A Vintage Tea for A Vintage Building

Edinburgh Leisure | Tuesday 25th June 2024 8:00am

A Vintage Tea for A Vintage Building - 
Have your cake as Leith Victoria Swim Centre celebrates turning 125 years

One of Edinburgh Leisure’s five Victorian pools, Leith Victoria Swim Centre, is celebrating 125 years of ‘serving’ the city of Edinburgh with a Bake-Off on Friday, 28th June, with everyone invited to join in the festivities.

Local businesses, staff and customers will embrace their inner Mary Berry to create delicious cakes and tray bakes to raise funds for Edinburgh Leisure’s Active Communities programmes.

Edinburgh Leisure’s Active Communities supports 12,500 people who face the greatest barriers to getting active annually – people affected by health conditions, inequalities, and poverty.  As a venue, Leith Victoria Swim Centre holds 23 Active Community classes each week and is one of Edinburgh Leisure’s busiest venues supporting hundreds of people in the local community.

The Bake-Off judging will take place at 11.20 – 11.30 am following a busy Aqua and yoga class that takes place earlier in the building when participants often congregate for a coffee and a blether afterwards. Prizes will be awarded to the best bakers.

June Peebles, Edinburgh Leisure’s previous Chief Executive, who retired in March 2024 after 38 years’ service with Edinburgh Leisure, will be Chief Judge, along with Jen Holland, their new CEO as well as one of Leith Victoria’s regular customers Christine Findlay, 71 years, who attends 19 classes a week at Leith Viccies, as it is affectionately known locally.

The original Victoria Leith Baths were opened on 30th June 1899 by Provost John Bennet. The original plaque is still on display in the entrance hall at Leith Victoria Swim Centre and another one on the building’s exterior says, ‘Leith School Board, Swimming Baths, 1896’. There is still the old red and white ‘Baths’ sign on the exterior of the building. 

Leith Swimming Baths (now restored) linked to the ‘Public Baths’ (i.e. rows of enamel baths) and Laundry (both now demolished to create the Victoria Swim Centre).  The baths were in use until the late 1970s, due to the high number of Leith dwellings lacking bathrooms up to that time.  In the good old days, men got changed on one side of the pool, and ladies on the other.   Obviously that no longer happens but the baths do have individual changing cubicles around the outside of the pool.

Swimming is Britain’s most popular participation sport, with nearly one in four people swimming at least once a month, which equates to around 80 million visits to swimming pools recorded every year.

Public baths have formed a vital part of community life since the 1846 Act of Parliament.

From the earliest subscription baths of the Georgian period and the first municipal baths in Liverpool in 1829, to the current generation of leisure pools with their flumes and potted palm trees, in both the public and private sectors the golden era of pool design fell between the 1880s and 1914. During this period, over 600 baths were constructed, many rich in architectural detail and technological innovation, reflecting the civic pride of their creators, as greater awareness of hygiene and physical fitness brought safe swimming and recreation to the urban masses.  Leith Victoria is no exception.

Gordon McLeod, 82 years, travels to Leith Victoria Swim Centre, as it is affectionately known, from Duddingston, three times a week to exercise in the pool despite living with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye condition meaning he has limited eyesight.  Gordon’s father, Joseph Banks McLeod, worked at Leith Victoria for 50 years as the boiler engineer for the wash house, and Gordon attributes the reason he still attends so regularly is due to nostalgia and the connection to his father.

Gordon recalled: “My father used to stoke the boilers to heat the plunges, the 12 hot baths, which cost tuppence to use.  There used to be a big coal pit beside the building where the coal lorries used to come and dump the coal.  You would get carbolic soap – it was a mild disinfectant – for free!  My dad would often bring some home.”

Pat Fraser, 85 years old, who comes twice a week, still has her swim certificates from 1948.  Although she didn’t learn to swim here, she used to attend Leith Victoria with her school, The Hermitage. She has been coming for over 50 years, and in the early days of her marriage in the early 60s when the house she lived in in Henderson Street didn’t have a bath, Pat and her husband would come to use the wash facilities.

Brought up in the Colonies in Lochend Road, Christine Findlay, 71 Years old, has been using the centre since her childhood and continues to use Leith Victoria today. Christine said: “I’ve been using the centre for years.  Many people came for the hot baths, but we were lucky as we had a bath in our house, so didn’t need to use those facilities.

One of the Bake-Off judges, Christine, who still works as a carer attends 19 classes, six days a week at Leith Victoria. She used to swim seven days a week but now only swims on Fridays. And Christine explains why people keep coming back: “Viccies is a community. This is my second home, and everyone here is like your second family. I’ve made great friends and even go on holiday with people I’ve met here. I’ve been coming since my childhood and this continued when I had my family and I still come with my grandchildren today. Without this place, I don’t know what I’d do. We support each other through the good times and the bad.”

Louise Bathgate, Manager at Leith Victoria explained: “At 125 years old, Leith Victoria Swim Centre is rich in history, as well as holding a special place in so many people’s hearts locally, with generations of families having learnt to swim here. Our Bake-Off is a great way to celebrate with our customers but at the same time, raising much-need funds for Edinburgh Leisure’s Active Communities programme, which supports over 12,500 annually. It relies on external funding to make it happen and the funds raised by this event, will ensure that we can continue to help many more.”

Located just off Great Junction Street (with car parking off Bonnington Road) in Leith, ‘Viccies’ has retained its 19th-century charm but added a modern twist to provide everything needed for an active lifestyle, including a 25-yard Victorian pool, a large modern gym, fitness studio and dedicated cycle studio.

The pool underwent a major six-month refurbishment in 2019, reopening on 2 March 2020, before having to shut due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Refurbishment works in the swimming pool included mechanical and electrical works, improvements to the ventilation system, and structural improvements to the hall including the windows, sandstone structure and roof. Until the refurbishment, Leith Victoria Swim Centre had two ‘hot baths’, which were located just off the original reception, which could be used by members of the public for a small fee of £1.75. It was perfect for those living in the nearby modern flats, which may not have had a bath or even the old tenement flats that did not have a bath.  However, during the refurbishment from 2019-2020, they were got rid of.

Leith Victoria’s gym also had a refurbishment in 2023.  The Leith Victoria gym was the first in Scotland to be kitted out with Life Fitness' brand-new high spec cardio equipment with 24" HD consoles. The machines have access to apps such as Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, YouTube, Spotify and Freeview TV to make those cardio sessions a whole lot better. The cardio machines are also integrated with On Demand coach-led workouts.

The gym also had new equipment throughout, including resistance machines, pulleys, racks, barbells, dumbbells and plates, and had an additional half rack added, and a new glute drive, and made space for extra benches.