On this day … 24 May 1851

The Preston Chronicle announced the opening of the Saul Street Baths and Washhouses. The arrangements are interesting. There were 63 private bath rooms: 16 first class for men, 8 first class for women; 31 second class for men, and 8 for women. Why 47 baths for men and only 16 for women? And why a class system?

The description continues:

The first-class bath rooms are painted white, and are fitted up complete with all the conveniences of a dressing room, including brushes, combs, &c. The door-handles, hat-pegs, and looking-glass frames, are made of white porcelain, and present a very clean appearance. The floors of these rooms will be carpeted. The second-class baths have merely a hat-peg, a seat, and a foot-board.

The swimming bath was 34 feet by 24 feet, and there were also vapour and shower baths.

There were 38 separate laundry compartments:

… so that the woman using these is just as much secluded as if in a private house, and has all the advantages of hot and cold water and steam, and a “horse” for drying the clothes. The time occupied in washing the clothes of an average family will not be more than about a quarter of an hour, and the charge will be one penny.

How on earth did the women complete their laundry in a quarter of an hour?

Saul Street Baths Preston in 1938
Saul Street Baths in 1936, shortly before their closure and replacement with the building that most Preston readers will remember.

The opening was marked by a civic ceremony and procession to the baths with corporation officers dressed up in their full regalia, followed by a meal at the town hall and lengthy speeches. One of the speakers hoped that the baths would help keep the poor away from drink:

It was well known that drunkenness was one of the most prolific sources of crime, and the magistrates could bear him out in that; for nearly every crime that came before their notice was attributable In some measure to drunkenness. Many might think there was no connection between that subject and baths and washhouses; but it was a well known fact that cleanliness was conducive to temperance, in a very high degree. Living in a fetid atmosphere, the lower classes had recourse to intoxicating liquors as stimulants.

The assembled guests then drank to his health with the mayor’s champagne.

Then the vicar of Preston, the Rev John Owen Parr (no stranger to these posts) rose to speak, and, after thanking the mayor for his generous provision of champagne, told the guests that the baths:

… would contribute materially to the welfare – particularly of that class of the less wealthy and less gifted of the inhabitants of this town … The poor, he was sorry to say, were much attached to their dirt. ( (Laughter) There was nothing so shocking to a poor man as to be obliged to peel off his dirt, either natural or artificial. (Laughter)

He remembered an anecdote of a man who, on being told that another changed his shirt every morning, replied, “Dear me, what a nasty fellow he must be; I only change mine once a week!” (Laughter)

He believed that when once people had learned to be clean, when once in their lives they had become clean men and women, they go away regenerated as it were – they go away with a sense of self-respect, and probably begin to cultivate habits of cleanliness, which … was next to godliness.

He believed that nothing could more effectually contribute to make the poor people of this town good servants and respectable members of society. He believed that when a man once got into the habit of taking care of himself, he was an infinitely more valuable animal than he was before; for cleanliness was accompanied by habits of providence, thrift, and forethought, which habits were sadly wanting in this town. (Hear, hear)

What is particularly depressing about this expression of the vicar’s disdain for his poorer parishioners is not just his comments but the laughter with which they were greeted by his fellow guests.

A slipper bath and shower at Preston's old Saul Street Baths
One of the first-class slipper baths
A laundry room at Preston's old Saul Street Baths
The laundry facitlities at the old baths, these lasted until 1870, when commercial laundries became more popular

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