Tales From Govanhill
By Bruce Downie
The Swimming Pool Morgue
There is a popular story that the Ladies’ Pool in Govanhill Baths was used as a morgue during World War Two. While this gruesome tale brings something to the atmosphere of the place, and delights paranormal groups who have spent nights there, some doubt remains as to the truth of the story, not least because it would be difficult to imagine the building reverting to its former purpose as a place of recreation, even after such a dark period.
At the outbreak of war, 16 of Glasgow’s 29 municipal swimming pools were closed down to become first aid stations and many of the attached wash-houses were earmarked to be used as ‘decontamination’ centres, to deal with the effects of gas.
Until recently, there was no information about which pools remained open but Rachel Kelly, a historian working at Patterton POW camp, found an account, a memoir, written by Harry Carass of the Royal Pioneer Corps, who served at Patterton. One of his letters to his sister, written after a deluge of rain at the camp, provides a clue, one part of the puzzle:
‘It’s been raining since Monday, the whole camp is swimming, my boots are circulating round the pool, my bed has scuttled itself and to cap everything we have to parade at 2:30 for baths. That means walking 4 1/2 miles into Glasgow and back.’
Patterton is roughly four and a half miles from Govanhill, so while Harry does not name the pool, it seems likely that he is referring to Govanhill. This strongly suggests that Govanhill Baths remained open during the war and wasn’t repurposed to become a first aid station or a morgue.
Being an Englishman, it would be unlikely that Harry Carass would remember the name of a swimming pool in a district of Glasgow he probably only visited one time.
If there is any truth in the rumour of a swimming pool in Govanhill being used as a morgue, then it may not have been at the Calder Street pool but at Victoria Baths, the private swimming pool on Butterbiggins Road.
Victoria Baths closed down in 1940 and never reopened. It was demolished shortly after the end of the war. With a regiment of the army, an air force squadron and the Home Guard close by in Govanhill, it’s not hard to imagine that a large, empty building was requisitioned for the war effort and may have eventually been used as a temporary morgue in a time of need
This is all just a theory, but it seems more likely than a busy public swimming pool being repurposed in such a way.