This week, librarian Helen Skilbeck takes a look back at the history of the public baths on Cookridge Street…
Directly opposite Leeds City Museum, on the site of Millennium Square, were Cookridge Street Public Baths – also known as the Oriental and General Baths. Opened in 1866, these baths survived for nearly a century until closing in 1965. The building was demolished a few years later.
The baths were designed by Cuthbert Brodrick along with the adjacent buildings – comprising a whole row of Brodrick buildings. Although best known for designing larger buildings such as Leeds Town Hall, the Corn Exchange and the Mechanics Institute (now Leeds City Museum), Brodrick designed these smaller buildings to be used as shops and chambers to sit alongside the baths.
Leeds Libraries have a copy of his original design.
Bands of coloured brickwork and Indian-style ornamentation gave the building a truly oriental feel. However the completed building did not include the minaret tower which was substituted for a large dome. The building was also smaller, there being only five windows on each side of the central portion, rather than the six in the proposed design. An undated print in Leeds Libraries collection shows how the building was altered from Brodrick’s original design.
Print of The Oriental and General Bath Company of Leeds and their new baths on Cookridge Street
The swimming pool opened on 28 July 1866 and the Turkish Baths opened later that year, although construction of the building was not finished until 1867. The total cost of the baths was £13,000.
The baths proved to be a success. Professor Johnson, the manager of the baths, taught swimming lessons and the baths were used for swimming galas and competitions as well as hosting several swimming teams. Various type of baths were offered to men, including Turkish baths, warm baths, vapour baths and needle baths while women were offered Turkish and warm baths with a plunge bath kept at a temperature of 74º. The above print highlights the fact that ‘Drawers Must Be Worn‘!
The Leeds Mercury reported on the Annual General Meeting of the Oriental and General Bath Company of Leeds Limited in October 1867. The report found that £1,358 had been received for tickets to the swimming baths alone, representing 92,185 bathers. The ordinary warm baths had been very successful with 3,031 baths being taken by gentlemen but only 353 by ladies. 111 persons had used the vapour bath and 1,636 persons had taken a Turkish bath. The report recommended that more should be done to encourage ladies to use the baths as they had ‘not fully appreciated the pretty little plunge pool’ and that the Turkish bath had ‘not as yet received the support it deserves’ (Leeds Mercury, 23 October 1867).
In 1882 the building was extended and considerably altered. The domes were removed and replaced by pyramid shaped towers and roof gables. The Leeds Times reported on the new facilities:
Polished marble walls, marble floors, marbles tables, marble basins, scrupulous cleanliness even to the imagination everywhere, and perfection of all modern appliances, will convince the visitor that all that water can do for man in the way of washing and refreshing him can be done here with the most pleasant accessories. He can be ducked, dipped, squirted, bathed, boiled, refrigerated, plunged, floated, drenched, laved, till all wickedness capable of solution in water is worked and worried out of him, and he comes forth as fresh as a rose, and as supple as an osier [willow] (Leeds Times, 6 May 1882)
However the baths were not without faults and in 1887 there were several letters of complaint in local newspapers regarding the coldness of the baths and the clarity – or lack of – of the water. Manager Charles Bond sought to address these complaints in the Leeds Mercury, claiming the extreme cold was due to refurbishments affecting the boilers and had this to say about the water colour:
Your correspondent also finds fault with the colour of the water. I am quite with him on this point, and I have made repeated complaints to the waterworks department respecting it. Last season it was so thick that at a depth of 3ft. it was hardly possible to see the bottom of the bath, and numbers refused to go into the bath on this account, although they were drinking the same kind of water at home in blissful ignorance (Leeds Mercury, 19 May 1887).
As well as the swimming pool and Turkish baths, there was the option to have an ‘Alpine Sun Bath’. This involved wearing protective goggles to protect your eyes from the reflective rays of two enormous sun lamps. Therapeutic sunbathing or ‘Sun cure’ was a widely prescribed medical treatment for such diverse conditions as ricketts, tuberculosis, cholera, viral pneumonia, bronchial asthma, gout, jaundice and severe wounds. The treatment of light therapy became less prescribed after the first antibiotics were developed in 1938.
After nearly 100 years of use, the baths closed on 4 February 1965 and were demolished a few years later – the only Brodrick-designed building in Leeds to be demolished. Millennium Square now occupies the space where the baths were and during the construction of the square some original white tiles belonging to the baths were found.
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