In “Following Your Dream” a threshing barn dating back to the seventeenth century became a family home containing a longed-for pig killing bench used as a coffee table. The story of that bench intertwined with an account of the “Pig Clubs” set up to help war time Britain feed itself and the role it played in the avoidance of rationing is told in “Pigs, Coffee Tables and Making Do”. Another longed-for item was a second- hand cast iron free standing bath with claw feet and it was “2240-3” that was destined to answer this call arriving from Liverpool with a story to tell.
The bath came from a shop called Wood’s in Seel Street said to be the best option for finding a cast iron free standing bath in Liverpool in the 1990s. It was the answer given to a question physically asked of a person in those pre-internet days and the exact reply was “old man Woods will have one”. The street was run down and full of properties historically vital but in transit between purposes and unique because of that. The shop was up three flights of wooden stairs and at the top the proprietor his age indeterminable due to make-up sat close to a gas heater warming the stockinged legs that emerged from his skirt.
In reply to the request he handed over a key and said he had a bath with feet detached but somewhere close to it and that both were across the road. The key opened a stable door cut into large wooden gates filling the brick archway opposite the shop and revealed a cobbled yard groaning under the weight of the contents of countless homes cleared, modernised or most often demolished. The bath when eventually located was forced into the crowded back of a van. All this time “old man Woods” never moved preferring to stay close to the fire receiving back key and payment without comment.
Seel Street is in the Ropeworks district of Liverpool and today it is a regenerated and sought- after area full of clubs, bars, hotels, cafes and niche shops. In 2011 the Liverpool Echo reported on the street’s award of fourth “hippest” in the UK. The area is made up of a series of narrow and parallel streets with little interconnecting access containing bonded warehouses; all clues to the origin of the district’s name and historical purpose of rope making which dominated the area into the nineteenth century. Workers needed narrow straights to lay out the rope during production so bought or rented thin strips of land for this purpose. The rope making predated the streets, full of large warehouses indicative of Liverpool’s maritime legacy, the unusual lay out of which emerged as these strips of land were later sold or given up.
The bath needed a good clean, a lick of paint and new wide hipped globe taps but the enamel not vivid white or shiny was good and the feet fitted perfectly. Cleaning revealed the number 2240-3 stamped on the back giving it a name and friends in Liverpool suggested a possible previous life in one of Liverpool’s municipal baths and wash houses. It appeared that the bath could have been one of many to play a part in Liverpool’s pioneering role in providing combined public baths and wash houses for their residents in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
The first combined fresh water public bath and wash house sited on Upper Frederick Street opened in 1842.The baths were usually curtained off with no mains water, so you had to shout for more hot or cold water as required and to children their size and depth was scary. Later a small scratchy towel emblazoned with the name of the establishment and a piece of soap would be included in the price. It was inspired by the actions of Catherine (Kitty) Wilkinson who was known as the “Saint of the Slums”. From May to September 1832 there was a cholera epidemic in Liverpool with nearly 5000 reported cases of which around 1500 proved fatal. Wilkinson who was making a living by taking in laundry and had the only boiler in her street made it available to other women for 1d a week showing them how to boil and bleach their washing to destroy the cholera pathogen. Wilkinson was ahead of the time with this belief in the role cleaning played in reducing infection.
Supported in her work by William Rathbone and the District Provident Society Wilkinson pushed for the establishment of public baths which led to the 1842 opening of the Upper Frederick Street site (quickly followed by others across the city) and her 1846 appointment as superintendent of the public baths. In 1846 the “Baths and Wash-Houses Act” was passed which provided the statutory framework for Wilkinson’s work by empowering local authorities to fund the building of public baths and wash houses. Kitty Wilkinson who died in 1860 is buried in St James Cemetery in the city where the headstone commends her as the “originator of baths and wash houses for the poor” and in 2012 a statue of her was unveiled in St George’s Hall on Lime Street.
The baths and wash houses often included a laundry and the vivid descriptions of them bring alive the labour- intensive processes involved and a woman’s role in it. Children recall going with their female relatives to these huge hot and noisy cavernous places full of scary straight speaking women quick to spot queue jumping and often working away with a pipe or roll up in their mouth. There were vast mangles that required two women to feed the sheets through, and gallows- like clothes airers launched by strong arms into the building’s voluminous cavernous roof that was heated by the boilers below. Most of the dirty washing arrived in the family pram left outside to be guarded by opportunistic male entrepreneurs who also sold washing soap at the entrance.
In Scotland such places were known as “steamies” and were celebrated in the 1980s Tony Roper play “The Steamie” set in a Glasgow wash house at Hogmanay.
This story of the bath’s role in history was reawakened by the reading of George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” and his account in Chapter Three of the miner’s struggle to keep clean and the introduction of some pithead baths. The “Pithead Bath Movement” started in the 1890s but it was not until the establishment in the 1920s, funded by a penny on every ton of coal produced, of the Miners’ Welfare Fund that baths could be built on any scale. Before this the 1911 “Coal Mines Act” required proprietors to provide baths at a cost of 2d a week to workers if two thirds of them agreed. Many were reluctant to give up the 2d arguing that hot water was available at home disregarding the cost to the wives and children of heavy labour and rooms made damp by wet clothing and dirty with coal dust. With the nationalisation of the coal mines in 1947 the National Coal Board took over responsibility for the provision of pithead baths with patented Pit Head Bath Soap (PHB) in green, white and pink and Palmolive shampoo in green and white available for sale in the canteens.
A single bath given a number as a name and destined to obscurity was bought in a shop at a moment in time now too a part of history. That area thrives today by celebrating the aesthetics of the legacy of a manufacturing past once thought redundant but now reinvigorated and championed. The bath had a fine pedigree coming from a city where lives were saved with the introduction of public baths and wash houses by a woman who refused to let poverty silence her. As always such simple acts taken for granted today were once an aspiration of someone who had to have the courage of their convictions to fight and to not give up.