News from Played in Britain

Demolition of Birmingham baths reveals long hidden treasures, but not its deepest secret

September 30 2008

As the much lamented demolition of Birmingham's 1933 Kent Street baths comes to an end, to make way for a car park, Played in Birmingham co-authors Steve Beauchampé and Simon Inglis have been on hand to photograph the building, and see whether it would yield one last secret.

Featured in both Played in Birmingham and Great Lengths, Kent Street baths were, until 1977, Birmingham's most prestigious and centrally located swimming baths, with a somewhat severe frontage dating from 1933, a magnificent main pool with proscenium arch, and a range of Turkish and steam baths that were once well used by local residents and city centre businessmen.

The site itself had housed Birmingham's first ever public baths, opened in 1851.

According to a 1933 newspaper report, when reconstruction of the baths started in 1931 coins and artefacts from the original 1851 building were placed behind the foundation stone.

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Click the thumbnails to view full-size images and associated captions.

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Kent Street Baths as it appeared in 1933, with seats flanking the pool and a proscenium arch framing the diving boards. Note also that, as was standard for this period, plaster rendering boxed in the roof's supporting steelwork, to provide cleaner lines and softer acoustics. This was Birmingham's main gala pool from 1933–77..

Photo: courtesy of Ian Gordon

Beauchampé and Inglis hoped that these potentially fascinating objects might be rediscovered during the demolition and handed over, either to Birmingham's Museums Service or for display at the city's proposed 50m swimming pool, planned for a nearby city centre site.

Meanwhile, the Played in Birmingham co-authors were allowed inside the building for one last look before demolition commenced. (The City Council, incidentally, made no attempt to halt this demolition or to save the frontage, despite it being listed locally Grade B.)

Having been unused for several years, after three decades serving as offices and a warehouse, the buildings' interior presented a desperately forlorn sight, with many of the original features torn out or obscured by modern fittings.

As seen in the accompanying photos, the pool itself had been filled in with concrete and the seating decks on either side of the pool removed. Only the proscenium arch survived, crowned by a stone carved City of Birmingham crest.

Looking out over Kent Street, the original boardroom of the City's Baths Department was found to be ankle deep in pigeon droppings, while traces of 1930s tiling had survived in the Turkish bath areas, together with some decorative plasterwork in and around the stairwells. Surprisingly, a brass plaque from Saltley Baths, opened in 1924 and demolished shortly before Kent Street closed in the 1970s, was also retrieved.

But what of the artefacts hidden beneath the foundation stone?

Despite belated attempts by the 20th Century Society to preserve at least the Kent Street facade, the upper half of the frontage was taken down last week. But instead of taking down the remainder, the site owners decided to leave the lower half to act as a screen wall for the new car park behind.

However it was agreed that the two ceremonial plaques, flanking the former main entrance and marking the laying of the foundation stone in 1931 and the opening in 1933, would be removed for safe keeping.

As each was prised away delicately from their masonry surrounds, Beauchampé and Inglis joined a small knot of onlookers, hoping that the 19th century artefacts might be revealed.

Instead, after a tense half hour, all that was finally exposed were blank concrete walls and splodges of adhesive.

Commented a disappointed Steve Beachampé afterwards, 'If the artefacts are indeed there, as the newspaper report claims, we will now have to wait for the lower half of the wall to be cleared. But we won't give up on them. This was Birmingham's first, and most prestigious baths for over 125 years, and there should at least be some commemoration.'

As for the ceremonial plaques, these are now available for Birmingham City to collect, or failing that, to be sold for charity.

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