C) Cambridge Bath House


The Bath House on Mill Road was once a place where local people would visit to wash, as everyone did not have mains water like we do now. So many people would have to go along to their local ‘bath house’ to get clean! It was used as a Bath House from the late 1920s to the 1970s and helped improve hygiene in the local community.  ‘Gywdir House’  as it was previously known was built in the Victorian Era and was lived in by a number of local families from 1850 onwards, including a number of doctors and was therefore called ‘The Doctor’s House’ by many. 


This history trail is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. 

Work in the Victorian era was sweaty and dirty, but most people didn’t have running water or even a bath at home. In Cambridge you couldn’t even go and wash in the river because it was full of poo and other rubbish. When Queen Victoria visited in 1843 and asked the Master of Trinity why there was so much paper in the river Cam - he replied that they were “signs prohibiting bathing!” He didn’t want to say that was toilet paper and sewage floating down the river! This insanitary state of affairs led to the spread of diseases like cholera and typhoid the likes of which killed half of all children by the age of 15.

What Cambridge needed to get properly clean was a Public Bath House.

But the problem wasn’t just here in Cambridge, it existed across the entire country and in 1848 Queen Victoria’s Government passed the first Public Health Act. This set up local Boards of Health to look after the welfare of their city’s residents by providing sewerage and clean water. One of the first steps in Cambridge was the building of the Sewage Pumping Station – in 1894 – now home to the Cambridge Museum of Technology on Riverside.

But it took a lot longer for Cambridge to get its Bath House. In fact it took more than 30 years until a site was chosen in the Romsey area. It was particularly important to place it here because most men, and even some children, worked in factories and on the nearby railways in all sorts of dirty jobs!

In Cambridge in 1923 studies revealed that the vast majority of houses had no baths and the only place to bathe was in the kitchen with a bucket or a tin bath yet it still took 4 more years of campaigning before the council authorities finally built the Bath House on the corner of Gwydir Street and Mill Road.

In 1913, the council forced the owners to sell them “Gwydir House” - the house on this corner - because the site was required for street widening. The building was then demolished and discussions began on how to use the site. 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 the long awaited 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.

The builder installed eighteen slipper baths (those really massive ones that look like an old fashioned slipper that you have to climb into) and two “douche” baths (douche is the French word for shower so these baths had showers over them).

The council determined that there should be three members of staff: a male attendan t, 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.


The Bath House was finally opened on the 3rd February 1927 to great fanfare. Notice that the Cambridge coat of arms boasting River and Seahorses is placed above the front door. The mayor unlocked this door using a golden key and all the councillors bought a ticket, although they didn’t actually take a dip! The first bath was actually taken by a man named Ben Benstead, along with his friend Doug Smith in the neighbouring cubicle. But, not everything went to plan! There was a problem with the boiler and the bath was freezing cold;

Ben said “Lukewarm?- Forget it! My first real bath was in stone-cold water!”

Once it was up and running properly you paid four pennies for a bath (about £2.50 in today’s money) for which you also got soap and a towel – but beware - the towels were only 1 metre long and 45 centimetres wide!

There were different baths for men and women and it’s likely that children just got in the tub with their parents. You would pay your 4d 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 bathe, but there were no taps on the baths - you had to call out to an attendant and then - and only then - would the water gush in through a pipe.

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! There are rumours that games of cards and gambling went on there, and in the 1970s, the attendant, Dolly, used to give the women relationship advice, and even read their fortunes in their tea leaves!

A sauna was added in 1969 to help balance costs but a reduction in custom, because most people now had a bathroom at home, meant that the public baths became unsustainable. In 1978 the baths were removed and the building became a community centre. Today it is used for workshops and is the home to “Lifecraft”.

Back in the 1980s “Cambridge Darkroom”, a group dedicated to making photography accessible to the wider public, had 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.

Who said selfies were a modern invention !

C) Cambridge Bath House


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