Swimming – “Establishment of Indoor Swimming Facilities”

The contraction of river and sea swimming was paralleled by an expansion in indoor aquatic activities, but the decline of the former was not the impetus for the rise of the latter. The provision of indoor swimming pools arose from local and national concerns for improvements in Public Health and a middle-class desire for exclusive and well provisioned sporting and social facilities.

In the period 1870-1913 at least 6 private and 44 public swimming pools were built in Scotland. The six private pools were in private Baths Clubs, which were in Edinburgh (Drumsheugh) and five (Arlington, 1870; Western, 1875; Victoria, 1878; Pollokshields, 1883; Dennistoun, 1884) in Glasgow and they were built by groups of businessmen who contributed part of the initial capital and raised the rest by selling shares from the creation of Limited Liability Companies.
The majority of members were professional and business people, who enjoyed swimming but who would not use Public Pools because the water was invariably dirty, the mats and footboards in the changing rooms were often unwashed and the spittoons were never clean. The Public Pools were also overcrowded on warm summer days and there were long waits to use the limited changing accommodation.

In contrast, the Private Clubs were relatively quiet and had excellent facilities and until the early 1930s, the Western Baths Club had the longest indoor pool in western Scotland, measuring 90′ x 35′. All the other clubs had attractive pools with diving boards, trapeze bars, rings, etc. and a Bath-Master was also on hand to keep the pond clean and tidy and attend to members. In common with some other types of Sporting Club, Baths Clubs were also social centres where business and professional men could meet in pleasant, informal surroundings and they all contained Turkish Baths, Reading and Recreational rooms.
Private sector indoor developments were important, but by far the most significant reason for the establishment of indoor Public Bathing and Washing Facilities was a concern for improvements in living conditions and personal health, both of which had declined in standard throughout the first 50 years of the 1800s, due to rapid population and industrial growth.

As industry and population expanded in Britain’s major cities, problems of poor living conditions and personal health became quite severe. The massing together of people, on a scale hitherto unknown, without providing for sanitation or cleansing, created enormous problems and a variety of urban diseases such as typhus and cholera killed thousands.
The Government appointed a Commission of Enquiry, which resulted in a Public Baths and Wash-houses Act being passed in 1846 that enabled Local Authorities to borrow money to build Baths and Wash-Houses for the labouring classes. Unfortunately, the Act did not apply to Scotland.
Partly because there was no National legislation and partly because, with the exception of Glasgow, personal health problems remained within relatively acceptable limits, Scottish Local Authorities were relatively late in building Public Baths. However, this benefited Scottish swimming as the facilities in the earliest English establishments consisted of a small Plunge Bath, Wash-Houses and a number of Private Baths.

Before 1892, when the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act contained powers similar to those passed in England by the 1846, 1847 and 1878 Public Baths and Wash-houses Acts, Scottish Local Authorities had to obtain special Baths and Wash-houses legislation. Dundee built the first public baths in Scotland in 1871 and the building contained a swimming pool measuring 75’x35′. In time, more facilities were added and by 1910 it contained 2 more pools (75’x25;66’x30′), 48 slipper and spray baths and 12 Turkish baths.
Glasgow was also in the forefront of developments. During the compilation of the Poor Law Commission Report in the 1840s, Edwin Chadwick had visited Scotland’s major cities and he was particularly concerned about Glasgow’s appalling sanitary problems. He wrote:

“I did not believe, until I visited the wynds of Glasgow, that so large an amount
of filth, crime, misery, and disease existed in one spot in any civilised country.”

He not only recorded a sharp criticism of Glasgow’s housing and sanitary provision, but also laid the onus for improvements with the City’s Civic Leaders. They responded with numerous vital Housing and Health Reforms in the 1850s and 1860s and in 1869, the wheels were set in motion for the establishment of Public Baths and Wash-Houses in four areas of the city. For various financial reasons there was some delay, but in 1878 Greenhead Public Baths was opened and it was the first of 10 public baths provided by Glasgow Corporation during the period 1878-1902.

See Table 1 and Table 2 for full full details of these developments.

Dunfermline and Perth also acquired Public Baths in the 1870s and 1880s respectively and in both cases a considerable amount of private money was used. Edinburgh was relatively late in providing baths with the first built in Infirmary Street in 1887, but swimmers had to wait another 8 years before the second was built at Dalry.
The timing and quantity of provision had significant effects on the pattern of Scottish swimming developments. Dundee set the early pace and Dunfermline followed close behind and by the end of the 1880s, they were regarded as important swimming centres, however, they were overshadowed by Glasgow, which by 1885 had 10 swimming pools and at least 16 swimming clubs. It was the focal point for the incipient development of indoor competitive swimming in Scotland.