Aston’s beautiful, Grade II listed swimming pool at the Woodcock Sports Centre features in a new book that has been published by English Heritage. Great Lengths, written by Dr Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis, is a celebration of the historic indoor swimming pools of Great Britain. It is part of the Played in Britain series, which stems from a national project documenting the history of sports in Britain.
The Woodcock Sports Centre houses Birmingham’s oldest working swimming pool, but the building we know and love today was not the first baths on the site. The original, Gothic styled building opened in 1860 and provided valuable bathing and washing facilities for local people as well as a swimming pool. These baths were later demolished and replaced with the first part of the building we have today in 1902.
Local sports historian and author Steve Beauchampé, who was involved with editing Great Lengths, explains: ‘The First Class swimming pool, which is the pool still in use now, was constructed with private glazed brick changing cubicles and a small viewing gallery which doubled as a bandstand at the eastern end of the pool. You can still see these features today. The men’s, first class private bath department had18 washing baths (these are now changing rooms) and hot and cold running water. But what is not as well known today is that between 1914 and 1915, the Woodcock pool was boarded over and used as a rifle range during the winter months.
‘In 1926, the Gala Pool was built with gallery seating for over a thousand spectators. Additional men’s and women’s private washing baths were added to the Woodcock complex, and also a laundry. A celebratory water gala took place at the official opening featuring Doris Molesworth, who was a competitor at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
‘The aerobics gymnasium on the ground floor today was formerly the site of a Turkish baths. Behind the Gala Pool was a central laundry for all the bathing establishments in Birmingham - this is a fitness gym today. The laundry was possibly the largest of its kind in Britain. To give you an idea of the scale of the laundry operation that went on there, some 32,000 towels (measuring 21 miles in length) were washed, sterilised, dried, ironed and folded on a normal summer day. There is a wonderful photograph in the Central Library archive in Birmingham that shows the horse drawn laundry van arriving at the baths.’
Aston took over the Woodcock building in 1980 and it was listed two years later.
‘The Woodcock pool is important because it is the oldest pool in Birmingham that people can still swim in,’ says Steve. ‘The pools from this time in Birmingham, including Woodcock, are very much of their time, and this makes them increasingly important to architectural and social historians.’
Order a copy of Great Lengths.
Words by Sally Finn