Written by Steve Grindlay
Forest Hill Pools are, almost certainly, the oldest substantially intact working baths to survive in the London area. Although they nearly didn’t make it, they have survived to celebrate their 120th anniversary this year. The Earl of Dartmouth opened them on Saturday 2nd May 1885.
The foundation stone was laid a year earlier, in a tent erected on the site. For this ceremony 1700 school children marched along Dartmouth Road to the tent, where they were each given a bun and an orange.
The pool’s origins can be traced back to 1846, when the Baths and Wash-Houses Act empowered local authorities to raise money for such buildings. The Lewisham Vestry was slow to respond, for it was not until 1882 that they decided to use these powers, and appointed seven commissioners to obtain funds and land, and to build two swimming pools with public baths. The commissioners found their two sites; one in Ladywell and one Forest Hill. From 1819 the large plot of land on which the Swimming Pools, Louise House, Forest Hill Library and Holy Trinity School now stand had been glebe land, used to provide income for the vicars of Lewisham. Fortunately, in 1882, the vicar of Lewisham was Hon Canon Augustus Legge, one of the pools commissioners, and he made part of this plot available “at a price much lower than other land about”.
The architects appointed for both the Ladywell and Forest Hill pools were Wilson and Aldwinckle. Thomas Aldwinckle (1845-1920) lived in Dacres Road (co-incidentally, on the site of Hennel Close, named after Alexander Hennell, who designed Forest Hill Library) from the mid-1880s for about twenty years. In addition to the pools Aldwinckle designed Louise House, the Boys’ Industrial Home in Perry Rise (demolished a few years ago) and the Brook Hospital and Water Tower at Shooters Hill.
Today, with Ladywell Pools derelict and Louise House empty and under threat, Forest Hill Pools takes on an added significance as the only surviving, functioning building in the borough, by this local architect.
Two men, of very different temperament, did more than any others to bring about the creation of the pools: Theophilus William Williams and Augustus Legge. Williams was of modest origins, working his way up from messenger to bank manager (of what was later Barclays, now ACTS Credit Union in Kirkdale). He then entered local politics, where again he was successful, becoming Lewisham’s first mayor in 1900. He fell from grace, committing suicide on the day he was due to face charges of fraud and embezzlement. The Hon Augustus Legge, on the other hand, was a younger son of the Earl of Dartmouth. He was vicar of St Bartholomew’s 1867-1879 then became vicar of Lewisham until 1891 when he was appointed Bishop of Litchfield. Williams or Legge was involved in almost every major local project (Mayow Park, Wells Park, Children’s Hospital, Industrial Homes, libraries) undertaken during the last quarter of the 19th century.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the pools. There were those who considered spending ratepayers’ money on such a project an unjustified extravagance. The Commissioners were keen to point out to that, at Â£9,000, the building was remarkable value for money. The pools were described as “the cheapest for the accommodation afforded, as well as the handsomest, in the United Kingdom” and The Builder said, “Unnecessary expense and all extraneous ornament have been most carefully avoided â€¦ the architects have succeeded very well in giving a certain degree of picturesque effect to buildings of a generally plain and practical character”. In today’s terms, the building would have cost about Â£600,000.
The pools provide a vivid illustration of the rigid class system in Victorian England. One of the commissioners said that the baths would promote “the comfort and health of the people” reducing “poverty, crime and many evils. The more they promoted healthy exercise the more virtuous the people would become”.
The architects’ plans show that there were two entrances to the building. To the left of the present ticket office was the entrance for “1st class males”, who had their own waiting room and their own pool (the left-hand pool). This was mirrored on the right side, where “2nd class males” had their own ticket office, waiting room and pool.Â Even today, filtered water, using the original filters, flows first to the left-hand pool before flowing into the right! Women seemed to have been an afterthought, not able to use the main entrance but having their own, on the right side of the building, where the “females ticket office” still survives.Â There was very definitely no mixed bathing; men could use the pools morning and evening, while women used them during the day. Later, Tuesdays and Fridays were set aside for women. There were also private baths (called slipper baths, for washing), 10 for 1st class customers and 20 2nd class. The 2nd class baths were in the room now used by the fitness centre.
The 1st class baths were on the left side of the entrance, and still retain a couple of the cubicles, although without the baths. Surprisingly, the private baths were not segregated. This was so that all who wanted could have a bath every day of the week.
It was intended that during the quiet winter months from November to April the pools would close for swimming. The 1st class pool would be boarded over, and used as a public hall for meetings, concerts and bazaars.
This continued until the 1950s or later. Indeed, in 1951 Clement Atlee used a political meeting at the pools to announce that Britain needed to re-arm in order to meet the threat to our way of life from the Soviet Union.
We have at least one famous swimmer associated with the pools. Linda Ludgrove, who lived in Eddisbury House, Sydenham Hill and went to Sydenham School, trained in the pools in the evenings, after they were closed to the public. She won several Commonwealth Games gold medals, and broke five world records between 1962 and 1967.
The future of the building is not secure. We have been assured that there will be a public consultation exercise in June, to find out what users and other residents would like for the pools. It is vital that all those who care about them either as a valuable resource, an important part of our townscape or even for what they tell us about the social history of the area, make their feelings known.