Manchester Swimming Pool Reminder of Pandemics Past

Manchester Evening News reports: Mayfield baths was built 164 years ago to help stop deadly viruses spreading through the urban population.

The threat of Covid-19 has led to extraordinary levels of intervention into our daily lives by the state, not seen in this country since the Second World War.

But as unprecedented as the current pandemic crisis might seem, remains found buried beneath a car park near Piccadilly station reveal that we have faced similar challenges before in Manchester. And then, as now, it was acts of public-spiritedness that gave us hope.

The Victorian pandemics

Back in the Victorian era, Mayfield was 'the city within a city' of Manchester - a vast industrial complex that expanded around the River Medlock.

There were dye works, tanneries and print works, all spewing pollution out into the water, while coal burning filled the air with choking, black smoke.

The Industrial Revolution had sparked an explosion in Manchester's population, transforming a small, market town of fewer than 10,000 people into Britain's second city, with 400,000 inhabitants, in just 50 years.

Most of these newcomers were living in dank slums, families crowded into tiny rooms with no running water and a single outside toilet shared between hundreds.

Sanitation and hygiene was non-existent.

It was in this fetid environment that diseases such as cholera and typhoid thrived.

Like Covid-19, the first worldwide cholera pandemic is thought to have originated on the other side of the world, India more precisely, before finding its way through Europe to the streets of Britain.

It killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1830s, as did typhoid, another bacterial infection that spread through contaminated food and water.

Though it was the poor who suffered most, Manchester's middle classes were not immune.

Something had to be done.

Mayfield baths

Mayfield baths opened in 1857 on what is now Baring Street.

The public baths provided surrounding residents with access to running water for bathing and laundry and featured male and female pools, the largest measuring 62ft.

Historians now see public baths and wash houses as having played a crucial role in eliminating disease.

Throughout the nineteenth century, authorities began to understand the importance of cleanliness and its role in preventing the spread of illness.

The baths at Mayfield would have helped kept 'the great unwashed' of Manchester clean right up until the 1920s when another global pandemic - Spanish flu - hit the city.

It is thought the baths were eventually demolished at some time in the 1950s or 60s, before being covered in tarmac as the site was used as a car park from the 1980s onwards. Read more...


As the Covid-19 pandemic drains public finances, many undervalued facilities such as swimming pools may never reopen.