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A Swimming Pool on Campus

All this good weather had us thinking about how nice it would be to have a swimming pool on campus. But did you know we once did? It was built in 1888 and entertained and cooled generations of East Londoners until World War 2 when it suffered serious bomb damage. But the building of the former People’s Palace Swimming baths, bought by the university, hung around until 2011.

Illustration captions

In 1886 the illustration used for fundraising the future People’s Palace in Mile End included swimming baths as one of its four key features. They were built in the first flurry of construction in 1888, the same year as the Queen’s Hall and Library. The pool was 90 foot long by 30 foot wide and cost £2500 to build. The cost was met entirely by the Earl of Rosebery, a wealthy noble who had recently married heiress Hannah Rothschild “the richest woman in Britain”. The baths opened on Easter Monday 1889 and people queued from 5.30am to get in; by the end of the first day 847 people had used them.

…the floor of the bath being made of white-glazed bricks, which gives an air of cleanliness to the whole. The dressing boxes of which there are some sixty in number are fitted in the usual way, and concealed by red and white striped curtains handing from brass rods.

The Palace Journal 16 May 1888.

Set back from Mile End Road and to the west of the Queens Hall the Swimming Baths were surrounded by gardens. A heated greenhouse was attached to the south end of the baths. On today’s Mile End campus this means between the G.E. Fogg building and partly under the Temporary Building, backing onto the north edge of campus.

Ticket reading Individual baths to wash in were added after 1890 at the north end. In an era when many wouldn’t have private bathrooms at home this was a valuable resource for the local community. The disparaging term the “great unwashed” coined by Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton shows how lack of hygiene was a synonym for poverty and the working classes.

Other improvements over time were the addition of a “Drying Room” by architect T Lennox Atkins and improvements particularly to women’s facilities were made in the late 1920s by architect Heaton Comyn.

Photograph of Swimming pool with boys in bathing suits at the edgeThe baths were used by the local community, particularly by school children for whom the pool was reserved exclusively during weekdays. A report on the Palace’s activities c1900 notes “It is much appreciated by those residing in the neighbourhood, and is largely used by the boys attending the various Board schools [London Educational Board], who are in the habit of coming, under the superintendence of their masters, on payment of one penny each.” For the rest of the public the cost was threepence initially rising to fourpence.

Use was segregated by gender with Tuesday reserved for women only and the rest of the week for men. Students at the People’s Palace Technical Schools (later Queen Mary University of London) formed a Swimming club who used this pool. The pool was used April-September and closed over the colder months though the washing baths were open all year round.

During the winter months the pool basin was boarded over, and the space used for the Evening Play Centre (established c1909) and an overflow gymnasium. One of the activities in the Bath Hall play centre was magic lantern shows, an early method of projection.

Interest in the Swimming baths remained consistently high, 66,309 people used the baths 1910-11, but the costs of running it outpaced the price charged for admission. By the late 1930s the People’s Palace as a whole was in financial trouble and looking for ways to balance the books.

Photograph showing Swimming pool after bombing, a large pile of rubble and other items in the pool and the roof open.When a bomb fell on the Swimming baths during World War 2 this was the end of its life as a public pool. Tower Hamlets as a borough received the most bomb damage of all London due to its factories, warehouses and docks. The People’s Palace, close to Regents canal where ammunitions were transported, did not escape unscathed. The Swimming Baths were hit, and rubble filled the pool basin, ripped open the roof and left the building open to the elements. After the war the still cash strapped palace did not have the funds to repair the baths and they stood derelict for the next ten years.

By this time the university next door had split from the People’s Palace (1913) and renamed itself Queen Mary College (1934). It was desperate for more space, hemmed in by the burial grounds to the East and houses to the West. In 1949 they approached the Palace to use a temporary wooden hut built in 1921 and once rented to the university to teach Zoology. This, being occupied by scenery for the People’s Palace theatre, was unavailable. Directly behind this hut however was the derelict Swimming Baths. Offered this instead by the palace the university initially discussed acquiring it as a “site” to tear down and rebuild but the War Damage Commission changed their mind. This organisation, created to reimburse the repair costs of buildings damaged during World War 2, would contribute to rebuilding of the existing building.

Plan showing Swimming Baths location on campusNegotiations between Queen Mary College and the People’s Palace went on for so long that a memo is inserted in the correspondence file by the Principal Ifor Evans that summarises what had happened in the last two years and advises not to bother reading on further. The palace governors were keen for the sale to go ahead: “if you offer us a lot of money for the Swimming Bath and the wooden huts we shall be in a mood to do business, because as you know we are still out-pouring our gold” Dr Mallon, 12 June 1950. However due to waiting on the War Damage Commission, local planning implications and the crumbling position of the People’s Palace as a whole it wasn’t until 1953 that the sale went through. It was acquired just narrowly before the rest of the former People’s Palace site when the People’s Palace went into administration that year.

In 1950 the Registrar and an architect visited the derelict building and noted “It is a pity, perhaps, that we are not interested in the swimming bath as such. There is a chlorination plant and heating apparatus already there.” But this was the last whisper that the Swimming Baths would ever be used as a Swimming pool again. The plans funded by the University Grants Committee in December 1953 were to “repair and convert” the former Swimming baths into “Engineering huts”.

Advert for a shearing machineThe university needed more space for large machinery and the cavernous space of the former swimming pool suited the purpose. The basin of the pool was filled in with concrete and the roof repaired. Special concrete supports were added to allow the heavy apparatus to be installed. Space for the maintenance department (i.e. Estates and Facilities) to have workshops was also provided. A concrete testing laboratory, a materials and metallurgy workshop, chemistry laboratories, civil engineering workshops that required galvanised tanks and an electronics department with space for research students were all provided for. A list of tools for the new chemistry laboratories runs to four pages. Work was completed by October 1954 in time for the new academic year.

The workshops of the Department are equipped with suitable machine tools for carrying out maintenance work on the laboratory plant, preparing specimens for testing during laboratory courses, and manufacturing the special equipment required for research work.

Queen Mary College Calendar 1954-1955

By 1957 it was known as the “Instrument Workshop.” Queen Mary staff members remember a resident glass blower working out of this building who also kept bees in hives around the back. He made glass instruments for all the science faculties.

Illustration showing Swimming baths building and a large block next to it as well as a building site in the foregroundOther uses include 1974-1978 a “Biology workshop” and 1978-2008 the Audio-Visual Unit of the university. From 2009 to 2011 it was a Multi Faith Prayer room. In 2012 it was demolished with a wider site clearance of the neighbouring old chemistry building. The site has been landscaped with a pond where the pool would have been and the Temporary Building also covering some of this site.

Do you remember the former Swimming Baths building in any of its many uses? We would love to hear from you

Images used:

The People’s Palace; QM/1/2/17; Fundraising circular, c1886, closeup of top left corner.

The People’s Palace; QM/1/10/23; Samples of printed tickets, 1923-28, washing bath ticket.

The People’s Palace; QM/1/15/6; Photograph of the Swimming Baths, c1905-1927.

Queen Mary College; M248/1/3; Mr Parfitts photos and negatives of Queen Mary College, c1954, negative of the former Swimming Baths.

Queen Mary College; QMC/PS/167; The purchase of the People's Palace swimming bath site, 4 Aug 1953, Proposed Accession on the north boundary of the People’s Palace by Queen Mary College.

Queen Mary College; QMC/PS/167; The purchase of the People's Palace swimming bath site, c1950-1954, Advert for Treadle Guillotine Shearing Machine.

Queen Mary College; M248/4/5; Sketch of building work (possibly Stage 3 of Biology building/ G. E. Fogg) in front of Old Chemistry Building and ex-Swimming baths by G. Quarium, September 1973.

All images are from Queen Mary University of London’s Archives and can be viewed, along with many other records on this subject, in our Archives Reading Room. Just email to book in or order copies.



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