The growth of pools and leisure centres illustrate the histories of our towns
In normal times, it might be easy to take local leisure centres for granted. But we all know how much we miss them when they’re not available. So, let’s take a look in a bit more detail about the rise of leisure centres in the UK. It’s a fascinating story which covers social, family, sport, industrial, civic and political history.
The post-war period, especially the 1960s, saw a significant rise in the building of civic sport and leisure centres across the country with government support. Many of the early leisure centres had some amenities that remain popular today, such as swimming pools and ice rinks, but they were opened in an era long before the introduction of the high-tech gym equipment, buzzing spin rooms with exciting music and visuals, or blissful steam rooms and spas that we know now.
Nonetheless, the pioneering leisure centres of the 1960s were often big, bold and exciting venues which offered a range of modern health and recreational opportunities. In that era, Britain was still recovering from the destruction of the Second World War and attempting to move on from the austerity years of the 1950s. Many damaged and outdated town centres were rebuilt and redesigned in the 1960s. Brighter new modern homes were built and leisure centres often formed part of optimistic plans for healthier environments and better recreational opportunities for ordinary people.
Today, there are now over 1,000 leisure centres across the country.
However, it was the Victorian era that saw the development of early public baths, swimming pools, bowling greens, sports grounds and recreational parks as a means to offer some respite to workers in fast-growing industrial towns and cities. In some places, universities, military camps and schools also played a role in offering their gym and leisure facilities to the public. But this varied from place to place and access was not always equal for all.
The same era saw various public buildings including Ashton library, town hall and public baths built to serve the fast-growing town.
For example, Stamford Park was opened in 1873 after a 17-year campaign by local workers. It included a boating lake and a memorial to Joseph Rayner Stephens who promoted fair wages and better working conditions.
Local industrialist High Mason provided funding for Ashton Baths which were built between 1870 and 1871. The development was one of the first and largest municipal swimming baths. Beautifully designed in a Byzantine architectural style, the building had a 120ft tower which served as a chimney for the steam boilers and heaters.
The largest pool was used mainly by men and boys. There was a smaller pool for female bathers who could also use the bigger pool for a short period once a week. There were also private bathrooms and Turkish baths. Part of the building was also used as a police station and to house a fire engine.
During the winter, the main pool was covered with a wooden floor and used as a skating rink, concert hall and meeting room. The building was closed in the 1970s when the newer baths were opened. Recently it was restored and transformed into a creative and digital media workplace hub in a scheme with Tameside Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund.
Today, Active Tameside’s venues across the borough include Active Ashton on Water Street in Ashton town centre. Its great range of fitness facilities include a 55-piece fitness suite, exercise studio, two swimming pools and a thermal spa.
Hyde’s public baths were opened in 1889 and served the area well for many years until the 1980s.
Some readers may remember Jimmy Oakes, a former fireman and laundryman who worked there for many years. Local history memoirs in Hyde say Mr Oakes’ duties included coal-shovelling and upkeep of boilers, laundry washing and drying, and making soap used in the public baths. (We learn something new every day – did you know local baths used to make their own soap?)
The old Hyde baths were replaced by the modern Hyde Leisure Pool on Walker Lane almost 100 years later in 1988. The new venue boasted family attractions including slides and a wave machine. There’s also a fitness suite, spa and café. Enhancements have been made there in more recent years and, very recently, work started in early 2020 on the construction of a £4m extension.
The 2020 Hyde extension project will create a new 25 metre, six-lane swimming pool, changing rooms and spectator seating, with disabled access. It will link to the existing leisure facilities, which will remain open throughout the works, and is scheduled to be completed in early 2021.
The project is part of Tameside Council’s £20m investment into leisure resources to provide some of the best facilities in Greater Manchester that offer variety for everyone.
It follows the opening of the £15m Tameside Wellness Centre in Denton, which includes an eight-lane, 25 metre competition swimming pool with room for 150 spectators and a learner pool; a spa area including sauna, steam and relaxation facilities; a fitness suite; and a ten-pin bowling alley.
So, we hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the growth of local pools, recreation and leisure facilities. Every area has its own fascinating story to tell which brings together social, family, sport, industrial, civic and political history.
Remember, we are offering lots of health and wellbeing support at this time of restrictions. Stay active and well, physically and mentally, with our help and support.