Great Lengths – the historic indoor swimming pools of Britain

  • By: Dr Ian Gordon & Simon Inglis
  • Format: 292pp softback 210mm x 210mm
  • ISBN: 978 190562 4522
  • Published by English Heritage in March 2009
  • Foreword by Rebecca Adlington
  • Special offer: £10 post-free to UK (original RRP 19.99) BUY NOW

Swimming is Britain’s most popular participation sport. Nearly one in five people swim at least once a month, with around 80 million visits to swimming pools recorded every year. But what of the pools themselves?

Surprisingly, although public baths have formed a vital part of community life since an 1846 Act of Parliament, their story has never been told in popular form. Until now.

In Great Lengths – the historic indoor swimming pools of Britain, Dr Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis trace the social and architectural development of indoor public baths and pools, from the earliest subscription baths of the Georgian period to the current generation of leisure pools with their flumes and potted palms.

The golden era of pool design fell between the 1880s and 1914, when over 600 baths were constructed, many of them rich in architectural detail and technological innovation. In Manchester, the magnificent Victoria Baths, completed in 1906 – and in 2003 the winner of BBC Television’s popular Restoration series – set new standards for opulence, with three separate First and Second class pools for men and women, Turkish Baths, gorgeous tiling and extensive laundry facilities. Birmingham’s Moseley Road Baths (1907), London’s Haggerston Baths (1906) and similar establishments in Hull, Nottingham and Glasgow equally reflected the civic pride of their creators, as greater awareness of hygiene and physical fitness brought safe swimming and recreation to the urban masses.

A further burst of activity between the wars saw a new generation of concrete and glass Art Deco baths built in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as Northampton, Wakefield, Rochdale, Crewe and Blackpool. In the 1960s these were joined by classic Modern designs in Coventry, Crystal Palace and Edinburgh.

Packed with archive and contemporary illustrations, and with 56 case studies of surviving historic baths, Great Lengths is no mere exercise in nostalgia. Although over a hundred pre-1945 baths remain in active use and are much loved by swimmers, many more are under threat, or are closed and the subject of long running campaigns in Glasgow, Bristol, Manchester and London. Numerous post war pools have also closed. For this reason, as well as telling a fascinating tale, Great Lengths offers an important reference for anyone involved in the current debate, whether as swimmers or providers.

“A detailed, well illustrated brief history of the indoor pool, bursting with case studies and written with the warming eccentricity of slightly nerdy enthusiasts… this book was surely begging to be written.” Sam Leith, Daily Mail

“Absorbing detail and fascinating social history… the quality of photography is superb.” The Observer

“A wonderful cornucopia of facts and beautiful pictures.” Ken Worple

“Impeccably researched, beautifully produced and sumptuously illustrated, this paean to a popular pleasure deserves high praise.” The Independent

“Wonderfully evocative, hugely informative and entertaining illustrated history.” History Today

“Well-researched, extremely informative and beautifully produced and illustrated. It is an exemplary study.” Context – the journal of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Dr Ian Gordon, a former competitive swimmer, was the Chief Medical Officer for British Swimming and has been researching the history of swimming pools for over 30 years. Great Lengths is the first time that his knowledge and archive has been made available to the public. His comprehensive database of Britain’s historic pools is now maintained by Historic Pools of Britain.

Simon Inglis was the editor of the Played in Britain series and is an architectural historian specialising in sporting and recreational buildings and sportscapes. He is now an amabassador for the Historic Pools of Britain, an organisation which Played in Britain helped to set up as the result of recommendations made in Great Lengths.