MORE than eight decades have passed since the art deco building of Thimblemill Baths was opened to the sports-minded inhabitants of pre-war Smethwick on March 3, 1933.
A ceremony befitting the occasion was attended by the town's dignitaries and other honoured guests who assembled in the gallery overlooking the bath's clock and pool.
The early 1930s across the country were not the easiest of periods with the economic depression. So the worries and problems of daily life could be forgotten, albeit temporarily, in the cool and sparkling blue waters of the baths.
Even before a toe had tentatively been dipped in the water however, swimmers would be spoiled by the grandeur and majesty of the building.
It is believed that the style of the building was inspired by designs more usually seen in the high arched ceilings associated with aircraft hangars, the idea being to provide a more palpable sensation of space and energy.
It is somewhat ironic that the baths were opened just a brief six years in advance of the hostilities of the Second World War, as the many underground tunnels and even cellars quickly undertook a wholly different role. The air raid sirens signalling those in the vicinity to head there for safety until the all clear was sounded.
Co-incidentally, there was an American Air Force station within relative spitting distance of the baths, the building's underground shelter seemingly appearing more pacifying than the presence of 'boots on the ground'. A defiant spirit had taken hold in the town, designed to snub and show contempt for the wartime enemy, indicated by the staging of a Dig for Victory exhibition in 1940.
After the war the people of Smethwick and those beyond its borders were only too eager to partake in the many swimming competitions, galas and school trips that were to follow. Innumerable children discovered their 'water wings' at Thimblemill Baths - me included! For reasons of maintenance and safety the baths had to be drained at set times, taking up to 48 hours for the final drop of water to dissipate from view. Even then this cold, empty vessel refused to yield to a temporary life of unattractive inertia. A board of maple wood was inserted so that a whole variety of events and shows could be put on, such as dances, exhibitions, boxing matches and even cat shows.
The building was put on the map as swimming galas were staged there regularly with a competition between Britain and Germany in the late 1950s which was televised. Smethwick swimmers could happily dive from the newly-constructed boards into one of the largest pools in the country.
The sound of music too became a familiar feature of Thimblemill Baths. The 'Swinging Sixties' furnished a host of varying artists; the Joe Loss Orchestra made one of the earliest appearances, the Rolling Stones with the enigmatic Mick Jagger played in 1964 to be followed by the Kinks the following year.
If that was not enough, 1966 bore witness to The Small Faces and that icon of British 60s musical rebellion, The Who. Then on the evening of Monday, November 19, 1962, four young gentlemen from Liverpool, The Beatles, traversed their way southwards, first stopping at the Adelphi Ballroom in West Bromwich and then finally at Thimblemill.
Towards the end of the decade such well established acts were becoming a faint memory as decisions were made to emphasise the building's original role as a swimming venue. The many dances too had come to a premature end, although perhaps this was more due to the baths having developed an unsatisfactory reputation. Fights became an all too commonplace occurrence, a near riot occurring one night during 1967.
The priority on promoting sport was marked by the opening of a second pool in 1968 at the not insignificant cost of £100,000. The investment, however, was evidently successful, the baths continuing to attract many visitors into the following decade. I vividly recall my own school swimming lessons there in the 1970s, although perhaps I was just too young and equally green to appreciate the true beauty of the art deco setting that fortunately remained, untouched by town planners and bureaucrats.
Its popularity at this point was unquestioned, exemplified by our return to the coach for the short journey back to school and the appearance of yet another busload of eager children.
In very recent times the building was re-designated and a more contemporary name applied. The Smethwick Swimming Centre was born. However, many local residents and those further afield will still fondly remember it as simply Thimblemill or Smethwick Baths. The days of concerts, comedy acts, boxing matches and dancing may now be just a nostalgic harking back to less complicated lives, but it remains a venue still of some mystery and diverse uses.
The previously alluded to underground shelters and tunnels are regularly utilised as evenings for supernatural tours, its labyrinthine structure adding to an aura and countenance of ghostly uneasiness. A host of unexplained apparitions have been claimed to have been seen, one being a man in a green boiler suit, another an American airman and bizarrely a horse.
Whether above or below ground, the activity continues to prosper. Thimblemill Baths stands as one of our region's historically important edifices. It really is a true treasure house of memories that evoke a multitude of sentiments and stories. This is after all a Grade 2 listed building and as such we need to raise our collective guard against any attempt to remove this from our landscape. Failure to do so is unacceptable. May it continues to stir our imaginations for generations yet to come.
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