Bathing at the Docks

Phew! It’s been hot recently. What better way to cool off than going for a swim.  It’s been 5 years since Dundee’s newest swimming pool was opened. The new Olympia was officially opened on 20th September 2013. Of course she replaced the Old Olympia, now the site of the V&A,  but there was of course one before that! The old Swimming baths were based on the very edge of town in the middle of the docks. But have you ever thought about why?

Before there were swimming pools there were public baths. In the 19th century many houses and tenements had no running water. There were no indoor toilets, no taps and no baths. Amongst many things, this meant that it was difficult for people to stay clean. Your only access to water was from dirty wells or from burns and the river. This was a problem when people worked in dirty factories, walked down dirty streets and lived in homes surrounded by sewage.  The first public baths opened in Liverpool in 1829 and they soon spread to other cities. The connection between cleanliness and some diseases was becoming known in the 1830s and 1840s. In Dundee, a cholera outbreak in 1832 particularly brought home the dangers of disease and the lack of personal hygiene.

Proposed Plans - Composite of elevation and floor plans
Plans of Proposed Baths, 1845 (Ref: GD/DH/17/1/44)

A committee was formed in 1844 to raise money for the creation of public baths in Dundee. Donations poured in and plans were drawn up. A few locations were discussed, such as just north of Gilroy’s Mill in the Pleasance area and at Blackscroft. But no final decisions were made. Then the Harbour Trust got involved. By building up the harbour walls the people of Dundee were denied access to the river and therefore an opportunity to bathe in the water. Under the terms of an Act of Parliament enabling them to extend the docks the Trustees had to provide bathing facilities for the public. So they offered a piece of land on the south side of the entrance dock to the Earl Grey Dock. Not exactly the best piece of land, but it was free and there was a ready supply of (quite) clean water nearby. The committee jumped at the offer.

The new baths were opened on 5th July 1848. In its first year of operation 14,601 baths were taken. This was more than expected and the original boiler couldn’t keep up with the demand for warm water. In 1853 they started adding salt water to the baths. In the same year the need for a swimming pond was discussed by the committee. As Dundee was a seafaring city the population needed to be able to swim. Learning to do so in the river was too dangerous – tides, currents and shipping traffic could cause serious accidents. Whilst the committee acknowledged this need, nothing actually ever got off the ground. The Harbour Trustees were too concerned with problems associated with the building of Camperdown Dock at the time, and the committee thought it best not to bother them. Land was eventually offered by the Harbour in 1865, but it wasn’t big enough. The project was stalling so much that by 1869 the Police Commissioners looked into taking over the Bathing Committee in order to get the swimming baths built.

Old Swimming Baths
The new Swimming Baths just after they opened in 1873

As of 1st January 1871 the Public Baths came under the control of the Commissioners. The new swimming baths went into construction quickly and were opened on 25 November 1873. There were first and second class pools, or ponds as they were known, built on the western side of the existing baths. The pools had 63 changing boxes round the side, complete with ‘diving stages, spring boards and bath stairs’, there were even spittoons around the side of the pool to retain the cleanliness of the water. That water was drawn up from the River Tay at high tides. The temperature of the pools on the opening day was reported in the local press: first class was 51 and second was 58 degrees – that’s 10.5 and 14 in Celsius. Modern pools tend to be around 28 degrees Celsius. The original baths were replaced by an upgraded first class pool in 1876.

At this time swimming was gender segregated. There was no ladies’ pool. Instead the female population had to make do with access to the pools for just 2 hours, five days a week. Improvements, including more female accommodation and larger pools were suggested in 1898 but deferred by the committee. The swimming baths were eventually reconstructed again in 1909 and re-opened in 1910. This cost the Council, who now had control of the swimming baths, £10,000 – around one million in todays money. Now the women had their own pool. There was also a first class pool with a viewing gallery for galas and competitions.

Central Baths - Ladies Pond
The Ladies Pond of the Central Baths, 1910

Mixed bathing was allowed in the first class pool from 1923, but only on Thursday afternoons. This allowed families to swim together indoors for the first time. This was gradually extended over time, Tuesday afternoons were added in 1938 and Sunday afternoons in summer in 1965. The ladies’ pool remained.

The location of the Central Swimming Baths was always odd. Perched on the very edge of town it wasn’t easy to get too. It was isolated from everything else. This was exaggerated in the 1960s when the Earl Grey Dock was filled in and the Tay Road Bridge was built.  The old baths were in need of replacement – they were too small to keep up with demand. The waterfront development of the 1960s and 1970s envisioned a modern area, including the bridge, Tayside House and a new Leisure Centre. The Central Baths were demolished in 1975 after the Dundee Swimming and Leisure Centre opened.

Baths in amongst Tay Bridge developments 2
The Swimming Baths amongst the Tay Road Bridge developments, c. 1965


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