No other building is so evocative of inter-war holidays than the lido or open air swimming pool.
Several factors came together in the inter-war years to spark off an almost insatiable appetite for outdoor swimming pools. Swimming itself was a highly fashionable sport throughout the period. It had been popular as early as 1875, when Captain Webb swam across the Channel, but was to take on a new significance from the 'twenties onwards. 1926 saw the first woman, Miss Gertrude Ederle, swim across the Channel, beating the then male record by two hours, followed by six other women in 1928. Magazines of the time were full of references to improving health and general fitness through swimming.
Bathing wear evolved during the 'twenties to give women more freedom to enjoy the new sport, and "Jantzen" launched their new costumes in 1929 with the slogan "the suit that changed bathing into swimming". Added to this, of course, was the cult of sunbathing which swept our shores in the early 'thirties and the general fashion for healthy outdoor pursuits which included hiking and rambling.
The lido becomes as popular as the pier
The popularity of swimming encouraged many local councils of seaside resorts to invest heavily in new pools as part of the general improvement of their resorts needed to cater for the dramatic increase in the numbers of holiday makers. At the start of the 'thirties, it became as essential to have a lido as it had been to have a pier forty years before for any seaside town that wanted to attract summer visitors in any number. By the end of the 'thirties, lidos were to be found at Prestatyn (opened 1922), Blackpool (1923), Plymouth (1928), Exmouth (1929), Skegness (1932), Hastings and St Leonards (1933), New Brighton and Wallasey (1934), Brighton (1935), Penzance (opened 1935), Morecambe (1936), Weston-super-Mare (1938), to name a selection. Bournemouth actually had an indoor pool with one wall opening to give the advantages of an outdoor pool in hot weather.
Classical style at Blackpool
Blackpool, as with most things, was one of the first resorts to jump onto the bandwagon, spending £75,000 on a new pool opening in 1923. This pool was constructed on a huge scale, no less than 376ft by 172ft (116m x 53m). It was wider at its extremities than a modern Olympic pool is long! Its architecture was described as "Renaissance" in the Blackpool Gazette and Herald. The style was strongly influenced by the classical, which was the prevailing fashion in domestic architecture at the time. There were many pillars in the Greek or Roman idiom. Indeed the author of the same piece compares the pool to the Coliseum. As well as being designed with the holidaymaker in mind, the pool was also suitable for competitions having a "championship area" of 110 yards by 25 yards and a diving area 15ft deep. The pool was able to accommodate 8,000 spectators as well as 1,500 bathers and had changing facilities for 600. Refreshment bars open to bathers were a feature of the pool that became virtually standard with all inter-war lidos. Bathers in the 'twenties had to pay 6d to enter the baths, children paid 4d. A costume could be hired for 3d and a cap or a towel for 1d.
The pool at Hastings and St Leonards
As the 'twenties changed to the 'thirties, swimming pool design changed from the classical to the modern. Some of the largest of the new pools were built at the medium sized resorts. As early as 1927, a campaign started in Hastings and St Leonards for a new outdoor pool, spearheaded by the Hastings' Observer. A scheme was finally approved in 1931 and Sidney Little, the Borough Engineer, was commissioned to do the building. He was well versed in modern building techniques and chose to build the pool in reinforced concrete. The pool was built on a massive scale - 330 ft by 90 ft: nearly as big as Blackpool's. From the air, the design resembled a Greek or Roman amphitheatre, with curved, stepped terracing for spectators on one side and a curved deck for sunbathing on the other. Overall though, the style was functional rather than classical. There were no Doric pillars or classical references. It represented a transitional phase in lido design. At the centre of the pool was an impressive array of diving boards up to 10 metres high, constructed from blocks of concrete. The pool was opened to the public in June 1933.
In spite of the pool's many contemporary features, commercially it was not a success. Hastings was desperate to attract visitors. The pool was really much too big for the town. The Black Rock Pool at Brighton, built around the same time, was only half the size. Hastings' pool only made a profit in its first year of opening. As early as 1946, the town council tried to find someone to take over a lease on the pool. Eventually it was turned into a holiday camp and was finally demolished only a few years ago.
Read more on Hastings and St. Leonards Lido
The Super Swimming Stadium at Morecambe
Morecambe was in a similar position in the holiday market to Hastings. Morecambe Council also decided it needed a large outdoor pool to compete with nearby Blackpool. A new pool was built in 1936 on the site of the former ship breaking business of T W Ward Ltd. The ship breakers had long been considered an eyesore to the town, but paradoxically were something of an attraction. Many visitors paid to go on board the doomed ocean liners and warships. This time Morecambe's councillors made sure that they outdid Blackpool. The pool was truly massive, 396ft by 110ft. It was called the Super Swimming Stadium. The pool was designed by architects Cross and Sutton and built by Sir Lindsey Parkinson. The style was uncompromisingly modern. Ostensibly, it was built from reinforced concrete, like the pool at Hastings. However, 500,000 old fashioned bricks were used in the construction. The statistics of the materials used make awesome reading. As well as the bricks, there were 15,000 cubic yards of concrete, 450 tons of steel reinforcement, 2,000 square yards of granolithic flooring, 5.5 miles of pipes, 12 miles of electrical wiring and 400 lights.
Morecambe's new pool had problems right from the start. The Council was sued, unsuccessfully as it turned out, when a boy slipped on the new pool's non-slip steps and broke his front teeth. More seriously, a leak had appeared in the sea wall that formed the basin, in which the pool was set, even before construction of the pool itself began. The cause of the leak was never established and repair work never really cured the problem. This meant that sea-water could leak into the pool at high tide and the water from the pool could escape at low tide.
In spite of its problems the pool did go on to play host to the Miss Great Britain contests after the War, but was eventually demolished in the 'seventies.
The Jubilee Pool, Penzance
One of the most unusual and pleasing designs of the era was the Jubilee Pool at Penzance designed by Captain F Latham, the Borough Engineer. The pool was opened in 1935, the year of King George V's Silver Jubilee. It was built right on the shore line at Penzance and had to be designed to cope with the full ferocity of the Cornish seas. The pool is triangular in shape. In spite of this, straight edges have been avoided and gentle curves make it a most pleasant environment. A contemporary guide book tells us that:
"In many respects the design is unique architecturally, partly from a point of view of necessity in conforming with existing conditions of wave elements and rocks which controlled the outline. Streamlines have been used to the greatest advantage in meeting the direction of the storm waves, while a Cubist style has been adopted in the interior in providing diving platforms and steps...
The whole pool is surrounded by high streamlined sea walls terraced up within the interior so as to give aspect and effect. They also serve to strengthen the structure."
The "high streamlined sea walls" also protect swimmers from strong, offshore winds and form terraces for spectators. Unlike most of the seaside lidos built in this period, the pool still stands today and is in excellent condition.
By the mid 'thirties a standard formula for lido design had emerged. Most pools were rectangular, although oval shapes were also common. Decks for sunbathing and separate cafés for bathers and spectators were also provided. The most important of the lido's buildings was the engine room that kept the pool fed with clean water. Much was made of the purity of water in new pools by guidebooks and contemporary advertising, suggesting that this was not always the case. Most pools of the era had a cascade or fountain. On hot days bathers could climb on to it and watch other swimmers. The fountain also served to aerate the water. Slides were also featured, a double slide or water chute was provided at the Skegness Pool. The diving boards though, were perhaps the most stylish of the features. Some pools had very elaborate diving platforms. The one at Western-super-Mare had a semicircular platform to which boards at varying heights were mounted. This pool also had the unusual feature of a gently sloping beach area. It was though, in other respects conservative for a pool built in 1938, for the classical style was used in preference to the modern.
The Saltdean Lido
One particularly pleasing example of the modern style is the Saltdean Lido, which happily still stands today. Saltdean is a suburb of Brighton which was developed extensively in the 'thirties and promoted to potential investors as "The Coming Resort". Saltdean itself has many fine buildings, built in the Hollywood Modern style - white walls and green roofs - popular in many seaside developments of the era. Saltdean's lido was designed by the architect, R W H Jones, who also designed the stylish Ocean Hotel in the same suburb.
The pool itself is situated near the coastline. It is relatively small, offering provision for only five hundred bathers. The main building behind is a two storey block, featuring a café with curved metal windows in its centre. Forming curved wings on either side of the café are the changing rooms on the ground floor and the sun terraces above these. The café resembles the bridge of an ocean liner. The effect is heightened by the presence of white curved metal railings on top of the café and in front of the terraces. Inspiration for the design appears to have been contemporary liner and aircraft design. No doubt, the nearby De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea also had its influence. The pool itself has the popular features of a cascade in the centre and a diving board with curved railings styled to match the design of the main building. The design was well received by the contemporary architectural press.
One thing that may appear strange to the modern reader is not the popularity of the lido itself, but why they were so popular at seaside towns? Certainly, people had come to expect the same public facilities on holiday as they enjoyed at home. Surely, though, if they wanted to go swimming, what was wrong with the sea? What may seem even stranger is that most seaside lidos were built only a few hundred yards away from, if not actually on, the beach itself and they were filled with salt water from the sea. The answer lies in the prevailing attitude towards bathing. This was sadly still the era of bathing restrictions and added charges. The bathing machine had ceased to be used by most people before the First World War, but the attitudes that first brought it into use died hard. It was still common for councils to insist bathers made use of and paid for the regulation council bathing huts or cubicles and some still charged bathers for the privilege of erecting their own bathing tents on the beach. At Bournemouth, the charges were 6d per half-hour to hire a bathing tent or 9d daily to use your own. At Eastbourne, you were required to pay 6d to use a corporation tent. 'Free bathing', as it was known, was only available from certain places or at certain times of the day. At Bournemouth, for example, you could only bathe without charge before 8 am. The practice of so called "Macintosh bathing" was usually frowned upon and technically could result in a fine. In the 'thirties this involved changing into bathing wear in the hotel and walking to the beach, often only across the road, wearing a Macintosh which was then discarded on the beach. At Eastbourne, in 1937, "Macintosh bathing" was permitted, but a charge of 3d was levied which included the use of a cloakroom. Actually changing under the Macintosh or in the car parked just opposite the beach was considered even worse.
Things were worse still. It was quite common for council officials to decide that the weather was too "rough" for sea bathing and forbid it altogether on certain days of the year. If you had to pay anyway, why not pay and swim in the lido, which was probably cheaper and offered better swimming than the sea? Also, you would not lose out on the days when the sea was considered too rough. The swimming pool at Hastings and St Leonards even offered (sea) bathing from the pool. (You changed in the lido and swam in the sea!)
The end for the Lido?
The lido reached its zenith of popularity in the 'thirties. There were few new lidos built after the War. Gradually tastes changed and poor attendance made the pools uneconomic to run. Many fell into disrepair and decay and were finally demolished. It is sad to note that few pools remain today, but those that do are well worth the visit and well worth preserving. As a symbol of the 'thirties, the lido stands supreme, symbolising as it did, unashamed modernity, fashionable chic, youthful healthy activity and the cult of sun worship. If sun worship was the cult of the 'thirties, then the lido surely was its temple.
This section was adapted from a chapter in "Sun, Sea and Sand"
More on the lido
The Twentieth Century Society
The Twentieth Century Society is dedicated to the preservation of buildings from that century. 1930s lidos are of particular concern. Lidos are often under threat due to short-sighted planning policies and commercial pressures.
The Saltdean Lido
Information about the Saltdean Lido today.
The British seaside holiday