Friday, December 11, 2015

Ladywell Baths: some history (post updated November 2017)

Lewisham Council has approved (November 2017)  a proposal for the semi-derelict Ladywell Playtower building  to be refurbished as a cinema by Curzon, due to open in 2020. A rival proposal from the Picturehouse/Cineworld cinema chain came second and had been the focus of an 8,000 strong petition 'Do not give our Ladywell Playtower to the union-busting Picturehouse / Cineworld chain!' - workers at the Picturehouse cinema have been in dispute with the firm over its failure to pay London Living Wage (unlike Curzon). It is not clear whether this was a factor in the Mayor's decision, but Lewisham has been actively promoting the London Living Wage. In any event there are already three Picturehouses within five miles of Ladywell - which will now host the borough's only dedicated full size cinema (architect's impression of new scheme below).

The Council's invitation of proposals for the site was prompted by another online petition in 2015 which stated:

'We the undersigned note that the Ladywell Baths (aka 'The Playtower') was listed recently by The Victorian Society as one of England and Wales's 10 most 'at risk' Victorian and Edwardian buildings. This highlights the failure of the Mayor and Council over many years adequately to prioritise the restoration of this building, a prominent and much-loved local landmark, to beneficial use - a total abdication of their responsibilities as owner and custodian of this fine public building. We call upon the Mayor and Council urgently to set in train a process and take all appropriate steps, in partnership with other interested public, private and third sector organisations and in close co-operation with local people, to bring the Ladywell Baths building back into productive use and so secure its integrity and future for the at least next 100 years'. Well I guess they have got what they wanted.

Ladywell Baths in better days... the tower is still there, but it lost its cone in the Second World War

Much of the building fabric remains intact if not in great condition, as an 'urban explorer' who  photographed the inside in 2015 found: 

photograph from slayaaaa at 28 Days Later

'Ladywell Baths were erected in 1884 to the designs of Wilson & Son and Thomas Aldwinkle, the latter a local architect who designed several bath houses of note. The builders were Hobbs of Croydon. The Ladywell Baths were built at a cost of £9,000 on a site procured by the vicar of the adjacent St Mary's Church. At the time, a local paper commented on the juxtaposition of church and baths that 'cleanliness was next to Godliness'. The site was chosen as it is on the main road into Ladywell from Brockley, Catford, Lewisham and Hither Green. 

Local vestries were first permitted to levy a rate for baths and washhouses under an Act of 1846. Largely concerned with the hygiene of the lower classes, however, the Act only permitted slipper baths, laundries and open-air pools until an amendment in 1878 encouraged the building of covered swimming baths. Few authorities adopted the Act before the 1890s, when baths began to flourish. Lewisham Vestry, however, was notably progressive and appointed seven Commissioners in 1882, whose aims was to obtain funds and land to build two swimming pools at Ladywell and Forest Hill. By 1900 public baths were not only being built in large numbers, but also with increasing elaboration. 

On 25 April 1885, the baths were opened by Viscount Lewisham, MP, who remarked that aside from the Paddington Baths (which do not survive), 'there were no others in London of that size'. The Forest Hill baths were opened the following week. The ceremony was reported in the Kentish Mercury of 1 May 1885, which described the baths as 'quite an ornament to the neighbourhood, standing in striking contrast to the ancient church behind it'. The charges for use were 6d for the first class pool and 2d for the second class. On two days a week the pools were reserved for ladies bathing'. 

Interesting the lengths Victorian authorities went to to embed class distinctions in architecture - in this case building two separate pools so that the semi-naked middle classes didn't have to swim in the same water as the great unwashed!

The pools were replaced by the 1960s Ladywell Leisure Centre, now demolished, and the building has been empty for at least ten years having last been used as a play centre and gymnastics club.


At one time Ladywell Baths was a significant centre for swimming, hosting Kent county swimming and water polo competitions and acting as the home pool for Lewisham Swimming Club. In 1906, the world half mile swimming record - then 11 mins. 37 seconds - was set at Ladywell by David Billington (Gloucester Citizen, 14 September 1906).  Eric Liddell, the athlete immortalised in the film 'Chariots of Fire', swam there as a school boy (David McCasland, Eric Liddell: Pure Gold). Edward Temme, the first man to swim the Channel in both directions, attended a gala there in 1927.

Edward W Stafford (1853-1915), a water polo player for Lewisham Swimming Club was one of the seven founder members of the Life Saving Society (later the Royal Life Saving Society), established in 1891 to train people in saving people from drowning, including initiating the Bronze Medallion for qualified lifesavers (James R McClelland, The Bronze Medallion and Lifesaving Story, 2016). Another member of the Club from this period was sometime Goldsmiths student Stephen Gabriel Dadd (1894-1915). He won the Club's 1,000 yards river race in 1911 (as well as running for Blackheath Harriers) and was killed in the Dardanelles during the First World War.

Local running club Lewisham Hare and Hounds - who later became part of the still thriving Kent Athletic Club based at Ladywell Arena - seem to have sometimes used the baths as a starting point
'A good field turned out for this club's 10 Miles Scratch race, and Sealed handicap, which was decided from the Ladywell baths yesterday. Result of scratch race - R.C. Harris, 64 min 10 sec; F W Coldwell, 66 min 45sec, second; F H Williams, 67 min 26 seconds, third' (Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 23 January 1898).


Ladywell Gymnastics Club was founded at the Playtower in 1967 by Jim and Pauline Prestidge and became one of the top clubs of the 1970s, training Olympc gymnasts including Suzanne Dando and Avril Lennox. After moving to Lewisham Leisure Centre in Rennell Street in 1977,  it came back to the Playtower in 1996 prior to moving on to a purpose built facility at Bellingham Leisure Centre in 2004, where it continues to flourish.

The Baths were also used for social events and political meetings. Herbert Morrison spoke at a Labour Party rally for women there during the 1945 election campaign:

'It was a typical cross-section of the women of a London division that filled the main hall of the Ladywell Baths - housewives whose husbands work in the City; women shopkeepers, women who had taken time from work to hear their candidate, and a considerable leavening of young women who had just qualified for the vote. They listened to Mr Morrison with close attention and plain appreciation, and warmly applauded when he pressed home the point that all the reforms of housing, health, child welfare and security which women ardently desire could come to them only through a Labour Government in power' (Daily Herald, 26 June 1945).

The swimming pool is mentioned in E.Nesbit's children's novel The Wouldbegoods (1899): 'we boys can swim all right. Oswald has swum three times across the Ladywell Swimming Baths at the shallow end, and Dicky is nearly as good'.

(post first published December 2015, updated November 2017 with news of plans for building)


Adrian said...

There is massive demand for extra primary school places in that area - why not turn this site into a primary school? Much better than the Council's present plan to double the size of Edmund Waller school only to bus Ladywell children in to fill it.

Free Lab Radio said...

Thanks for highlighting this!

Anonymous said...

Councils can be expected to properly manage the process whereby other bodies take over the baths - there has been no shortage of interest! Or Perhaps only closed it when it had found a new use?

mariovieira said...

It’s history as gym club is also worth noting. Ladywell Gymanstics Club is this year celebrating it’s 50th year and was started at The Playtower.