A Brief History of Swimming Pools
With such a hot summer in 2022, I suspect many wished they had their own swimming pool in their back-yard to cool off, possibly, if you were lucky enough, recalling a pool with your villa in Spain, Portugal, or Italy – arguably the home of the pool, or bath.
While some of the earliest swimming pools or baths, were those of the gymnasia in ancient Greece, it was the Romans who made them great social centres. The Roman baths, at the aptly named City of Bath, in use between AD 84 to AD 577, and now restored, is the best-known example in Great Britain
Known for their medicinal role, it was not until over a thousand years later that there is a reference to swimming in Great Britain for pleasure, with a reference in Stow’s Survey of London (1598) of a pool in London used for swimming. It was enclosed in 1753 and named Peerless Pool and described in 1790 as the ‘finest and most spacious bathing-place now known, where people may enjoy the manly and useful exercise with safety’. At an annual subscription of a guinea (£1 1s) annual subscription, or 1s per swim, it was only for the rich. It survived until 1850.
Image of the Peerless Pool 1801, by Charles Tomkins (1757-1823) Arguably Great Britains first swimming pool
The late 17th and 18th centuries saw the introduction of bodies of water into the landscaped gardens of Country Houses, firstly canals, pools with fountains, as part of formal gardens, and later streams and rivers were diverted and dammed to form lakes, to imitate the countryside, all for aesthetic effect.
Bathing pavilions or plunge pools, filled with cold water, however, began to be introduced into the grounds, to facilitate a healthy way of life, principally from the mid-18th century onwards. The late 18th and early 19th century also saw the rise of sea-bathing, and the beginning of seaside resorts, the most famous, due to Royal patronage, being Brighton.
In 1844, following medical science making the connection between clean water, cleanliness, and transmittable diseases, such as Cholera, the Public Baths and Wash-houses Act, was passed, which empowered British local governments to fund the building of public baths and wash houses. From the 1850s onwards hundreds of Municipal swimming pools and bath houses were constructed across the country, mostly to serve working-class areas of cities, where houses lacked bathrooms. The buildings range from modest to the very grand – a statement, through architecture, of the role and importance of local government in providing these important amenities.
Baths Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, opened to the public in 1906 and cost £59,144
The high mortality rate through drowning of people of all ages, but particularly children encouraged the introduction of swimming lessons for all classes.
Swimming lesson for schoolboys at Kensington baths c1901
While the principal focus was on cleanliness, gradually their health, fitness and the recreational role became increasingly recognised, although primarily for the better off in society. For those with the means, following the First World War, private purpose-built pools began to appear in increasing numbers in the grounds of Country Houses, possibly emulating pools seen on visits to the south of France, or through the lenses of Hollywood movies.
Sir Philip Sassoon’s Pool designed by Philip Tilden was built in 1920 in a spectacular location
The rich and famous are known to have visited Sir Phillip Sassoon’s house in Kent. At first, only a few pools were built, but as with sea-bathing, Royal patronage by the Prince of Wales, who installed a pool at Fort Belvedere in 1929/30, made it fashionable.
Swimming Pool at Fort Belvedere installed by the Prince of Wales 1929/30
By the 1930s estate agents were touting the swimming pool, or even the potential for one, as a huge asset for a country residence. Several companies, specialising in constructing swimming pools are advertised in Country Life, the essential magazine for the aspirant middle class and upper class. One claimed ‘A garden swimming pool will afford continuous enjoyment to its owner and his friends during the summer months. Well designed, and correctly positioned, it will add considerably to the charm of any garden’. In February 1937 Country Life carried an article on Swimming Pools, opening with ‘swimming pools are becoming more and more part of every good garden’. In many cases, the walled garden, which had become increasingly redundant, was chosen as the location for the pool.
While private swimming pools were the privilege of the very wealthy in the 1920s and 30s, running parallel was the growth of popular bathing, with the introduction and growth of the Lido – an Italian name, adopted in Britain for large open-air swimming pools. The popularity of swimming encouraged many local councils of seaside resorts to invest in new pools as part of the general improvement of their resorts needed to cater for the dramatic increase in the numbers of holiday makers. Between the middle of the 1920s and the end of the 1930s, a total of 169 were built across the country. One of the largest was at Blackpool, but some inland towns and cities also provided large open-air pools.
Blackpool Lido is one of the earliest built in 1923 and one of the biggest
The outbreak of WWII saw the end of public and private pool construction. The installation of private swimming pools took off after WWII, due in part to new materials, making construction cheaper, with many forms of pools entering the market. From the 1950s onwards swimming pools were being installed in the grounds of many Country Houses, and increasingly in the grounds of the more modest house, although only for those with the means.
In relation to public swimming pools, between 1960 and 1970 nearly 200 new swimming pools were built by local governments, many were indoor pools allowing all-year use, a sensible solution in such a variable climate. The popularity of swimming as a sport, featured at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games, encouraged this growth.
While once the preserve of the very wealthy, swimming pools started to appear in the grounds of houses in the prosperous rings of suburbia, around major cities, the coast, and in the grounds of the modest heritage listed country houses and farmhouses. A property article in 2009 estimated that there were 210,000 private pools in the UK, (indoor and outdoor) with an annual increase of 2,500.
With increased health-consciousness Lap Pools, which as the name suggests, allow a person to swim laps for exercise, have increased in popularity, which coincides with the decline in public pools, with a 2021 report by Swim England estimating a 40% or 2,000 loss of public swimming pools by 2030. “A Decade of Decline: The Future of Swimming Pools in England, Swim England, 2021’.
The proposed closure of a well-loved swimming pool can result in public protest, and through this process, an increasing number of inter-war swimming pools have been recognised through their entry in the National Heritage List for England, including several Lido’s. Inter-war private pools have also been recognised in the history and development of swimming in Great Britain.