Philobiblon: Swimming through Soho

Monday, December 12, 2005

Swimming through Soho

Soho now is the haunt of tourists and theatre day-trippers, swanning advertising executives and swooping shoppers. But it was not always thus. For centuries this area was home to some of the poorest and most desperate people to be found in London and it was a measure of increasing civilisation that in 1931 what are now known as the Marshall Street Baths were opened to "improve the health and wellbeing of the local people". There were two swimming pools, slipper baths for those without facilities at home, a public laundry and a child welfare centre.

It is no praise to our age that this wonderful facility, built to the highest of artistic and structural standards, has stood derelict since 1997, its fate undecided. But that has provided an opportunity for its use for a unique performance, Deep End, by Corridor, a group that specialises in site-specific events.

The visit begins with a "health and safety" briefing from an officious clipboarded man in a reflective vest, who tells you, in a patronising tone, how developers plan to again make this structure great - mostly with (no doubt astonishingly expensive) apartments, and with one small part restored for public use.

Then you plunge into the building's past, for an experience that covers all of its history, and seduces all of your senses. At the top of the gorgeously sculpted, gold-railed staircase, you listen as far below, water drips slowing into a galvanised bath that sits in the foundations of the workhouse that occupied this site in 1854 when John Snow in nearby Broadwick Street identified the well that caused a disastrous cholera outbreak. READ MORE


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