Manchester Histories Festival

Dancing for a Cleaner Manchester: the Opening of the First Public Baths and Wash­house

Friday 22 April 2016

Manchester’s first public baths and wash­houses opened on Miller Street in New Cross on the 9th of September 1846. The recently founded “Public Baths and Wash­Houses in Manchester Committee” gained significant public support, raised money, and political backing.

Miller Street Baths Location Early Industrial Revolution Manchester had only just gained parliamentary representation, had recovered from a Cholera epidemic, and was a city changing faster than anyone could keep up with. The city was struggling to build necessary infrastructure improvements, from paving to drainage, and tasked with new challenges administering and policing a rapidly changing population. As a result, many of the local infrastructure improvements were carried out by private investors rather than the municipal government.

The starting point of Manchester’s baths and wash­houses movement can be traced back to a meeting of the Public Walks, Parks, and Playgrounds Committee on 19th of February 1845. There, a few men who had an interest in improving the living conditions of the poor talked about raising funds for building a baths and wash­house in Manchester.

The day’s Manchester Guardian presents this editorial notice:

We believe that an appropriation of some portion of the fund [for walks, parks, and playgrounds] to the establishment of baths &c. would meet with the cordial approval of the subscribers; but, as a great deal has to be effected with the money, it would be better, we think, to originate some special movement for the creation of a separate fund. A fancy dress ball, on a grand scale, has been suggested as the means of raising a sum sufficient for the purpose (Manchester Guardian,19/02/1845, p4).

A Fancy Dress Ball Committee was established which set out to attract high profile patrons including Prince Albert, Robert Peel, and Pudsey Dawson, and to organise the ball itself. The Free Trade Hall was booked for 29th of April 1845, and local artisans and musicians engaged to make it a beautiful occasion. Many of the artisans and traders involved gave their time and materials for free and so it came as a great disappointment when less than half the expected number of people attended: 1,200 instead of 3,000.

Nevertheless, the committee managed to raise £650 by 22nd of May 1845, both through ball tickets and through subscriptions.

This was a considerable sum, but not enough to build a baths and wash­house from scratch. For reference, later (albeit larger) buildings needed £3,000 upwards to be established. Because they lacked funds, the committee set about finding suitable premises that could be converted, and located a 12 roomed building on Miller Street in September 1845 where works began immediately.

The baths were opened to the public on 9th of September 1846. There were 18 warm baths in total. These would later be called “slipper baths”, and are what most of us have in our houses today. Six of these were upstairs and allocated for the use of women, while twelve were downstairs and allocated to be used by men. Apart from one for men with superior fittings for which 6dwere charged, all baths cost 2dand included the use of a towel.

What actually happened when you took a bath in Miller Street is still a bit of a mystery. There is debate about the actual logistics of bathing in these baths: one source claims that here was unlimited hot and cold water available; however, we also know that the water supply to the building was rather poor and that the cisterns weren’t big enough to meet the demand. Later baths limited the time you were allowed to bathe as well as the water you would be able to do it in.

Leaf Street Warm BathWhat we do know is that the baths and wash­house were extremely popular, and constant improvements had to be made to keep up with demand. This first public baths and wash­house started a process in which Manchester residents would take responsibility for a very important aspect of public health until the Corporation was ready to take this on in the 1870s. Miller Street Baths was in operation until at least 1862, when it was acquired by the Manchester and Salford Baths and Laundries Company. It is unclear how long it was kept open for after that point but we know that it was definitively closed by 1876.

Nb. There are no known photographs of the baths on Miller street so the image opposite is of the interior of the nearby Leaf Street Baths and is shown here to illustrate what Miller Street Baths might of been like.  If you know of any images we'd love to hear from you.

Image courtesy: Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council images.manchester.gov.uk.

Sylvia Kölling is an independent researcher with an interest in Manchester's sanitary reforms in the 19th century. She recently presented some of her research at the Friends of Manchester Centre for Regional History and will give further talks throughout the year. Please see @sylviakoelling for more details.

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