Marshall Street Swimming Baths

Image: Elizabeth Finnis

Three of my greatest loves in life are running, cycling and history. I get carried away by anything that is old and has a story associated with it.

I am training for the Hever Castle Triathlon at the moment which takes place in September in the historic grounds of the beautiful Tudor Palace. So, it seems right that with a historically themed event to prepare for, I would chose to do my swimming training in one of London Soho’s original swimming baths.

Marshall Street Baths were first built in 1850 and looked a little different to the 1930’s rebuild that I swam in today. In the Victorian era, 64 first and second class baths with 60 washing compartments were implemented. It cost 6d for a first class bath and 2d for a second class bath. Then, in 1928, the Art Deco movement made way for a slightly different style.

My friend and I went after work to do some lengths for our tri-training but I was constantly distracted by the period features that had been restored to their former glory. It’s quite a large building with original wood panelling and loads of passages. It’s a lot more ornate than modern leisure centres with a bronze fountain at the shallow end of the pool depicting a Merchild with two dolphins. Behind the main pool there used to be a smaller ‘second class bath’ which was covered by a barrel vaulted roof but has now been lost in time.

According to the fascinating, Urban Ghosts blog, the marble-lined 1930’s pool was ultimately abandoned and finally closed in 1997. Luckily, for us, after a period of renovation, Marshall Street Baths still retains most of it’s former look and reopened again in 2010 following an £11 million investment.

The more I read up on Marshall Street, the more I realised that this building is so much more than a public swimming pool and fitness centre.

My research took a very interesting turn when I came across an image of some glamorous ladies lined up by the pool and got in touch with the owner of the copyright for her permission to use it in this piece.

Copyright: Elizabeth Finnis

Copyright: Elizabeth Finnis

It turned out that the copyright owner, Elizabeth Finnis, was in fact the grand daughter of one of the ladies pictured here who was named Queenie Ayres. Elizabeth told me that Queenie passed away three years ago at the age of 96yrs and I am honoured to be able to feature her on Queen of the Mile as one of the early Marshall Street visitors.

Back in Queenie’s time, Marshall Street Baths was often used for rehearsals and training for any of the productions that used water. The ladies in this picture, including Queenie, are rehearsing for a production of Cinderella in 1934, at the very end of the pool where I was practising my tumble turns.

Here is an original quote about this theatrical display:

“It was a production worthy of Drury Lane. One of the scenes was a vast lake, into which marched an army of girls, entering the water and walking-down, down, down until they were entirely submerged and lost to sight beneath the surface of the lake. It was an exciting scene and provided some thrills at rehearsals too. Once a bathing cap was seen floating on the surface, There was a moment of panic until it was discovered that the girl was safe ashore but had lost her cap in transit.”

(Macqueen Pope: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.)

Needless to say, these women look a lot more glamorous than me in a swimming cap.

The pool also played an important part during the WW2 when it was used as a decontamination centre for gas attacks. Soldiers also used it to prepare for the D-Day Landings by jumping off the high diving board and landing in the water.

Swimming is definitely my least favourite triathlon discipline but to be able to train in an evocative pool like Marshall Street does take the edge off a bit.

If anyone has any comments or stories to share about Marshall Street drop them below – also if anyone has any tips on how to effectively train for a triathlon in a pool, we would love to hear them!

Main photo credit: Elizabeth Finnis

The pool when it fell in to disrepair by Zak Ezzati

The pool when it fell in to disrepair by Zak Ezzati

Photo by Matt Cheetham

The pool today. Photo by Matt Cheetham