Bramley Baths: How the last remaining Edwardian bath house remains a architectural gem
Standing tall in the heart of west Leeds, Bramley Baths is an architectural gem in the city's crown.
The Grade II listed building is the only remaining Edwardian bath house in Leeds, and one of few remaining in the country.
Built in 1904 in response to the cholera outbreak, it was constructed on top of The Globe Foundry, with its landmark, large Kirkstall brick chimney breast being seen for miles across the city.
It was first used as a washing facility, allowing people to wash, swim and use the Russian Steam Baths - a fashionable and “healthy” pastime for the Edwardians.
The water was only changed every two weeks until the 1930s when a proper filtering system was introduced.
At the time it cost around six pence to use the first class baths, which is around £2 today.
However, the building wasn’t always used as just a place to swim, as Jordan Keighley, curator of the bath’s new social history exhibition, explains.
Mr Keighley said: “The 1920s was a period of economic hardship, and during the winter times, bath houses couldn't afford to heat their pools so it would be covered and turned into recreational space for social events or a dance floor.
“This became a tradition way into the 1960s and I’ve been reliably informed that it was a great place to pull,” he laughs.
“One woman, Eileen [Chase], told me it was the go-to place for a jive or a bob, but that you had to swap your petticoat for a pencil skirt if you fancied one of the teddy boys.
“Jean [Major] on the other hand, laughed as she recalled her dad waiting outside at 11 o’clock on the dot. She went on to meet her husband at Armley Baths dancing.”
Much has changed since the days of the Bramley Baths ballroom, but its focus on being a hub for the community remains.
It has taught generations of children the life-saving skill of swimming, and more recently has provided other activities such as gym classes and a community garden, helping people to learn practical skills that will help them in the workforce.
The baths became a community run enterprise back in 2013, when local residents campaigned to take over the management from Leeds City Council after it announced plans to slash £90m from its sports budget.
Now it is open to the public seven days a week for swimming, gym facilities, and dance and fitness sessions.
The sauna room is now the gym and the former residential part of the baths converted into a reception, but other architectural features remain the same.
Mr Keighley said: “All the original tiling, the stained glass, the ticket booth and original plaque are exactly the same as when it was first built by J Lane Fox.
“Things have been fixed but our motto is restore and maintain, rather than replace.”
As the baths moves to reopen to the community after the coronavirus pandemic, it has made sure that its history is at the heart of the building.
Mr Keighley, who has spent more than a year curating the collection of people’s stories, has restored photographs from the archive and hung them on the walls of the baths.
He has also created boards that he has put up around the pool, filled with photographs and memories of times shared swimming and dancing.
David Wilford, CEO of Bramley Baths, said: “We have preserved the baths, but we want to preserve the people’s history too.
“We have become a hub of heritage in Bramley so we will be collecting more memories, not just of the baths, but of the area as a whole to display.
“The important thing with the baths is that it isn't just an old museum, it is a working bath that teaches people how to swim - it saves lives.
“People come from all over the world and say that they learned to swim here. It is a living museum.
“We are a big part of Bramley history and we have a responsibility to act to collect, preserve and digitise memories and make them more accessible to everyone.”
Mr Keighley, who worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the baths while he studied for his degrees, said: “The history of the building kept me here.
“I could not quite leave it behind when it had such untapped potential.
“We have put all the photos that were in the archive out on display.
“These are items that have never been seen before.
“Some of the people in the photos are now in their 80s and still visit the baths on a regular basis, so it will be amazing for them to see them.
“So many people have shared their stories with us; some learned to swim here, others met their husbands and one woman had fond memories of coming each week with her family, making sure they used the soap sparingly that week so they had enough for their baths.
He added: “It is important that we talk about the individuals as well as the building, give them their voice and create a lasting memory.
“Moving forward, we are wanting to ask the community to come and share their stories with us so we can get them out there in the world and have more in our collection.
“We hope to have more stories than we know what to do with.”
Bramley Baths is reopening for lane swims and family pods on April 12.