News from Played in Britain

£5m Investment Secures Future of Historic Birmingham Sports Complex

July 15 2010

Swimmers and conservation groups in Birmingham are celebrating the announcement that Birmingham's oldest swimming pool, the Grade II listed Woodcock Street Baths, built in 1902, is to be retained by its owners, the University of Aston, as part of a £5 million refurbishment of the sports centre. The announcement is all the more timely given that next month marks the 150th anniversary of the first pool to have been built on the site.

The former municipal pool is located on the edge of Birmingham city centre and is open daily to the general public as well as to students. But with much of the surrounding university campus currently undergoing an extensive rebuilding programme it had been feared that the Woodcock Street Sports Centre would be replaced with a new build facility.

Woodock Street's 1902 pool

Calm waters ahead for the magnificent interior of Woodock Street's 1902 pool
(photo © English Heritage)

Now the University has committed itself to a substantial investment that will enhance and upgrade the building, extending its life by at least 20 years.

Scheduled improvements include additional changing facilities for swimmers and sports hall users, new martial arts, aerobics and dance studio space and structural repairs to the building's roof and basement. It is also hoped to restore some of the building's original features during the refurbishment process.

Swimming at Woodcock Street dates back to August 1860 when Birmingham Town Council opened its second set of municipal baths on the site.

These were extensively rebuilt in 1902 to include the current pool, designed by Birmingham architect FW Lloyd. This still has its original cast iron roof structure and, lining the poolside, 48 glazed brick cubicles with segmented arches - a design seen in only one other extant pool, the Grade II* Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath, just a couple of miles across Birmingham.

Woodock Street's unusual poolside cubicles

Open and shut case - Woodock Street's unusual poolside cubicles
(photo © English Heritage)

The 1902 pool now sits in the midst of a later baths complex, completed in 1925-26 and designed by Arthur McKewan. The core of this later development is a 100' x 35' Gala Pool, which hosted not only swimming competitions but also boxing and, in February 1936, a snooker match reportedly watched by a then world record of nearly 1,100 spectators.

Since the University of Aston took over the complex from Birmingham City Council in 1980, the 1920s Gala Pool has been permanently boarded over and used as a dry sports hall. In common with its Edwardian neighbour, however, it too retains its original roof structure and several other period details.

For more than a decade there has been speculation that the University planned to demolish the entire complex and replace it with a much larger sports centre. Now, as the site nears its 150th year in the service of local swimmers, it appears to be safe for at least the next two decades, a decision that has been warmly welcomed by local conservation groups such as the Victorian Society.

For more on the history of indoor swimming pools in Britain, see the Played in Britain book Great Lengths.

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