Hilsea Lido: 80 years as a ‘pool for the people’

Lido volunteers from left:''Keith Everett, Helen Downing-Emms, (at the back) Sabrina Richards, (at the front) Bree Collins,Owen Morgan, Paul Smith, Sylvia Everson
Lido volunteers from left:''Keith Everett, Helen Downing-Emms, (at the back) Sabrina Richards, (at the front) Bree Collins,Owen Morgan, Paul Smith, Sylvia Everson
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For years Hilsea Lido has provided the community with a place to swim, relax, and socialise and now, under the auspices of community owners Hilsea Lido Pool For The People Trust (HLPPT), it is preparing to celebrate its 80th year.

The lido was close to being flattened in 2008 after it fell into disrepair and plans to refurbish it were abandoned by Portsmouth City Council.

But the community group stepped in and has helped to return the historic site from the brink of extinction.

‘We’ve had to take very small steps, everything is about investigation and research,’ vice-chairwoman of the trust, Helen Downing-Emms, explained.

Opened on July 24, 1935 as part of a works initiative job creation scheme, the site included a 67m-long, 4.5m-deep swimming pool with diving boards, splash pool, and cafe.

During its early years, it hosted national diving championships, was a training venue for the 1936 Olympic divers, and was used for exhibitions and events.

An iconic photo (courtesy of Portsmouth City Council) of the main Hilsea Lido pool taken in 1959 with a diver demonstrating a swallow dive from the 10m board. The diving tower lasted until 1971 when the structure became unsafe.  It was dismantled and never replaced

An iconic photo (courtesy of Portsmouth City Council) of the main Hilsea Lido pool taken in 1959 with a diver demonstrating a swallow dive from the 10m board. The diving tower lasted until 1971 when the structure became unsafe. It was dismantled and never replaced

‘It was the entrance to the town, London Road was the only road off the island, so you had to go past Hilsea Lido to get into the city,’ explained Helen.

‘It was like “this is us, this is Portsmouth”, and because it was so glamorous the locals called it Hollywood.’

During the early years the creek next to the site was much wider and the area was surrounded by rose gardens and tennis courts, but with the building of the motorway which saw much of the parkland removed, the decline of the lido began.

The onset of foreign holidays also contributed as domestic holiday destinations, especially cold water pools such as Hilsea Lido, saw attendance plummet.

Female swimmers sit atop the fountain at the Hilsea Lido re-opening in 1947

Female swimmers sit atop the fountain at the Hilsea Lido re-opening in 1947

When the diving boards were removed in the 1970s the rate of decline increased.

‘The council then spent years trying to close it but each time they tried people said “no you can’t possibly do that”,’ added Helen.

Since taking over the then derelict site in 2010, chairwoman of the trust Sabrina Richards and Helen have relied on the generous support of volunteers.

Norma Marsh, of Portsmouth, used to visit with her parents when growing up in the city and has now been volunteering there for 6 years.

The paddling pool and cafe at Hilsea Lido, Portsmouth, possibly in the late 1940s.

The paddling pool and cafe at Hilsea Lido, Portsmouth, possibly in the late 1940s.

‘I enjoy helping out because it is our heritage,’ she said.

‘I remember it from when I was really, really young, I used to come here, queue up and pay two shillings (10p) to have a swim.

‘It’s a most beautiful place all round.’

Sabrina explained how the site had become untenable for the council to keep open in 2008: ‘Although it was much loved by local people, it was a big operation to open it each year.’

‘Eventually the Victoria Baths needed replacing and as part of that funding package, the deal was that Victoria would close, the Pyramids would close, and the Lido would close. But none of that took into consideration that a Lido is a very different social space, it’s not just a pool.’

After successfully restoring the space and an equally successful public opening last year, Sabrina and Helen attribute the trust’s achievements to an awareness of what people in the north of the city want.

‘Pools that have been taken over by communities have an ethos and a heart that is not there when it’s run by a management company.

‘This project is about people wanting a space that they are proud of.’

Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North, said: ‘There has been much heritage regeneration in Portsmouth in recent years, but nothing compared to the iconic Hilsea Lido.

‘The trustees and volunteers have performed wonders, and the venue has really taken off.’

As the pool is cleaned, changing rooms upgraded, and events booked in preparation for a May opening, the volunteers are optimistic about the future, with plans to hold monthly “aquathons” organised by Portsmouth Triathletes, specialist slots for water sports enthusiasts, and eventually opening all year round.

‘That’s what keeps Sabrina and me going, we don’t just see it as a leisure venue, it’s very much about education, training, and employment,’ said Helen.

Still, the trust is desperate for new volunteers to keep the site going beyond its 80th year, as Helen exlplained: ‘If you want Hilsea Lido to work then work with us to make it work.’

Anyone interested in volunteering or becoming a lifeguard should contact the trust through their facebook group or email info@hilsea-lido.org.uk

Last year the management experienced problems with anti-social behaviour but have since been lauded for their efforts to curb such issues.

‘Some children and adults came in thinking it was the old Hilsea Lido. Their behaviour was not good,’ said Helen Downing-Emms, vice-chairwoman of the Hilsea Lido Pool for the People Trust.

‘Rather than trying to isolate the people concerned we just closed the site down straight away and explained what we were doing and why we were doing it.’

Instead of permanent bans or security guards the trust implemented an entrance policy and talked directly to those responsible for the unruly behaviour.

‘It’s not that they want to be doing bad things, but if no-one is guiding them and no-one is giving them provision then they’ll find it elsewhere,’ explained Helen.

‘Nobody had told them “your behaviour impacts on other people’s lives”.

‘So we spoke to every single one of them and getting them to realise that they had responsibilities is a huge part of what we’re doing.’

The trust also introduced a new policy. Originally under-12s had to be accompanied by an adult but this was changed to under-18s and the ratio has to be one adult to two children.

It hopes to implement a membership scheme in future and are seeking funding.