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Newcastle City Pool’s hidden history

What do boxing, be-bopping and a bank robbery have in common?

Believe it or not, they are all activities which have been linked to the historic Newcastle City Pool and Turkish Baths.

Fusion Lifestyle, the charity behind a £5m redevelopment of the popular venue, has been discovering the weird and wonderful stories – including a fiendish historic heist – in partnership with local researchers at North of England Civic Trust.

The charity hopes that the stories will inspire people from across the North East to come forward with their own memories of using the pool and baths.

Sport and dances

The archives reveal that, from the opening of the venue in 1928 until the early 1960s, the pools were unheated and couldn’t be used for swimming during winter months. Instead they were covered over with temporary flooring and used for dances, roller-skating, exhibitions and sport.

The first winter dance, running alongside the City Hall’s winter concerts, cost £358 to run and generated £643 of income at 1s 6d a head.

Local firms including Vickers-Armstrong and Fenwick regularly hired the buildings for their Christmas dances.

But putting on dances like these came with its risks.

In 1954, damage to the temporary sprung floor by ‘be-bopping’ was noted on so many occasions that the style of dancing was banned. There was even a committee debate about whether an official should be sent to enforce the ban.

On the same flooring, boxing matches took place from the late 1940s, and repeated requests for wrestling were finally granted in 1958.

After swimming resumed all year round in the 1960s, demand at pools remained high. In 1979 members of the public protested that swimmers training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics were “hogging” the pools, according to an article in the Evening Chronicle.

The City Pool’s sporting links go on.

Famous jockey Peter Greenall recalled in an interview with The Journal in the 1980s that he was taken to the Newcastle Turkish Baths as an amateur jockey by the inimitable North East racehorse trainer Arthur Stephenson.

Greenall said: “We used to go to the Turkish Baths in Newcastle together. After about an hour I’d be boiled like a lobster and try to slip out. But a watchful eye used to peer at me over the top of The Sporting Life and I’d sit down again. He wasn’t going to have his jockey putting up overweight.”

The Second World War

The pools could not be used during World War II due to fuel rationing, so instead the rooms were used for the fire guard, an emergency telephone exchange and for emergency council offices in case the Town Hall was bombed.

The baths also played regular host to a “do-nut dugout club” for American servicemen.

A wide range of exhibitions took place in the bath halls themselves, with topics on everything from ‘digging for victory’ and home-making, to furniture and corsets.

Local societies held regular activities and fairs including the Communist Party, the Newcastle Caged Bird Association, and groups interested in Labradors, botany and pigeons.

The 1897 Sunderland Bank Robbery

But surely the greatest revelation from local archives is that the original Turkish Baths – which date back to 1838 – played their part in a Victorian bank heist worthy of a Sherlock Holmes story.

The Sunderland Bank Robbery in 1897 saw more than £6,000 – more than £6 million today – stolen by two fraudsters who, according to the Pall Mall Gazette, had gained possession of the bank keys “by a clever scheme”.

It emerged that the fraudsters schmoozed the bank manager’s son and a junior clerk by treating them to a steam in the Newcastle Turkish Baths.

While the two officials were relaxing, the bank keys were taken from their unattended clothes, wax casts were made and the forged copies were used for a night-time break-in.

Fortunately for modern bathers the refurbished baths, which are due to open in 2018, will be fully equipped with secure modern lockers!

The Future of the Baths

The baths were closed in April 2013 but a community campaign by Re-open Newcastle Turkish Baths Group drew attention to the building and Fusion Lifestyle saw the opportunity to add the building to its impressive UK portfolio.

Fusion Lifestyle ploughs all profits from its operations back into the business to provide affordable health and fitness facilities for all.

The redevelopment will bring the pool and Turkish Baths back into operation, as well as seeing the introduction of a new spa, treatment rooms, fitness suite, exercise studios and café.

Peter Kay, chief executive of Fusion Lifestyle, said: “As a charity which specialises in redeveloping leisure facilities this must be one of our most extraordinary projects yet.

“We know that there are more stories out there in the local community, so I’d encourage everyone to share their fond memories on the ‘Newcastle City Pool and Turkish Baths’ Facebook page or via our website where you can also register for regular updates.

“We’re committed to a redevelopment which celebrates the history of this incredible building, making it available to the whole community – apart from bank robbers, of course.”

Jules Brown, conservation and planning manager at North of England Civic Trust, said: “It was fascinating researching the history of this grade-II listed building.

“You never quite know what you’re going to find, but we had a feeling that lots of weird and wonderful things would come to light once we started looking.”

Cait Read, from Re-open Newcastle Turkish Baths & City Pool Group, said: “We look forward to discovering more of people’s memories and the history of the building over the next year.”

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