Whenever I start a new project I like to immerse myself in it as much as possible in order to get a feel of the place and to get to know the people. At Ironmonger Row Baths this involved me using the Turkish baths, swimming in the pool, visiting the laundry and talking to as many people as possible. The staff were very helpful and accommodating.
It’s not always easy taking photos in the public arena, and I had to tread carefully. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to me and my cameras in the Turkish baths and other areas, but over time I think the regulars came to realise that I loved the place as much as they did and that I wasn’t going to photograph anyone without them knowing it or use their photo without their permission.
When I met Linda Handley, the pool manager, she was very helpful to me and to Catherine O’Byrne, the oral historian on Plunging into History. Whenever we met I would suggest photographing her and she always said: “Next time maybe!” and would scurry off laughing.
I wish I had seized the moment, as she unexpectedly passed away soon after, leaving those who knew her completely dazed and bereft. The closest I got to photographing Linda was taking pictures of her colleagues and her father, who was a regular visitor to the laundry.
When I started in February 2010, I could sense the sadness of the people who were aware of the impending closure in May. People realised that the baths needed to close because they were in need of refurbishment, but it was obvious that IRB not only functioned on a practical level but on a social level too. The laundry, always warm and fragrant, had its own social buzz, as did the Turkish baths.
I met lots of different people, including the Optimists – a group of swimmers with mixed levels of ability who had been meeting for over 20 years; the 6.30am group of swimmers; the scuba divers who travelled from all over to meet at IRB to swim, scuba and socialise; the aqua aerobicists, and the women, armed with their lotions and potions in the steam rooms.
On the last day I brought in my sheets to put through the industrial ironing machine in the laundry. I had wanted to do so since starting at IRB but had always been encumbered by all my photography gear. I had looked enviously at the weekly sheets fit for the best hotels, and on the last day I finally got to press my own and have beautifully ironed sheets. I didn’t want to use them for a long time. I wanted to hold on to the atmosphere of Ironmonger Row Baths for as long as possible.
Article taken from the book ‘Plunging into History'( published by Rowan Arts). Although the books are no longer in publication there is still an exhibition about the history of the baths in the laundry area and gallery area of the swimming pool.