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Moseley Road Baths

The Stirrer recently revealed the £20 million cost of upgrading Birmingham's Moseley Road baths - which according to many Brummies would be money well spent on a fine Edwardian building containing two pools. On Monday, there's the first meeting of a "Friends" group, and Steve Beauchampé explains why you should be there.

There have only ever been seven Grade II* Listed indoor swimming pools in Britain, and only three remain operational; at the RAC Club in Pall Mall, the National Sports Centre in Crystal Palace and Moseley Road, in Balsall Heath.

Like several of Birmingham's Victorian and Edwardian baths, Moseley Road was a joint development of the Baths and Free Libraries committees, although the library itself opened in 1896, fully eleven years before the baths (the delays largely attributable to the need to bore a 727ft well for the water supply).

Both facilities had been promised in 1890 during discussions for the inclusion of the Balsall Heath district within the City Area under the City of Birmingham Extension Order, though had the Balsall Heath Local Board of Health accepted an offer in 1873 to purchase the sizeable privately owned baths complex on nearby George Street, Moseley Road baths would not have been built. The Board however declined the offer, considering, perhaps surprisingly, that with public facilities available at Kent Street approximately a mile away (near where today sits the Hippodrome Theatre), the district could do without its own baths.

The work of Colmore Row architects W. Hale and Sons (the esteemed local practice of Jethro A. Cossins and Peacock had undertaken the adjacent library development), the baths cost £33,000 though compared to the library, it could be argued that, externally at least, they are the lesser of the two buildings. But this would be pedantic, for both are superb examples of civic architecture, of which any local authority would be
justifiably proud.

Moseley Road Baths interior

There were three entrances: one each to the Men's First and Second Class Baths, with a central doorway leading to the Women's Baths, above which is an imposing City Coat of Arms by Benjamin Cresswell. The Gothic Renaissance facade features red sand brick, with buff terra-cotta enriching the door and window bays, while the central block is flanked by octagonal turrets, with raised gable ends highlighting the central features.

Impressive though the external facings are, it is only upon venturing inside, that the true splendour of Moseley Road becomes apparent. From the entrance hall, to the bath's furthest corners, every detail of the building has been thoughtfully engineered or crafted, using the finest materials of the day - glazed bricks in ivory, blue, green and cream, marble flooring, ornate ironwork, leaded and tinted opaque glass, oak doors and fittings.

The Second Class bath (recently refurbished at a cost of £1m) measures 71ft x 33ft and retains many of the original features, including its lantern roof, elliptical cast-iron roof arches and white and blue glazed bricks, though modern cubicles have replaced the originals (which consisted of oak benches divided by hanging ceramic slabs and curtain fronts).

However, it is the impressive Gala (or First Class) swimming bath, sadly mothballed since 2004, which is most sublime. Measuring 81ft x 32ft, bordered by 63 arched cubicles and overlooked by its original three-sided spectator gallery and what may be unique upper storey balconettes, here was aqua-theatre at its very best, the stage for countless school and club swimming galas.

Moseley Road Baths interior 2

Yet not only is Moseley Road a place to swim, it is a living repository of a lifestyle that was once common to millions of Britons in the 20th century. Witness the now closed, but largely intact, men's private slipper baths, each in their own tiled cubicle with bell-pushes to summon attendants for extra hot water. Also rare in surviving Edwardian baths are the steam-heated drying racks in the public laundry.

The baths and library formed part of an impressive run of civic and public buildings on Moseley Road; opposite Moseley Road Art School and Moseley Methodist Church, while also within walking distance of the Imperial Picture Palace, the Moseley and Balsall Heath Institute, Moseley Tram Depot and The Society of Friends Hall and Institute. Once the main thoroughfare of one of Birmingham's wealthiest suburbs, Moseley Road may have lost its sheen, but its baths still gleam like a jewel. Truly, they are a national treasure.

gallery -click here

(Steve Beauchampé co-authored "Played In Birmingham" with Simon Inglis.)

The inaugural meeting of the Friends of Moseley Road Baths takes place in the Methodists Church opposite at 7.30pm on Monday 27 November.


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