Swimming in St. Albans A Brief History

Cottonmill Swimming Baths

In 1883 the Corporation of St Albans established the first swimming ‘baths’ for the town. Whether the former Cotton Mill was demolished at that time, or in the years previously, is not clear. Judging by the 1897 Ordnance Survey map of the area, facilities were basic at best. Indeed, it is clear that the river bank and river itself were adapted and modified to form the ‘baths’. The baths then were part of the river. The banks of the river were lined with wooden planks in an area which had a suitable depth for swimming. The bathers,changed on the riverbank and a hut was constructed to give them some privacy. The river must have been quite deep at that time as diving took place from a concrete platform.The following letter was printed in the ‘Herts Advertiser’ on 23rd August 1890:

“Sir - Anyone who visits the present institution in Cotton Mill Lane, dignified with the title of St Albans Swimming Baths will know what a dreadful travesty they are. A beginner who has to touch the bottom to learn is in fear that at any moment his feet may be cut by a sharp flint-stone, or else in the next minute he may be up to his knees in mud. The accommodation for diving is wretched, and the wooden planks which line the sides are covered with slime and are most unpleasant”.

This appears almost comical by modern standards – but wait a moment, and consider more recent events. In 1905 a purpose-built outdoor complex was opened adjacent to the river, and fronting Cottonmill Lane and its new bridge: this was again modified in 1927.

In 1979, the County Education department decided to stop swimming lessons in the Cottonmill pool. The use of the pool had diminished and it was said to be wasting money. Then with the opening of the Westminster Lodge leisure centre, the baths were eventually closed. The premises are currently used by the St Albans Sub-Aqua Club, familiarly known as ‘the dive club’.

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Westminster Lodge. Appears on the scene.

St Albans council built the first Westminster Lodge sports facility in Verulam park in 1971and the Salmon Club was founded in the same year by a group of like minded people who saw a need to provide swimming as part of dealing with and being beneficial to many disabled people in the St Albans district. Discussions with the council resulted in the provision of free pool time for the club at this venue, an agreement which still exists to this day and is honoured by the current franchisee.

Some of the founding members are still active within the Club having given many years of service to the needs of the disabled.

Westminster Lodge (2)

After over 35 years of service the original Westminster Lodge was replaced by the current facility on a site adjacent to the original one

Before construction the site was given over to local archaeologists who uncovered a number of interesting discoveries

Archaeology Summary

The main features found in the trenches include a Roman building, tentatively thought to be a mill, which appears to have been partially demolished in Roman or medieval periods, with the building materials quite possibly being reused in buildings such as the Abbey. In addition, a ditch has been found close by which could be interpreted as a ‘leat’, or artificial aqueduct dug into the ground, which could have fed the mill. Preliminary dating of these features is 2nd and 3rd century AD. Evidence suggests that the building may have had painted walls and a solid concrete floor. Other finds include prehistoric flints possibly dating from the late Mesolithic to early Neolithic periods, circa 4,000 BC, and late medieval pottery.

These finds will be preserved in situ as they are in an area of the new development that will be soft landscaped, so there is no threat to them.

Also two pits and various layers of archaeological deposits from the Roman period have been found in the area where the new Leisure Centre Development will be located. The District Archaeologist has therefore requested additional investigative work be carried out and all findings be recorded.

A photographic survey and assessment will also be made of a hut, which is on the site designated for development, and may have belonged to a temporary POW transit camp.

Most of the known archaeology is located towards the Holywell Hill entrance into Verulamium Park and will not be affected by the leisure centre development.

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The Club wishes to sincerely thank the following for their help and use of information contained in this history:-

Mr Andy Webb - Ver Valley Society - www.riverver.co.uk

Sopwell Memories - www.sopwellmemories.org.uk

Everyone Active - www.everyoneactive.com

St Albans City & District Council - www.stalbans.gov.uk