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