There are many tales told about the Arlington: some tall, some true and many apocryphal. One that always intrigued us was that an exact copy of the Club had been built in London but was destroyed during World War II.
The reason it haunted us so much was the idea there may be a copy of our original plans somewhere in London. We don’t have the plans of our original building or the Turkish Suite, both of which pre-date the necessity of lodging plans with the Dean of Guild.
After a lot of digging in the archives and searching old newspapers it looks like we might have got closer to the truth of this tale…
Late Victorian London was replete with all sort of clubs; places for gentlemen, for ladies, for people of the same nationality, to meet up, and lots more for many other shared interests.
In 1894 a unique new club was added to the London scene; the Bath Club in Dover Street. What made the Bath Club different was that it combined the usual aspect of a club – meeting, dining, reading rooms and sometimes accommodation – with exercise, by incorporating a swimming pond, Turkish and Russian Baths, and later a gymnasium too.
Much of this sounds familiar to us in the Arlington but a quick look at the building reveals it is not an exact copy.
The Bath Club was built by converting a town house and stables that once belonged to Lord Abergavenny which extended from Dover Street to Berkeley Street. The purchase and conversion was reported to cost a whopping £70,000, and the architect was Collings B Young.
The swimming pond, measuring 75ft by 35ft, was constructed in the former ballroom and varied in depth from 3ft to 7ft. At one end of the pond was a fencing room and gymnasium and at the other a Turkish Suite including Russian plunge, douche, shower steam douche, wave and sitz baths.
The club rooms retained many of the original features of Lord Abergavenny’s house such as the ornate Adam ceilings. The accommodation included reception, reading, dining, smoking, card and billiard rooms, and 40 bedrooms where members could stay.
In March 1894 the St James Gazette reported that a committee of preminent men was formed to manage the Baths Club including members of the aristocracy and members of Parliament. However the Baths Club was also going to have women members with the baths and gymnasium reserved for use by the Ladies section three mornings a week. A Ladies Committee was set up, headed by the Duchesses of Portland, Westminster and Sutherland.
Creating a ‘London Arlington’
While the Arlington does not have overnight accommodation or as much space as the Bath Club, the model is clear. But what makes the Bath Club the most likely candidate to be the London copy of the Arlington?
Firstly, we found evidence that the Arlington was credited with being the inspiration right from the start. After the formation of the Arlington in 1870, baths clubs had become very successful in Scotland but there none in London.
In Scotland and America private swimming and recreative clubs of this description are very popular. Over twenty years ago the first club of its kind (the Arlington) was established in Glasgow, and there are now no fewer than five such clubs in that city. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the only cities in the United Kingdom which have shown sufficient enterprise to establish such clubs in their residential centres. In Glasgow there are two clubs on the West end, two on the south side and one in the East-end. In Edinburgh there is one in the west and one in the south side of the city.”A New Bathing Club, St James Gazette, 9 March 1894
Secondly, we discovered that the founding force of the Baths Club was Charles Williamson Milne, an Arlington member who moved to London in 1892 for an insurance and accountancy business. It was he, with the help of Lord Herbert Gladstone (son of four-time prime minister William Gladstone) and Lord Joicey, who arranged to buy the property. But sadly he did not live to see it open and start signing up members.
“Mr. Charles Williamson Milne, who died suddenly last week, will be remembered chiefly as the founder of the Bath Club in Dover Street. It was he who conceived the idea of a club in London of which the principal amenities should be a swimming bath and Turkish bath on the lines of the Arlington Club which flourished in Glasgow, his native city. The difficulties of starting such an enterprise in those days were enormous, and it is entirely due to Mr Milne’s energy and perseverance that the Club that he had long envisaged ultimately took shape and opened its doors to members in 1894. If its birth had called for all the business acumen that Milne could muster, its early years were those of anxiety and suspense.”Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, 31 March 1894, quoting a letter to The Times from Mr Wilson Taylor
Sir Charles Tennant, a life member of the Arlington, was also a director of the Baths Club in London.
This was revealed in a story in The Glasgow Herald on 20 September 1894, which also referred to Charles Milne, saying “It may be interesting to mention that the establishment of this club was the conception of a Glasgow gentleman, Mr Chales Milne, who, prior to going to London was a member of the Arlington Baths, of the benefits of which to those immersed in city life was fully alive.”
The same story also revealed our third piece of evidence: that Mr Robertson, our second Baths master, was recruited to be the master of the Dover Street club.
“The appointment of Mr Robertson of the Arlington Baths as clubmaster of the new London Baths is a distinct compliment to our city. Patronised as these baths will be by the nobility and gentry of London, the apppointment has been rightly described as the “prize of the swiming profession”. The membership is exceedingly exclusive, and the baths when completed will for elegance and general arrangement be unsurpassed… Mr Robertson’s long experience as clubmaster of the Arlington qualifies him admirably for his new position which he enters upon early in October. Mr Robertson has long been at the head of popular swimming movements in this city and his loss for a time must be felt by the promoters of public entertainments.”The Glasgow Herald, 20th September 1894.
The opening of the Bath Club
In December 1894 the committee of the Bath Club hosted a event for potential members at which they drank a toast to the success of Club and announced that the newest members were the prominent politicians Lord Rosebery – at that time Prime Minister – and Arthur Balfour, who became Prime Minister in 1902. The visitors then viewed a demonstration by the Life-saving Society with teams from the Ravensbourne, Triton and South African House Swimming Clubs, and boys and girls from the Coburg Road and Lyndhurst Grove Board Schools. There was then a show of different methods of diving and swimming, races, and a water polo match between Amateur Swimming Club and Ranelagh Harriers Swimming Club.
By December 1895, the Bath Club had 1,000 members. It continued to attract the upper class echelons. In July 1906 The Illustrated London News reported that the young princes – Prince Edward and Prince Albert of Wales – had a swimming and diving lesson at the Club.
And in 1907 American author and humourist Mark Twain caused delight to passers-by when he emerged from Brown’s Hotel in a blue bathrobe and slippers and crossed the street to enjoy a Turkish Bath at the Club, returning 45 minutes later in the same attire.
In the 1920s the Prince of Wales was a member, and in 1939 the Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth took part in children’s swimming races.
In fact Princess Elizabeth was the first person to be awarded a Junior Lifesaving Award. Eighty years later the Queen told the BBC about working for the award at the Bath Club. You can see her in her swimming costume with the Bath Club initials on the front!
Destruction of the Bath Club
On the 31st March 1941 the Dover Street club was destoyed by fire. At first it was thought that it had hit by a Luftwaffe bomb during an air raid but The Times reported that the fire started in the basement. Two people were killed, while others had to jump from first floor windows. Nine maids sleeping on the sixth floor and four waitresses in the basement air raid shelter escaped, along with a number of guests.
The premises were almost completely destroyed but the Club records were kept in a safe and survived untouched. Though their current whereabouts is unknown.
The club itself moved to 74 St James Street where it merged with a Conservative club while retaining the name Bath Club. In 1959 it moved to 43 Brook Street, finally winding up in 1981 after some members acquired the lease and sold the club out from under other members.
But we’re still left with some questions to answer:
- Could the founders of the Bath Club have taken a copy of our plans to London to interest funders in their exciting venture?
- Is it possible that these plans have survived the Blitz in the safe with the Baths Club records?
- And where are these records now?
More investigations are needed!
Researcher: Will Jess