The idea of a bathing place in the canal for the youth of Devizes first cropped up in 1870. A particular supporter of the scheme was Mr Charles Clarke, who was in the habit of walking to the railway bridge below Foxhangers to swim. He took it upon himself to contact the GWR and negotiate the use of an area of canal.
The Wiltshire Independent reported on the 14th of April 1870 that although the idea had been getting nowhere fast, largely due to the apathy, or lack of sympathy, of the owners of the canal, now, thanks to Mr Clarke, they were finally in a position to proceed.
The GWR agreed to provide an area about 150 feet by 50 feet between Trust Lock (lock 48) and Maton Lock (lock 49, near St Peter’s Church), in pound 24, and rent this site for £5 per annum. They would clear the pound of mud, which was then at a depth of 15 to 18 inches. A boundary would be constructed about 8 feet higher than water level, and one end of the area would be floored and covered over to create changing rooms. It was also proposed to use railway ballast to line the bottom, over the clay puddling, to make it safer for non-swimmers.
The cost of the scheme was estimated as at least £200. To pay for this it was proposed to form a company and sell 10 shilling and 20 shilling shares, in return for which the shareholders could swim there without charge. Ongoing costs would be met by charging non-shareholders for single sessions, weekly or monthly tickets. A Committee was formed to manage the scheme, with the Mayor, Dr Clapham, at its head.
The bathing place was eventually opened by 1878. (W.R.O. 844, Corp. Mins. 1875–82, 15 March 1878)
On 21st June 1883 the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette reported that Alderman Reynolds had announced to the Bathing Place Committee that persons unknown were “committing nuisances in contravention of the Bye-Laws”, in the evenings, when entry to the Bathing Place was free. One assumes from the ensuing discussion that he was referring to men defecating in the pool. He proposed stationing a plain clothes policeman there to catch the offenders. The committee members discussed how the bathing place was cleaned, and it was explained that as a considerable number of boats passed through the adjacent lock, so water flushed through frequently. The committee concluded that now that the matter had now been publicised, this would probably deter the offenders.
On 27th September 1883 the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette reported that at a meeting of the Urban Sanitary Committee Mr Gillman noted that a number of broken bottles had been thrown into the bathing place, and that several bathers had cut their feet as a result. Mr Reynolds promised to look into the matter.
On July 4th 1889 the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette reported the death by drowning of a militiaman, Private Butcher, despite the efforts of the manager, Mr Daniel G Carr, to save him.
Opening was extended to women in 1890. On 17th July 1890 there was an advertisement in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette as follows:
Devizes Bathing Place
The Urban Sanitary Authority give notice that the Swimming Bath at the Devizes Bathing Place is now ready for the use of Ladies with a female attendant on the following days and times, viz.:-
Mondays, 6 to 9 am
Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, 11 to 1 and 2 to 4 pm
Wednesdays, 4 to 6 pm
In December 1911 when attending Marlborough College, Charles Sorley visited Devizes Barracks for an oral examination. Sorley wrote,
After lunch we went over the barracks. I had thought that a Tommy’s life was one of comparative hardship. But at Devizes I was disillusioned. They are fed twice as well as we are at Marlborough bacon every morning for breakfast, and eggs for tea and as much butter and jam as they like […] They have two soccer grounds one quite level and a bathing place in the canal. So I should not think they have much to complain of.
(From ‘The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley’).
During the war soldiers continued to use the Bathing Place. It continued in use until 1936, when a new pool was opened. The Western Daily Press reported on July 20th 1936:
Devizes Swimming Pool Opened – One of the most up to date in the West.
Brigadier General Lord Roundway opened the new swimming pool at Devizes. The pool which is provided on a site in Rotherstone Gardens, given by Lord Roundway, fulfils a long-felt want, the old baths, which consisted of a fenced portion of the Kennet and Avon Canal having been the subject of many complaints for the last few years. The new pool cost £3,500 and is considered one of the most up to date in the West of England. Every form of modern equipment is provided, and the whole scheme carried out according to the regulations of the Ministry of Health.
The old bathing place remained on mas of the canal until at least 1961.
I first hired a narrowboat with two school friends in 1978, and I have loved canals ever since. I live in Royal Wootton Bassett, and I am a professional genealogist, building family trees, and conducting WW1 research. I am also an expert on the history of teasmades.