The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Pithead baths of former Princess Royal Colliery

There are several instances of symbolic cleansing ritual in modern architectural theory and history: Otto Wagner’s glass bathtub and the hand basin at the entrance to Villa Savoye to name two. However, if one seeks more prosaic and pragmatic verification of the well-documented dichotomy of sanitation and modernism, consider the pithead baths built in 1939 at the former Princess Royal Colliery in Gloucestershire (above). It is nestled into a hillside in the Forest of Dean by the road to Bream; a brick and reinforced concrete building with flat roofs, rectangular in plan with the long axis running north south. The building was a product of a systematic modernist building programme orchestrated by the Miners Welfare Committee (MWC). This was an independent body formed in 1921 to administer the Miner’s Welfare Fund proposed by Lloyd George’s Sankey Commission.

Although provision for pithead baths was advocated by Royal Commission mining reports of 1907 and 1919, only around thirty had been constructed in Britain by the late Twenties. Pithead baths were comparatively more expensive to build than other amenities the MWC could provide, such as recreation grounds, allotments and convalescent housing. Miners were not enthused by the prospect of having to partially fund pithead baths from their own pay and furthermore, were initially unconvinced of the benefits to health and well-being that the MWC claimed a pithead baths facility could provide.
Up until around 1925, the Miners Welfare Committee had derived much of its architectural and planning advice from a retired naval commander with no architectural training. A new approach was required and so Patrick Abercrombie was invited to restructure and revitalise the MWC’s architectural agenda. By his recommendation, a specialist MWC Archi-tects’ Branch was established: a salaried staff of a dozen architects organised into Northern and Southern divisions. To ensure stylistic homogeneity and standardisation, another of Abercrombie’s ideas was to centralise all fundamental design information for mining-related buildings at one location. This MWC design database allowed the architects to access specialised knowledge that could then be tweaked to suit regional specifics of site and materials. The MWC outlined some of it’s architectural principles in an Annual Report of 1933: “…We do not feel justified in allowing expenditure on ornament and decoration, but our architects are able to achieve results of architectural worth relying solely upon line and well proportioned surfaces…”

The Princess Royal pithead baths came under the design jurisdiction of the Southern Division of the MWC Architects Branch, within which W.M. Traylor was the architect responsible for South Wales and the Forest of Dean. The building is a good example of the purest ‘linear’ form of four prototype plans developed by the MWC. The plan is longitudinal, and broadly divided into three distinct but interconnected dirty, washing and clean functional zones. Appropriately, the building worked like a production line; miners would enter at the pit entrance end of the building, covered in grime from their shift. They first encountered a boot-cleaning machine consisting of electrically powered revolving brushes. Then they proceeded up a stair into the pit clothes locker room to undress. Next came a shower in the bathhouse section of the building, externally emphasised by ribbon windows with concrete mullions and surrounds. After washing, the miners progressed into the clean clothes locker room where their pre-deposited clean clothes would be waiting. Adjacent to the clean locker room there was a first-aid facility and at the clean entrance end of the building a lobby housed drinking fountains and gave access to a canteen.

There would have been an equal number of metal lockers for pit clothes and clean clothes (each miner needed one of each). To accommodate all the men on the largest shift at the Princess Royal Colliery, there were 816 lockers in both the dirty and clean locker rooms of the building. An upward current of heated air could be passed through the lockers to dry or fumigate clothing. This locker system was a MWC development of what had been the prevailing overhead chain and hook system of separating clothes. Derived from French and Belgian precedents this hook and chain system not only failed to prevent soiled work clothes from coming into contact with clean garments, but also required a high ceiling which increased construction costs.

Original fixtures and fittings specific to bathing technology (lockers and shower cubicles) have not survived at the Princess Royal pithead baths. However many of the rooms are faced up to sill level with original tiling in good condition and of functional and aesthetic significance. These areas of tiling provided a waterproof, hard wearing and easy to clean wall covering, and were arranged in a variety of pleasing two-tone colour schemes: dark blue, white or sandy-buff with subordinate horizontal bands of light blue. Furthermore, set into both exterior and interior walls of the building are several extant examples of original signs, instructional notices such as “Boots should not be brushed after greasing”. Features such as these, along with the tiling, offer insight into how the baths were managed and would make distinctive elements retained in-situ as part of a refurbishment. The fact that the internal planning at the Princess Royal pithead baths is unaltered, compensates to some extent for the lack of more primary examples of bathing technology, because movement through the plan of the building continues to explain how this building was used.

The massing of the Princes Royal baths is a modernistic composition of primary volumetric forms that express a rationalisation of the building’s functional components. It invites comparison with the pioneering Charles Holden stations commissioned by Frank Pick of the London Passenger Transport Board (click here for an image). A pithead bath and an underground station are building types that share a similar agenda; both are forms of sanitising reception centre to subterranean realms occupied by workers, and both are people-processors designed to efficiently organise and direct a flow of human traffic. Holden and Pick were united by the Design and Industries Association philosophy of ‘Fitness for Purpose’. This mantra would have been equally applicable to the MWC architects who, like Frank Pick, believed that good design could have a significant positive impact upon the quality of life for workers. The Society will be actively involved in consultations regarding proposed alterations to a number of the Holden stations as part of forthcoming Piccadilly Line refurbishments.

The architectural language of both the MWC Architects Branch and London Underground during the Thirties was informed by progressive architecture abroad. Both organisations dispatched reconnaissance sorties to assess which aspects of continental developments in modern architecture could be reinterpreted in a British context. Admired first-hand by Holden and Pick and popularised by the British architectural press, Dutch architect W.M. Dudok’s brand of brick modernism is also likely to have been one of the continental influences on the MWC Architects (click here for an image).

The Princess Royal Colliery closed in 1964 and within a few years the pithead bath building was occupied by office furniture traders, tenants that remained in the building until recently but whose attempts over the years to reduce water ingress by temporary measures proved to be ineffective. The fabric of the pithead baths has therefore not been properly maintained since it last served its intended function in the early Sixties. The types of problem that the fabric suffers from today are entirely repairable and familiar in the context of buildings of this age and style. Brickwork will need re-pointing, the top part of the boiler room chimney (next to the water tower) will need to be taken down and re-built; roofs and parapets will need to be repaired. Without adequate provision for thermal movement, cracks in walls and roof slabs are largely the result of a lack of expansion/movement joints in the build. Corrosion of steel reinforcement (caused by carbonisation) has forced concrete beams and window surrounds to crack; loose or cracked concrete will have to be removed, the corroded reinforcement cleaned and the concrete reapplied. On a more encouraging note, the fact that the expansive rear (east) wall of the building shows no signs of cracking at lower levels indicates that there is no foundation failure of the main structure.

The Bristol-based owners of the Princess Royal pithead baths are the South West of England Regional Development Agency, which recently commissioned a structural report recommending demolition on grounds that restoration of the building would be economically and structurally impractical. The RDA is however becoming increasingly aware of strong local opposition to demolition of the building and will hopefully be persuaded of a view that rescue and reuse of this building would represent a true unlocking of the potential of a brownfield site.

With the dissolution of the mining industry in Britain, associated early Twentieth Century structures of specialised function and special architectural interest have become a rare breed. Many exemplary pithead bath designs have long since been demolished and only a few Thirties examples have ever been listed. Baths at the former Elemore and Lynemouth collieries were listed grade II regardless of the fact that, as at the Princes Royal baths, Elemore had no extant original plumbing or fittings and the interior of the Lynemouth pithead baths was also severely compromised. These two listing precedents (and this discussion of the case) justify the Society’s wish to pursue protection of the pithead baths at the former Princess Royal Colliery. A refurbishment programme informed by issues of conservation and architectural history is urgently required. The building can potentially function as offices, managed workspace or warehousing, in such a way that characteristic and didactic aspects of original planning and styling are preserved as part of our architectural and industrial heritage.

Laurence Rich