The slipper baths - North Laine History

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The former slipper baths

Hidden inside the Jubilee site, where the Jubilee Library now is, there is a building which once housed what was known as the 'North Road Slipper Baths'. They were opened in 1870 and finally closed in 1976.
Research by Dawn Sanders
In 1983 Dawn Sanders of the Lewis Cohen Urban Studies Centre (part of what is now the University of Brighton) contacted the North Laine Runner to find out whether we knew of anyone who had used the baths, as she was undertaking a project about them. We were able to put her in touch with Ernie Longhurst. Dawn subsequently interviewed Ernie and others who had known the baths when they were in active use. Here are some extracts from what she wrote as a result of her research at that time.
Some extracts from Dawn's research
The opening of the North Road Slipper Baths was the result of the philanthropic movement organised to provide bathing facilities for the poor. Certain acts such as the Public Baths and Workhouse Acts and the Towns Improvement Clauses Act in 1847 were designed specifically to encourage their construction. These acts particularly emphasised the need for a large ratio of lower class baths to upper class baths:
"...provided always that the numbers of baths for the use of the working classes in any building provided by the commissioners shall not be less than twice the number of the other baths of any higher class."
What is a slipper bath?
A slipper bath is a partially covered bath shaped somewhat like a slipper! People from different classes were kept completely separate and the price of the 2nd Class bath was fixed low to enable the poor the luxury of cleanliness, for it was still a luxury for them at that time to enjoy a hot bath. The health report of 1893 maintained that much disease was preventable by extreme cleanliness and the building of the slipper baths went some way towards the cleanliness needed to improve the health of the working class. Another attribute of the slipper baths was the privacy of having a bath on your own, something not experienced in the overcrowded working class housing in Brighton at that time.  A 2nd Class warm bath cost 2d, a cold bath 1d. The 1st Class baths were 6d for a warm bath and 3d for a cold bath. In March 1874 the baths had been filled nearly 16,300 times in 6 months.
Closed in 1976
After 106 years of service the North Road Slipper Baths closed in 1976. The building of the slipper baths represented an improvement in the conditions of the working class, as important in its own time as the building of baths in private houses today.
Violet Lewis described the baths
Violet Lewis, who was the women's section attendant for 20 years, told Dawn:
"When I first went there it was all stone floor and we used to have to wash it over on our hands and knees. After that it was lino-ed over with thick lino and that wasn't so bad."  
She said that before the Whitehawk Estate was built there was often a queue of about 30 people waiting to go in the baths. The ladies' baths were in one half of the building and the gents' in the other.
Remembering the time when the baths were due to close, she reminisced:
"A woman came in and cried because we were closing down. She had been coming there for a weekly bath for more than 30 years and it was like a home from home. The older people came for a chat and company as much as for a bath."
Ernie Longhurst's memories
When Dawn interviewed Ernie Longhurst, he said that people had been allowed to soak in the bath for half an hour. He also said that some people still [in 1983] did not possess bathing facilities and would have appreciated the return of public baths.
A Jewish Mikvah
A special feature of the baths was a Jewish Mikvah (a kind of ritual cleansing bath). In this the pipes were straight (no bends to become contaminated) and rainwater was used.
Lack of documentation
When undertaking her research, Dawn had been disheartened to find a lack of documentation (and particularly photographic evidence) about the lives of the working class in Brighton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She thought that the emphasis on documenting aspects of middle and upper class lifestyles had tended to create a false impression about the totality of life in Brighton at that time.

By Jackie Fuller

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 190, January/February 2008]
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