History of the Victorian and Turkish Baths
The public baths opened in 1884 providing first and second-class plunge pools, a ladies plunge pool, slipper baths and laundry facilities.
The Turkish baths were always in the plan but got delayed and were eventually added in 1909 with a further addition of a Ladies waiting room and slipper baths (opened in 1920) to complete the public baths.
The Turkish baths have art nouveau style stained glass and the incredibly detailed Minton Hollins tiles that can be found in buildings across the world (including the Houses of Parliament). The baths are one of only 12 still in operation in the UK (with only nine open to the public and the only one in the North West of England).
The building has gained Grade 2 listed status in 2010 following a campaign by a former Labour MP Eric Martlew, with English Heritage noting that “Edwardian baths as a ‘very intact and complete example’ of a Turkish Baths suite”. Malcolm Shifrin author of the Victorian Turkish Baths book, notes that the city council denied that the baths were ever under threat.
In 2018 Carlisle City Council voted to close the James Street pools and relocate the main pool to the Sands Leisure Center. The 1970s pool is to be demolished as part of a huge development of the city’s train station. The project is part of the Borderlands Growth Deal. The decision to close the pools has left the future of the Turkish baths hanging in the balance.
In January 2021 the council commissioned a feasibility study by Mott MacDonald to look at repurposing the public baths.
The study took 14 months to complete and when published in February, proposed three options for the building, only one of which would keep the Turkish baths in regular use. The other options include: making the baths a private health spa facility, housing small scale civic events or the building being redeveloped for events and conferencing.
Given the checkered history of the city council in looking after its heritage buildings, the future of the Turkish baths is uncertain and not looking promising.
The Central Plaza Hotel was also a Grade 2 listed building that caught fire and has been closed since 2004 with the council providing minimum statutory care as they were not the owners of the site. The building was demolished in March 2019. The site of the former hotel is still empty. Similarly, the Lonsdale Cinema on Warwick Road had a Grade 2 listing for three years but was demolished in 2014 to create a car park.
Residents are concerned that the same fate that befell other heritage buildings could await the Turkish baths.
Friends of Carlisle Victorian and Turkish Baths
Given this background the Friends group was formed in May 2021 to ensure the safeguarding of this unique place.
The Friends group are committed to identifying a way for the Turkish baths to remain open for public use and create other complementary facilities in the original Victorian public baths that expand the facilities on offer and support the health and wellbeing of residents and visitors.
We have been actively engaged with the city council attending numerous meetings and asking for clarity on the council’s plans for the baths.
Restoring and extending the Turkish baths
The new Southern Gateway entrance to Carlisle Station will give visitors direct access to the Turkish baths in a couple of minutes. Previously, visitors who arrived by train would have had to exit to the north of the station and walk around 500m over the Victoria Viaduct and down James Street.
The Turkish baths were built for a capacity of 14 users. To realise the full potential of the Turkish baths the floor space and capacity of the Turkish baths must increase.
We believe this would be best achieved by making the 20m pool and its changing rooms part of the Turkish baths, and by creating a café bar and treatment rooms in the 1920 Ladies Waiting Room and slipper baths.
Moving the sauna and steam room to adjacent areas would further increase capacity. Heritage funding could be sought to fund a restoration project that would uncover and restore the terrazzo floor and original glazed bricks and tiling throughout the Turkish baths, and remove the false ceiling over the 20m pool to reveal the roof skylight.
The baths have a laundry which is currently underutilised, the Friends Group would like to develop a community laundry facility. This would give low-cost access to washing facilities to anyone who does not have their own facilities.
The Turkish baths in Harrogate are currently visited by over 40,000 people a year. With the proximity to the station and the city centre we believe that these changes would create an attractive and unique visitor experience in Carlisle.
The building is currently in a good structural condition but not all parts of it have been properly maintained (especially the ladies waiting room). There is significant risk that during the demolition of the 1970s pools and subsequent development of the site, the Turkish baths interior (especially the tiles and stained glass) will be irreparably damaged.
Studio Octopi have been commissioned to undertake an architectural survey and write a business plan to enable phased work and development to take place, which would be financed by grants, donations and heritage lottery funding.
The study took 14 months to complete and when published in February, proposed three options for the building, only one of which would keep the Turkish baths in regular use. The other options include: making the baths a private health spa facility, housing small-scale civic events or the building being redeveloped for events and conferencing.
All photographs by Tomasz Ondrusz are provided by the author.
You can visit the Victorian and Turkish Baths at James Street, Carlisle, CA2 5AH.
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