In 1846 the Baths and Washhouses Act was Passed and amended 1878 to encourage addition of covered swimming pools. Bristol was very progressive and started planning for Jacobs Wells Baths in 1875.
The area chosen was famous for its Springs in Jacobs Wells Road, then known as Woodwell Lane. Locals also traditionally used the near side of Brandon Hill to dry clothes and there had also been cold baths in the area. In 1886 the Dean and Chapter of Bristol Cathedral offered the spring water for the use of the baths at a nominal rent, to be used together with the Water Company’s supply. Spring water was fed by gravity through the old Cathedral Pipe, the Abbey Conduit, at the junction of Constitution Hill. This conveyed springwater from the bottom of Brandon Hill. In 1905 the three historic Jacobs Wells Springs at the bottom of Constitution Hill and Gorse Lane were also diverted into the baths. Two of these had been used in Jewish ritual bathing and washing the dead who were buried in the local Jewish Cemetery on Brandon Hill. The Mikveh there dates from about 1100.
The baths were to serve the populous wards of St Augustine and Hotwells. They were close to Jacobs Wells Industrial Dwellings, built for the working poor. Local men and children used to swim in the docks and the City Council aimed to encourage the physical health of individuals through sport and leisure in a safer environment. Jacobs Wells Baths were the first major project of this sort in Bristol and were opened up at great cost to aid the local community in this area of relative poverty. Plans were submitted to the Baths Committee by the City Surveyor, Josiah Thomas, in April 1879. These were unanimously approved. Most original plans and drawings still exist in Bristol Archives. The estimated cost of £20,000 was considered too much by ratepayers and cosmetic cost reductions, such as the removal of stone dressings , leaving high quality deep red Cattybrook Bricks as the finish. The style remained Victorian Queen Anne Revival, with such features as decorative terracotta, high rooflines with decorative chimney stacks. Andrew Foyle has described the building, designed in 1877-9, as an important early instance of the style in Bristol. It is pointed out also that Victoria Baths in Manchester have a strong resemblance, despite being built 18 years later.
In 1889 after long delays, Josiah Thomas’ building officially opened. 6 First Class mens’ warm baths,18 second class, 6 womens’ warm baths all of one class, waiting rooms, attendants’ rooms, office and storeroom, towel washing room, boiler room and smithy, plus a pool 80′ long and 35′ wide. “Considered to be one of the finest in the kingdom. The bottom and sides are of glazed brick and the building is exceedingly lofty and well ventilated.” Western Daily Press Sep 1888.
First Class, Womens’s hot bath 4d & cold bath 2d Men’s hot bath 6d & cold bath 2d
Second Class, Men’s hot bath 2d Swimming 2d exclusive of use of towel.
A Superintendent, Mr Higham was employed and towels with Jacobs Wells Baths woven in white letters down the centre on a red stripe were purchased, together with soap, soda brushes and other sundries. Various teething problems were sorted out with things such as lack of draught in the boilers and so no hot water. A disgruntled client tried to see the source of the problem and complained “the boiler room was completely enveloped in smoke, whilst the large amount of sulphur was most unendurable. On opening the furnace doors, I found that the fires were almost devoid of flame, and on stirring the coals, dense volumes of flame and smoke came out of the fire grate doors with such force as to drive me back from the boilers”. (11 April 1892, Bristol Mercury). He demanded a refund. In 1891 the Boilers and water pipes within the boiler house were protected by Bells Asbestos. In 1900 the spring water was tested as plates in the boilers were corroded. Water tanks were occasionally cleaned to improve the condition of the spring water held in them.
At last in 1895 Female swimmers were allowed to use the baths one afternoon a week. By June 1896 the staff payroll was p.a 1 Engineer £90, 1 Stoker £ 55, 2 Bath Attendants £10, 2 Swimming Attendants £55 + £25, 2 Cash Takers £60, 1 Laundry Attendant £30, 1 Towel Washer £25 , but the towel washer and one Swimming Attendant only worked 26 weeks a year. Mr Higham had been dismissed and replaced with a superintendent in charge of all Bristol Baths, based in the commodious offices at Jacobs Wells Baths.
An overhead cast iron tank, supported on 4 large cast iron columns 21′ high still exists in the boiler room to store springwater. It is in three sections and is 48 feet by 30 feet, 6 feet deep. “one of the largest tanks ever constructed, holding 60,000 gallons” WDP April 1889.
Two ‘Cornish’ Galloway tubular boilers heated the water. These were later scrapped. However much of the original pipework remains visible in the boiler room and is in place under the floors throughout the building. Levers, Spindles, India Rubber Joints and Valves referred to by the Superintendent in a letter dated Sep 1890 are illustrated in meticulous and beautiful detail in fragile plans held in Bristol Archives
The chimney stack was 120 feet high, in a gap between two hillsides, Cliftonwood Slopes and Brandon Hill. Shortly after 2006 this was reduced in height to that illustrated , due to the worrying storms of the time, rubble put into the chimney and the top capped. (could be restored).
Many of the original drawings for the building and its engineering features exist in the Bristol Archives and many features are still intact.
The men’s entrance to swimming baths and warm baths is separate from the women’s entrance, although the ticket office dividing the two has been removed. There is another intact glazed ticket and general office still left , with a well preserved room behind , complete with a safe.
Numbers of features, such as slate floors,ventilated lanterns and mechanism, columns, trusses are still visible in the larger north (men’s) warm baths wing. The smaller south (women’s ) wing was marginally remodelled in 1984-6 to give disabled dance facilities. The boiler room exists in a raw state and although boilers were removed in 1979 for scrap, many features survive. The building closed 1977-8.On 4 March 1977 the building was listed grade 2 by English Heritage. In 1981 the Dance Studio leased the baths, got rid of the slipper baths which had been in regular use and sent the slate partitions between bathtubs to Bristol Zoo.
The building is an important and rare example of the ornate ‘Queen Anne Revival Style ‘ in Bristol (as described by Andrew Foyle), built in hard red Cattybrook brick. The great Victoria Baths in Manchester were built 18 years later. There is some very steep sloping land to the rear stretching to the Cherry Gardens off White Hart Steps and behind Bellevue Cottages, off Bellevue Crescent. The striking separate chimney is in this area. St Peter,s House and Jacobs Wells Road forms the other borders. This was originally land owned by the Bristol Merchant Venturers. It has always been known as Jacobs Wells Baths, despite the carved name Hotwells Baths over the door. Perhaps it was felt that the name Hotwells added a certain cachet to a local authority facility designed for the poor, but it never stuck.
Josiah Thomas, city surveyor,designed the first version of the baths in 1877-9, making it an early example. Colour wash drawings exist showing some of the very superior changing cubicles, which were pared down in the final design.
Baths before refurbishment
The baths were affected by social conditions of their times. Half day holidays were granted to warm baths employees in 1920. From 1921 Children were allowed to use the warm baths with special arrangements by the education committee for “verminous children”. In the 1930’s reduced price baths were offered to the unemployed. The 1921 coal strikes meant consumption was halved and stocks were were down to 4 weeks supply. Electric lighting arrived in the 1920’s along with a hot shower in 1927. Two new Lancashire type circulation boilers were fitted in 1929.
In 1927 Henleaze Swimming Club requested mixed bathing one evening a week as an experiment. Ladies could change in a section the men’s slipper baths, until an entrance was made in the wall from the ladies section. Women were still in a precarious position as staff, however and in 1930 a list of married female employees was drawn up, showing whether their husbands were employed or whether they had no other household income.
Swimming was popular. The Baths Manager reported “That swimming in Bristol is becoming a real healthy habit can be gathered by the splendid increases in attendances…each year since 1922”.By the 1930’s condensation was a problem as the baths stayed open in the winter and in 1933 a piece of wooden moulding from the now dangerous glass lantern fell into the pool. As a result, a reconstruction of the lantern was done by Bray and Slaughter. Front supports of original wooden doors to the cubicles were also badly affected by condensation and doors were were replaced with curtains. Lockers were provided now too and by 1937 a ticket machine appeared. Women bathers were more integrated and in 1934 Miss H B Davis, swimming instructress, jumped into the baths fully clothed and rescued a boy who was in difficulties in the deep end.
Wartime blacking out was done with curtain materials and paint. An air raid in December 1940 caused considerable damage to the glass roof and tiles so after that the baths operated as an open air bath, with the water heated to 70 degrees. Repairs were not done until March 1944, when it was accepted that this work would be paid direct to the contractor by the War Damage Commission. Miss Burgess the cashier left to do munitions work in 1942. Spring water was an asset in wartime. Bristol Waterworks Company made arrangements for emergency drinking water supplies with a temporary connection with the spring water supply to the baths. (By this date the £1 payable each year to the Dean and Chapter for use of the water had ceased to be paid). A University Air Squadron used the baths for training on Sundays and many troops washed at the baths. Our allies caused a small problem when an American army lorry damaged a pillar and gate.
In the 1950s the land adjoining the baths was considered for building new flats (now St Peter’s House) together with an extension to the baths, including Turkish Baths Suite. This wasn’t built,but a Mini Turkish Suite replaced the mens 1st class hot baths in 1959 .The boilers were still coal fired despite a report on the advantages of switching to oil. The stoker kept his job. Ambitious plans for the extension at a cost of £39,900 were also shelved.
The Superintendent for all the Bristol swimming baths was based in an office at Jacobs Wells Baths and in 1960 an ambitious young Assistant, Thomas Mogg, was employed. He took over as Superintendant two years later. As an engineer he supervised repairs to the spring water supply and settling tank chamber at the bottom of Constitution Hill in 1963 and 1973 to keep supplies clean and flowing. The 8 Staff were subject to a work study and shift patterns introduced. The stoker was joined by a visiting relief stoker, but in 1967 Thomas Mogg produced a report on comparative costs of hand stoking, mechanical stoking, oil and gas firing of the boilers. He recommended converting the boilers to oil firing; different times indeed.
In 1965, not long before final closure, the swimming pool was refurbished with laminated wall cladding fixed on tanalised timber battens over the still existing tiled walls and semicircular arches and new non slip floor tiles fixed. A lower ceiling was fixed under the still existing two tier main ventilated lantern running East to West.
In 1973 Thomas Mogg reviewed the Casson Report on Bristol City Docks which proposed indoor recreation facilities next to the Great Britain site. These would include a free form leisure bath, shelved beach, wave making machine, indoor solarium catering for 600 to 1,000 people under one roof, intended to generate sufficient income to offset running costs. (By this stage he was also supervising other indoor non swimming leisure facilities). The review stated within the next 5 years the Baths and Leisure committee would have to consider replacement of the Jacobs Wells roofs and the decision that the Education Authority would move a number of schools from the pool when the Bishopsworth Pool was open. “The proposal in the Casson Report could therefore be considered in the light of the replacement of the Jacobs Wells facilities”…”layout and restricted area make it extremely difficult to improve the situation up to modern standards any further”.
December 1976 brought a request from the new Open Spaces and Amenities Committee that the Baths Manager examine the four least used swimming baths to decide which one could be closed as a money saving exercise. Jacobs Wells was chosen as the oldest, in need of regular roof repairs and current brickwork repairs to the boiler surrounds, plus repair to a leak in the deep end of the main pool. A recent fire safety inspection had said the baths also would eventually need another fire exit. “Under the circumstances, bearing in mind the low attendances and the accessibility of the nearest premises, the least inconvenience would be caused to the public by the closure of this premises..from 1st April 1977”
The hot baths remained open for another six months as a service to transport drivers who had parking facilities at Canons Marsh and consideration was given for an alternative use if the building, including subdividing the boiler house into an amenities area at first floor level, with a licensed bar and ancillary rooms on the ground floor. It was suggested that a modular gas fired boiler could be installed in a storage area and a Learners Pool could be incorporated in the main pool area. The Bristol Sports Association was asked to submit suggestions for use of the building, which was by now a listed building. The 1929 boilers and 1932 filter plant were sold for £600 scrap value. The baths never reopened.
Bristol Community Dance Centre were granted a 30 year lease in 1984, rescuing and re-utilising a pre existing sprung hardwood floor from Bristol South Baths, complete with its support structure. The floor finishes flush with the tiled pool surround. So physical activity continued in the space until keys were handed back to Bristol City Council at the end of August 2016. Artspace Lifespace, the new temporary tenants, have continued to encourage regular dance use of this top class and very large sprung dance floor. Billy Elliot rehearsals took place recently
Jacobs Wells Community Hub opened up the building on 15th October 2016 for the first time for many years, to immediate neighbours and people of Bristol and elsewhere and ran guided tours, a memory swap, a small heritage display and chance to comment on what the local community, for whom it was built, want from the building. This was part of an initial feasibility study and the results were discussed at Bristol City Hall on 28th February 2017 at an event hosted by the owners of the building, Bristol City Council.
In early 2017 Bristol City Council invited expressions of interest from not for profit organisations and social enterprises for a Community Asset Transfer proposal for the building. Details are on the council website.
Currently 5th December 2017 is the projected date of a Cabinet meeting for sign off for the selection of the successful bid. The building should have a bright new future very soon.
We at the Jacobs Wells Community Hub have also using the available spaces with the support of Artspace Lifespace and welcomed all to the heritage open afternoon on 3rd Dec 2016. John Parke, local historian, gave a short talk on the local springwater supply. He is a considerable expert on the local area. I also gathered vivid childhood memories of the baths to share. The response to a post on Sat 11 Feb 2017 in the “Bristol- Then and Now ” Facebook Group site, currently 76 comments mostly from people who remember using the baths, shows the strength of interest in Jacobs Wells Baths.I would like to acknowledge Bristol Archives for original plans and drawings, Bristol Library for the Loxton print, Mike Britton, local historian, for his superb current photos and Marion Britton, former employee of Bristol baths and current local swimming baths historian, for historic photos of the interior of the baths.
The Baths will be open as part of Bristol Open Doors Day 2017 for the first time on 9th September 2017, venue 15 on the list. All are welcome to see the historic building.
Judy Goldsmith. August 17th 2017.
Local resident Malcolm Hussey-Yeo shares with Judy his experience of using the Baths as a young boy: