Smethwick Baths – still going strong in 2019………..
as Smethwick Swimming Centre for Sandwell Leisure Trust
Smethwick Baths was Britain’s first genuinely Modern (style of abstract art deco) baths. Designed by Chester Button and Borough Engineer Roland Fletcher the building perfectly captures the spirit of the age. With its tall parabolic arches the design of the baths was clearly based on the Royal Horticultural hall in London, which opened three years earlier in 1930. The Building set the trend for other baths to follow, such as Seymour place (Marylebone) and Northampton & Lancaster baths.
The building its self has enjoyed a long and varied history. Originally opened as a two-season facility, with swimming in the spring/summer months and concerts during the winter. The summer season saw all the usual activities take place such as public swimming, Galas and swimming competitions the most notable of which was the BBC live televised swimming competition between West Germany and Great Britain, Along with other Galas against France and Sweden. In Addition to the pool activities there were separate ladies and gentleman’s slipper baths (domestic baths as most houses didn’t have bathing facilities) which were very popular up until the late 60’s.
The first week in October saw the large pool drained. Once the water was gone the mammoth task of putting in the sprung maple dance floor was begun. This on average took two weeks to do. Once done the baths was ready for the busy winter season of concerts, dances, boxing and wrestling matches and all manner of exhibitions. So successful was the concert space that it began to attract big stars, such as the Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Tommy Cooper and many more famous faces of the time. The large upstairs café was turned into the VIP suite and the slipper baths became dressing rooms and bars. In 1965 the borough council took the step to provide all year around swimming in Smethwick by adding on a small pool to the building. This enabled the winter concerts and dance to continue and provide swimming for the local community throughout the year. In addition to the new pool there was a new bar and function room added.
In the darker period of world war two the baths took on a different role. The reinforced concrete structure was ideal for the building to serve as a civil defence base. While the basement subways became a community air raid shelter. The dance and concerts continued to boost the morale of the local people and it’s rumoured that Glen Miller and his orchestra played at the baths during those war years.
As the 1970s approached the boarding over the pool stopped and a new era of community activities started to take place. As both pools were accessible all year-round swimming clubs and swimming lessons became common place. The Function room was started to be used by the first wave of fitness classes, a practice which continues today. The slipper baths were removed and a sauna and health suite were installed. The changing rooms were upgraded and a basket room added. The café continued to flourish and for a while was even used as a makeshift library whilst the local one was being refurbished.
The early 70s gave the baths the template of new activities that continue to be successful today. The café and the old ladies changing rooms have become state of the art gym and fitness facilities that are proving ever popular with the ever-changing local community. The pools offer a wide range of activities to cater from young to old and the active to the not so active. The function room has been transformed into a dance studio with the latest kit and classes. As well as community groups and martial arts classes hiring out the space. Even the subway system below the pool has been used as a filming location and holds monthly paranormal events for keen ghost hunters (the only baths in the world to do so).
Smethwick baths or as it’s now known Smethwick Swimming Centre also has one more claim to fame. The first ever pool rules sign was used at Smethwick first. The famous sign that bathers have seen for years up and down the country was displayed here back in the early 30’s. The BBC ONE SHOW even came and made a programme about which were aired to over 7 million viewers in 2009.
The BBC returned in 2014 and filmed two episodes of the daytime soap DOCTORS in the main pool and subways. In fact the world of showbiz has always provided Smethwick with glitz and glamour.
From many a famous face during the dance hall hay day to secret visits from Reggie and Ronnie Kray to watch and bet on boxing matches there is always a tale to tell of the goings on at the baths. Generations of families have used the many and varied activities based at the centre and continue to train and swim together. The Building may be 82 years old but more than competes with newer facilities in neighbouring boroughs.
Smethwick swimming centre represents 1930s civic architecture at its best and excellent customer focus and facilities any modern centre can provide.