THE closure of Oxford’s last public slipper baths in 1978 brought to an end a 120-year public service that had started with a bang.

Before the middle of the 19th century, the rich had servants to stagger upstairs to fill their baths with cans of hot water, while the poor washed as and when they could with water from a communal pump or well.

Oxford Mail:

The East Oxford slipper baths pictured just before their closure in March 1978. The council said the equipment inside was obsolete and near the end of its useful life

A cholera outbreak in Oxford in 1849 brought into focus the need for public baths – more than 1,000 families in the six city centre parishes had no proper place to wash at that time.

The City Baths and Washhouses, at the corner of New Road and Castle Street, opened in 1852.

Memory Lane this week

But 15 minutes after the opening ceremony, there was a “loud rumbling noise resembling distant thunder, followed by a tremendous crash”.

The cistern had blown up, killing two people and injuring seven. Not surprisingly, local people stayed clear of the building and the baths closed 13 years later.

Despite that unfortunate start, the public later warmed to the idea of visiting a public bath, particularly those living in the many city homes without bathrooms.

The city council established slipper baths – so called because they looked like a slipper, with one end deeper than the other and a sloping back for bathers to rest against – in St Ebbe’s, South and East Oxford, St Barnabas and Greyfriars.

Oxford Mail:

Three regulars at the East Oxford baths with a petition in 1977 to prevent their closure – left to right: Mrs C Fowler, Daisy Franklin and Lily Portman

The South Oxford baths, in Lake Street, opened in 1961 and closed a year later through lack of use, but the others were well used.

In 1954, more than 700 people in East Oxford, where a third of the 3,748 homes did not have a bath, signed a petition calling for public baths.

The building, at the corner of Howard Street and Catherine Street, opened in April 1959, with six baths and four showers. A bath cost sixpence and a shower fourpence.

More than 250 people attended in the first four days and within six months, 6,488 had used it.

But as the 1960s progressed and more homes had bathrooms fitted, attendances began to fall.

Charges were increased and opening times reduced, but to no avail.

The last one to close was in East Oxford, in March 1978.

City engineer David Butler said: “Every bath costs about 10 times as much as we charge. It reflects the general improvement in housing in East Oxford.”

The days of the municipal scrubdown were over.

  • Do you want alerts delivered straight to your phone via our WhatsApp service? Text NEWS or SPORT or NEWS AND SPORT, depending on which services you want, and your full name to 07767 417704. Save our number into your phone’s contacts as Oxford Mail WhatsApp and ensure you have WhatsApp installed.