The Change Baths and the V&A

06 November 2023

As the newly enlarged V&A Café opens, we take a look back through the archives to discover the varied history of this area of Wellington. In the College’s earliest years, the ground where the V&A now stands was a garden for the Anglesey and Blücher HMs, while the Princes’ Quad area was a yard surrounded by service buildings, notably the old kitchen, as seen on this map above from 1872.

This photo, taken from the College’s East Tower in around 1910, shows that although the Dining Hall block had been built by then, the area was still a garden, with a child’s swing:

However in 1912, the Governors decided to take action on the matter of how and when pupils bathed. As bathroom provision in the central dormitories was then basic, most boys probably had one hot bath a week, and otherwise washed themselves down in their cubicles with cold water, standing in a large tin tub called a ‘toe-pan.’ This was not ideal; moreover, after sport, boys would often walk mud and dirt up the stairs and into the dormitory.

For this reason, the Governors ordered the construction of a ‘change baths’ complex on the site of the garden. Here, boys would change before sport, then return to wash and change again afterwards, thus removing the whole process from the dormitories. The plan below shows how the area was laid out, with a designated area for each dorm:

These change baths opened in 1914 and were used for many years. They were well-remembered by Wellingtonians of the 1930s and 1940s, who recalled that each section contained a row of troughs, about two feet square and ten inches deep. Although intended as footbaths, students quickly discovered that ‘you could sit in them, in hot water, your bottom nicely warmed, with your feet on the floor in front.’ Hence they became known as ‘bim-baths,’ from the Wellington slang for ‘bottom.’ Hot showers were also available in this area. This photograph from the mid-20th century shows the central corridor, with the changing areas to each side:

Eventually, as bathing facilities were improved throughout College and new changing rooms created nearer the sports facilities, the change baths were no longer needed. In the early 1990s the section nearest the Quad was turned into a careers office, charity shop and bookshop, and around 2000, the other end became the Laundry. Nevertheless, there was still a ‘Prefect in charge of Change Baths’ until at least 2005; had their duties moved elsewhere?

In September 2008, the central area opened as a ‘refreshment room’ or café. The first such designated space within College for boys and girls from all Houses to relax and socialise, it was instantly popular. By now, the area outside was known as ‘Princes’ Quad’, and the café entrance graced by the impressive marble statue of our de facto founder, Prince Albert. For this reason, the café quickly became known as the ‘Victoria and Albert,’ now shortened to our familiar ‘V&A.’ In December 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was shown the new café and the statue of Albert, her great-great-grandfather.

Since then, the V&A has become in many ways the heart of College. Now that the Laundry and IT Department have moved elsewhere, the new enlarged and improved facilities will doubtless make it more popular than ever.