Splash Out at Manchester's Victoria Baths

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

The main gala pool, once the first-class men's pool

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

Terracotta brickwork facade of the Victoria Baths

In a city full of gorgeous buildings, the Victoria Baths in south Manchester takes some beating. It's a Grade II listed Edwardian classic, built to impress: when it opened in 1906 the Lord Mayor John Harrop declared it a 'water palace of which the people of Manchester will be proud'; the Manchester Guardian called it 'the most splendid bathing institution in the country.'

The Angel of Purity

The Angel of Purity

It cost twice as much as most public baths to build, and you can still see where most of the £59,000 was spent - on the elaborate terracotta brickwork of the facade; on the floor-to-ceiling glazed green-and-cream tiles with which most of the public spaces are clad; in the stunning art nouveau stained glass in the windows, the best example of which is the Angel of Purity in the Turkish sauna (yes, the baths had three separate pools and a Turkish sauna). 

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The stairs up to the main viewing area of the gala pool

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths had three entrances, depending on which pool you were using.

The baths were open to all Mancunians, but the pools were strictly segregated. 1930s Commonwealth and European champion John Besford, for instance, trained in the men's first-class gala pool (so-called because in winter time it would be boarded over and used for dances and talks) because he studied medicine at the University of Manchester and so could enjoy the cleanest water and superior facilities. 

Industrial workers and other non-professional types who couldn't afford the 6d to have a splashabout had to make do with the second-class pool, which didn't even have doors or curtains on the changing rooms. 

Women of all means were restricted to the women-only pool, which had its own entrance so that the lads couldn't gawp at the girls showing off even an inch of flesh. It also meant that they couldn't watch local swimmer Ethel 'Sunny' Lowry doing laps in preparation for her 1933 English Channel swim, the first English woman to complete the feat. (Her training regimen included eating 45 eggs a week!)

Typical Manc that she was, Lowry stubbornly opted against using the restrictive and heavy woollen one-piece suit deemed suitable for women in favour of a lighter two-piece that (gasp! horror!) exposed her knees: her brazen contempt for the mores of the day earned her the epithet 'harlot' when she returned triumphant from France.  

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry, swimming the Channel in 1933

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

Sunny Lowry at Victoria Baths

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

The Aerotone - the prototype of the whirlpool bath - was installed in 1952

Upgrades over the years included the addition in 1952 of Britain's first Aerotone, the precursor to the Jacuzzi; it was used up to the 1980s, including by members of both Manchester football teams. 

But not even whirlpool baths that look like instruments of torture can halt the progress of time, and in 1993 the baths closed as they had become too expensive to run. 

Essential maintenance was entrusted to the Friends and Trust of Victoria Baths, which was supported by Sunny Lowry and Olympian James Hickman, a five-time short course Butterfly champion who regularly swam galas at the baths in the 1980s.

The Trust's efforts to raise funds for its complete restoration were given a boost when the baths won the first series of the BBC's Restoration programme in 2003, which came with a prize of £3.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The money helped, as did the awareness the victory brought, but the baths still need around £30m for a full restoration and it won't come courtesy of the cash-strapped council, which has had to prioritise essential services over heritage projects. 

So if the baths are to be restored to anything like their stunning best it'll come down to the efforts of the trust. In 2011 they were granted a venue license for arts events, so they host gigs and cinema nights - it's hard to imagine a more atmospheric venue to watch a film or see a band play live. They also host weddings and other functions, and every Wednesday they run guided tours of the building, delivered by enthusiastic volunteers hell-bent on making sure you see just how amazing the place is.

The council mightn't get just how important this building is to Manchester's cultural landscape is, but even a quick peek inside should convince you of its significance. I strongly recommend a tour, and take comfort in knowing that not only are you visiting an architectural stunner, but that your being there is helping to save it.  

Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, M13 0FE.