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Looking back at Maindee baths – Newport’s stylish pool

IT WAS the place where generations of Newport children learned to swim and just once where dolphins frolicked. MARTIN WADE looks through the Argus archive to tell the story of Maindee pool.

WHEN the doors of Maindee pool were first flung open in July 1938, the gasps of awe could be imagined.

The baths’ “graceful” design, as the Argus described, was the last word in Art Deco style.

The report excitedly told us about “Newport’s new luxury swimming baths, built at a cost of nearly £40,000”.

The building, opened by the mayor of Newport, Alderman Mrs Hart, on July 15, 1938, contained two pools (the larger of which was 100 feet long) and could accommodate more than 1,000 people.

Readers were told that its “graceful, modern architecture” would ensure the baths were “ranked among the finest in the country.”

Their facilities were sorely needed, because: “we are living in an age where there is a national demand for physical fitness.”

According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, it was “the finest example of art deco swimming baths anywhere in Wales”.

The commission told how the baths “featured a terrazzo floor in the entrance hall, art deco bowl lights and lamps with metal stands comprising female figures holding orbs, and an imperial-type staircase which ascended to the upper floor and observation balconies”.

It added that: “The swimming pool sported a striking roof with seven tapering concrete arches rising from the side balconies”.

Apart from generations of Newport children learning to swim, the pool hosted sports like canoeing and water polo.

The pools also hosted many famous athletes. Gwent Olympic swimmer William John Brockway took his first strokes in Maindee swimming pool and his talent developed from there.

Mr Brockway made his first Olympic appearance aged 19 at the 1948 London Games when he reached the final of the 100 yards backstroke He went on to represent Great Britain again in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, when he captained the team.

In 1954 he won a gold medal in the 110 yards backstroke at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

He was born in Bristol in 1928 but, happily for his swimming career, moved with his family to Maindee aged five.

Another swimmer who used the pool from the earliest of days was Bernice Hooper.

She performed in a gala to mark the opening of pool in 1938 and the Argus photographed the former Newport swimming coach at the pool in 2004.

Bernice was the manager of Welsh swimming teams which competed at the Commonwealth Games in Australia and New Zealand, and was a swimming instructor at Newport Swimming Club – now City of Newport Swimming and Waterpolo Club.

She also taught swimming, as well as maths and history, at schools across Newport – including the former Durham Road Junior School, and Duffryn High School, which is now John Frost High School.

Among those she coached was Welsh swimmer Martyn Woodroffe, who went on to win a silver medal at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Alongside these human users of Newport’s palatial pool were some flippered visitors in the 1980s.

Before the days of stringent health and safety rules and concerns over animal rights, the people of Newport got the chance to see dolphins swim at Maindee baths in 1983.

The shows, which took place from Boxing Day in 1983 to January 1984 for three weeks, were hosted by TV wildlife presenter Terry Nutkins.

A letter in the Argus from April 2007 states the author, who is not named, asked the council to make their dream come true and allow them to swim with dolphins.

“I was about 15 at the time” he wrote: “and wrote to the Council, ‘Jim’ll Fix It’-style, asking if they could make my dream come true and allow me to swim with the dolphins. A couple of days later I was being dragged around the deep end of Maindee swimming pool on the dorsal fin of a real live dolphin!”

He told how “Two fully grown dolphins were carried through the foyer, up the steps and into the main swimming pool, where they stayed for about a week!”

Such days of innocence and wonder were not to last and although the pool’s life of swimming lessons, water polo and canoes continued into the new century, its days were numbered.

The doors of Maindee pool were closed for the final time on December 23, 2005 and the baths were replaced by the new pool at Spytty.

The baths would echo no more to the excited shouts of children. Instead it would hear only the occasional intruder, mostly just curious, but some with malign intent.

Arsonists struck twice in one day at the Grade II listed building in July 2007. The first fire, which started in the former gym on the first floor, was put out and firefighters left the scene. But three hours later they were back after fire swept through the ground and first floors of the building.

Investigators said both were started deliberately – and probably by the same people.

Maindee sub officer Tony Devlin told the Argus at the time that the inside of the building was devastated by the blaze.

He said vandals broke into the building through a skylight before setting fire to rubbish they brought into the building.

At the time, Newport council said they are willing to listen to offers for the building, which had closed 18 months before, in a bid to prevent vandals targeting it.

In May 2008 a buyer took the council up on their offer and paid just £76,000 for the landmark swimming baths at an auction.

The art-deco building was snapped up for the bargain price after a short bidding war between three men at a public auction in the King’s Hotel.

Auctioneers Newland Rennie Wilkins had expected the pool to sell for more than £100,000, and there were shocked gasps from the 40-strong audience when the hammer fell at £76,000, after bidders started showing interest at just £60,000.

But two years on, the baths were again put up for auction and a local couple snapped up the building for £56,000.

Newport couple Kay and Gary Gassor planned to transform the baths into a community centre.

Mr and Mrs Gassor told the Argus of their memories of taking their three children swimming there.

Readers were told however, that: “The front desk chairs and changing room signs may still be there but the building, complete with smoke damage, is a long way from how the couple remember it.”

It seemed then that the baths would rise like a damp phoenix following the arson attacks.

In 2010 Maindee pool was used for location shots in the BBC TV series Being Human which featured Poldark star Aidan Turner.

Clean up work to restore the grade two listed building was partly funded by the BBC after it finished filming the supernatural drama at the site.

The Argus was hopeful that the venture would be successful, saying: “For too many years this grand Grade II listed building has been allowed to lie neglected.

“Hopes have been dashed before but now this looks like a real opportunity to finally get this building back as a focus for the community.”

Sadly hopes were to be dashed again as this bid to bring life to a much-love Newport landmark were unsuccessful.

(Taken from South Wales Argus August 2017)

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