The new secondary school for the north of the borough, the Kensington Aldridge Academy is due to open this September. It is being built on Silchester Road on the site of the Lancaster Road Baths that were finally demolished in 1979.
Foreword: The Baths finally opened in 1878 after the Kensington High Street based Vestry Hall (forerunner of today’s borough council) had been slow to react to the 1846 Act for the provision of baths and washhouses. This Act recognised the need for public washing facilities to be made readily available in those poor areas where such facilities were not present in the dwellings. Paddington, Hammersmith and Chelsea all had public baths by the time the search begun in 1877 for a suitable site for Notting Dale. It is unlikely that the promulgators of the 1846 Act could have envisaged what a vibrant lively social hub Lancaster Road baths would become.
The baths consisted of 3 strands: 1) the public laundry part which was accessed at the Eastern end of the building fronting Lancaster Road. 2) the swimming baths, and 3) the washing baths both of which were accessed by the main entrance on Silchester Road. Built as a perceived necessity the whole would become an amenity in counterpoint with social intercourse and entertainment.
I never went inside the clothes washing part but recall seeing queues of women forming on Monday mornings waiting for the baths to open at 8am. I used to peer in as I walked past and it always looked a hive of activity. Also it always seemed full of steam making seeing inside difficult. My mother told me Alan Mullery’s mother was invariably up the front of Mondays’ queue.
There were four swimming pools; 1) The main pool, 2) Men’s 2nd class. 3) Men’s 3rd class. 4) Women’s pool.
The main pool was I think Olympic size – the galas were held there and at the shallow end was a raised wooden slatted dais across the width of the pool from where the races were started. At the deep end were diving boards in the centre and a springboard alongside. Around the perimeter were changing cubicles and there were more around the gallery above which also doubled as a spectator facility when there was a gala. It was mixed all the time I went there but had originally been male only.
The men’s 2nd class was smaller and had cubicles at poolside level only. There was a diving board I recall but not as elaborate as the main pool
The Men’s 3rd class was slightly smaller again than the 2nd Class and swimming costumes weren’t obligatory, the rationale being that if you couldn’t afford one you weren’t excluded. I don’t think there was a diving board in the 3rd.
Occasionally, to be nosey I poked my head around the door of the Women’s pool and it was always quiet seeming civilised and serene, a world away from the frenetic not to say hooligan activity in the other pools
I first went to the baths in 1955 aged about 7 with my Mother, herself a good swimmer, who taught me to swim there in the shallow end of the main pool. I went regularly thereafter and around a year later I went there from Oxford Gardens with our class where our teacher Leslie Barrett taught the entire class to swim in a morning in the men’s 3rd class. He used cork floats about 2ft x 1ft which you held out in front of you keeping you afloat while you kicked your legs out behind you. This quickly dispelled fear of sinking or drowning. As I could already swim I demonstrated the cork float routine and gave confidence to those who held fears. He had a phenomenal success rate and after a couple of mornings almost all the class could swim.
Later in 1959 when I was 11 I swam breast stroke for Oxford Gardens in the Annual Kensington Schools Gala making it to the Final. As I hit the water in that final I recall the noise from the spectators being really deafeningly loud – the place was packed to the rafters – but sadly it didn’t propel me to the medal despite my older cousin Wendy (Darke) screaming at me at the top of her voice to go faster. Trust me Wendy, I was going as fast as I could. I remember Kenny Bloomfield, Peter Parry and Philip Burton in my year being excellent swimmers and I think Kenny won the freestyle final.
I used all three pools in my time but when I was younger we would all go in the 3rd where we didn’t wear costumes and as it was mainly youngsters we could scream and shout our heads off to our hearts content and the attendants were usually tolerant of our antics. I used to go in the 2nd occasionally but not much as it seemed a waste of money being twice the cost of the 3rd without obvious advantages though it was slightly bigger and had a diving board. The 3rd was 2d admission (.8p) the 2nd was 4d (1.6p) and the main pool was 8d (3.4p). When we had changed I was always ravenously hungry and we made for the cafe inside which was (very) basic – just a small room about 15ft square with a counter at the far end and some tables and chairs. They sold bread and dripping and bread and jam both at 1d (.4p) a slice and I would have 3 bread and dripping and 3 bread and jam and a tea (2d, .8p). If things were ropey it would be 1 or 2 of each and no tea. Opposite the entrance to the baths was a confectioner so if I had any money left I would buy some sweets as well. I don’t think modern nutritionists would categorise this as a healthy diet however it couldn’t have been that harmful as I’ve survived to tell the tale.
As we got a bit older, around 13-14, we gravitated to the main pool which did have advantages –it was much bigger with the best diving boards and a springboard and all the older budding ‘Johnny Weissmuller’ jack the lads went in there so we felt grown up and part of the adult scene….oh, and I nearly forgot there were girls there too who we could try to impress … if you call jumping on top of them and nearly drowning them impressing them. I doubt any of them mistook me for Errol Flynn let alone David Niven. These shenanigans bring me to the ‘Camp Commandant’ of the main pool – Freddy Bloomfield (may have been related to Kenny) who lived in Bramley Road between the junctions with Silchester Road and Walmer Road along from Bell Wilson the Chemist. We were all a bit wild – I suppose these days we’d be called feral and it therefore fell to Freddy to keep order. They couldn’t possibly have found a better candidate. He was a typical tough local and knew everyone. I think he’d been a boxer in his younger days. He sat on a chair at the far (deep) end between the diving boards and the pool entrance and wore a vest, old trousers rolled up at the bottom and around his neck hung a referees whistle on a lanyard. When he considered you’d been in the pool long enough – around an hour or so – he would approach, blow his whistle loudly, point at you and shout ‘OUT!’ Upon this command I would swim underwater away from him as fast as possible as if I hadn’t heard him. Of course I wasn’t fooling anyone but he appreciated boys will be boys and would give you another 5 minutes or so before repeating his ‘polite’ request. If you ignored the second warning he would wait for you to come to the side, take the lanyard from around his neck and with a good swing clump you on the back with the whistle. You got out then! And a bit lively too!! Similarly if you ran along the side or jumped on someone in the pool or otherwise acted foolishly he would soon let you know that wouldn’t be tolerated. If you persisted the whistle and lanyard would prove an efficient deterrent. He didn’t have any difficulty with the older lads either who all respected him – they all knew he was ‘the guvnor’ and it wouldn’t be sensible to get too lairy with him. He let them have their fun to a point but if they overstepped the mark he left them in no doubt they were playing to his rule book. Looking back it could have been chaos without him. When he wasn’t working he would often sit outside his house in Bramley Road surveying the scene. He was a real character and there was a great atmosphere in the main pool which could often get busy with a wide age range of users but he kept order effortlessly.
The Washing baths were a social hub as well as providing an essential amenity and there were Men’s 1st class and 2nd class baths and the same for Women. In the 1st you had your own taps and a towel; in the 2nd the attendant filled the bath and you brought your own towel. Friday and Saturday were busiest and there would be a great atmosphere in the 2nds’ where all the local jack the lads would congregate prior to their weekend night out. I must mention at this point that the houses in Notting Dale almost without exception had no hot water or bathroom – just one cold tap in the scullery (a basic kitchen/washing room) to serve all needs so hence the washing baths provided an essential facility. When I was younger my mother would fill a small galvanised tin bath about 2 ft. long with hot water which involved repeatedly boiling the water in a kettle on the gas stove in the scullery. The bath was placed on the floor in the scullery and it would take several kettles full to fill it. Then I would squeeze in with my legs up under my chin and once a week that was how I had a bath. And in the winter the scullery was freezing as it had no heating so you didn’t hang around in it too long. We did have a longer bath about the same size as a normal domestic one but it took so long to fill with the boiled kettles that by the time it was 6 inches deep the first kettle full had gone cold so it was impractical. When I was about 11, I had outgrown the 2ft bath and from thereon went to the 2nd class baths. After buying your ticket you would make your way to the baths and if it was Friday or Saturday around 5-6pm the cubicles, which ran either side of a central corridor, would all be occupied. At that time of day most customers were in the 17 /35 age bracket and you would sit waiting your turn on a wooden bench arrangement that ran along one wall facing the entrance to the corridor. Whilst you waited there would be plenty of chat about that day’s football/horse racing etc. along with discussions concerning plans for that evenings activities. Meanwhile in the baths the singers would be providing a free show for all – there would be a ‘Guy Mitchell’ followed by a ‘Michael Holliday’ and a ‘Tommy Steele’ then maybe a ‘ Mario Lanza’ or ‘Billy Eckstein’ –the standard would be at least decent and if someone was particularly good they might be shouted to for an encore and as generally everyone knew each other one or two requests might be shouted for. Remember this was all taking place while each bather was in his own cubicle so you couldn’t actually see the performer – just hear them. I think this was a unique form of entertainment and I can think of no other situation like it. I never thought about it like that at the time – that was just the way things were – but now I reflect on how lucky I was to have been there instead of looking at four walls at home in a domestic bathroom like most people– it was fun and entertaining and you got to meet your pals there too. When your turn came you would go into the vacated cubicle and the attendant would fill the bath using the big brass valve which was mounted on the wall outside each cubicle. He had a big metal spanner thing which he used to turn on the water –a bit like a ratchet and socket – and it would fill the bath at a rate of knots as they were fitted with wide tap heads to accommodate the high rate of flow. When it was filled you jumped in and off you went. The baths were fitted along one side of the cubicle and all around the rim of the bath was a well worn wooden capping – a Victorian nod to Health and Safety, though living in W.10 at that time there were a lot more hazardous situations than getting in and out of a bath. The cubicles were numbered and if the water cooled, you would shout ‘More hot in 26’ and the attendant would (in his own time) come and put more hot in prefacing it with a shout of ‘Watch yer toes its comin’ in’. This was advisable as the water was very hot and if you had your feet planted under the wide tap head they would be scalded. Of course if you were 11 or12 and you shouted (in an unbroken voice) ‘More hot in 26’ your cry would simply be ignored as there were men waiting and the attendant didn’t want youngsters spending too long in there. If you shouted a second time that request would also be ignored and might earn a sharp word of encouragement from the attendant to vacate. You soon got the message. Naturally as I got older and the attendants got to know you they would extend the adult privileges. When you had finished and opened the cubicle door almost before you were out the attendant would set about cleaning it. He had a round galvanised receptacle – like a football cut in half in size and shape – which was filled with soap. This was mounted on a wooden handle about 2ft long. The soap was applied with a big wooden brush also mounted on a long handle. He would have the bath cleaned and ready for the next customer in about 2 minutes. The whole thing was efficiency personified – no technology needed at Lancaster Road Baths!! Later when I was about 17 I would sometimes go in the first class to experience the luxury of your own taps (ha ha) but there was no atmosphere and entertainment like the 2nds’ which were different class and I quickly returned.
Looking back we had the Victorians to thank for providing a necessary and valuable amenity however due to the character of the customers it became much more, providing a social meeting place, entertainment and fun. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
John Henwood, 2014