Activist Voice: Keeping a Wirral Bathhouse Afloat

March 10, 2020  | 
Rock Ferry Baths, Wirral. March 1933.
Rock Ferry Baths, March 1933.

Built in the 1930s, the Grade II-listed Bryne Avenue Baths had fallen into a state of disrepair when the council made plans to knock the building down. That was until a group of local residents started a four-year battle to take on ownership, and restore the baths to their former glory. We speak to Jane Richards, who is helping to lead the restoration.

Supported by Power to Change.

What is Rock Ferry like as a place to live?
Rock Ferry is on the Mersey side of Wirral, close to the river. It is a very built up area with a big range of housing. There is high unemployment, low educational attainment and a lower than average life expectancy. Although there are some fantastic community groups around, there is no one central location which can be used for large events. The nearest sports facilities are a bus ride away.

What’s so special about the Byrne Avenue Baths?
Byrne Avenue Baths is a beautiful Grade II listed building, originally built in 1933 with two swimming pools and ladies and gents slipper baths. When the baths were originally built, many of the surrounding homes did not have indoor bathrooms. So the slipper baths were well used for personal bathing, especially by those working at the docks or at Cammel Lairds ship builders, as it was cheaper to pay to use the slipper baths than to boil hot water at home. Due to a mixture of theft, vandalism and lack of maintenance the building fell into a sorry state, needing a complete refurbishment and restoration.

How did the campaign to restore them get started?
The story starts in 2009 when people turned up at Byrne Avenue Baths for swimming lessons to find a notice on the door saying the baths was closed. A group of local people got together to try to re-open the building. Initially they had a lease, but this was taken off them when the council decided it wanted to demolish the building and sell the land for housing.

The Byrne Avenue Trust decided that this could not happen. I was involved by this stage as a grant writer, but soon became involved in all aspects of the baths. We wrote an application to Historic England and successfully managed to get the building listed. Despite this we still had a four-year battle with the council before the building was leased to us under the Community Asset Transfer scheme, with a 99-year lease.

What’s your connection to the baths? Why was it important to you to get involved?
I’m local – I’ve lived on Wirral all my life, and my home now is a five-minute drive from the baths. I’ve always been involved in community work in some way – including 30 years as a scout leader. I started my own charity consultancy business so that I can help community organisation to achieve their aims. I also love local history, so the chance to be able to bring a beautiful old building back into community use is fantastic. It’s a very special building and it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about it. We are still finding new elements of history and heritage as the restoration work progresses.

What is the vision for the baths once they are restored?
The Trust’s aims can be summed up in three words: Community, Health and Heritage. When Byrne Avenue Baths re-opens, it will be as a Sports and Community Centre. As well as providing a wide range of sports and healthy activities, there will be community events such as Friday Film Club for the Children and Golden Oldies film afternoons for anyone who enjoys a black and white comedy or an MGM musical. There will be volunteering opportunities which will help with employment prospects. In return for volunteering we will also run a Time Bank, where volunteering hours can be exchanged for activities, events or coffee and a cake. In this way everyone in the local community can access our facilities.

What have been your main successes and challenges?
There have been great successes. Initially it was the day that we found out that we had the building, after a four-year battle so save it. More recently it was winning the Locality ‘Save Our Spaces’ Award last year. This award was open nationally and to have our work recognised in such a vast arena was amazing. As for challenges, she’s an 86-year-old lady – there is a new challenge every week. But we are overcoming them. We have had some great grant successes which means we can fund most of Phase One, and work is already underway.

What are you most looking forward to about Stronger Things?
I’m looking forward to engaging with people at the Stronger Things event and sharing our experiences, in the hope that it can make the process smoother for everyone in the future. I’m also keen to be able to encourage sectors to work together to benefit the whole community.

Jane will be speaking as part of a Power to Change breakout session at Stronger Things on 12 March. To add your name to the wait list, click here.