Thornbury now has indoor swimming pools at the Leisure Centre and Castle School. All children have the opportunity of learning to swim in safety and to pursue a further interest in the sport if they wish.
Swimming was not a popular pastime until comparatively recent times. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, although the Greeks and Romans had swimming pools, swimming only became popular in Britain for its therapeutic qualities in the seventeenth century and even then it was generally in the form of sea bathing. It was not until the nineteenth century that swimming as a recreation and a sport really became popular in this country.
Thornbury does not have a great many natural water sources and even fewer that are big enough for a group of people to swim in. It might be thought that the nearby River Severn could be where Thornburians would choose to swim. Indeed we know from written accounts in the early 20th century that many of the local people used to travel down to the banks of the Severn and swim in the river at Littleton or Oldbury Pill. However the Severn is not an ideal choice for swimming for many reasons, most especially the notorious mud and the considerable tidal range.
Jack Pridham who lived in Thornbury in the 1930s and 40s wrote an account that illustrated the drawbacks of bathing in the Severn very vividly. Apparently the headmaster of the Grammar School, Mr Rouch, sometimes asked Jack to go swimming with him and his daughters, Jennifer and Mary. Jack wrote that
‘The headmaster for some unknown reason, always chose the Severn for his ‘aquatics’. Even in the absence of health and safety, the river was considered to be dangerous with its treacherous tides and mud which came up to the knees when we waded out to the water’s edge in the Pill at Littleton-on-Severn. The tide was not always high enough for swimming but when it filled the Pill, to a depth of perhaps 20 feet, the window of opportunity for a ‘dip’ was, I think, about 30 minutes: it was rather essential to get out before the moon pulled the water back to the sea! There were warm, balmy evenings when you were sure that this diluted mud bath possessed health giving properties. On the other hand, there was always the problem of the real mud bath which all encountered on leaving the ‘spa’. Excess vile grey goo had to be scraped off with a stick or rubbed off with marram grass before entering the headmaster’s ancient Daimler; plenty remained for the attention of soap and water on returning to Thornbury’.
We have another account from a contemporary of Jack’s, Elizabeth Cochrane, who described the experience in more enthusiastic terms. In her memories of life in Thornbury in the 1930s she recalled that
‘During the summer we used to swim in a creek off the Severn at Littleton, about four and a half miles away and we always used to bicycle there. We had to have a tide table and only swim when the tide was coming in, as it went out very fast and was very dangerous. It was also extremely muddy, with grey mud which was very good for the skin and quite clean! Once we went to swim in a body in the middle of the night during a high spring tide – very exciting!‘
In view of the hazards of the river it is quite understandable that people in Thornbury wanted safer places to learn to swim and to take part in healthy exercise. With the new interest in swimming in the nineteenth century swimming baths had become popular. The first swimming organisation formed in London was founded in 1837 at which time the city had six indoor pools. We know that Thornbury had its Baths before 1840 and it would seem that in that instance Thornbury was very much keeping up with modern trends. The Baths were probably constructed as a response to the national cholera outbreak of 1832 when records show that at least two people died of the disease in Thornbury. At a time when there was no bathroom, or even running water, in the majority of houses, it is likely that The Baths were built to help keep clean as recommended by doctors and social reformers who had begun to realise that cleanliness might prevent the spread of infections.
However we have found one reference which might suggest The Baths were there a lot earlier than 1840. Handel Cossham, when addressing the people of the Town at the opening the Cossham Hall in 1888, mentioned his maternal grandfather, John Shepherd, as a friend of Dr Jenner who was living in the town in the period between 1765 and 1770. Handel referred to his grandfather as ‘John Shepherd of The Baths near Thornbury’. It seems more likely that this was the name by which John’s house was known in 1888 when the speech was made, rather than the name of John’s home in the 1700’s.
The Baths – the 1840 Tithe Survey map and the 1841 census show that the town already had a bathing pool known as The Baths at the bottom of the road we now know as Bath Road. At that time it was owned by William Rolph and occupied by Thomas Morgan.
The Baths belonged to an adjacent house where the owners also ran a small market garden. For a short time it was licensed to sell alcoholic drinks under the name of ‘The Bathin Place’, but this, we understand ceased trading in 1874. Being privately owned The Baths suffered from lack of funding to maintain it, so at various times there are reports of it being unusable. The Gazette newspapers of 1922 indicate that the baths were in a dilapidated state and had been closed for public use. Local Councillor, Alfred Riddiford, wrote a letter to the Gazette advocating that the Parish Council should open negotiations with the landlord of the baths so that improvements could be made and they could be opened to the public. It appears that the landlord agreed to undertake the work which cost about £51. He contributed towards the costs involved in meeting his responsibilities but there was a shortfall of about £13. The Council were reluctant to meet this cost by making a charge to the rates, so they set about raising it by public subscription.
The Baths remained in private ownership but, after the improvements were carried out, the Council organised a public meeting in August 1923 to promote the use of the facilities. Edmund Cullimore, the Chairman of the Parish Council, supported the initiative, recalling his own youth when local resident Griffith Hughes had devoted much of his spare time teaching young people to swim at The Baths. We understand that Griffith Hughes undertook to teach any boy from the National School and when the boy could swim the length of the bath (about 20 yards) Mr Hughes presented him with 6d.
Alfred Riddiford also supported the scheme although not a swimmer himself. It was considered important to provide facilities for young people to learn to swim and two afternoons each week were set aside for the ladies.
It was proposed that a swimming gymkhana should be held at The Baths to raise money to reduce the outstanding debt and the Sharpness Swimming Club offered to help organise the event in August 1923. In the race for boys 14 years and under swum over 2 lengths, L. Smith was in 1st place and H. Champion 2nd. W. Whiteman won the Men’s race swum over 4 lengths and B. MacDonald was second. In the Diving for Plates event, H. Ellis won getting 11 out of 13 plates and J. Hulbut was second with ten plates. C Browning won the cork catching race with J. Hulbut again in second place. H. Riddiford won the walking the greasy pole competition. Amongst the other events the Floating Exhibition was won by Mr Hinder. There was one other amusing event – that called the Top Hat and Umbrella Race.
The public meeting also led to the formation of the Thornbury Swimming Club. A Swimming Club Committee was appointed and the following officers elected: President, Brig. General Crofton Atkins C.B.E., Vice President, Dr. W. R. Watson, Captain, Francis H Grace, , Hon. Treasurer, B. S. Morse, Hon. Secretary, A. A. W. Prewett and the Committee, Misses A Horder and M. Wilkins, Mrs Sellors, Messrs W. Whiteman, A. Macdonald, N. Ellis, J. Hulbert and F. Edmunds.
The Club placed an advert in the Gazette dated 21st June 1924 inviting applications for membership. Another report in July 1925 shows that the club had managed to concrete the floor of the baths and to provide additional changing room accommodation. Another gala had been arranged to fund other necessary work. We are not sure how long the club survived and would love to hear from anyone with any information.
We know from 20th century accounts, that the Baths had two diving boards made from wooden planks. The water was fed continuously from a natural stream via a filter bed and was always cold. Shrimps, newts and other small water beasties were often seen in the murky water and there was a lot of moss on the stones! The water was tested annually in April when reputedly a man from the Council would take a sample from the filter bed, hold it up to the light, take a drink and say ‘There is nothing wrong with that!’ We don’t know when, or for how long, this informal testing was carried out. We know that proper scientific testing was being undertaken in 1950 (see below).
The changing rooms were cubicles by the side of the pool. Sally Gordon said that the boys had a communal changing room, but the girls had separate ones. Hardy youngsters would swim from April to September. Entrance cost one to two old pennies but the owner Mr Pearce would let some children in for free, if they picked stones from his fields in March.
We have three photographs of The Baths in use (see above). We would love to hear from anyone who had others.
In 1945 an attempt was made to improve the quality of water by using the water from the railway’s water tank. The railway company refused the application saying that their ‘water was subject to a certain amount of pollution and it is not therefore suitable for use in a swimming bath’. That is interesting because the railway’s water was still being used to supply some houses in the town with a mains water supply!
In 1947 the then owner of The Baths offered to sell the swimming baths (but not the adjoining house and land) to the Parish Council and the sale was completed in October 1949 at a cost of £350.
Swimming had been a sport encouraged by the local schools and during the period up to the 1940s they used the local baths for swimming lessons and competitions. The Thornbury Grammar School’s magazine, The Thornburian, noted in 1949 that ‘again this year the sports were held at The Blue Lagoon’. This indicates that the Baths may have been closed from at least 1948, possibly earlier. We have been told that they were closed as a precautionary measure after a child became ill with polio, but we have found no confirmation of this. The 1949 magazine referred to ‘the improvements to the Thornbury Baths, now being planned’ and expressed the hope that they would be carried out. In August 1946 the Thornbury Parish Council asked the Ministry of Health for a loan of £376 to improve the quality of the water by installing a purification plant.
We have a copy of a scientific report on the quality of the water carried out by Gloucestershire County Council’s Public Analyst dated 1950. This concluded that the source of the water was ‘grossly polluted with matter and organisms of sewage origin and is unfit for the purpose of a swimming pool, unless chlorinated.
There were major concerns about the need to modernise the facilities and make them safer to use and more hygienic. Within a short time The Baths were condemned by the Medical Officer of Health until improvements were carried out. In 1953 proposals were made, estimated to cost £5000 but the Council failed to obtain the necessary grants because the pool was too small to qualify for the funding. The pool was 59ft long by 30ft wide to the 66ft length needed to comply with county standards and qualify for grants. We don’t think that the Baths ever re-opened and the nearest swimming pools continued to be the outdoor pool known as the Blue Lagoon in Severn Beach and the indoor public baths at Horfield.
The School continued to hold their annual swimming gala at The Blue Lagoon throughout the 1950s. These two photographs were taken at a gala at Severn Beach, one showing competitors, the other the spectators. Both photos were taken around 1957/58.
The Baths themselves fell into disrepair, eventually being demolished. In 1969 the Parish Council sold the land to Thornbury Rural District Council for £1700 and they used it for The Bathings Sheltered Housing.
We know that the Thornbury Swimming Club was resurrected in 1968 as the Thornbury Chantry Swimming (Competitive Section) Club. They initially trained at various venues in the Bristol area, including Henbury, before adopting the newly opened Thornbury Leisure Centre as its home in 1980. In 1970 the name of the club had become Thornbury Swimming Club. In 2009 the Club merged with the Stroud Swimming Club to form the Severnside Tritons.