The Bath House for Mill Road Residents

Short Summary

Work in the Victorian era was sweaty and dirty, but most people didn’t have running water or even a bath at home. You couldn’t even go and wash in the river because it was full of sewage and other rubbish. To get clean everyone had to go to a public bath house, where they paid four pennies for a bath. The bath house for Cambridge was on the corner of Gwydir Street, was built in 1927 and opened on the 3rd February with great fanfare. The mayor unlocked the door using a golden key and all the councillors bought a ticket, although they didn’t actually take a dip! But, not everything went to plan! There was a problem with the boiler so the first bath was freezing cold! There were different baths for men and women, but children just got in the tub with their parents. The baths didn’t have taps, so the bather had to call out for an attendant for more water. Monica Smith remembers having a bath there: “you put your foot in – ‘Ow! It’s too hot!’- so you have to call out and ask for cold water”! The bath house wasn’t just somewhere to get clean; the waiting rooms were also a place to socialise! In the 1970s, the attendant Dolly used to give the women relationship advice, and even read their fortunes in their tea leaves! The bath house has had many lives and before 1927, it was someone’s home! It was called the doctor’s house, because five doctors in a row lived there with their families. In 1978, all baths were removed, and the bath house became a community centre. Also when you visit the Bath House see if you can spot the Cambridge Coat of Arms above the door, with symbols of seahorses and a bridge as reminders of Cambridge’s history as a trade route.

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find useful to use for a class:

Story Content

The first building on this site was a house build in 1850 by James Naden, a linen and woolen draper, for his wife, two children and his mother to live in, with one servant. It was known as Gwydir house and is visible on a map from 1886, available on the Mill Road report on the Bath House. From 1896 to 1913, five people of the medical profession, including three surgeons, occupied the house with their families! Due to this uninterrupted occupation, the house became known as the Doctor’s House.

In 1913, the council forced the owners to sell the house to them, because the site was required for street widening. The house was then demolished and discussions began on what to use the site for. It was offered first to the Education Committee, but they decided that the site was not suitable for a school, so, after a very long delay, the decision was made to use the site as a public bath house. At first costs were estimated at £4,000 but soon this was raised to £7,500, which the council drew from the Ministry of Health. Mr C Kerridge was given the job of building the baths for £7,331. Eighteen slipper baths as well as two douche baths were installed. The council determined that their should be three members of staff: a male attendant, a senior female attendant and a junior female attendant, who were to be paid £3, £2 10s, £2 a week respectively. From a short list, Mr Galloway, Mrs Ray and Miss Middleton were chosen. Each was given a uniform: a blue overall for the male attendant and white ones for the female attendants.

 A new public baths was needed because most houses in the area did not have running water. In Cambridge in 1923, three quarters of the houses had no baths, while there was only one other suitable place to bathe. Minnie Baraclough talks of washing without running water or a bath: “Mum used to wash you on the kitchen table. Shove you on the kitchen table with a bowl of water to rub up and down your legs like that: ‘now the other leg – put your other leg out!’”. The rivers could not be used, as they were full of rubbish and sewage; when Queen Victoria visited in 1843, she asked the Master of Trinity where there was so much paper in the river. He replied that they were the signs prohibiting bathing! A bath house was particularly important in the Romsey area because most men, and even some children, worked on the railways – a very dirty job!

On February 3rd 1927, the Bath House opened for the first time, an event recorded in the Cambridge Daily News, in an article titled ‘Councillors take a dip’, which is available in the Capturing Cambridge report. The Mayor unlocked the building with a golden key and all the councillors bought a ticket for the bath house, but didn’t actually use it! The first bath was taken by a man named Ben Benstead, along with his friend Doug Smith in the neighbouring cubicle. There was a problem with the heating so the bath was freezing cold; Ben said “Lukewarm?- Forget it! My first real bath was in stone-cold water!”.

It cost 4d for a bath (about £2.83 in today’s money), and with this soap and a towel was also provided, but the towels were only 3ft long and 18 inches wide! An extra towel could be hired for another 1d. The council discussed a discounted rate if a parent brought more than one child to the baths, but it is unclear if this was ever implemented; none of the residents’ accounts record this. You would pay this at the office when you entered, then men would go to the waiting room on the right, and women to the one on the left. Then, once a cubicle was free, you would be directed in there to bath. There were no taps on the baths so you had to call out to an attendant and then the water would gush in through a pipe. Lots of the residents remember this; Monica Smith recalls “So you put your foot in – ‘Ow! It’s too hot!’ – so you have to then call out [to the attendant] and say ‘Number (whatever number [cubicle] you’ve landed yourself in)’ and ask for cold water”. 

There was a law that, until 1927, forced men and women to bathe separately. This seems to be largely about enforcing morals upon the poor, rather than hygiene or any other factor. Men and women were also separated in the workhouse, but this was due from the fear that they would have another child, putting more strain on the system. In the workhouse, children were removed from their parents, fearing that their parents would be a bad example, but most likely, children bathed in the same bath as their parents in the Cambridge Bath House. 

The waiting room was also a social area. There are rumours of friendly card schools being run there! An article from the Cambridge Evening News in 1973 talks of Dolly, Queen of the sauna, who gave out relationship advice, put on music to dance to, and even read fortunes from tea leaves in the female waiting room.

A sauna was added in 1969 to help balance costs, but a reduction in custom meant that the baths were soon unsustainable. In 1978 they were given over to the community. In the 1980s Cambridge Darkroom, a group dedicated to making photography accessible to the wider public, occupied the space. They organised a project called ‘Photograph Yourself’, where members of the public were encouraged to take photos of themselves, providing a snapshot of the area’s residents. Today, the space is used by the local community groups such as Lifecraft, a charity which aims to promote self-help for those who have experience of mental health difficulties.

Discover More

To find out more about the Bath House visit: - it provides a comprehensive report on the building and it’s history, with personal accounts and lots of pictures.

The late closing date of the Bath House means that many local residents still remember it. You can chat to them, or arrange a visit the bath house yourself. It sits on the corner of Gwydir Street and Mill Road.

To arrange a visit email:



The Bath House for Mill Road Residents


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