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Govanhill Baths

In Use 1917 – present
99 Calder St, Glasgow G42 7RA

It has been a long campaign, but Govanhill Baths are set to reopen soon thanks to the hard work of local people.

In 1914 the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Sir Daniel Macaulay Stevenson, laid the foundation stone of Govanhill Baths, complete with a time capsule, the contents and location of which remain a mystery. In 1917 the new Provost, Thomas Dunlop Bart, formally opened the Edwardian baroque-style Baths. The biggest in Glasgow at the time, the Baths were a predominantly working-class community hub that provided facilities for cleaning clothes, bathing, and exercise (28). The Baths comprised a men’s pool, a women’s pool, a shallow learners pool, and showers (32). There were footbaths, a Turkish bath, a Russian bath, a cold plunge bath, a sauna and a cooling room, as well as forty ‘slipper baths’ for men, and ten for women, where locals without a bath of their own could have a warm soak (36). Hot water and soap were a real treat back then. The building also had a ‘Steamie’ for washing clothes, with sixty-eight wash stalls and drying spaces, and ten large mangles (32). In 1971 the Steamie was converted into a laundrette.

The by-laws scattered around the pool tell us what it might have been like in those days. One, held in the archive, bans anti-social behaviour: ‘No person shall spit, smoke tobacco, or drink spurious or malt liquors in or on any part of the premises’. This ban suggests as historian Rachel Purse points out, that the Baths must have been a bit rowdy back then, aided by the hoops and trapezes that used to hang over the pool (35). Some swimmers even brought their dinner to the baths (39, 75), along with the odd beer (75), and you could find all sorts on the pool floor, even a diamond ring and a glass eye (117)!

The Glasgow Herald published complaints that the baths were built in ‘impossibly slummy districts’ with ‘no discrimination exercised in the admittance of undesirable bathers’ who used the pools ‘for cleaning purposes’ (36-7). These complaints missed the point. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, working-class people in Glasgow did not have baths, their own toilets, or even hot water in their tenement flats (46), and were often forced to clean their clothes and bathe naked in the city’s rivers and ponds (43). This nudity distressed Glasgow’s political classes (49), but the health consequences were the real problem. At the time, the Clyde was ‘a general sewer for the factories of the rapidly expanding city’ (44), and carried diseases (46). Worse, the ‘dismal deaths-by-drowning statistics of the day’ (13) show that trying to keep clean could be lethal. One advert for the Baths, held in Glasgow City Archives, reads: ‘WHY DROWN? When swimming provides a pleasant and health-giving exercise?’. The Baths not only provided a sanitary environment for the community to bathe, clean their clothes, and exercise but gave life-saving swimming lessons.

In January 2001, the Queen’s Park club for older swimmers found a letter on the pool reception desk informing them that pool was going to be closed (79). There had been no community consultation, health audit, or social audit (80). Pool users were told that the cost of refurbishing the B-listed building (estimated at £250,000) was not worth it, and were encouraged to start using the new pool in the Gorbals district (79). On the 17th of January, Southside Against Closure (SAC) was established, and on March 17th, 600 locals and MSPs marched from Queen’s Park to Govanhill Park to protest the closure. On the evening of March the 21st, the community began a 147-day occupation of the building. People chained themselves to cubicles, demanding assurance that SAC could participate in a conservation feasibility study was carried out, during which time they demanded that the pools remained open (82). Local people and businesses donated food and support. Police inspecting the occupation said that said they would not intervene unless the property was damaged. A week into the occupation however, police and council staff smashed their way in through a side door with hammers, cut off the water and electricity supply, and drained the pool (82).

Fearing an eviction raid, and learning from the 1915 Rent Strike anti-eviction tactics, the occupation had locals and the media a phone call away. If a raid was attempted, locals would crowd with whistles and bells, making a scene worthy of media attention (86). Meanwhile, protesters held a gala day outside the building on the 31st of March. Six hundred people came to hear speeches, music, and entertainment, while children enjoyed face painting, and chalk drawing on the pavement (97).

Why all the fuss, with the new Gorbals pool down the road? There are plenty of reasons. The Gorbals only had a mixed pool, removing swimming as an option for local minority and religious groups. Govanhill Baths had Muslim women’s swim sessions, orthodox Jewish men’s nights, gay nights (67), parent-toddler swim groups, sessions for older people, and for people with disabilities (69). There are health reasons, too, for re-opening the pool. In 2001, there were still (and probably are still) 100 homes in Govanhill without a bath. Research from the Department of Child Health at the University of Glasgow revealed that Govanhill was one of the six ‘worst health constituencies’ (16) in Britain, with chances of dying at ‘2.3 times the national average’ (11). Govanhill, one of the most densely populated areas in Glasgow, is known for ‘high rates of poverty, unemployment, [and] poor housing’ (16). Many locals have neither the time nor means (such as a car) to access the Gorbals, and others cannot swim in mixed pools for cultural reasons (52). After the Baths closed, an estimated 100 children gave up swimming altogether (87).

On the 10th of July 2001, the occupation was served a 48hr notice to quit the building, and on the 7th of August, the Battle of Calder Street began with a dawn eviction raid. Some 250 police officers, many of them mounted, with helicopters flying overhead, descended on the building and met resistance from a crowd that swelled to 600 people (14, 88). The eviction made national headlines. The raid lasted from 4.30am-9.30pm, when police smashed the building windows, put up shutters, and drove away the crowds with batons. Although a dossier of complaints against police racism and assault was prepared, no officers were charged.

In 2005 the Save Our Pool campaign gained charitable status as Govanhill Baths Community Trust (GBCT), with backing from Historic Scotland, to reclaim and develop Govanhill Baths as a Wellbeing facility for the community. The Trust held a Doors Open Day in 2008, with a turnout of 2,192 people (98). In 2010 the Trust drew up a three-phase, five-year redevelopment plan: 1) refurbish and reopen the front suite, including the ladies and toddlers’ pools, as well as an arts space, gardening space, Turkish suite and sauna, gym, and healthy eating café. 2) redevelopment of the Steamie as an events and community space. 3) Reopen the main pool.

So far, so good. The Trust has raised £6.5 million (including £500,000 from Historic Environment Scotland, £1,000,000 from the Big Lottery, £1.8 million from Heritage Lottery, and £2.1 million from Scottish Government’s RCGF). The Prince’s Regeneration Trust is managing the delivery phase. The front suite of the building was formally reopened in 2012, with over 200 attendees, and speeches by actor Peter Mullan, Nicola Sturgeon, and Glasgow councillor Archie Graham. In 2014 the learners and toddlers pool reopened, and in 2019, Phase 1B (that is, the rest of phase 1) begins!

There are numerous arts groups based at the Baths today, including Govanhill Baths Art, Rags to Riches upcycling project, Govanhill children’s choir, a Roma choir, a gypsy band, Govanhill Theatre Group, and Cast Offs knitting group. The venue hosts a Hindu prayer meeting, cooking classes, yoga, and more, and Castlemilk Law Centre provides welfare and financial advice. Govanhill Baths Archive, established in 2015, features artefacts, photos, and an oral history archive, where you can learn about the Baths, and the people who make it what it is today. The community fought hard to save the building, and a few years from now, the Baths will be revitalised as a Wellbeing centre for that community.

By Saskia McCracken


United We Will Swim: 100 Years of Govanhill Baths. Ed. Helen de Main. Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2015.


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