-WW2 period.




The water for the baths was pumped from its own well, and held in a storage tank at the top of the building. Last weeks this was opened to the public to raise awareness of the plan by Goldsmiths to turn it into a permanent art gallery space. Planning permission has already been secured (see the planning document, which has lots of interesting background information about the building), but the funds haven't been.

The water tower today (above) and as it might look if it is converted to a gallery (below):


The baths were not just a place to swim, but a place to wash at a time when many people didn't have running hot water in their homes. Up in the water tower, there is a roller mechanism which is believed to have been part of the system to wash and dry the large numbers of towels used in the baths.

Inside the water tank:


I haven't really done justice here to the work in the exhibition, suffice it to say that much of it was excellent. I was particularly struck by Smoke, an installation by Eun Hye Shim

16 comments:

Ruby said...

Really interesting to read this history of the baths. I visited the building once many years ago when it was open as part of London Open House week-end and I was particularly struck by the fact the baths were used for washing as well as swimming - makes you realise the things we take for granted these days. Not sure if it still takes part in London Open House but it's definitely worth a visit if it does.

Deptford Dame said...

Great post, thanks Transpontine. So gutted I missed the chance to explore!

spincat said...

I don't think there are any functioning slipper baths in London now. I lived in north London for a bit in the mid 70s and we didn't have a bath so used to go to the bathhouse in Kilburn every few days. It was really well used and I loved the atmosphere and the Occasion (sometimes one remembers things that were miserable as being happy, but this really was a happy time). There were lots of bathhouses in London then and I am not sure when they closed.

Really interesting post.

Carol said...

Goodness I'm amazed at the pictures of Laurie Groves Baths. I used to swim there in the late "fifties". From my primary school, Camelot, just off The Old Kent Road, our class used to pile on to a public transport bus, and beg for the lovely lengthy bus ticket from the bus conductor! I learnt to swim at Laurie Grove Baths. At the bus stop on our way back to school, I can remember a huge advert for Pearl Insurance, I think it was, and a Civil Defence building or that may have been an advert as well. Happy, simple days!! Thank for the memory. Regards Carol.

Hotrodasaurus said...

In the late 1970s this was known as Laurie Grove Hall and hosted Rock n Roll bands popular during this time. I attended with some friends and remember the boarded over baths had a little spring to the dance hall surface.
Due to the Teddy Boys Jiving and Bopping, every now and then there would be a crash as the vibrations made the beer glasses 'walk' across the table to the edges.
You could have swam in the beer on the floor that night.

Eeyore said...

Carol.. Interesting post. If you mean the bus stop before the New Cross Gate bridge by the pub, this is currently outside Loring Hall, one of Goldsmiths Student Residences. This was built on the site of Pearce Signs offices and factory. It was quite elaborate with a little illuminated man climbing a ladder to a large advert sign, so I think that may be what you remember.

Eeyore said...

Hotrodasaurus.. I think possibly there is a date typo here. Teddy Boys preceded my time at Goldsmiths - 1966-1970, so were late 50's early 60s, not late 70s. The Who played there in 1964 or '65 so also pre-dated my time in New Cross.

Transpontine said...

Well there have been several Teddy Boy revivals, including in the 1970s so maybe that was what Hotrodasaurus was referring to.

Kay said...

I regularly swam at Laurie Grove from the late 1960's onwards. My school Christopher Marlowe had weekly lessons there and the annual school gala in the summer term. There were 3 pools, the one up the hill open all year round and the summer pool and the teaching pool. New Triton Swimming Club trained there most evenings and I was also a member of that club. We wore green and yellow speedos and had galas all over London. It used to cost 6d in old money to have a swim. My little brother swam his first length there at the Deptford Festival (the first one?) in about 1968/9 - he still has his medal which he insisted on being given to him by the Parish priest and not the local dignitaries as he was impressed by the Priest's long surplus. I carried on swimming throughout my life - rlearning to swim at Laurie Grove and eventually taking my swimming teachers exams and spent over 30 years teaching and training swimmers specialising in disability swimming. I also went on to help start London's first competitive swim club for disabled competitive swimmers which has helped produce National, International and Paralympic swimmers. My teaching/ coaching has always been as a volunteer and that's due to the volunteers at Laurie Grove that taught me. My parents would never have paid for my lessons so without their help I would never have been able to have enjoyed a lifetime of swimming or been able to pass it on. Laurie Grove Baths holds a special place in my heart.

Transpontine said...

Lovely to hear from you from Kay, let's hope the next generation of swimmers will have similar things to say about Deptford wavelengths!

annette said...

Used to swim there in the late 80s while at college. It was a little run down , very quiet and so it was lovely to swim there under that grand roof. What a shame it isn't in use as a pool anymore. I know of baths from this period that still are (e.g.Munich) Thanks for posting its history!

annette said...

Used to swim there in the late 80s while studying at Goldsmiths. It was a little run down but still lovely in its splendour. I know of baths from this period that have been kept in use (Munich for example). What a shame Laurie Grove isn't! Thanks for posting the history of it - had I known of its significance in terms of musical and socio-political history, I would have enjoyed my swim even more.

Anonymous said...

Laurie Grove Baths holds a very special place in my heart. It was my second home from the moment my Dad threw me into the middle of a circle formed in the water by my 4 sisters & brother.I had no fear & found a passion for swimming that has lasted my entire life. I have so many happy memories of the long hot summer days spent in the pool having fun and just floating on my back staring lazily up at the sky. I was really sad when it closed for good but am pleased that all the features that made the building so special still remain. It has been great reading the history of the baths and the photo's took make straight back to my childhood in the 70's. Thank you for stirring happy memories.

Connie Allen said...

If my memory serves me right there where three swimming pools at Laurie Grove, one was further up the hill. I used to be the school's swimming captain at Christopher Marlowe (attended 1959-1963) so spent most of my life at the pool. One of the life guards was named Perry. Thanks for the memory this was a wonderful time of my life.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother in grew up in Deptford learnt to swim in Laurie Grove, and then my sisters and I did the same as we went to St James's and used to walk to the baths once a week for swimming lessons.
I remember the Pearce Signs advert as well.

Anonymous said...

I remember many great evenings spent dancing to great fledgling
bands (Spencer Davis, Manfred Mann, The Who, to name a few) during my time at Goldsmiths' in the early 60's