Cafe above original public bath

The Belgian Cafe in Eastbourne - the site of former public baths SUS-141013-162648001
The Belgian Cafe in Eastbourne - the site of former public baths SUS-141013-162648001

Some 100 years ago this year saw the closure of the public baths under the Belgian Cafe on the seafront junction with Terminus Road in Eastbourne.

They were originally built in approximately 1870, as the seafront was being landscaped and laid by contractors employed by the 7th Duke of Devonshire.

The initial reason for construction was for cleanliness, because very few homes had bathing facilities, and the baths had commercial possibilities. Public sea bathing was not for the poorer people, private bathing was.

In the early years of the 20th century and before, it was common for older homes not to have baths or to have baths without a water supply.

Later in the century, many people were still living in older properties, and many were bombed out from the air raids of the Second World War and living in temporary accommodation.

Such people, too, were glad of public baths.

The other baths in Eastbourne were the Devonshire Baths constructed in 1874, baths in Seaside in 1901 and Motcombe Baths in 1904.

The baths underneath the Belgian Cafe were serviced by two very long tunnels out to sea – tunnels that are still there now.

The entrance was way beyond Eastbourne Pier because very low tide would otherwise have left them exposed and a danger to bathers as well as low tide strollers.

The seaward ends of the tunnels were filtered with a grid to stop unwanted objects entering. The flow of the tide kept the water fresh in the two baths, one for ladies, and one for gentlemen.

The baths were tiled, and had two separate areas, one where the water was at sea temperature and cost 1/-d per session, the other had the seawater warmed to 70f and cost 1/6d per session.

Some clothing was required to be worn at all times while in the water, with a rudimentary public changing area provided.

The strength of the water flow was usually sufficient to replenish the seawater, but in particularly warm weather algae appeared on the surface, and had to be removed by one of the attendants.

There is little evidence left of these baths, hardly surprising really. But when the high spring tides occur there is sometimes a problem in the very low lying basement areas of the Belgian Cafe not usually used by the public.

Then there is a slight seepage of seawater, implying that there is still some trace of the tunnels which have possibly not remained completely sealed. During World War Two the seafront was used by tanks, some weighing 80 tonnes. They were causing damage to the tunnels, so tanks were diverted along Elms Avenue for a period while the tunnels were reinforced.

Are the tunnels still there? Most definitely yes. Is it possible to see any traces? Highly unlikely. A little piece of Eastbourne’s history that has disappeared for ever.

Harry Pope is a licensed sight-seeing guide. For more information see www.harrythewalker.co.uk or 734107.