Born in the Blitz, Bon Accord Baths survived the Luftwaffe bombing raids to become one of Aberdeen’s most treasured buildings.
Generations of Aberdonians built many precious and happy memories of swimming, playing, relaxing and hanging out in the wonderful art deco building on Justice Mill Lane.
But today – as it marks its milestone 80th anniversary year – the baths are in a fight for survival.
The magnificent building, closed by the council in 2008, is in a sorry state after years of neglect, vandalism and damage from the elements.
However, dedicated campaigners are determined to breathe new life into the baths and the pool and ultimately realise their dream of restoring them to their former glory.
And Craig Adams, of Bon Accord Heritage, hopes one day generations can build the same treasured memories he has of the baths.
“We loved it because I was able to come in and meet my friends in town and we would either go here or skating or to the ABC Bowl. This is the sort of thing you remember.
“You could get together with your friends, your family, your cousins, or whatever.”
Central meeting point
“It was a central meeting point,” said Craig, who started a social media campaign to save Bon Accord Baths in 2014, which resulted in the council giving the community group the chance to rescue the building.
Bon Accord Baths didn’t have the easiest of births. Work started on the building in 1936 and it officially opened its doors on August 30 1940 – at the time of German bombing raids in the early days of the Second World War.
“It’s amazing that it was made in the Blitz – and Aberdeen was hit hard in the Blitz. To have pumped the equivalent of about £60 or £80 million in today’s money into a construction project when we were being bombed is just mind-boggling. But they did it,” said Craig, adding it was likely a morale-boosting effort in the dark days of war.
Known as the Uptown Baths – to differentiate from the Beach Bathing Station – they were an instant hit, with more than 800 spectators flocking through the doors for a mass diving display to mark the grand inauguration.
Craig said: “They were built to make access to a swimming pool possible for more people, because it was easier for people to travel into the centre of town. And this was a bigger pool for competition swimming which they couldn’t do at the beach baths, and it allowed sporting clubs to have somewhere to train.”
Bon Accord Baths are an art deco delight, with its architects drawing on the style of the time. The building had the wow factor from its first day.
“It’s really designed to look awe-inspiring. When you walk in through the corridor and actually go into the pool hall, everyone takes a deep breath and says ‘oh, wow’. It’s just really an inspiring building,” said Craig.
Incredible in here
“It’s a big airy building with lots of surfaces that are smooth and flush and echoey. You have terrazzo on the floor, all polished up,” said Craig.
“And it’s very bright. There are windows everywhere, with roof windows, too. When it’s sunny, it’s incredible in here.”
The first bosses of the baths went on to boast of being “Scotland’s favourite swimming pool” drawing swimmers and families from all over the city and beyond.
The pool, which cost £100,000, measured 120ft by 42ft and held more than a million litres of water. It was 15ft deep at the diving end – “the deepest in Scotland” – which was towered over by a 33ft high-platform.
It wasn’t just about the swimming. The baths also boasted a Turkish Baths suite upstairs, with medicated baths, a solarium for sunray treatment and a lounge. It also had private cubicles for people to have their weekly bath – with attendants, who controlled the water flow, scurrying to cries of “more hot in number four.”
At the time of its opening, Bon Accord Baths was on a scale never before seen outside of London.
The construction itself was cutting-edge at that time said Craig, who is also a member of the workers’ collective at Krakatoa.
“There are a lot of flat roofs on this building. It’s not until you look at the drone pictures you realise how many sections of roof there are. People might wonder why are there so many pieces of flat roof – why didn’t they consolidate it or do it a different way?
“It’s because that was a new technology at the time and they wanted to use it everywhere. Concrete was still fairly new technology then and this is a structural concrete roof. That had been done before – it’s not unique – but it was still very early days.”
Leotard swimming costumes
The baths saw many swimming galas and diving competitions over the years. The first was in 1941 and cost £3/3/- (£3.15) to stage – including staff wages and electricity. This was in the days when all the lifeguards were men, as women weren’t thought to be strong enough, and everyone had to wear regulation leotard swimming costumes.
Over the years, some famous faces have gone through the doors of Bon Accord Baths. Sean Connery is reported to have trained there in the 1950s. And in 2002, Prince William played in a water polo match at the baths with St Andrews students against a University of Aberdeen team.
In 2006, the pool was closed for an extensive refurbishment by the council.
Craig said: “It looked incredible and people couldn’t wait to get back into it. I understand it re-opened for one day in 2008 and then it was mothballed indefinitely.”
Despite being held in fond affection by Aberdonians, the baths fell victim to deep cuts by a cash-strapped Aberdeen City Council.
Yet 12 years after they closed the baths are still much loved by the people of Aberdeen. Which begs the question, why?
“It’s because it’s so special. There’s nothing else like it. You just walk in and it blows your mind, every single time,” said Craig.
“There’s a book out called Great Lengths, published in 2008, and it covers all of the historic pools in the UK. It’s a couple of hundred pages. Bon Accord Baths gets a two-page spread in it. It also gets another two pages across the inside back cover.”
Really special building
“There is no other historic pool like this,” said Craig. “It has that high ceiling, all those diving boards and is probably the most impressive historic, art deco leisure centre in the UK. That’s why it’s a really special building and Aberdeen would be mad to let something like this fall into disrepair.”
After many years of campaigning to save the baths from the wrecking ball and keep it as a resource for the community, Bon Accord Heritage are now pushing ahead, despite a recent setback of Storm Alex causing water damage at the building.
Craig said: “We are hoping to raise funding and also to get some work done at a cost-limit on price by volunteers where basically people are doing stuff as cheaply as possible and not making a profit because the project is for the community.
“We are all doing it make the city a better place.”
He is confident the baths will once again be part of the city’s bustling life, with support already flooding in for Bon Accord Heritage’s fund-raising page with its £150,000 target.
“We plan to keep the building as an art deco leisure centre,” he said. “We are going to have in the front block things that will support the pool. So there will still be a spa, but a bit different to the one that used to be there. There will still be a gym, again a bit different.”
It will be back
“Downstairs there will be community spaces for lease and there will also be, hopefully, a restaurant, which we will lease out to either a worker co-op or social enterprise to operate,” said Craig. “We would like this building to be a community space. All of this should support the pool. It will be back.”
Part of the restaurant plans include opening the former aerobics studio through to where the private bath cubicles were.
“We want to turn some of those old bathrooms into private dining rooms, but retain one or more as museum pieces with the original baths in them.”
The trustees hope to have the ground floor of the front block – with the restaurant and community space – open by October 2021.
With the front block of the building up and running, the trust hope that will provide the “seed money” to restore the rest of the baths – including bringing the stunning pool back into use.
Craig said plans for the pool include dividing it with a moveable liner, so the diving boards can come back into play without people swimming beneath. The rest of the pool would for swimming, with the possibility of a further section for toddlers paddling around at the shallow end.
If you want to contribute to the campaign to save Bon Accord Baths, go the heritage group’s crowdfunding page at uk.gofundme.com/f/save-bon-accord-baths