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Hidden Spaces: Moseley Road Baths' Victorian splendour

The spectacular Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath is a well-preserved snapshot of Edwardian society and a fascinating insight into the social history of this city

The spectacular Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath is a well-preserved snapshot of Edwardian society and a fascinating insight into the social history of this city.

The Grade II* listed building is one of the oldest surviving baths of its kind in the UK and its Gala Pool was arguably the finest swimming pool hall in Britain in its heyday.

Despite these claims to fame, its condition is deteriorating with maintenance costs spiralling, and in 2007 Moseley Road Baths was added to the Victorian Society's list of the ten most endangered buildings in Britain.

More recently, it has been selected as one of only two buildings in the UK to be included in the World Monuments Fund 2016 Watch List, in response to Birmingham City Council's plan to close the building by the end of 2016.

Moseley Road Baths was designed by William Hale and Son and opened on October 30th 1907 . It was one of over 600 public baths that were constructed in the UK between 1880 and 1914; a time when many houses did not have running water.

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This wave of construction followed the passing of an Act in 1846 to improve public health in the country.

The well-known red brick and terracotta frontage of the building is lavishly decorated. The large City Coat of Arms is believed to be the largest in Birmingham, a reflection of the pride the Corporation had in this new facility.

There are three entrances, Men’s First Class, Men’s Second Class and Women’s, reflecting the class and gender divisions of the time.

Inside, the glazed brick walls, terrazzo floors and oak panelling have survived intact for over a century. In fact, many original features remain, such as marble water fountains, the pool temperature board and decorative glass, transporting you back to the Golden age of public swimming.

The building contains the only surviving complete set of private washing (or ‘slipper’) bath cubicles in Britain, 46 in total. Much like the entrance these appear in three sections; Men’s First Class, Men’s Second Class and Women’s.

For a small amount of money, members of the local community could enjoy a 30 minute hot bath in one of the private cubicles.

As well as the private baths there are two swimming pools. The Second Class pool is still in use, but the First Class ‘Gala’ Pool closed in August 2003 due to repair bills.

Despite its eerie, decaying appearance, the abandoned space still retains its grandeur with spectacular decorative cast iron arched roof supports, a spectator gallery and unique balconnettes, as well as the original poolside arched glazed brick dressing boxes.

Upstairs in the First Floor laundry room is a set of steam-heated drying racks, believed to be the oldest surviving racks of their kind in the country. Here, women could come and wash their clothes, towels and bed sheets, then their laundry could be dried in the steam from the boiler below.

Above the laundry room, hidden in the roof space, is an enormous 45,000 gallon capacity cast iron cold water storage tank. Before mains water was introduced, the tank would have been filled from a large well beneath the building. When the tank was full, the water from the first class pool was drained into the second class pool and the first class pool was refilled with fresh, clean water.

Moseley Road Baths is a stunning Birmingham asset of national importance. Although it's future is uncertain there is huge public support to keep the baths open. Friends of Moseley Road Baths are working hard to find a sustainable future for the building, even if that means finding alternative uses for some of the spaces to help cover ongoing costs.

By Steve Townsend with thanks to Steve Beauchampe

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