Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
From the 1840s onwards, concerns surrounding the physical and moral condition of London’s poor impelled local authorities to construct public baths, in an attempt to and cleanse and civilize the urban “residuum.” Bermondsey Metropolitan Borough Council first opened baths for local dockers in 1853. In 1927 they were replaced with a new “modern establishment” in Grange Road, which contained two swimming baths, 126 slipper baths in cubicles, and Turkish and Russian baths. As well as keeping people clean, the Bermondsey baths quickly became a place for men to meet for sex and socializing. By the 1950s Bermondsey was “famous” in queer circles, achieving literary acclaim in Rodney Garland’s The Heart in Exile (1953). Kenneth Williams “went [there] for traditional interest” in 1958 and found it “quite fabulous.”
I never managed to check this, but a man that I interviewed in the late-1990s suggested that Bermondsey was “protected from the police by gangsters… the Kray brothers and so on… the [baths] paid the gangsters to keep the police away.” It makes in a lot of ways—and he probably knew more about postwar queer London than anyone else.
The photograph is taken from Bermondsey Metropolitan Borough Council, Public Baths and Washhouses. Souvenir of the Opening of the New Central Baths (London, MBC publication, 1927).