Gill Wright obituary
Gill Wright had only one child, but her daughter, Sarah, always said she had a sister: Victoria Baths, the magnificent “water palace” of Edwardian Manchester, to which her mother devoted the last 25 years of her life in an attempt to bring it back into public use. By the time Wright died, aged 62, from a brain tumour earlier this month, her influence had spread far beyond Manchester. As the founder in 2015 of the Historic Pools of Britain campaign, she was a one-woman oracle of British swimming history. No one knew more about the UK’s watery heritage, and no one was as committed to protecting and restoring it for future generations.
As news of her expertise spread, she would receive SOS messages from around the country every time a council tried to balance the books by closing a much-loved swimming pool. Wright would argue that a community pool had just as much cultural importance as a stately home or museum – if not more, given that swimming has consistently been one of Britain’s most popular participation sports.
Wherever Wright travelled, she carried a swimming costume in her bag. The last item on the agenda of every meeting of the Historic Pools of Britain campaign was always a dip. She was a coach for Northern Wave, an LGBTQ+ club, and taught thousands of children to swim at Manchester Splash. “Every child a swimmer, every swimmer a lifesaver,” she would say, quoting her friend Sunny Lowry, the long-distance swimmer who learned to swim at Victoria Baths and swam the English Channel in 1933, aged 22.
Not everyone shared Wright’s enthusiasm. She once went to a Manchester city council meeting where one of the councillors proudly introduced himself as the person who had signed the death warrant for Victoria Baths. He certainly was not going to bring it back to life, he insisted. “We’ll see,” she said.
It was sometimes hard to keep the faith. Wright fervently believed Victoria Baths would be resurrected after it was voted the nation’s favourite heritage project in the 2003 BBC TV series Restoration. Viewers fell in love with the ceramic tiles and mosaic floors and, in particular, the stained glass – one huge sheet of which Gill had kept under her bed for safekeeping for several years before an archive was established. But the £3.5m prize could only stretch to renovating the building’s exterior. Wright, a spreadsheet whizz and champion form-filler, successfully applied for further grants totalling £1.6m, but was knocked back for many more. She pinned her hopes on at least the Turkish baths being returned to use, including the “aerotone”, a violent Victorian massage Jacuzzi she thought was a hoot.
Though Wright’s dream was always for swimming to return to Victoria Baths, she and her team paid for the building’s upkeep by renting it out for weddings and beer festivals, as well as to film crews. In recent years it has appeared in Peaky Blinders and Cold Feet as well as the Channel 4 Aids drama It’s a Sin.
Born in Liverpool, Gill was the third daughter of Cleo (nee Milward) and John Wright. John was an industrial chemist working at the Dunlop tyre factory and Cleo was a foster carer who trained as a special needs teacher after bringing up her own five children – Sue, Veronica (Vee), Gill, Martin and Stephen.
Cleo was a committed member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, holding meetings in the front room of the family home in Toxteth and taking the family to Greenham Common and on Stop the War marches. John was involved with the local Labour party. The children were all taught to swim at a young age – essential for family holidays on their canal boat. Gill and Vee spent their teenage summers restoring derelict canals with the Waterway Recovery group.
As a young adult Wright campaigned for buildings around the Ellesmere Port canal basin to be brought back into use; they were eventually reborn as the Ellesmere Port boat museum. After studying chemistry at Leicester University, her first job was at Shell on the Wirral, where her father had started his career. Social justice and community service suited her better than the oil and gas industry and she soon found work as a welfare rights adviser at Warrington law centre, eventually transferring to south Manchester community law centre in the early 1990s.
Her daughter, Sarah, was conceived with an already ex-partner, Martin Lowe. They remained on good terms but Wright was a single mother by choice, bringing up Sarah in a large shared house in Rusholme, near Manchester’s Curry Mile. They lived less than a mile from Victoria Baths but she never swam there before it closed in 1993, because her housemates had told her it was ridden with cockroaches. It was her great regret.
After a seizure last March, Wright was diagnosed with a brain tumour and spent the pandemic in and out of hospital. This January doctors advised she stop treatment and Sarah, a paramedic, moved back home to look after her. Sarah survives her, as do her siblings and Cleo. Her father died in 2004.