Ready, steady, renovate!

Trinity Community Arts is inviting Bristolians to support its efforts to save Jacobs Wells Baths in Hotwells, as the organisation tries to transform the historic building into a much-needed space that will serve the local community.

When it comes to saving iconic Bristol buildings on the brink of dereliction, and transforming them into useful spaces for communities to connect, create and thrive in, the team at Trinity Community Arts is well versed. The former Holy Trinity Church on Trinity Road in BS2 has become an inclusive hub for people to meet and hold events in, having seen millions of pounds invested in its restoration under the organisation’s watch. What was once an unusable building at risk of closing down has now flourished into an essential home for the city’s community. Trinity’s team, led by CEO Emma Harvey (pictured top right, centre), is hoping it can use its proven track record to replicate this success at Jacobs Wells Baths in Hotwells.

Built in 1889 to serve the working poor, Jacobs Wells Baths – which is located in the Clifton Conservation Area – is a Grade II-listed building that within its walls holds a wealth of architectural and social heritage. What was once a public swimming baths then became a dance hub for three decades, known as Bristol Community Dance Centre (BCDC).

The building has sadly sat dormant since 2018, with its future further threatened at the end of 2022 when plans fell through to reinstate an indoor pool and convert the structure into a functioning leisure facility. Since the start of 2023, people have been scrambling to save the building after hearing news that Bristol City Council had listed the asset for disposal. Backed by community stakeholders including Hotwells & Cliftonwood Community Association, artists and local councillors, Trinity Community Arts set out on a mission to raise the funds needed to repair and restore the building. A petition was launched and Jacobs Wells was subsequently listed as ‘At Risk’ by SAVE Britain’s Heritage due to its dilapidation.

Caring for community
So, what do Trinity’s plans for Jacobs Wells look like? Drawing on its own operational history, and the activity from the baths’ previous tenants Artspace Lifespace and BCDC, it’s estimated that a healthy turnover can be generated from diverse sources. These include dance residencies, rehearsals and classes; events, space hire, performances, installations and exhibitions; adapting the existing pump room (which has never been open to the public before) to provide a café-bar space; delivering a wide range of community, arts, youth and education projects depending on local needs and interests; and even a potential microbrewery using the natural spring water that feeds the building.

For Harvey, who’s spearheading the project to see the building restored to its former glory, protecting these valuable spaces as community assets is an important cause. Especially as Jacobs Wells’ history is steeped in serving the community that needs it most.
“Back in the late Victorian era, the aldermen of the city said ‘we have rights’ and demanded a place to bathe, and so the building became a place of civic pride,” she explains. “It was a response to a social movement, and I think this activist spirit of Bristol lives on today. We want to safeguard these kind of heritage buildings, not just because of what they meant to people back then, but because of what they still mean today, and also what they could mean to the communities of tomorrow.

“Hotwells has a high proportion of elderly people living on their own, a high proportion of people who don’t own a car, people who are new to the city, incoming migrant communities, and a younger population who don’t currently have access to enough youth services. Plus, you’ve got this need from the dance community that, since that building closed, haven’t been able to find other spaces to run classes that served 1,000 people each week. I think in an area where there is such a mix of demographics, it’s even more important to have places where people can connect across those threads of different communities. This is the building for that.”

Credit: Kolab Studios – Alastair Brookes

Maintaining public ownership
Key to these efforts is finding a different model that keeps these buildings in public ownership, but also takes the pressure off local authorities to try to manage and maintain them. That’s where the Community Asset Transfer scheme comes in. Trinity’s community centre is owned by the council, but Trinity Community Arts operates the building on a long leasehold through the scheme. This means that communities can own and manage a building for community benefit, but it remains in public ownership. Trinity’s successful blueprint of the Community Asset Transfer scheme in BS2 puts it in a good position to lead on the Jacobs Wells project in a similar vein, and its efforts so far have proved fruitful, with a major grant already secured to kickstart the project.

A £1 million grant from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ Community Ownership Fund has enabled work to begin. A further £400,000 was pledged in support from match funders, and more funds are now being invited from individuals who can donate to an online appeal.

Trinity is actively progressing on detailed surveys of the fabric of the building to assess its condition and viability; this includes essential surveys to scope and cost works to inform decision making and capital-works. Subject to these, Trinity’s vision is to eventually secure an estimated £4 million for a two-phased capital project, with hopes to bring the building back into use from summer 2025.

Though works have begun, there’s still a small possibility that Trinity’s plans won’t be fully realised. That’s simply the reality of such renovations. But so far, people have believed in the project – from councillors and associations to the local authority. That’s what’s driving things forwards, though its success relies on the city getting behind the project, which is just as important as raising funds.

Bristolians keen to back the effort can support the Trinity team by donating to its Fundsurfer appeal, which hopes to raise £5,000 – details of which can be found online, along with more information about the wider restoration plans.