Campaign for Public Baths in Victorian Chorley
by John Harrison


One the joys of research, providing that you are not working to a timetable, is that you can follow your nose and instincts. Sometimes this is little more than a distraction; on other occasions it turns up little gems.

Over the past year, as time has been available, I have been researching the start of the Co-operative movement in Chorley. At the moment I am particularly interested in the first Chorley Society that seems to have existed for about 20 years between the 1860s and 1880s. The main source of information is the reports in Chorley newspapers of quarterly meetings of shareholders. When reading one such report, from the Chorley Standard 31st December 1864 I had a sense of “déjà vu” when I read the following:-

The chairman stated that the establishment of public baths in connection with the society was likely to prove a success, and several parties had signified their intention to become annual subscribers. The prices had not yet been fixed, but accommodation would be afforded for hot, cold, tepid and shower baths. The required space would not interfere with the ordinary business of the store, and the promises of support had been such as to warrant the outlay of the necessary expenditure.

I remembered that I had written about public baths before, almost 30 years ago, in my MSc thesis on “The Development of Medical Care and Public Health in Nineteenth Century Chorley.” Chorley Baths as many of us knew them were built on the corner of the Flat Iron and opened in 1938. However in the previous 70 years there had been other private/public bathing facilities in the town. These included private premises belonging to Chorley Swimming Club in Railway Street and St. Mary’s Club swimming pool which only closed with the opening of Chorley Baths. (Photographs of both in “Chorley Past”, published by the Chorley Guardian in 2007.

The following is culled from my earlier research supplemented by some recently researched additional information and describes the debate about baths in mid Victorian Chorley.

The campaign for public baths in Chorley in the 1860s was an aspect of the Public Health debate which was taking place nationally and in large and small communities across the country. It was not, however, the first occasion that bathing had been advocated in the town for health purposes. This had been in the 1840s when baths were developed in Whittle Springs based on a spring arising from borings for coal. On a Sunday in 1846 it was reported that 2,300 people had visited the new spa and a booklet in 1847 described “plunge baths” for both sexes attracting “thousands of invalids, variously afflicted.” Attempts were made to compare Whittle Springs to Harrogate, Cheltenham and Baden-Baden, and it seems that the waters were used internally and externally for bilious complaints, rheumatism, scrofula and ulcers.

A further spring was discovered at Yarrow Bridge, but this, like Whittle Springs, experienced only a few years of popularity. Both of these springs were, of course, out of the centre of Chorley. The first baths in the town centre were reported in 1849. Mr. Livesey, in Chapel Street, had hot and cold baths for public use, with water from Chorley Waterworks. These must have been “up market”, as others were specifically provided for the working classes at a “low” price of admission.

Livesey’s Baths continued in use until the 1860s when a correspondent of the Chorley Standard in 1864 who called himself “Pro Bono Publico,” described them as being “inadequate” and “shortly to be private.” He claimed that public baths were desired by doctors, surgeons, clergymen and hundreds of the town’s inhabitants. He referred to the “late highly esteemed Thomas Tootell” who had needed to use Livesey’s warm bath up to three times a day. The 1860s campaign was concerned that baths should be available to benefit the health of the whole community. An editorial in the Chorley Standard stated.

It is of the first importance that due facilities for cleanliness and the preservation of health be affected.

Whereas today we see public baths as being primarily a leisure resource, the Victorians saw them as a weapon in the fight against dirt and disease. There was, however, also an element of keeping up with other neighbouring towns. Another correspondent to the Chorley Standard who described himself as “Prestonian”, complained that having had to move from Preston to Chorley, he was deprived of his weekly bath. He admitted that Preston’s baths had been relatively costly to provide and were not as well used as they might be (although he claimed they had 10,000 bathers in one year), but thought this might change if doctors would educate people about natural diseases and the value of baths in preventing and removing them. He advocated each individual being washed over every square inch of the body each day. Those who ignored this advice were classified by Prestonian as unclean and therefore

strictly unhealthy, and easy victims to an unnatural and an untimely death.

The Preston baths had been funded by the Borough council (£11,119) and Prestonian therefore supported the petition that had been gathered to present to Chorley’s Improvement Commissioners to persuade them to agree to a similar project.
When the Improvement Commissioners met, the Medical Officer, John Rigby gave his support, albeit lukewarm!

The baths would be of some service in the treatment of some forms of disease.

The petition when presented was described as

The most numerous and respectably signed petition yet put before the Commission.

That notwithstanding, the Commissioners had doubts over their powers in this matter (and showed no interest in seeking to clarify their powers) and after what the Chorley Standard described as “desultory conversation” deferred any decision for six months. A modern day reporter would say that the Commissioners had “kicked the idea into the long grass!”
It is not clear what instigated this campaign for Public Baths in 1864. The loss of Livesey’s Baths would only have affected a small group of Chorley’s citizens and therefore would not have been a major factor. There was, however, considerable fear of growing distress caused by the Cotton Famine. This was despite the fact that numbers relieved by the Poor Law Guardians in the autumn and early winter of 1864 (around 2,100) were half the figure of March 1863. An editorial in the Chorley Standard stated:

We cannot close our eyes to the fact that destitution has, during the past month, been frightfully on the increase throughout these districts.....Prompt and immediate measures should be taken for providing against distress during the forthcoming winter.

The editorial had some response in that the following week the Chorley Relief Committee “resumed their labour” and the following month there was a report of a meeting of the Oddfellows Relief Committee. In this sense of the town organising itself to withstand the hardships of economic and industrial crisis, it is possible to see the campaign for the Public Baths as an additional stratagem which might protect the health of a vulnerable population.

The typhus epidemic which afflicted Lancashire, and Preston in particular in 1862, would still be relatively fresh in local minds. Between midsummer and November 1862 there had been 227 typhus cases in Preston with a death rate of 23% and, crucially in terms of the case for public baths, it was reported that the Guardians “when a dirty person comes for relief, send him off with a ticket to the nearest bath before considering his case.

Public Baths in Chorley could therefore be seen as means whereby standards of cleanliness could be improved, thus reducing the opportunities for the generation of disease through filth. The campaign continued. The tenant of Astley Hall, Thomas Part, chaired a public meeting that was addressed by a Dr. Balbirnie, “an eminent physician from Southport”; letters to the paper described successful public baths in Bury. However it is clear that the main concern was the cost of providing and running the baths. A further letter argued that the outlay would save money:

Ratepayers! Be not afraid of Public Baths not paying: but be assured that they will do more than pay, through what they will save in the Poor Rates.

By March 1865 the Chorley Standard was reporting that Livesey’s Baths had “gone private” (presumably further upmarket!) but bathing was now possible at the Co-operative stores where one bathroom, containing a shower and a shallow bath was available on Sundays and in the early morning. (Presumably this was to avoid disrupting the normal activities of the Co-op stores). The Improvement Commissioners reconsidered the petition for Public Baths, but again deferred any decision. They clearly had no wish to provide them but did not wish to arouse further public debate by giving an outright refusal to the proposal.

There is then a 5 year gap in the records of the Chorley Standard and by the time they resume, there are different issues for the town. However it is clear that Public Baths continued to have support particularly as a preventative measure against disease. During the Cholera Epidemic in 1866 a petition was presented to the Board of Guardians “from certain inhabitants of Chorley praying for the interference of the board to induce the Chorley Commissioners to erect Public Baths in the town.” The Guardians expressed their support but were unable to act as they represented a much wider district, similar to the modern Borough in its boundaries.

Primary Sources
Preston Chronicle, Chorley Standard.
Improvement Commission Minutes.
Minutes of the Chorley Board of Guardians.
“A brief account of Whittle le Woods, near Chorley, Lancs, its Spring, Baths, and Scenery with some particulars as to its medical qualities” by A Visitor (Manchester 1847)
Secondary Source
The Development of Medical Care and Public Health in Nineteenth Century Chorley (Manchester Msc thesis) by J E Harrison 1983
Chorley Past (Chorley Guardian) 2007

John Harrison
Dec 2009