Celebrating the power of community with Withington Baths

Emma Horridge, Heritage Engagement Co-ordinator, at Withington Baths in Manchester joins us to reflect upon the journey that the Edwardian bath house has been on over the last few years.  Now a vibrant, bustling and much-loved part of its local area it’s an inspiring success story that demonstrates the power of community.

Can you begin by telling us a little bit about the history of Withington Baths?

We first opened our doors in 1913 under the operation of Manchester Cooperation, later to become Manchester City Council. Our building was designed by renowned architect Henry Price, who also designed Victoria Baths.  Like many others of this period, the building of the Baths was linked to the mass expansion happening across Manchester as the result of industrialisation.

Back in 1913 it was estimated that half the homes in Withington didn’t have bathrooms, so the people who visited Withington Baths came not only to exercise, but to get clean.  Early plans show three pools, however by the time the first building brick had been laid the plan was reduced to two.  In 1914 history was made when Withington Baths became Manchester’s first swimming pool to allow mixed bathing, something that was championed by local councillor and suffragist Margaret Ashton. 

When and how did Withington Baths become an operation managed entirely by its community?

In 2013, under Manchester City Council ownership, the Baths faced permanent closure due to a city-wide rethink of Manchester’s leisure facilities. Thankfully, down to the sheer determination of the people of Withington, the Baths was saved.

The Love Withington Baths charity was set up and took over the running of the Baths in 2015. At this point the building was in a state of disrepair, however, a loss-making facility was turned into one generating a surplus and providing a range of programmes and activities for the whole community.  That was a watershed moment and a pattern that has continued since.

You’ve recently been celebrating all the work that has gone into to restoring Withington Baths.  Can you tell us more about this project, when it began and what has been achieved?

In 2018 we submitted a successful funding application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund to support the repair and renovation of key aspects of the Baths, such as the pitched glass roof over the pool, stained glass windows, tiling, steelwork and studios (which were originally used as bath houses).

Part of the application outlined plans to engage the local community with the Baths’ unique heritage and this became a key element of the project.  We designed a heritage programme, including a free schools’ programme; introduced a new volunteer programme that trained people to give free heritage tours of the building and provided volunteering opportunities in the garden;  and worked with local groups to co-design some of our stained glass windows.

It must have been a challenging project, but what have been the highlights?

For us seeing this beautiful building restored to its former glory and packed full of local people either swimming, taking part in a class, having a coffee or enjoying a heritage tour has been fantastic.  We’ve also reached our highest number of members hitting 2950, with a footfall of 150,000.

Where has the support for the project come from to enable this work to take place?

In 2015 we secured a Key Fund loan of £50,000, which allowed us to be operational in the early days.  Following that we secured £2million towards the refurbishment from a Manchester City Council loan combined with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Garfield Weston and The Oglesby Trust.

Withington Baths plays such a central role in its community and is used in so many different ways – as a place to exercise, socialise, work, train and connect – are there any tips that you could share with other community run historic pools or those that hope to be?

A major positive for us is being based within a vibrant and mixed community. When we were at risk of closure it was this community that worked hard to ensure the Baths would continue.  Our members have shown us such loyalty, sticking with us throughout our refurbishment project, something that we are incredibly grateful for.

One of the things that we believe has contributed to our success is being of use to our local community. We have worked hard to provide classes and facilities that meet their needs.  For example, for the children’s swimming lessons our instructors get into the water with the children to support and encourage them; something that isn’t offered everywhere.  Our friendly café, The Bathhouse Café, provides a great space for people to chat to each other, and our staff!

We’ve always done our best to listen to our members.  Recently we worked with an external evaluator to work out the social value of the Baths, interviewing members not just about functionality, but about the role we fulfil as a community asset.

What are your future plans at Withington Baths?

We want to continue the heritage work through our own funds – embedding the heritage programme into our core programme. From a building perspective, we want to restore the final roof above the gym – at the moment there is a dropped ceiling covering the original Edwardian pitched roof and it needs some TLC!

We are also keen to make sure we are here for our community and plan to increase how we support community cohesion by working directly with specific groups.  And we are putting more thought into what we can do around carbon reduction and possibly replacing our boilers and installing a pool cover, but with other investments beyond that in the pipeline.

Find out more

You can discover more about the projects that have taken place at Withington Baths and explore the building for yourself by joining us for HPB’s event on Thursday 26 September.  There are places for members and non-members, with the details available by emailing Clare@historicpools.org.uk

You can find out everything that’s going on at Withington Baths here.