The Slipper Baths

On 14 February 1955, the Far Cotton Slipper Baths were officially opened by the Mayor of Northampton. The Mayor commented that the baths were badly needed in the area. In fact, the neighbourhood included more than 1,000 homes that did not have a bathroom. The baths underwent a period of fluctuating attendance and at one point in 1961, the Northampton Baths Committee was considering closing the facility. But a successful petition from local people kept the baths open for a while longer.

Derek Cooper remembers working at the baths in the 1960s.

"During the period 1960-1968, I worked at the Mounts Baths in various jobs and in later years at Midsummer Meadow Baths. From time to time, I was sent to Far Cotton Slipper Baths to cover holidays and sickness. I think the lady who normally worked there was a Mrs Middleton.

"At that time the building consisted of 12 cubicles, a bath in each, with six baths on one side for men, and six baths on the other side for women. I think it was open from 10am to 5pm on Wednesdays, 10am to 8pm on Thursdays, and 9am to 6pm on Saturdays.

"My job was to start the boiler, take the money for the bath, and perhaps soap, towel, and (for the rich customers) bath cube. In those days, I had a ticket machine like they used on the buses, with a dial like an old fashioned telephone. I issued a ticket for everything including the soap but not for the bath cube.

"I had to clean the baths after they had been used. This was ok most of the time, but sometimes people left the plug in, which meant I had to put my arm in their dirty water to empty it. I do remember a local coalman used the bath regularly: a very dirty bath, but good honest muck, so it didn't bother me.

"Sadly, although many people did not have bathrooms in their houses, the slipper baths weren't used a great deal. I think people preferred to wash in the kitchen sink (as I did until I lived in my first house at age 21). I think only about 50 people used the slipper baths per week. Most of them came on Saturday.

"Often on a Wednesday, no-one came at all. I can remember a lady who used to come but if she saw me in the office, she went back home because she didn't want to have a bath with only her and a man on the premises.

"To be honest, it was very boring working there. When I had to work there for several weeks, I asked the Boss for some paint and painted all the cubicles! The building was never very warm in the winter and I was always cold. I used to ride a little motor bike and one day I was so cold on the journey back to Kingsthorpe, I ran into the back of a car, denting the boot with my helmet.

"Another problem was that the lady, Mrs Middleton, used the electric kettle to boil milk which meant that the tea always tasted a bit strange! In the end I took a flask.

"I left Northampton in 1968 to become Baths Superintendent at the new swimming pool in Wellingborough."

More memories of the Slipper Baths and taking a bath in Far Cotton!

"The block of flats off Main Road at the bottom of Towcester Road stand on the site of what used to be the municipal slipper baths. When you mention this fact, a lot of people ask, 'What are slipper baths?' Well they were a facility provided by the borough council so that the people of old Far Cotton, most of whom lived in houses without the luxury of a bathroom, could go and enjoy a bath in clean and warm surroundings - something we fortunately now all take for granted in our own homes.

"I was brought home from a newly opened Barratt Maternity Home in 1935 to number 5 Alton Terrace, a row of nine small three-bedroom houses, that backed onto Main Road Primary and Junior School. The house had no electricity and was lit by gas downstairs, with candles for when we went to bed. The lavatory was down the small back yard, with, of course, no form of lighting. So a call of nature on a cold, wet, winter's night was not something to look forward to. There was just one cold water tap over a small stone sink in the kitchen, and it was here that everyday ablutions were performed.

"Every so often, usually on a Friday night, we would have a bath. And what excitement that was! The big kettle and all the saucepans that would fit on the gas stove were filled with water and left to heat up, after making sure that the gas meter under the stairs had been fed with plenty of pennies. In the living room, the fire would be built up with coal, and the little rug, made from little strips of cloth pulled through a piece of hessian sacking, was rolled up to save it getting wet. Then the galvanised zinc bath that hung on the wall in the yard would be brought in and placed on the linoleum, in front of the now brightly burning fire. The hot water was then carried in from the kitchen and poured into the bath, into which a handful of soapflakes had been added to make lots bubbles.

"It was a case of youngest first. No time for luxuriating! Hair washed first with the soap suds nearly always finding their way into the eyes. A quick, comforting rub of hair and face with a towel from Mum, followed by a brisk wash all over with the flannel smelling faintly of carbolic from the red Lifebuoy toilet soap. All too quickly it was time to get out to be rubbed dry by Mum and inspected to see that nothing had been missed. Then a quick cup of cocoa before being taken up to bed. I have never thought of it until now, but I suppose Mum would have gone back down and, with a drop more hot water, taken the opportunity of a good wash, because nothing was ever wasted in those days.

"Sadly, Mum died when I was ten-and-a-half and everything changed. A maiden aunt came to look after us and there were no more bath nights in front of the fire. I was made to have a strip-wash at the kitchen sink, standing on a slatted wooden board to keep my feet off the cold stone floor. There were no more cuddles or cups of cocoa. And this is how it was until in 1954, when, having had a one year deferment, I was called up to do my two years' National Service. It was a life-changing experience in many ways, but for me, one of the best was being able to have a hot shower, almost every day if I wanted.

"I was eventually posted to Germany, but I did get home on leave twice. It was on my first trip home that I saw that the land in front of the house where the old Cotton Manor House had stood, was being cleared and that the eight-foot high stone wall on Main Road had gone. On my second leave, I found that an industrial cold storage unit for meat had been built adjoining the Tivoli car park, and adjoining that, work had started on what was to be a municipal slipper bath.

"On my return to England in 1956, I came home to Alton Terrace to find that nothing had changed, except for one thing -I no longer had to endure the strip-wash in the cold kitchen, because the new slipper baths were open. This was something the residents of old Far Cotton had needed and pleaded for, for many years and it would make life so much easier for many people.

"Of course, the most popular time for a visit to the baths was Friday evening or on Saturday, and if you went, then you had to be prepared to queue. But even that was comparatively pleasant as the foyer was clean and warm, with comfortable seats and a counter boasting a smart Formica top behind which stood a formidable lady in a smart white uniform. She took your money and would stand no nonsense - it was she who must be obeyed. Behind her were several shelves, on which were kept clean towels, flannels, soap and shampoo etc, for those who had not brought their own. Of course, ever mindful of cost, most of us arrived clutching a bag containing everything we needed for the occasion.

"We would sit in our seats, hotching-up one place each time a bath became vacant, until at last you were called to the counter to pay your shilling, having established you did not need bath salts or shampoo. You were then escorted through the swinging doors by the lady in white, along a row of cubicle doors behind which could be heard much spluttering and splashing, until your appointed one was reached. Entering, she would take from her pocket a large tap handle which she fitted to the top of the hot tap, which was very large so that it would deliver the hot water quite quickly. The spotless white bath quickly received the allotted amount of hot water (I think there must have been a mark, because we always seemed to get the same depth) and the hot-tap handle was returned to the pocket. You were informed that you could use as much cold water as you liked (the handle remained on that tap) and not to take too long, as there were others who wished to use the baths.

"People today, with every modern convenience in their own home, could not imagine the pleasure we gained from being able to sink down in the clean, warm water. Of course, you could not enjoy it for too long (I seem to remember we were allowed twenty minutes - or was it fifteen?) or you would hear a firm knock on the door and a sharp reminder that there were others waiting, which, of course, was only fair. If it was at all possible, the best idea was to attend on a day other than Friday or Saturday, because then she underwent a complete personality change and allowed you to soak for as long as you wished.

"I seem to remember that there was a sauna facility there too. I never ever made use of it and now in later life (having enjoyed the Turkish Baths at the Mounts) I wish that I had, because I am sure the lady in the white coat would have ensured that the standard was nothing but the best. For most residents of old Far Cotton however, the sauna was regarded as something for the toffs who had the luxury of a bath in their own home.

"I was only to use the slipper baths for thee years, because happily, in 1959, I married Ruth and set up home in Penrhyn Road - in spite of being warned by my father that I was a damn fool for saddling myself with a mortgage. How wrong he was! I had entered the Twentieth Century with electricity, hot water, a bath - and no journey down the yard to use the toilet.

"I cannot recall when the slipper baths closed, but when Old Cotton was cleared to make way for the industrial estate and the inhabitants were resettled in new houses on the Briar Hill estate, the need for the baths had virtually disappeared. By that time people were having baths installed in the older homes that still lacked that facility.

"The baths were a vital social need that sadly had arrived thirty years too late. With the majority of the work force of the area being engaged on the railway, in the foundries, and in factories, it meant they all came home dirty to homes similar to the one I grew up in. We tend to look back on yesteryear through rose-tinted spectacles, but we must remember - it wasn't all beer and skittles!"

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