Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Baths, Putney

Those of you who ventured on Putney High Street heading north towards the bridge have certainly noticed the modern painted sign for Spanish restaurant La Mancha (just in case you wondered, the food is rather average, so is the service, and the place can be very loud).

But how many have spotted that this modern sign covers almost entirely a much older one? Nowadays, the only visible words are: "...ic Baths." A look at old pictures of the High Street confirmed what I thought: it was for the local public baths.

So here we have a sign which, looking at what is left of it, was neither beautifully-designed nor eye-catching, but which reveals some aspect of our local history.

Peter Thomas published a fascinating article in the Winter 1986 issue of The Wandsworth Historian about William Bishop and the Putney Public Baths and this is where most of what follows comes from.
The story began in 1883, when the vestry, concerned by the lack of access to running water of the vast majority of inhabitants around Putney, put forward a proposal for the construction of public baths to be financed by taxpayers. However Putney taxpayers, whose meanness was apparently well-known, rejected the proposal. A few months later, local entrepreneur William Bishop, who had made a small fortune in the building trade, stepped in and announced he would build public baths as a commercial venture. Designed by architects Lee Bros & Pain, they opened on Saturday June 5, 1886 at the corner of Putney Bridge Road and Burstock Road. The baths, which were said to have been rather luxurious, could accomodate between 200 and 300 people at any given time. They included a large swimming pool, private baths, as well as Turkish baths. During the winter months the main swimming pool was boarded over and converted into the "Cromwell Hall", where banquets, concerts, public meetings, music halls, and other kinds of performances could be organized. A strict segregation between genders existed in the public baths, with separate entrances for women and men and an alternance of women's days and men's days. Class was the other dividing line. When they opened in 1868, prices were 9 d. for first class, and 6 d. for second class. Private baths cost 1 s. first class, and 6 d. second class. These were relatively high prices for the time, and were certainly beyond the means of those the baths had originally been intended for (in most public baths across London run by local parishes or metropolitan boroughs, a hot bath and the use of a towel cost as little as one penny or two pence). Additionally under pressure from the Church the baths closed on Sunday, the only day when working classes would have had enough time to go for a swim.
Attendance probably never reached the levels expected and consequently the Putney public baths were certainly never a financial success. They were demolished in September 1986 after years of neglect.

Putney High Street / Picture taken on: 15/08/2008

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