One hundred and eleven years ago, the local authority – then St Pancras – poured money into a state-of-the-art public facility for the residents of Kentish Town. Comprising of a wash house, public hall and baths, the deep red brick and terracotta edifice was a sight to behold, but one that withered in its visual and social impact as the decades rolled by.
Prince of Wales Baths, now reborn as the rather more utilitarian ‘Kentish Town Sports Centre’, was an instant hit. A grand Victorian project that served the very mixed community in the more rigid style of the time. Hence separate bathing areas for men and women, and entrance via a class system (second class men didn’t get such prestigious stonework saints above their door. Or a towel and soap.)
In the wash house, scary, tattooed women went about mangling the family smalls. 129 cubicles featured personal ‘slipper baths’ and as well as the regular community events in the hall, boards were put over the baths during winter so that huge dances or boxing matches could be held.
But of course, society’s wants and needs were on the move, and buildings so gloriously stiff in their provision of ablutions, courtship opportunities and teeth crunching spectator sports were to struggle to stay relevant and swerve the wrecking ball.
The inevitable ruthless modernisations took place, including brilliant-at-the-time ideas such as covering the beautiful glass roofs with false ceilings and shoving on a grey corrugated side entrance in the classical 1970s style sported on the also soon to be removed Kings Cross Station folly.
The stinking, dark changing rooms and broken tiles of my childhood memories continued the general slide until the mid-90s when demolition was all but a certainty. Yet, the unpredictable twists and turns of local politics instead saw sign-off for a complicated restoration come as one of the last great local pre-credit crunch projects. Who knows what might have become of the site by now if the implosion of global banking mismanagement had unravelled a little differently.
Reconstruction was serious business. 700 new pieces of terracotta had to be approved by the Victorian Society and English Heritage before they were put in place, 5.5 miles of scaffolding went up in the Willes Pool area alone to uncover the fantastic glass roof (one of 9!) once more.
A wildly ambitious local facility once more (the kind that’s almost always ‘too expensive’ to consider 111 years on), there are few places so bold for feeling the connection between the Kentish Town of Victorian times and today. Plus there’s some really great swimming and fitness to be enjoyed, bathed in natural light too – lest we forget.
Yet despite the consensus that we are all incredibly jolly lucky to have such a building and facilities in our midst, it often feels a little too quiet. We urge all KT’ers to make use of this fantastic community resource so that, whatever the social upheavals of the future, we don’t return to the leaky showers and closed pools of the under-supported lost years.