A great wave of construction of public baths took place all over Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century—a time when only few houses had a water supply. The passage in 1846 of an Act to encourage the Establishment of Public Baths and Wash-houses was an important legislative move to improve public health in the country, and it led to the construction of more than 600 public baths in the period between the 1880s and 1914. Birmingham’s Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath opened in 1907 and have served the surrounding community for more than a century. For a small amount of money, it was possible to enjoy a weekly bath in privacy—so long as one kept to a 30-minute limit. The original entrances to the baths reflect the class and gender divisions of the time: Men's First Class, Men’s Second Class, and Women’s Baths. In addition to private baths—which are no longer in use —the complex contained two swimming pools. The first class gala pool, with filigree cast iron arches spanning over a space surrounded by spectator galleries on three sides, has been closed since 2003 for safety reasons. A smaller, second class pool remains popular with swimmers of all ages. Like the historic signs, the interiors of the building transport one to a different era: walls of glazed bricks in ivory, turquoise, green, and cream colors, terrazzo floors, leaded windows with panels of tinted glass, and wood joinery and fittings. In addition to these historic interiors, the baths preserve rare, century-old fixtures, like steam-heated drying racks, which are believed to be the last surviving pieces of such equipment in the United Kingdom.
Community advocates in support of a unique local resource
This Edwardian time capsule was included on the 2016 World Monuments Watch to call attention to Birmingham City Council's plans to close the baths in 2017, due to cutbacks in government spending. Local advocates, led by the Friends of Moseley Road Baths, have mobilized since 2006 to keep the baths open and make the case for their social, historical, and architectural significance. A Watch Day in October 2016 attracted over 300 visitors of all ages who enjoyed a day filled with activities hosted by the Friends of Moseley Road, celebrating 109 years of Moseley Road Baths. Activities included stalls from local history and community groups, tours of the building taking visitors to parts of the building not normally open to the public, a poster competition and Edwardian games for children, musical performances, and an exhibition water polo match. Support from American Express and WMF will help with advocacy efforts to help ensure that the complex remains open for future generations to enjoy.
On June 27, 2017, the cabinet of Birmingham City Council agreed to keep Moseley Road Baths open for swimming until March 2018, providing an extra nine months for supporters to come up with a plan to rescue the threatened facility. In March 2018, an agreement was reached on a plan of action to keep the historic baths open and thriving. A charitable group formed by local groups will now operate the complex. In addition, over £1 million from a coalition of funders, including WMF, will be channeled into emergency repairs.
The baths are the oldest of only three bathing complexes in Britain listed in the Grade II* category by Historic England that are still in operation. While the number of swimmers has declined from a time when demand for public baths was highest, this creates the opportunity to provide more healthy living services in unused spaces in the building. Retrofitting the building with energy-efficient heating and power systems is a bigger challenge. A restored Moseley Road Baths would continue to serve a diverse urban community in the twenty-first century and would join other destinations in Birmingham that proudly recount the social history of the city.