Deaths at the opening of Oxford's first public bath
24 September 2021
The opening of Oxford's first public bath and washhouse was a cause for celebration for the advances in public hygiene that it heralded.
However, joy turned to horror barely 15 minutes after the conclusion of the bath's opening ceremony when a huge explosion in the hot water system resulted in the deaths of two and the injuring of many more.
Much needed advances in public hygiene
During the early 19th century a supply of water in the home was a luxury only for the wealthy. Most people had to walk to a communal water pump to fetch water if they wish to wash their clothes or bodies at home.
This limited access to clean water combined with crowded conditions in towns and cities meant that outbreaks of disease could move fast through the population.
This led to a drive to construct public baths and washhouses in major cities to allow the local population to wash themselves and their clothes with clean, hot water in a clean and sanitary environment.
Unsanitary conditions in Oxford
In 1849 a serious cholera outbreak had swept through Oxford, spurred on by the unsanitary conditions experienced by much of the town's working classes. More than 1000 families had no access to washing facilities at the time, and reports from the time refer to constantly overflowing cesspools being 'universal'.
To remedy this, Oxford's City Bath and Washhouse was built at the corner of New Road and Castle Street in 1852. The building allowed anybody to not only wash themselves but also to bring their laundry with them and wash it in clean, hot water.
Disaster at the opening ceremony
The opening ceremony for the new bath house took place on 7 June 1852, and a large number of people came along to listen to speeches and excitedly try out the new-fangled bathing and washing facilities.
Tragedy struck 15 minutes later. The new hot water system exploded, causing the collapse of the huge hot and cold water cisterns. These fell down, demolishing nearby walls in the process.
John Wordsworth, who was stoking the engine was badly injured, and later died in hospital. Nine-year-old Tom Cambray Burchell was also killed on the spot. Many others were injured by flying debris or collapsing masonry.
The baths close, reopen and close again
The baths were closed again immediately for repairs and did not reopen until the following year. The baths remained open for fifteen years, but usage dwindled and without council funding to subsidise their running costs, the baths were forced to close their doors in 1867.
Oxford did not have another similar establishment until 1923 when a public bath was opened in nearby Paradise Street. More followed in Merton Street, Albert Street in Jericho and Catherine Street in Cowley, many of which stayed open until home plumbed water and heating became the norm in the 60s and 70s.
- Public Services of Oxford (www.british-history.ac.uk)
- 'A Grim Almanac of Oxfordshire' by Nicola Sly (The History Press, 2013, ISBN: 978752465814)
- Cistern blew up and killed two people (www.oxfordmail.co.uk)