For decades it was a common sight- the morning ritual of crocodile processions of school children carrying a towel and their swimming costume to and from the Childeric Primary and Haberdasher Aske’s Grammar schools.
There would be a teacher at the front and a teacher at the back.
They would be on their way to the Laurie Grove baths.
The classes would snake up and down the New Cross Road.
The Childeric children would be carefully escorted while crossing Lewisham Way by the New Cross Super Kinema from 1925. It changed names over the decades eventually to ‘The Gaumont’ before becoming The Venue that we know today.
Trams and traffic would be held up as they crossed by the famous Marquis of Granby pub, a landmark coaching inn on the Dover Road through the ages.
When the pupils were hoping to gain their British Amateur Swimming Association gold, silver and bronze medal awards for life-saving their towels would also wrap around a pair of pyjamas.
That’s because the awards required swimmers to do a specified number of lengths in their pyjamas while carrying a brick at the same time, which was the equivalent of pulling and swimming with a small child.
And the brick would be provided to the children swimmers by the swimming pool.
Academic Dr. Gareth Stanton first started lecturing at Goldsmiths when the baths were still open for business.
He recalled ‘that the pyjamas were also required for the silver and gold badges not simply to simulate swimming fully clothed but also because by inflating them when wet and tying the leg ends you made a temporary life raft of sorts.’
‘Later in life, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I remember photos of Afghan Mujahideen crossing rivers on goat stomachs similarly inflated. The images took me back, madeleine-like, to early school swimming lessons…’
The memories of childhood swimming at Laurie Grove would be varied.
Some would recoil from the pungent smell of chlorine and the slimy feel of wet changing cubicle floors, and the echoing seagull style squalls of scores of children not exactly at play.
The blue and white glazed tiles and the bright shafts of light coming through the Victorian glass-house style ceilings would be slideshow images of that rites of passage experience when as a child you learned you could tread water and not sink to the bottom like a stone.
Autumn and winter days with wind, drizzle and rain blowing up from the Channel Ports would leave you feeling even more uncomfortable when returning to the classroom with damp tousled hair.
Mornings were for the splashing of school-children and swimming novices. Afternoons were preferred by adults.
Significance of Laurie Grove Baths in municipal and community history
It is not widely known that Laurie Grove Baths was the first significant public building project in Deptford in the history of the development of local government of this area of London.
It was commissioned and completed before Deptford Borough Council was created by legislation in 1900, and, indeed before the building and completion of the Town Hall in 1905.
The project was designed between 1895-98 by local architect Thomas Dinwiddy. The commissioning body was the precursor to Deptford Borough Council with the quaint Victorian name of The Vestry Board of St Paul’s Deptford under the Public Baths and Washhouses Act 1846.
The baths were central to the commitment and campaign for public health.
The makeshift slums of the industrial revolution with its appalling legacy of deaths at birth, diphtheria, cholera, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis had to be left behind.
Britain was undergoing a slow progress towards representative democracy and that means people could vote in for themselves a better quality of life and some pursuit of happiness while life could be enjoyed.
The main priority was to create washing and bathing facilities for one of the poorest and most deprived urban areas of Great Britain.
The actual swimming pools offered a vital recreational resource. They were part of a great naval nation wishing to make sure the exponentially expanding city populations could learn to swim.
It also had the dual purpose of providing large-scale community meeting places. The pools could be covered with floor-boards and Laurie Grove Baths would transform into Laurie Grove Hall.
These spaces accommodated all kinds of entertainments and community organisations from wrestling, political meetings, to jazz and music concerts and dance hall events.
Laurie Grove Baths would become, apart from the collection of rates, Deptford Borough Council’s largest income stream.
The fact that it would be used by thousands of people every week meant that over the years it paid back the massive cost of its construction and substantially funded other vital local government services.
Cost and Construction
Laurie Grove Public Baths and Washhouses were opened on 20th April 1898 so the building complex is truly late Victorian Neo-Jacobean architecture on a grand engineering scale.
The total cost of £45,392 in today’s value (2018) would be £5,628,608.
The new Centre of Contemporary Art, CCA, has been created in what was the hugely impressive water pumping and water tank plant that provided thousands of gallons of water for two huge swimming pools, a smaller third one, and all the washhouse and slipper bathing facilities.
What is not readily understood in the early twenty first century, where new houses are usually constructed with several flushing toilets and two or three baths and ensuite bathrooms, is that at the end of the 19th and early 20th century more homes were without bathrooms than with.
Urban Poverty and the struggle to improve sanitation
Between 1898 and 1916 several thousand households in Deptford were one room only homes with full family occupancy.
Laurie Grove Baths were a vital public and municipal facility that enabled mainly working class and lower middle class people to have a bath once a week and to wash their clothes.
It was a tradition for all classes in Great Britain to bathe only one time a week or even less; a social habit that continued well into the 1960s and 70s.
Putting it crudely people were dirty and smelly, and this was not always necessarily true of the working-classes where pride would mean that overcrowded homes were much more vigorously scrubbed.
In 1926, the year of the General Strike, notices were put up in the baths imploring ‘Deptford bathers […] to have a hot shower before entering the swimming pool to keep the water clean for longer periods.’
The ‘Slipper Bath’ was something you would pay for. The current Laurie Grove Baths have preserved one such bath in all its glory, though when I visited the taps did not turn and the water was not flowing.
The degree of poverty in this part of inner London was agonisingly awful, though the Baths and Washhouse complex made a massive contribution to the improvement in public health.
It was a time when infectious diseases were still the scourge of everyday life and were often fatal.
Here is a record from 1907-8 of the common lodging houses that operated as hostels for mainly homeless people.
The public Bath and Washhouse was a place where people in the depths of poverty and destitution could rescue some of their dignity, and indeed it became traditional for homeless single people to go to the Washhouse to have their last and final bath.
This may or may not account for the supernatural myth of there being a ghost called ‘Charlie’ who haunted the Laurie Grove Baths at night and weekends.
Death and tragedy would take place in the building in other ways. One diver misjudged the pool’s depth in 1952 when jumping from a high board and suffered a fatal fractured skull. There were the inevitable drowning incidents.
The Kent springs and water supply
The new Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art Gallery has built its design heavily around the concept of the restoration of the original Victorian water tanks and tower complex that drew a massive fresh water supply from an Artesian well on the site.
This part of London was in the County of Kent during the 19th century and at the time of the original baths’ construction.
Kent Water Works operated in the area supplying 9 to 11 million gallons daily through steam power and drawing the supplies from rivers, wells and springs across 120 square miles.
The quality of the local water was such that it was the fountain of the Kent Mineral Waters Company whose business premises in the 19th century were situated in Dixon Road, adjacent to the then Royal Naval School. It’s the same site as the present College library, Warmington Tower, and the Education and student union buildings.
In 1883 Nathan Dews wrote: ‘The superiority of the Non – Intoxicating Drinks manufactured by this firm is, in a great measure due to the purity of the water supplied by the Kent Water Works Company, from their deep artesian wells, so highly spoken of by Professor Frankland, D.C.L., F.R.S.’
Surviving glass bottles bearing the Kent Mineral Waters Company name are occasionally and literally unearthed by diggers and collectors.
When the baths opened, as was traditional during this period of British social history, men and women had different entrances and gender segregated swimming baths.
Mixed bathing in public pools only began in Britain from around 1931 and then this was restricted to specific times. Dulwich Public Baths introduced a regime of mixed pools from 1946.
It’s not at present known when specifically men and women could ignore the gendered conduits to the two entrances, though it’s understood this happened post Second World War.
By this time Goldsmiths students and staff began to use the baths regularly because their own art nouveau pool had burnt down as the result of Luftwaffe action.
Alumni interviewed for the Goldsmiths History project have described that it was ‘a great way to make friends during the 1960s.’ Warden Richard Hoggatt, after whom the main building has been named, was a regular swimmer when he was living in New Cross.
It’s not known whether ambitious academics decided to take up swimming in order to catch his ear while he was breast stroking his exercise in the morning.
So what was on offer at the Laurie Groves Baths and Washhouse at the time of the Battle of the Somme in 1916? A class system certainly. And the clearest discrimination against women in terms of time and access during the week.
If you were suitable and wealthy enough for the First Class pool it would cost you three times as much as the Second Class pool.
Women had access only on Mondays and Tuesdays and then it was either the first class or the second class pool.
The statistics for the year 1907-8 confirm that well over a thousand adults and ‘scholars’ were using the pools and bathing/washing facilities every week. Nearly 106,000 paying customers throughout the year for all services.
That was roughly the population of Deptford at the time.
Some of the services and their charges do appear rather perplexing. The fact that there is no change in the price for a cold or hot first class bath. But a cold second class bath is 50% cheaper.
By 1961-62, the Borough Council’s Year Book revealed that about fifty years on the price of bathing and washing had not increased very substantially being nine old pennies- only three more pence than the first class charge of 1907-8.
And by 1961-2, the class division had disappeared. Equality, however, did require a contribution to the cost of a towel, soap and bath cube, all adding an extra nine old pence to the charge.
There was mixed bathing with men and women having equal access to gendered facility use if they wanted it, though the ‘men only’ option was consigned to the third ‘small bath’ situated in the basement area.
As previously Laurie Grove Baths had a summer and winter season.
These ran May to September and October to April.
It was during the winter season that the large bath was covered and used as ‘the Borough Hall.’
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays it became an indoor bowling rink.
Culture and Politics
Much has been written about the cultural cachet of the Laurie Grove Hall as an entertainment centre. Jerry Lee Lewis playing a set in 1964, the Who doing a gig when it was on the Rock circuit, great bands of the 1930s playing regular Saturday night jazz.
South London’s Afro-Caribbean community felt safe, wanted and not turned away at Laurie Grove Hall; particularly through the 1960s and 70s, a time of racist violence and support for the National Front in Deptford and Lewisham.
Limbo-dancing competitions were hugely popular. Local newspaper reports reference the baths for Water Polo competition, diving exhibitions and novelty races.
Women competitors swimming in pyjamas drew ‘a large number of entries’ in 1932.
In the 1970s professional wrestling from Laurie Grove was often shown on ITV sports with the famous Mick McManus top of the bill.
Mick was known also to frequent the nearby New Cross Inn.
He was born and brought up in New Cross and after the Second World War established his reputation as ‘The Man You Love to Hate’, and ‘Rugged South London Tough Guy.’
He played up his apparent Achilles heel with his catchphrase ‘Not the ears, not the ears.’
The big pools also hosted boxing fights and benefits; particularly for widows left on their own after veterans of the Great War succumbed to war wounds and the lasting effects of mustard gas.
Politics and entertainment often went together.
In 1927 one of the first national woman trade union organisers, Mary Carlin, was reported to have said: ‘The Men will wake up like Rip Man Winkle in about 20 years’ time and find that their wives have displaced them in the labour market because they had been too slow to protect themselves against undercutting by refusing to work with unorganised women.’
She was speaking at a concert in Laurie Grove Hall raising money for the Transport and General Workers’ Union convalescent home.
In the early 1930s hunger marchers from Kent would be given accommodation and hospitality in the Baths under the auspices of local Labour Party activist and first woman Mayor of Deptford, Beatrice Maud Drapper.
The Town Hall and the Baths
The plan to build a new Town Hall in Deptford developed at the turn of the century.
The land originally bought for the baths and washhouse complex from the Christ’s Hospital Trust and Clothworkers’ Company in 1893 for £7,000 extended out to the New Cross Road and the Town Hall project conveniently paid back £4,300 of the original loan.
The Centre for Contemporary Art has made imaginative use of the huge metal piping that drove the steam-powered machinery pumping Artesian well water up into the water towers.
It also had to heat the slipper baths and shower-cubicles, and mix the disinfecting chlorine with the water for the three pools.
The view of the driveway for the Town Hall from the water heating and pumping buildings shows how interconnected the baths were with Deptford’s administrative headquarters and centre for local democracy.
Only a stone’s throw away councillors in 1910 debated the problem of a crime-wave of thefts at the Baths, and its development as a centre for public meetings:
Kentish Mercury 29th July 1910
‘The Laurie Grove Baths – Alleged Robberies’
Councillor Strong further stated the baths in Laurie Grove would be ready for public meetings before Christmas. – Replying to Councillor Soper, who alleged that there had been robberies at these baths, the Town Clerk said that no complaint had been received.- Councillor Strong said that there was a book for complaints, but people did not trouble to write them down.
It’s one hundred and twenty years since the Artesian well water flowed into the huge water tanks supplying Laurie Grove baths for the people of South East London.
Now it is creativity that runs deep through this remarkable building complex.
It was largely made possible as the result of the vision of people at Goldsmiths, University of London as well as the generosity of graduates of Goldsmiths’ Art School who have been setting the agenda on what is art, and the role it should have in human society since 1891.
And this continues to be for the public as well as those enjoying all the privileges of higher education.
Except in 2018, it’s not six old pence for a hot and first class slipper bath.
The Head of the Goldsmiths’ Art Department, Richard Noble said: ‘What I wanted to do was build a space that would bring the art world to Goldsmiths.’
This project goes much further than that.
Yes, art is now coming to Goldsmiths perhaps in equal measure to the art going out.
While all this is happening the public can walk in gratis and experience art in all its complexity and beauty- freestyle.
That’s a civic spirit and democratisation that the university and local community can be proud of.
That’s So Goldsmiths– a forthcoming history of the university is being researched and written by Professor Tim Crook.