NOSTALGIA: Happy times spent in the baths

Dewsbury swimmer Jimmy Hey jumps into the pool with his daughter, Jeanette.
Dewsbury swimmer Jimmy Hey jumps into the pool with his daughter, Jeanette.

THIS week is what in the old days we called Dewsbury Feast Week – the time when all the local mills closed down, and so did many shops.

It always started on the Saturday nearest July 25, the day when the Feast came to Dewsbury and everyone in town turned out to see it.

Although all the schools were on holiday, very few of us actually went away on holiday because our parents couldn’t afford it. But we still got to see the seaside thanks to the various working men’s clubs who provided free day trips for thousands of local children.

There was always plenty going off in Crow Nest Park, again free of charge, and the local swimming baths were always crowded, the cost being only a few coppers.

It’s true what they say about never valuing what you have until you’ve lost it, and the same can be said about many things we’ve lost in Dewsbury.

The old public swimming baths in Wellington Road, for instance, which closed down over 30 years ago, and moved to the town centre. Many of us still miss the old baths, even though it was old-fashioned and the changing cubicles lacked privacy.

It was the simple things in life which pleased us most, like a cup of hot Bovril, and if we were flush, a packet of Smiths crisps with a little blue packet of salt inside.

The changing cubicles were situated at the edge of the pool but they lacked privacy, even though there was a curtain on poles. It had a wide gap at the bottom, and if anyone dive-bombed into the pool, water would gush over the side and flood into the cubicle, drenching our clothes on the narrow wooden bench inside.

Many was the time a pair of shoes could be seen sailing out of a cubicle on the crest of a retreating wave of pool water, after someone had dive-bombed in. We nearly all went home in wet clothes, but who cared? We were used to roughing it weren’t we?

Health and safety rules didn’t exist, as can be seen from the picture on this page showing Jimmy Hey, a well-known local swimmer, jumping off the diving boards with his young daughter Janette in tow.

There were many daredevil boys who would go one stage further and dive from the balcony rails higher up. Part of the afternoon’s sport involved boys ducking girls under the water, but none of us went to report them to Mr Grimes, the bath’s superintendent.

Instead we learned to grin and bear it, even though it was a terrifying experience, but I suppose it was all part of what they call character building.

The best part of our old swimming baths was the fact that it had two pools, a first-class one and a second-class one, the latter being used for ‘men only’ on some days, and ‘women only’ on other days.

I loved the girls’ pool because it meant we could swim in peace without the boys sneaking up behind us and pushing us under.

We went to the baths to enjoy ourselves, not to keep fit, because keeping fit was something we did naturally by walking everywhere and playing out all day. No computer games to keep us indoors in those days.

The opening of Dewsbury’s first public baths and library, both part of the same building in Wellington Road, was such an important occasion, the town council held a banquet to celebrate it.

They also held a procession, led by the old Dewsbury Band, starting from the town hall and making its way to the baths and library.

The Mayor, Alderman G A Fox, said at the time that the new library was an institution for improving minds while the baths was an institution for strengthening bodies.

He said they were living in an age of ‘scramble and anxiety’ where many desired to grow rich quickly, but these two institutions would dispel sadness and care, and make life more pleasant.

He stressed that the idea of establishing public baths was not for the expert swimmer but for the benefit of the whole ratepayers of the borough.

The corporation did not expect to receive any financial benefit from the new baths or expect them to be a paying concern. Their one and only desire was the promotion of the health and welfare of those living in the borough of Dewsbury. I hope politicians, locally and nationally, take note of that! The baths and library were opened in the same year as Dewsbury Museum, a public resource which is currently threatened with closure because of government cuts.

It is true that the old baths were replaced by Dewsbury Sports Centre, and the library, although now much diminished, also replaced and moved to the town centre.

These public facilities are now housed in modern safe buildings, but to my way of thinking, quite sterile, compared to the stunning Victorian buildings in Wellington Road we loved so much.

But at least we still have the facilities to go swimming, and they are excellent I must admit, and we do have a library, although there seem to be more computers there than books, but the staff are always available and very helpful, as are those at the sports centre.

But our beautiful museum in Crow Nest Park, and the building in which it is housed, may soon be lost to us unless the people of Dewsbury do something to save it. It is true what they say about not valuing what you have until you’ve lost it, so do please try to do what you can to protest about its proposed closure, by writing letters and ringing local councillors with your concerns. And, why not pop up this weekend to visit the park and museum? Remember, it is Dewsbury Feast Week after all, and this is the place where your grandparents and great-grandparents would have been going over a hundred years ago this week. I doubt very much that they would have sat back and done nothing to save this valuable and beautiful piece of Dewsbury’s history. Let us hope their relatives do.