Stockton’s Public Baths and Wash-house

Stockton’s Public Baths and Wash-house

While the idea of building a public baths and wash-house had been under discussion for many years before this, it wasn’t until 1858 that Stockton Corporation set about making it a reality.

Having purchased a plot of land in Portrack  Road, work was started on the new Public Baths and Wash-houses.  The construction work cost £3000 and on 9 June 1859 the building was opened to the public by the then Mayor J H Wren Esq.  

It is fair to say that the design of the building didn’t meet with everyone’s approval.  In his ‘Annals of Stockton’, Heavisides records that ‘In consequence of too much stone work in front, considering the size of the building, it does not, in my humble opinion, reflect much credit on the taste of the architect’.

The building itself contained a ‘large, commodious and well ventilated wash-house‘ with places for twenty one washers each provided with a wash tub, a poss tub and a water tap.  The charge for the use of the wash-house was one penny an hour for the first two hours and then three halfpence for each subsequent hour.  It proved to be extremely popular and it wasn’t unusual to see all 21 places in use by washer-women up their elbows in suds.

Next to the wash spaces were ‘two spacious rooms possessing every convenience for drying and mangling, and next to them an excellent drying ground‘.

On the right hand side of the entrance to the building were  ‘nine warm bath rooms, neatly and comfortably fitted up‘. These were separated into first class and second class rooms.  The charge for a first class  room was sixpence (6d.) and for a second class room it was threepence (3d.).

Running alongside these bath rooms was the main swimming bath. It was 48 feet long and 25 feet wide and had 21 changing cubicles for the convenience of the bathers.  Bathing on Mondays and Tuesdays would cost three pence per bather, this was reduced to 1 penny per bather for the rest of the week – presumably because the water, after the numerous immersions of grubby bodies during the first two days of the week, was by then a much less attractive prospect.

To give some idea of the demand for the facilities, it was recorded that in 1860, the first full year of opening, there were 9,390 bathers and 5,120 washers – giving receipts of £103.2s.0d and £75.17s.0d respectively.  By 1865 these numbers had risen to 11,882 bathers and 9,039 washers with receipts of £135.10s.5d and £189.6s.11d.

Within forty years it was decided that better facilities were needed and, in 1892,  a new building was opened on the same site in the newly renamed Bath Place.

Up until the 1940s and ’50s a lot of households in Stockton still did not have a bathroom, with many making do with a tin bath in front of the fire, so a weekly visit to the public baths wasn’t unusual for a lot of townsfolk. The building by then had a number of  ‘slipper baths’ for the purposes of personal bathing,  (a slipper bath is a bath tub shaped like a slipper, with a high rising back, designed to keep the water hot for longer) – which were also frequented by the homeless from time to time.

As the development of domestic appliances made home laundry less onerous the demand for the wash-house declined, although the public laundry continued to be used for many years.  The swimming pool, however,  maintained its popularity with schools, swimming clubs and individuals making constant use of its facilities.  Many of Stockton’s older residents will remember learning to swim in its cold, heavily chlorinated waters  – not always with affection I suspect.

By 1969 the old swimming pool was showing signs of wear and it passed into private ownership while a new pool was built adjacent to it.  The old baths building was eventually demolished in May 1999 with the new baths building in its turn making way for the ‘state of the art’ Splash building which opened in 2001.