FOR almost half a century, Bournemouth’s Pier Approach Baths provided not only a swimming pool but a place of entertainment.

This local landmark replaced other buildings on a prime seafront site and would itself be replaced by the controversial Imax cinema as the 21st century arrived.

It was 80 years ago – on March 23, 1937 – that the town opened its new swimming baths.

Bournemouth’s first baths had been built on the same site in 1838. They were replaced by another building in 1887, constructed to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee.

But in the 1930s, the town began to lay plans for yet another baths building. Work began in August 1935 and the mayor, Alderman JR Edgecombe, laid the foundation stone that November.

A memorandum sent to the Echo ahead of the official opening laid out the scale of the project.

The building, costing £80,000, consisted of a swimming pool, 40 private baths, a Mikvah bath for the Jewish community, Turkish baths, a sunbathing facility, terrace and solarium with sun ray lamp equipment.

The pool measured 100ft by 35ft, with a depth ranging from 3ft to 6ft 6ins and a diving dish 12ft deep. There were 100 changing cubicles and 336 clothes lockers, as well as 20 slipper baths for each sex.

“It will be one of the largest schemes of its kind on the south coast,” the memo said.

“Its appointments will be the most modern procurable and the latest ideas in bath construction and equipment are being utilised.”

The baths duly became a hugely popular place for people to get clean, dive or enjoy a swim, and they were the centre for a busy programme of competitive swimming.

A report by the baths superintendent and engineer, for the year ending March 31, 1950, reflects just how busy the facilities were.

Bathing figures were down that year after a hot summer and refurbishment work, but the pool still drew 104,036 people. What’s more, live entertainment was proving a success.

“For the second season we presented a resident water show,” the report said, noting that there had been 154 performances attracting 117,483 admissions and generating £17,919 – up significantly on the first year.

“We are still the only holiday resort to present a water show for a full residential season with financial success,” the superintendent noted.

The aqua shows became a much loved part of the summer entertainment offering in Bournemouth.

Originally brought to the resort by George Baines, they were presented for many years by Leon Markson, then by his widow Stella.

In the late 1960s, former diving champion Alan Roberts won the tender to stage the shows. His first show was Tales of King Arthur, with John Crease singing and dancing as King Arthur; Mavis Linter as Guinevere; local magician David Medina as Merlin; and international swimmer Denise Wilson leading the “aquabelles”.

Later, George Baines returned to combine the aqua show with a circus and run it for five years until his death in the winter of 1981-82. After that, the show was put together by his widow Vera and Sid Brooks.

The baths were still popular with schools and swimming clubs, and in April 1981, Olympic gold medallist David Wilkie lent his support to the town’s biggest ever sponsored swim. Organised by Seagulls SC and the Sports Aid Foundation, it raised £1,000 for charity.

But by this time, it was clear the baths’ days were numbered. Bournemouth council intended to sell the building to help fund a new conference and leisure centre on the West Cliff, and a council meeting in November that year confirmed the decision.

Previewing the aqua show of 1982, the Echo wrote: “More gaily and colourfully decorated than ever before, the Pier approach Baths, Bournemouth, opens tonight with Aqua Circus Big Splash ’82 – and if this is to be the last show at the Baths, it emphasises what a delightful show Bournemouth will be without in future.”

But the venue was not yet dead. The aqua show was back the next year as Big Splash ’83 and was featured in three episodes of ITV’s peak time show Game For a Laugh, with Matthew Kelly seen clowning around as part of the show.

Bournemouth council was considering the possibility of building a hotel, flats and leisure complex on the baths site – much to the annoyance of swimming enthusiasts, who pointed out that the BIC would have a fun pool rather than one suitable for competitive swimming.

In June 1984, the baths were broken into and the control box set on fire. An ex-employee with a grudge was later jailed for two years over the incident.

The baths closed later that year. Their manager of 11 years, Mellor Hellawell, quit the following January after declining other council jobs. “From the day that the BIC was decided on, I was more or less on my bike,” he said.

The Echo reported in June 1985 that the venue was “expected to be transformed into a new entertainment or leisure operation in the very near future”. But when the demolition began in May 1986, the council had no firm plan other than to use it temporarily as a car park.

The building’s timber and copper cupola was re-used by Stanwood Developments to crown a scheme it was building at Upper Norwich Road, while its concrete coat of arms was transferred to the BIC.

The site on which the baths stood was frequently referred to as the town’s “golden acres”, ideal for a leisure development, but it took years for a viable scheme to get off the ground.

When work did begin in 1998 on the Waterfront complex – containing a giant screen Imax cinema, restaurants and bars – it turned out to be the start of a controversial chapter of the town’s history.