Scotland’s Victorian Swimming Baths

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The Arlington Baths is Britain’s oldest private swimming club, having been originally designed by architect John Burnet, the father of Sir John James Burnet, in 1871.

The Baths is a private members club, run on a not-for-profit basis, with facilities for health, exercise and relaxation. The traditional Victorian premises house a 21 metre skylit swimming pool, a unique Turkish suite, free standing hot tubs and a bright, modern gymnasium.

The building and interior has an interesting architectural history, detailed on the baths’ website.

The architecture can be enjoyed by the public this year, for the first time, as the Baths are part of Glasgow Doors Open Day on 18 and 19 September. Thanks to Gordon McDougall, who mentioned that the Baths are working to secure the future of the club with a recruitment drive, and are offering new members 12 months for the price of 10, as well as waiving the £260 joining fee.

The Western Baths, also in Glasgow, was founded in 1876. The building was designed by Clarke and Bell, and the plans can be seen in the Mitchell Library.

The History section of the Western‘s website suggests a fond rivalry between the establishments:

There were, of course, other baths in Glasgow, but when we said “the Baths” we meant “the Western Baths” and never supposed that anyone could think otherwise”. So said Alison F. Blood in her “Kelvinside Days”, written during the 1920s in Ceylon when her thoughts strayed back to her youth spent in Glasgow.

This building and its interior seems to have been impressed upon the memory of the members:

It is not unusual for elderly former members from overseas to call at the Baths to ask if they can look around the club where they learned to swim so many decades before. The first question is always, “Do you still have the Trapeze, travelling rings and other gymnastic equipment over the pool?”

The Western Baths is affiliated to Drumseugh Baths in Edinburgh- members at the Western can use the facilities over in Edinburgh. I learned to swim here (as well as at the Commonwealth Pool, currently undergoing a much-needed renovation). Drumseugh, like the others, features a trapeze and rings, which took me years to master, and like the members of the other pools, these hold a strong memory for me. Sometimes when I swim now, I recall the taste of pie and beans from the bar at Drumseugh in a sort of inverted Proustian moment.

Before I drift off into a reverie though, I should out Drumseugh’s fascinating architectural history, designed by Sir John James Burnet, son of the designer of the Arlington Baths.

The Drumsheugh Baths Company commissioned the architect Sir John James Burnet (1857-1938) to design the building on a very steeply sloping, North-facing site near Edinburgh’s Dean Village… The building is designed in the Moorish style and has a deeply shadowed entrance under a low-pitch stone bracketed roof. This style was favoured for public and private baths at that time .

The baths underwent major refurbishment in 2005 by David Narro Associates.

These structural elements had to be carefully removed whilst maintaining lateral support to slender masonry external walls and retaining walls. The floors were replaced adopting in-situ reinforced concrete construction and utilising a high specification concrete mix design.

Finally, the Turkish Baths at Portobello in Edinburgh are now open to the public, which is unusual amongst the historic Victorian Baths. These baths were designed by Robert Morham 1898 in a Moorish style similar to Drumseugh. The website for these baths is much more functional, and there is less fondness for the history or the architecture and interior.

I found a link to photos and an eTour for the Portobello Baths, which unfortunately is not working. But from the thumbnails you can see that this is another beautiful building and interior.

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12 Responses to “Scotland’s Victorian Swimming Baths”

  1. Benedikte Ranum Says:

    Lovely post and images, Owen.

    Have you read The Life of Pi? You get a similar feel from Piscine Patel’s mentor reminiscing about the old Parisian swimming baths.

    Must go and visit some of these pools one day…

  2. Owen Philipson Says:

    Thanks Benedikte. I’ll add that book to the list.

    Glasgow Doors Open Day on 18 and 19 September would be an ideal place to see one of them- the Arlington- which is participating.

    We saw vaults underneath George IV Bridge in Edinburgh’s Open Doors day a few years ago.

  3. GordonMc Says:

    Smart Blog Owen. Lovely stuff about all the baths featured. Didn’t know the architectural father and son relationship linking the Arlington and Drumseugh clubs – so thanks for that. As you say, there’s loads more on our website with great turn of the century photos. And our archive dating right back to 1870 is a potential goldmine for anyone interested in their family history. Just imagine finding a long lost aunt, uncle or great-great grannie, then coming along to see the hook where as teenagers they hung their costume to dry, taking a dip in the pool where they were taught to swim in or reclining on a bench seat in our vaulted Turkish suite perhaps with a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ that they may, just may have read in the self same seat, just hot off the press.

  4. Owen Philipson Says:

    Thanks for the comment Gordon and thanks again for your input to the post. The Arlington Baths have a rich history and I’m hoping to do another piece on them in the future.

  5. Julian Says:

    Great blog Owen. I too remember the pie and beans, the trapeze ( only managed one length ) and the sauna. I can lend you ‘ Life of Pi ‘.
    Julian

  6. GordonMc Says:

    What an amazing turnout we had for the Doors Open Days. It was absolutely mobbed and non stop all weekend with 817 visitors on Saturday and 761 on Sunday! Our club members who acted as tour guides had a fantastic (and tiring) time showing the old place off. We welcome visitors for a look around any day – just don’t bring 800 pals with you for a wee while!

  7. Nem Says:

    SPABis had a walking tour of Dean Village last summer, the ‘Moorish’ baths were featured, and a fair bit of history.

    Infirmary Street Baths in Edinburgh is an interesting one.

    Now not swimming baths any longer; following the fire one pool stood derelict and roofless, then the whole baths closed and was on the Buildings at Risk Register and in danger of demolition. It was ‘rescued’ by turning it into Dovecot Studios, alongside houses and offices, with sensitive contemporary additions. Malcolm Fraser Architects has won several awards for the conversion, including a RIBA Award 2010.

    I’ve written about it here, and there’s a good historic interior shot (courtesy of Malcolm Fraser) :

    http://nemesisrepublic.blogspot.com/2010/03/making-splash.html

  8. North Woodside Baths, Glasgow « Interior Design Says:

    […] on the site. Judging by the interest in the Arlington’s recent Doors Open day, with over 1500 visitors over a weekend, the building and its interior is a big draw when it comes to a Victorian […]

  9. Malcolm Shifrin Says:

    Hi, I don’t suppose you have a photo of the outside of the Masters Snooker Club in Craigpark Street which used to be the Victorian Dennistoun Swimming Club with Turkish baths? If so, I would love to put it–with appropriate credit–on my Victorian Turkish Baths website. Best. Malcolm

  10. Malcolm Shifrin Says:

    I’ve now read the remainder of the post. Fascinating.
    There’s more on the history of the Drumsheugh Baths Club (with some additional images) on my own website here:
    http://www.victorianturkishbath.org/_6DIRECTORY/AtoZEstab/Clubs/Drum/DrumEng.htm
    I’m hoping also to add pages on the five Glasgow baths clubs (though mainly about their Turkish baths) in the not too distant future.

  11. Owen Philipson Says:

    A comprehensive account of the building Malcolm- well done. I didn’t know it had burnt down and been replaced.

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