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28-09-2009

Sparkhill Baths

As the site of Birmingham’s first Corporation swimming baths in Kent Street is bulldozed to create a car park, Steve Beauchampé asks that the city council save the impressive front block of its’ ‘sister’ pool in Sparkhill.

The call by the 20th Century Society to save the two-storey front block of the former corporation baths in Kent Street, off Hurst Street in Birmingham city centre, was somewhat belated. By the time that the Mail published their plea on September 18th, most of it had already been demolished (with the pool hall following a few days later). It merited saving too, but with the minimal protection afforded by its Locally Listed Grade ‘B’ status, and with the building having long passed into private hands, it was always likely to be a losing cause.

The location of Birmingham’s first public baths in 1851, the original Kent Street Baths (constructed to the designs of architect John Cresswell in a curious mixture of Queen Anne and Italianate style, using red brick and bath stone dressings) were demolished in 1930 (though the wall of an annexe added in 1914 - and used long after 1930 - remains), replaced three years later by Archibald Hurley Robinson’s imposing modernist design.

Comprising a single large pool with a diving stage set in a Proscenium arch, 68 private washing baths and a Turkish suite, Kent Street also served as the repair and maintenance depot for the city’s Baths Department, as well as its de facto headquarters.

Extensively damaged in an air raid on December 3rd 1940, Kent Street re-opened after World War II and served the residents on the southern side of Birmingham city centre until it closed permanently in 1977, a decision triggered by an ongoing fall in users as slum clearance led to a substantial drop in the population of central Birmingham.

In private hands - and with the swimming pool itself filled in - the building had several uses including as a car repair workshop and electrical goods showroom. Original fittings variously removed, covered by plasterboard or just left to rot, by 2009 Kent Street Baths was in a very sorry state, though with the cast iron roof supports and Proscenium arch still in situ, for anyone able to look inside there was no doubting the building’s raison d’etre.

The 170ft long reconstructed Portland Stone frontage appeared in good condition, certainly not beyond saving, an impressive visage in a part of Kent Street that in recent years had become almost devoid of other buildings.

Reaction to the demolition by those who are aware of it has overwhelmingly been one of disappointment. For now owners the Benacre Estate are retaining the frontage up to ground floor window level to mask the car park, but in time, when economic conditions are more favourable, this will also be demolished and a new building (apartments and/or offices are the most likely) will be constructed. The baths have one final secret to give up though, as what might termed a ‘time capsule’, originally interred on the site in 1849 (dug up and re-buried in 1931), will only be recoverable once total demolition of the frontage and other excavation work has been undertaken, and that could be many years away.

Sadly, the loss of Kent Street Baths is only the latest in a growing list of Birmingham’s inter-war swimming pools which have been, or may soon be, demolished.

The city built ten pools during the period (in addition to which a pool for public use was constructed by Cadbury’s in Bournville), an era when pool usage throughout Britain hit then record highs. Of these, Saltley Baths in George Arthur Road (1924) were closed in 1989 and demolished in 1995. King’s Heath (1926) was knocked down in 1986, with swimming provision in the locale transferred to the Cocks Moors Woods Leisure Centre.

The Gala Pool at Woodcock Street in Aston (1926) was converted to a sports hall c1980 (though the older pool, dating from 1902, remains in use). Kingstanding (1938) was demolished in the late 1980s, replaced by the current leisure centre. Monument Road Baths in Ladywood (June 1940) closed in 1994 leaving another inner city district without swimming facilities. Harborne Pool (1923) is due for replacement in 2010 while the future of Sparkhill Baths (1931) remains in considerable doubt. Thus, only the pools at Erdington (1925), Linden Road, Bournville (1936) and Northfield (1937) seem safe, though the latter sadly lost many of its art deco features during refurbishment several years ago.

Sparkhill’s future is of particular concern; the pool was closed in July 2008 and has significant structural faults that will necessitate demolition of much, if not all, of the pool hall. Arguably the finest of Birmingham’s inter-war baths - and another Hurley Robinson building - like Kent Street its design was inspired by a trip to Germany by Robinson and council officials to examine the health spa movement. The result was a bright and warm interior using oak, pine and walnut joinery combined with marble and subtle use of coloured tiles and glazed brick (notably primrose) to provide a light, airy ambience.

Sparkhill Baths

Sparkhill’s 126ft frontage, faced in brick with Guildstone dressings, remains a much-loved feature of Stratford Road, and the baths form part of a run of public facilities, including the police station, library, community centre and public park, all of which date from the first half of the 20th Century. Inside is Britain’s first ever learner pool and, through a highly impressive stone colonnade, the 100ft (33m) long adult pool. In an age where most new pools are constructed to a standard 25m length, the extra distance afforded swimmers in Sparkhill is an extremely popular feature, attracting swimmers from well beyond the building’s immediate catchment area.

Like Kent Street, Sparkhill Baths are Locally Listed Grade ‘B’ and while the city council appear committed to providing swimming facilities in the neighbourhood (and probably on the current site) and Leisure Services Chief Martin Mullaney is known to favour retaining as much of the current building as possible, Mullaney’s officers appear to be pressing for the easy option of demolition and rebuild. Which calls into question the whole point of both local listing and Birmingham City Council’s commitment to the preservation of important, historic, popular and aesthetically pleasing buildings.

This cannot continue.

Contrast this approach with Sandwell, where Chester Button’s 1933 Moderne swimming baths (in Thimbelmill Lane, Smethwick) have recently undergone major refurbishment, with original features restored or repaired, the building now awarded Grade II listed status as a result.

For Kent Street Baths, the bell has tolled. Sparkhill must not be allowed to go the same way by Council officers and their consultant advisors whose main talent appears to be counting beans.

Steve Beauchampé is author of Played in Birmingham (Malavan Media, 2006) and a researcher and photographer for Great Lengths - the historic indoor swimming pools of Britain (Malavan Media, 2009), both part of English Heritage’s Played in Britain series. www.playedinbritain.co.uk

Sparkhill Baths. Photos: © Steve Beauchampé

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