Making a splash — Paul Clements on Belfast’s Templemore baths

Victorian-era public amenity has been imaginatively transformed and given a new lease of life

By their very nature, indoor public swimming baths are, metaphorically speaking, places flooded with childhood memories. Now the only functioning Victorian baths in Ireland, at Ballymacarrett in Belfast, have been imaginatively transformed and given a new lease of life.

Historically public baths and wash-houses in Ireland and Britain date largely from the mid-to-late 19th century when sanitary arrangements were almost non-existent. The Ballymacarrett baths, as they were originally known on Templemore Avenue, were run by the local corporation and built in a Renaissance style between 1891 and 1893. They were designed by the Scottish-born architect Robert Watt, known for the quirky details of his offices, factories, and warehouses. Watt also worked in a long-distance partnership with James Otway of Waterford, designing several country houses.

Initially, the stylish baths provided washing and sanitary facilities for families who had come to live in Belfast attracted by jobs in the shipyard and heavy engineering. The city was experiencing rapid growth, expanding into ropemaking, tea and textile machinery works, as well as cotton and linen manufacturing industries. But the working conditions for many were unhealthy. In the two-up, two-down houses, baths were a weekly ritual taken in a tin tub in the scullery or in front of the kitchen fire, while the toilet was outside.

The baths afforded an opportunity to wash off dust, dirt, and oily stains. The slipper baths were in cubicles to provide privacy, while for swimmers the changing rooms were so cold they were known as “the ice box”. It cost six pennies for a hot water bath, but if money was tight and bathers were brave enough, a cold bath was tuppence. At first it was men who predominantly used the baths. On arrival they were handed swimming trunks which came in three sizes, a bar of red carbolic soap, and a towel with a huckaback weave pattern and uneven surface to absorb water and dry off quicker.


In those days, a forest of tall chimneys linked to the industries loomed across the urban landscape. Over the years the chimneys were demolished but the original redbrick one at the baths stretches into the sky as an intact eye-catching landmark that is still in use.

In the early decades of the 20th century the main pool was extended in response to competitors’ needs to train for Olympic lengths. The baths were a popular venue for swimming galas and water polo. The Ulster team trained at Templemore which hosted regular interprovincial championship matches against Leinster and Munster.

However, by the 1980s the facilities had fallen into dereliction.

The baths closed in 1983 with little hope of being saved and were placed on a Heritage at Risk Register while attention focused on opening modern leisure complexes. In the intervening 40 years the building lay idle but conscious of its importance, the local community set up a trust to rescue and redevelop the baths.

The original main pool has been restored and links through a blind arcade to a corridor leading to a brand new six-lane pool and changing facilities. A glass floor in the heritage centre offers glimpses of the old minor pool with tiny concrete steps.

The sympathetic £17 million restoration echoes the building’s earlier incarnation. The ticket office was the nerve centre of the operation while the laundry room which housed a rotary washing and disinfecting machine – the first of its kind in Ireland – was the beating heart; both areas are now open to visitors where they can hear recorded anecdotes or the rumble of machinery.

Humorous interactive exhibitions and videos alongside sepia photographs, press cuttings, scrapbooks and trophies bring to life a place of social and cultural history. The extension has doubled the building’s footprint while the facade has been given a decorative twist with pilaster strips. More than 130 years on from its opening, a handsome slice of the city’s prime architectural past has been preserved. The building is proving popular with “archi-tourists” who enjoy the heritage features while tour guides describe how it once looked highlighting the designer’s skills.

The reuse of a much-loved building ensures a continuity, providing services that continue to resonate.

For thousands of locals, who learned the front crawl or the breaststroke, the reopening has ignited fond memories, and a visit to the baths rekindles recollection of their years spent splashing down a swimming pool lane.

The building is known nowadays under the somewhat more cumbersome title of Templemore Aquatic Sports Club with sauna, spa facilities, bio-circuit machines and a gym, but the story of the baths has influenced writers and musicians. The Co Derry singer, Anthony Toner, who lives in east Belfast, was inspired to produce a musical eulogy to the baths with his song Six Inches of Water. His album is a compilation of a lyrical journey capturing aspects of the changing city, and the story of one man enjoying his weekly dip.