History of the Bath House, Gwydir Street

Taken from a webpage giving History of the Bath House which has since disappeared.

In February 1927, the public baths opened. The area was one of the poorer parts of the city, so the baths were an important amenity. In the late 30s, a bath cost 4d.

In 1969, Sauna added.

In 1975, the Bath House was losing £7,000 a year. A bath cost 10p to the public, but the real cost was £1.09. A sauna cost 70p. Villages like Bourn lacked main drainage even in the early 70s, so the baths were still providing essential amenities for some. One customer said "I've never had such fine baths - masses of piping hot water, and at the first sign of it cooling, you'ld call the attendant and he would fit his lever to the tap on the outside of your cubicle, and yet more hot water would come. I think there were constraints about how much water, or how long you could stay in the bath. I don't remember anyone ever singing in the baths, but the place had an echo-y acoustic that picked up every movement you made in the water and seemingly amplified its sound; calling the attendant, and the attendant's cheery responses, resonated like a trumpet blast."

The Bath House
Bath House sign

The St. Matthews General Improvement Area was declared in 1977. The St. Matthews Neighbourhood Association (SMNA) was formed. A regular newsletter went out (2000 copies distributed) financed by a monthly waste paper collection, the paper being stored in a hut behind the Bath House which became a home for a vagrant and a smoking den for small boys until its removal. When the City Council revealed plans to demolish The Bath House to make a car park the SMNA and Cambridge Friends of the Earth formed the Bath House Trust. A founding trustee was Robert Rhodes Jones, MP. In 1978 the Bath House Trust acquired the lease of the Bath House, and on 15th Sept opened the building to the public. Some groups were prepared to move in even though conditions were rough - initially there was no heating or running water, but loads of pick-axes. The groups worked voluntarily to improve the situation while negociations began in order to get a grant. They were given a 6 month rent-free period (which ended in March 1979) in order to make it habitable. It was a very cold winter. £500 was received from the city lottery fund towards a Calor gas heater (there was no mains gas!). Donations of furniture and equipment were gratefully received. The Sauna room became the Main Meeting Room. The area where the baths were was once going to be an Artist's studio but later became the Tenant Support Service's suite. Friends of the Earth occupied the Laundry for many years, basing their (government-sponsored) Home Insulation Project there. The plan to have a Workshop and Tool Exchange centre never came to fruition, but newsletters, paper collections, noticeboards and adversity generated a community spirit.

In 1982: Cambridge Friends of the Earth, Community Relations Council, Cambridge Youth Club, Gingerbread and the Community Press were the initial office users. The Cambridge Claimants Union and Neighbourhood Law Centre had regular meetings too. The Bath House acquired a Bedford van available for local hire. Gingerbread and the Community Press soon moved to other premises and were replaced by Cambridge Darkroom and the Marine Action Centre. A great variety of groups have come and gone over the years, and an even greater variety have held regular meetings in the hall. A toddlers group has nearly always been present. Externally the building has changed little. Internal space has been re-organised more than once in the last 20 years - the original boiler room became a darkroom initially, then the kitchen and darkroom swapped places, then the darkroom became a small meeting room.

From Mike Petty's column "Memories" (Feb 19, 2003) in the Cambridge Evening News.

But perhaps the most important building in the street was the Bath House with its nine baths for men, nine for women. It had been established in 1927 at a time when few houses had bathrooms of their own. By 1963 it was open from Tuesday to Saturday each week, charging a shilling a person, for which you got a hot bath, towel and piece of soap - with a supplement for scented bath cubes - and was used by 300 men and 100 women each week. But as housing improved so fewer people had need of its facilities; by 1975 it was losing £7,000 a year and its boilers - second-hand when installed - were on their last legs. The baths closed in 1977. (The building is still used by various community groups).

Follow-up article from Mike Petty - published on 26 February 2003

Taking the plunge - Local historian Mike Petty hears from residents who remember the days when the Public Baths opened in Gwydir Street Bath House

Ben Benstead from Victoria Road thinks he was the first paying customer at the Public Baths. "I was born in Gwydir Street in 1910. In 1927 I was a young apprentice working for The Electrical Wiring & Repair Company of Corn Exchange Street, Cambridge. Those of us living in the immediate vicinity had watched the building work with great interest - this was the first public bathhouse that we knew of in Cambridge and news of its opening was eventually published in the Cambridge Daily News (the newspaper which my parents had read since before I was born).

"The opening day arrived and after work at 5.30pm another apprentice, Doug Smith, and I cycled to the baths. Unbeknown to us, there had been a problem with the heating boiler during the day and the baths were not yet in operation although several people were still sitting patiently in the waiting room. Doug and I joined them and in the next half-hour or so other people arrived: some ran out of patience and left until finally only about five of us remained.

"An attendant came in and told us that although there was no guarantee that the water would be hot, we could - if we wanted - have a lukewarm bath. Doug and I were the only two to agree to this offer. We paid 4d and received a tablet of soap and a small towel. A second towel was available for a further charge of 1d. (Just as well as the towel was less than 3ft long and 18 inches wide!).

"I was directed into a small cubicle with a stone/concrete floor. There was a slatted wooden bench and a couple of hooks on which to hang my clothes. The bath was already filled with water. (There were no taps, just a fill-pipe over the end of the bath). Lukewarm? - Forget it! My first real bath was in stone-cold water! Even so, I guess that Doug Smith and I were the first two paying customers in the Gwydir Street Baths.

"I used the baths over the next six years until I married and moved away. You waited in the waiting room until you were called to pay your money and receive soap and towel before going to the cubicle where your filled bath awaited. If you wanted more water you called out to the attendant, ‘more hot in number six’ and received the reply, ‘water coming’ to give you a chance to move your feet away from the fill-pipe.

"Sometimes the waiting room got very crowded. There was a workhouse nearby at 81a Mill Road (which later became the Cambridge Maternity Hospital) and many of the local tramps used the waiting room in the baths until the workhouse opened its doors in the early evening. The attendant found great difficulty in discouraging the tramps and the genuine customers had to contend with the ‘temporary visitors’ smoking all sorts of cigarette dog-ends they had accumulated. It got very smoky in that waiting room!"

Tony Challis from Great Shelford was another who regularly patronised the baths: "As a young lad in the late 40s, I was a keen racing cyclist and would generally go training straight from work. Most of our work was pretty dirty and many times I would visit the Baths in Gwydir Street.

"After paying the 1/- we would be shown into a bath cubicle. The attendant would turn on the hot taps from outside and, when the allowed amount had been delivered, would call out ‘cold water going in’. This phase of the operation was tricky. The temperature of the water had to be gauged just right. Too much cold and it was a tepid bath; not enough cold and you either had to wait or get scalded! After the attendant had been told to turn off the cold water there was nothing more to be said. No more water, hot or cold, was allowed. The soap provided, about two inches square and very thin, gave little lather and had no smell. The towel was, from memory, a starched piece of material which had poor drying properties. I must say that I don’t remember being offered scented bath cubes or that there was a women’s end (wish I had known). By today’s standard it was all rather primitive, but it did the job and seemed to be well used."

Tony was apprenticed to George Lister and Sons of Abbey Road. He recalls: "Besides working in the blacksmith and machine shops we would work at many firms around the city. My mentor was Bill Rouse who seemed to be mostly employed in the breweries, Tolly on Newmarket road, Panton Street, and, of course Dales. I recall one of our jobs was to refurbish the name ‘Dales Brewery’ on the tower at the top of the building, steel letters some 12-inches high which were bolted on all four sides around the gold cup.

"The job must have been carried out in the winter because I remember it being cold and very foggy and we couldn’t see the ground at all. The letters there now are probably the same ones. Not only did we climb to the top of ‘Dales’ we also descended to the very bottom, as one of our visits was to fit new leather washers to the pumps at the foot of the well that was just inside the entrance."

Before the Bath House was built, this plot of land was occupied by a residence known as Gwydir House (images from the Cambridgeshire Collection):

Gwydir House

Notice of auction for the house in 1863
Gwydir House

Gwydir House in 1908

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