Even today more than 30 years after it closed people still fondly remember ‘the old bathing pool’. It’s a place where memories were made.
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You can’t help but feel sad standing on the derelict land that was once the site of the St Leonards and Hastings Bathing pool, you can almost hear the echo through time of the laughter, splashing and fun that people were having there from the 1930s until the 1980s.
From its opening in 1933 until its closure in 1986 the bathing pool was a focal point of the town. Talk to locals of a certain age and they will tell you how they learned to swim there, spent their school summer holidays there or met their future spouse there – in so many ways the bathing pool played a huge part in the lives of local people and in the life of the community itself.
Around 330 feet long by 90 feet wide it ranged in depth from just two feet to 15 feet and it took a reputed one million gallons of water to fill it. Of course in those days swimming pools were also seen as places where people could learn to dive and so the St Leonards and Hastings bathing pool had diving platforms all the way up to ten metres.
While we can get misty eyed about our memories of the bathing pool – and remember with fondness that it attracted 33,000 people in its first week of operation – one of the sad hard-nosed business facts about it is that apart from its first year of operation it never made a profit, it never covered its running costs. That’s why in 1959 it closed before re-opening a year later under the control of Alderman Sid Withers as a holiday camp.
The bathing pool was designed and built by Sidney Little who was the Borough Engineer. It opened in May 1933.
Mr Little was well versed in modern building techniques and chose to build the pool in reinforced concrete. The structure cost around £60,000 to build, about £3.5m in today’s terms.
The pool was opened on May 27th 1933 by Sir Humphry Rolleston, an eminent physician of the time who was President of the Medical Society of London, he performed the opening ceremony in front of 5,000 spectators.
The opening brought bus loads of local people and visitors to the town along the promenade to join in and enjoy what was seen as a momentous local occasion. It was sunny too which added to the party atmosphere and the bathing pool was festooned in flags and bunting. The Mayor introduced Sir Humphry and asked him to declare the pool open, a gun was fired and 250 bathers plunged into the dazzling clear blue waters and a diver stood poised on the edge of the 60ft diving board and threw off his cloak and launched into a perfect swallow dive. There was a parade of Victorian and Edwardian bathing costumes as well as diving and swimming exhibitions to complete a packed launch programme
Recruited to manage the facility was Tommy Mather the highboard diving champion from the 1934 Empire Games who introduced new methods of diving training including the use of belts and trampolines. Winifred Gibson a well known fitness expert of the time held her exercise classes on the decks of the pool.
All this meant the pool was hugely popular with residents and visitors to the town. It hosted swimming galas, beauty pageants and diving competitions and not just local events, it hosted many national swimming and diving championships and therefore played host to many international stars over the years.
As can be seen from the many pictures that still exist on a range of websites it was an impressive structure. The design of the building was intended to resemble a Greek or Roman amphitheatre with curved, stepped terracing for spectators on one side and a curved deck for sunbathing on the other. Overall though, the style was functional rather than classical with no Doric pillars or other classical architectural reference points.
The structure represented what has come to be seen as a transitional phase in lido design. In spite of the pool’s many contemporary features, as mentioned earlier it was not a commercial success. While Hastings and St Leonards was desperate to attract visitors the pool it ended up with was probably much too big for the town, for example the Black Rock Pool at Brighton, built around the same time, was only half the size.
Hastings and St Leonards Bathing Pool only made a profit in its first year and as early as 1946 the town council started trying to find someone to take a lease on the pool.
Its reopening in 1960 as a holiday camp gave the pool a new lease of life for a few years but as the 1970s dawned and the popularity of foreign package holidays grew, bathers dwindled. When threats of closure started to raise their head there was a local outcry and much debate about the future of the site took place. There were ideas to turn it in to a marine centre, a holiday complex, luxury housing and even the base for a roofing business but none of those came to fruition.
Facts had to be faced and it was recognised that the ‘Hi-de-Hi days’ were over at Hastings and St Leonards Bathing Pool. It closed its doors for the final time in 1986 and by 1993 what had been a dominant feature of the Hastings and St Leonards seafront for 60 years was razed to the ground. The ignominy of its end did not stop there as the rubble from its demolition was ground down and used for cement to help reconstruct the sea wall and to build a cycle way.
One of the main issues that faced the bathing pool for virtually its entire existence was its running costs. Even a modern indoor swimming pool is expensive to run with many operating at a loss, those running costs, however, can be mitigated where the pool is part of a larger facility, but there was little scope to be able to do that at the bathing pool which was hemmed in on all sides by existing buildings.
Numbers of visitors were already in decline and were dealt a big blow when West Marina train station closed in 1967, already continually loss making the further decline caused by the station’s closure would have made the pool unsustainable in the long term and it’s not clear what other options the council of the time had and ultimately they made the hard decision to shut it down.
What other options were there for the site though? There was discussion at the time about a new Shipwreck Heritage museum being created which could have included a Mary Rose style display of the recovered remains of the Amsterdam.
More recently there was a proposal for a Lido Beach Pavilion on part of the site of the old bathing pool. Planning permission was granted in 2012 but little has been heard about that project beyond the news in 2012 that Southern Water had identified an issue with a water storage tank beneath the site. At the time the Hastings Observer reported, “Southern Water, along with the Environment Agency are working to resolve the problem but the Lido team has confirmed that the new beach pavilion will not now open its doors before Spring 2013,” six years later we’re still waiting.
Who was Sydney Little?
Sidney Little was a civil engineer who left an indelible mark on Hastings and St Leonards.
Born in Carlisle in 1885 he worked for a time in Ipswich as the Borough Engineer before he was appointed Borough and Water Engineer for Hastings in 1926. His role later included that of Borough Planning Officer. He worked for the borough for 24 years and during that time he was responsible for implementing a number of major projects in the town.
Known on the South Coast of England as ‘The Concrete King’ Mr Little had great knowledge of reinforced concrete and many of his projects used this material.
Construction of the bathing pool came after he had built the Falaise Hall in 1928; the Great Sanders dam in 1929; the first promenade eastwards in 1930; the White Rock swimming pool in 1930 and Bottle Alley in 1933.
Improvements to the ‘front line’ sea defences allowed the creation, in Hastings, of the first underground car parks in the UK. And he created the covered promenade that was part of the sea defences that used concrete panels with thousands of glass fragments for decoration and is of course Bottle Alley.
And after the bathing pool came the front line promenade in 1934 when his plan to rebuild the promenade and sea wall from London Road to the Bathing Pool was approved. That work was completed by December 1938 when Darwell Reservoir was started. The total cost of the work over the ten years was £4 million (£190 million today) with some of the work being funded by central Government to create work for the unemployed.
- Have you read our other profiles on local landmarks
- Marine Court
- East Hill Lift