Introduction and Foreword

Editorial introduction

The planned four parts of the story of ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ are being published in phases. Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 are now available on this website. Part One largely covers the period up to 1975. Chapters 6 to 12 will be published subsequently in sequence. The Project has grown and become a very large exercise in research, scripting, and editing. As we go forward, it is also planned to add some additional, more detailed information, including individual reflections from personalities involved with centres over the past years. This will be done by adding hyperlinks to the Chapters. A few hyperlinks have been included already in the first chapters, others will follow. Apart from those additions, there are several special sections and features planned, which will also be added as we progress.
All feedback is welcome via the website’s ‘How to help’ section.


  • A final Foreword and Preface will be added on full publication of the 12 chapters.
  • Acknowledgements will also be made in full on the final website publication.
  • A Bibliography will also be included for reference.
  • In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge the work and support of the Editorial Group, which has met regularly over the last 2 years and contributed advice and written contributions. In addition, over 40 contributions have been received from past and present directors and managers and over 150 have taken a direct interest in the Project.

Gerry Carver – May, 2018

‘HARLOW TO K2 AND BEYOND’ :: THE EDITORIAL GROUP L to R Dave Fisher, Hywel Griffiths, Jack Wilkinson, John Birch, John Thorpe, John Stride, Mike Fulford, Mike Fitzjohn, Malcolm Tungatt and Gerry Carver

‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ The Editorial Group meets

John Stride, John Thorpe, Dave Fisher, Jack Wilkinson, Gerry Carver, Hywel Griffiths, John Birch, Mike Fulford, Mike Fitzjohn and Malcolm Tungatt.

The Editorial Group January 2018, Littlehampton Swimming & Sports Centre

The Editorial Group January 2018, Littlehampton Swimming & Sports Centre

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Defining the ‘UK community indoor sports centre” for the project

At the heart of developing this story has been the challenge of ‘defining’ what was originally a new concept, the community indoor sports centre, which has evolved over the 50 or so years. The core definition of a ‘community indoor sports centre’ for the purposes of ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ is the one broadly accepted from the early days by the Sports Council and adopted by ‘The British Leisure Centre Guide 1993’, published by John S Turner Associates in association with Longman Group UK Limited.

It is – an indoor centre with a sports hall and some other facilities, which may include a swimming pool, and has significant use by the general public.

Whilst the defined community indoor sports centre has remained our focus, the ongoing research undertaken revealed a more complex picture, with the need for a flexible approach. In the 1960s there were some early ‘stand-alone’ sports halls, often on school sites or universities, that were used by the public to some extent and some of these are included. Looking back in history it has also been difficult at times to determine from various records whether the date given for public opening applied to a swimming pool initially, or a sports hall at the same time or whether a hall was added later. Additionally, some early Regional Sports Council documents did not distinguish clearly between indoor community sports centres as such, and ‘stand-alone’ sports halls used by the public or not. Swimming pools, without a sports hall, are not covered by the definition and are not included, though there are references to some, for specific reasons.

This overall approach is generally consistent with Chapter 2 where we refer to the definition adopted in the first Sports Council survey of early centres in the late 1960s, which was initiated by the Central Council of Physical Recreation. Planning for Sport in 1968 acknowledged this when it said it is “a combination of two or more sports halls with or without specialist facilities such as squash courts or indoor rifle range, together with social and changing facilities”.

Subsequently other more sophisticated definitions and categories emerged. This is best summarised by Tony Veal, who, in a timely 1974 paper reviewing the sports centre scene and definitions at that time (for CURS at Birmingham University) identified emerging categories of indoor centre, the first five of which, below, were quoted by the Sports Council in 1968: –

  1. Indoor sports centre (two or more ‘sports halls’…etc.)
  2. Multi-sports centre (indoor sports centre or sports hall plus pool or outdoor centre)
  3. Dual use centre– long-term regular use by the public for whom the facility was not primarily provided
  4. Joint provision centre – provided by 2 or more authorities for joint use e.g. school and public
  5. Sports hall – a single hall for 2 or more sports i.e. a multi-purpose hall

Veal also talked of the emergence of titles such as recreation centre and leisure centre, both indicating a wider element than just sport, and ‘forum’, reflecting a broader approach often encompassing arts and cultural activities. This means that in effect we cover the first 4 categories listed by Veal above, with some acknowledgment of ‘no.5. Sports Halls’. Nowadays such distinctions are not relevant, as they were in the early days of centre development and research.

The opening dates of some early centres have proved a challenge. Dates, where known, have been recorded. Quite a few early ‘sports centres’ were in fact swimming pools that had sports halls added much later. Even the term ‘sports centre’ can be confusing. Southampton Sports Centre is splendid, but in fact is a comprehensive outdoor sports facility originally opened in 1938.


by John Birch, Former Director of Regional Services, The Sports Council.

RELAXING AT WICKET HILL AGED 70It is a great privilege to be invited to write the foreword for this splendid ‘Sport and Leisure Legacy’, which documents the phenomenal growth in the provision of Indoor Sports Centres since the first centre at Harlow was opened just over 50 years ago.  For more than the half century covered in this study it has been my good fortune to have been close to the heart of this development.

In the late 1960’s, when I undertook the first research on Indoor Sports Centres, there were only five Centres that met the criteria of ‘being genuinely available for use by the public at large’.  These centres were the ‘Pioneers’ From those first five centres, we are now looking at well over 2,000 centres. It has been difficult to keep in touch with this burgeoning growth.  Almost every town, secondary school and university now boasts an indoor facility that is available to their community. How things have changed!

Of course, there have been many other changes over the 50 years.  New sports have been developed. Others, like squash and badminton, so popular in the early days, have gone out of fashion.  Emphases, such as on fitness and health have gained in importance.  Attitudes to school use have changed out of all recognition –  no longer is the school caretaker the ‘key holder!’ and while local authorities have remained the main provider of capital funding of sports facilities, they increasingly now look to contractors or Trusts or to undertake their management. The current number of centres is a tribute to the foresight of the many professionals and politicians who have understood the need to provide places for constructive leisure through sport in local communities. However, we cannot be complacent as many are now coming to the end of their economic lives and will need renewal or replacement; let us hope that the same vision persists in the future.

John Birch


1.  First recreation roots and growing interest

Recreation long precedes the 20th century. There were much earlier roots in the mania for recreation through swimming and athletics which goes back thousands of years, as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome. By Roman times there were nearly a thousand public or private ‘pools’. Whilst the words ‘leisure’ and ‘recreation’ became particularly associated with social change after the 2nd World War, their use was not entirely new. For example, some of the great impressionist painters of the late 19th century, including Monet at his garden in Giverney, focused their paintings on the “leisure” opportunities of the gardens they fostered and the escape they afforded from growing industrialisation.

Historic Swimming Baths Ipswich

Historic Swimming Baths Ipswich

Swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor, became popular in Britain in the mid-19th century and by the end of the century there were numerous public swimming baths across the cities and towns of the UK. Of course, whilst of recreational value, much of the provision revolved around The Public Baths and Washhouses Act of 1846, which was a response to the fact that few houses had bathrooms and the fear of the spread of urban disease. Even Parks legislation of the time was partly based on the fear of overcrowded cities leading to revolution on the French model, and Museums and Libraries Acts were measures to combat the fear of ignorance among the masses. By 1837, the year Queen Victoria acceded to the throne, six indoor pools with diving boards had been built in London. By the late 19th Century bathing machines appeared on UK beaches, with, in 1889, a segregating bylaw that stated, “no person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 yards of a ladies’ bathing machine”!

The German Gymnasium Kings Cross London 2017

The German Gymnasium Kings Cross London 2017

Gymnastics has its roots way back to the early Greeks and German gymnastics of the 19th century was one of the foundations of early UK physical education. Indeed, the first purpose-built gymnasium in England was the German Gymnasium in London, designed by Edward Gruning. It was built in 1865 in what is now Kings Cross. The main hall had a ceiling height of 57’. Thirty years before the modern Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896, the world’s first national Olympian Association held its inaugural games in London in 1866. The German Gymnasium hosted the indoor events. The German Gymnasium is Grade II listed and opened as a Grand Café in 2015.

Early centre!

Early centre!

Victorian leisure and recreation was influenced by the growing opportunities for work and play. The 1833 Factory Act had established holidays, giving more time for leisure. By 1870 there were more parks and gardens, free libraries, public halls, and seaside excursions. Technological advances led to the increased circulation of books and newspapers, which spread the word about leisure time activities.

Michael Dower in “Fourth Wave “(1965) summarised progress very succinctly “Three great waves have broken across the face of Britain since 1800. First, the sudden growth of dark industrial towns. Second, the thrusting movement along far flung railways. Third, the sprawl of car based suburbs. Now we see, under the guise of a modest word, the surge of a fourth wave which could be more powerful than all the others. The modest word is ‘leisure’.”

2. 20th Century progress

The emergence of community sports and leisure centres may have come in the second half of the 20th Century, but the increase in the general public’s demand for physical activities was a phenomenon of the whole of 20th century. Leisure was, in those very early days of the century, the prerogative of those that could afford it. In the 1930s ‘leisure’ was one of the big concerns reflecting some reduction in working hours and increased disposable income, as recorded in the ‘New Survey of London’ (which followed up on an 1890 survey, when ‘life and labour’ were the major concerns). For the masses, however roller skating was the first new activity of the 20th century that seems to have been affordable to a much larger spectrum of society. Indoor skating halls were established by the 1930s, as the activity became popular and provision became profitable for a while.

The main indoor halls of any size were those on military camps. The Fox Gymnasium at the Aldershot Camp, for example, was built in 1860, and was the first of four similar halls built on the camp. In the 1968/9 season, the Fox Gym was used by Aldershot Warriors against Real Madrid in the European Club Basketball Championships!

After the 1st World War, the countries involved were recovering and rebuilding their economies. However, 1934 saw the formation of the National Playing Fields Association, followed a year later by the King George V Playing Fields Trust, signifying that a national effort was being made to ensure the local provision of outdoor playing space.

More public swimming pools, a Victorian innovation of course, had started to appear. The Victorian public baths, some of which survive today, were the nearest thing to our modern leisure centre. They often had ancillary facilities, such as Turkish baths. Many pools were designed to close as pools in the winter to fulfil other roles; Victoria Baths in Manchester, opened in 1906 and floored its pool in winter for dances (the baths closed in 1993). Armley Baths in Leeds, opened in 1932, was another such example, becoming a ballroom in winter. The baths were demolished in 2009 and the site is now the car park for the Armley Leisure Centre. Another pool in Nottingham became a roller skating rink in winter months. Smethwick Swimming Centre opened in 1933 and was boarded in winter for boxing and dancing. The baths were always known by locals as Thimblemill Baths, but more recent refurbishment uncovered the original sign of ‘Smethwick Baths’. The baths were the first in the country to display the famous ‘Will patrons kindly refrain from’ posters. The centre still operates today under the Sandwell Leisure Trust.

One example of the early London pools, York Hall in Bethnal Green, was ‘floored over’ in winter to provide a rudimentary sports hall. York Hall is still an operating leisure centre, and famous as a boxing venue. A few Victorian pools survived into the sports and leisure centre age, some having sports halls added, though even some of those have since closed. There are currently 3 old pools in England that are Grade II listed.

Over the last 60 years, sports centres have developed modern ways for clothes storage (see Baskets or Lockers). In Victorian times those with employees would bring a member of staff along to look after their clothes whilst they swam! Indeed, the Sunderland Bank Robbery in 1897 saw over £6,000 – more than £6million today – stolen by two fraudsters who managed to take keys from the unattended clothes of two bank staff while they swam, made wax casts, and then use forged keys for an overnight break-in!

3. 2nd World War watershed

Victory Hall Opened 1946

Victory Hall Opened 1946

The World War from 1939-1945 also changed the pace of development. The Armed forces did build many large gymnasia for ‘fitness training’, and many military camps, such as Aldershot and Catterick, had large areas of playing fields. Many industrial and private sports clubs and associations did great work in maintaining existing outdoor facilities. However, the immediate post war period was a barren one for any sort of new sports provision, though it is a misconception that there were no indoor spaces in which sports activities were taking place. Isolated exceptions included Loughborough College’s opening in 1946 of the huge Victory Hall, famous to thousands of its PE students (and not replaced until the 21st century). Whilst it is true there were very few purpose-built facilities for indoor sports at that time beyond the cities, many villages had small halls in which some indoor sports were thriving.

Victory Hall indoor tennis

Victory Hall indoor tennis

Many schools had 60’x40’ gymnasia and these were accommodating education authority evening classes for keep fit and dance as well as classes for specific sports. Thus, there were many such indoor spaces/halls that could be used for some sports. Sports such as table tennis and fencing were also thriving in much smaller spaces, some in church halls and youth clubs.

The development, refurbishment or replacement of largely Victorian indoor swimming pools continued through the 20th century. Nearly all were owned and managed by local councils. Alongside these developments, the National Association of Baths Superintendents was founded in 1921, and became the Institute of Baths Management in 1962. This was the first professional association of baths managers. Later, as sports centres developed from the late 1960s, new or replacement pools were often included alongside sports halls in the new breed of community sports and leisure centres.

4.  Significant post-war social change

Sports centres emerged from the multitude of social changes that followed during the immediate decades after the 2nd World War. The ground for the ‘community sports centre’ was laid by the early work of pioneers at the CCPR and Birmingham University and by the 1960 Wolfenden Report, ‘Sport and the Community’, which highlighted the significant shortage of indoor sports facilities in the UK. On the back of Wolfenden and other initiatives, the Government became positively involved in sport for the first time ever in 1964, when Denis Howell MP (1923-1998), became the first-ever Minister for Sport.

5.  Harlow opens the gates for thousands

The plans for the first ever indoor community sports centre, at Harlow, had been already launched by the late 1950s. By 1993 there were over a thousand such centres in the UK and by the time K2 in Crawley was completed in 2006, the number of community indoor sports centres and sports halls was close to 4,500 (reference – Sport England Active Places). The ‘sports centre’ has been one of the most significant buildings to be erected in most towns in the UK in recent decades. The development, design, and operation of such centres have changed vastly over the period, though some principles have remained steadfast. However, change continues. The story will also bring the reader right up to date, recording more recent trends, including the broader church of providers and management regimes, and the changing face of activities, participation, and finance. It will also try and look beyond to the future.

The advent and development of the UK community sports centre certainly reflects one of the numerous post-war changes. This is a unique record of the foundation in the 1950s of the idea and need for indoor community sports centres, bolstered by the Wolfenden Report in 1960, and the enormous growth of such centres in subsequent decades. ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ is planned to encompass the philosophies, places, people, processes, politics, programmes, organisations, resources, buildings, and activities that have characterised such sports centres over six decades.


Part two: Design, research, management and growth
Part three: The changing sporting and social scene and its impact on centres
Part four: Present day & beyond – lessons and projections
Other sections