I really disliked swimming as a kid; after being herded onto a GLC schoolbus outside Harbinger School, followed by the short journey to Poplar Baths, I would do my best to hide in the changing rooms in the hope I could stay there until it was time for thick, buttered toast in the baths’ café after the lesson.
That said, I did go to Island Baths in Tiller Road a couple of times. I cannot really remember much about it other than being a little nervous of all the big “Tiller Kids” in the pool. I actually remember more about the journey to the place: departing from close to Christ Church and walking through the Muddy and over the Glass Bridge. We probably lived as far from the baths as it was possible to live on the Island.
The first London public baths was opened at Goulston Square in Whitechapel in 1847, yet a half a century later there were still no public baths on the Isle of Dogs. At the end of the 1800s, the local authorities decided to do something about that. Survey of London:
Difficulties of finding somewhere convenient for both Millwall and Cubitt Town residents were great, and in the end cheapness largely dictated the choice of site, which proved far from ideal.
The chosen location was on a piece of wasteland in Glengall Road (the section now named Tiller Road) which – incidentally – was almost certainly the site of Millwall football team’s first pitch. The baths were built by Island building firm F. & T. Thorne and were opened in 1900.
According to Survey of London, the baths….
…comprised a swimming pool, slipper baths and a hand laundry. The pool was 75ft by 35ft, was 3½ft deep, galleried all round, with wooden changing cubicles. Of 40 slipper baths, five were for the use of women, while nine of the men’s were accorded ‘first-class’ status. Heating was supplied by two coal-fired Cornish boilers, made by the local firm Stephens, Smith & Company.
From the start, the baths were under-used, perhaps due to their location. Despite being quite central – as the crow flies – the docks and other industry provided a significant barrier to convenient access. By 1930, the Council did not think it worth the cost of keeping the pool open (and heated) during the winter, and so every year it was emptied of water and covered with a wooden floor, converting it into a dance hall. This practice did not end until the opening of George Green’s School / Community Centre in 1976.
Survey of London:
A filtration plant installed in 1930–1 was a welcome improvement, but the building had fundamental shortcomings. Partial reconstruction, carried out in 1934–6, involved the replacement of the front portion of the building, providing new slipper baths (21 for men and 18 for women), waiting rooms, a pay office, committee room and accommodation for the superintendent, together with hot-water storage and a reinforced-concrete water-tower.
In anticipation of War, Island Baths were converted into a First Aid Post in 1939.
The building also received some blast protection through the use of sandbags (and later blast walls).
Severe bomb damage was sustained in 1941, wrecking the swimming pool building.
After repairs, the laundry and slipper baths in the entrance building could be used again.
But it would be the early 1960s before the patched-up entrance building and remains of the pool building were demolished, to make room for a new building.
Survey of London:
In 1963 the contractors Tersons began work on site. The new baths, completed at a cost in excess of £350,000, were opened in 1966. Although use of the slipper baths and, to a lesser extent, the laundry, had been declining steadily for years, both facilities were included so that payment from the War Damage Commission was maximized.
The slipper baths on the first floor, anachronistic from the start, were so little used by the mid-1970s that they were removed and the space adapted as an Art Resource Centre and recreation room, opened in 1980.
The skills practised by the users of the centre were put to effective use in the painting of a mural in the foyer in 1985. Another mural, of whales, was painted alongside the swimming pool in 1991 by Will Adams, who worked in consultation with local primary schoolchildren to develop the design.
These days, Island Baths are known as Tiller Road Leisure Centre (probably for some time I suspect), and it can also boast a fitness centre. Until they start selling pie n mash, there’s still not much chance of getting me in the place!