The West’s Past – From River to Pool

Extracted from “One Hundred Years of Swimming” – Peter Bilsborough (1988)

The contraction of river and sea swimming was paralleled by an expansion in indoor aquatic activities.
Generally, however, 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 six private and 44 public swimming pools were built in Scotland.
The six private pools were in private baths clubs. There was at least one club in Edinburgh (Drumsheugh) and five (Arlington, 1870; Western, 1875; Victoria, 1878; Pollokshields, 1883; Dennistoun, 1884) in Glasgow.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 nineteenth century 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. A variety of urban diseases such as typhus and cholera killed thousands.
Glasgow was 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. 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.’

In 1869 the wheels were set in motion for the establishment of public baths andwash-houses in four areas of the city.
In 1878 Greenhead Public Baths was opened. It was the first of ten public baths provided by Glasgow Corporation during the period 1878-1902.
By 1885 the city had ten swimming pools and at least sixteen swimming clubs.
It was the focal point for the incipient development of indoor competitive swimming in Scotland.

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