Gill Wright (1959-2021)

Working alongside Gill Wright has been inspiring, life changing and for the world to lose her is heartbreaking.  Her energy, passion and commitment have been something incredible to be a part of.

Fido’s first interaction with Gill was a simple phone call.  We’d seen the BBC Restoration series and the opportunity for Victoria Baths (VB) to win a substantial amount of funding towards its restoration, and wanted to lend a helping hand.  This was in 2003, with Fido having only been established in late 2002.  A warm, friendly chat was followed with a meeting in person later that day and Gill arranging to show us around the Baths.

These were the days when some of the stained glass was still painted over with a thick ugly treacle like paint, unsightly formica cubicles were in place, as were fake ceilings. Walkways had been concreted over and there was a cold, rejected smell in the air.  But Victoria Bath’s beauty and spirit still shone through, as did the passion of the community volunteers behind it.  We were hooked, and looking back this was as much about Gill and the way she embraced our desire to help, as it was about Victoria Baths, however captivating.

Fast track to later that summer and seeing Gill representing Victoria Baths live on BBC Restoration, which it won achieving 52% of the vote.  An airline had provided tickets so that a whole team of VB volunteers, including us, could fly down to the final filmed outside the Tower of London – exciting times!  The nation had fallen in love with Manchester’s water palace and its place in people’s hearts was sealed forever.

Victoria Baths (image by Steve Allen)

The next steps weren’t easy, although the funding from BBC Restoration was of enormous assistance, with a building the size and make up of Victoria Baths the challenges were, and are, epic.  Victoria Baths was so lucky to have the dedicated champions that it did, and with Gill playing a strong lead in this from the very beginning.  Someone who worked both strategically and practically, someone who would be helping with cleaning one minute and then leading a tour or doing a media briefing the next.  Her role as spokesperson is something we have always hugely admired and the difference it made to Victoria Baths cannot be under estimated – the ability to give a voice to a campaign and to inspire a passion in others, something that helped to place VB in the national conscience. The 10th anniversary of BBC Restoration, VB’s 110th birthday, 2017’s fundraising heritage swim – just some of the times that Gill made an unforgettable impact in her role as spokesperson.

In the early days Gill, like all involved in Victoria Baths, was a volunteer.  We joined their quest and continued to volunteer our time over the next 17 years, until taking on a more formal role as part of the VB team only very recently.  Gill meantime became Project Development Manager, playing an instrumental role in the progress that VB continued to make, a role she took early retirement from only a few weeks ago.  When we first met Gill there was a small team of volunteers all based off site (the building was inhabitable), today there is a full staff team in place and Victoria Baths is winning awards for the stunning events it is organising, is a cultural icon for Manchester and has become somewhat of a media darling with all its small screen appearances.  And the building is breathtaking, majestic… stained glass windows are sparkling with light and colour, the ticket office exudes much of its original grandeur and some of the original features have been lovingly restored and, just as importantly, (during normal times) it is bustling with life as the building was always intended to be.  So much has been achieved for this ever evolving restoration project that now operates as a heritage events space and attraction and, up until now, Gill has been there every step of the way.

2017’s fundraising swim at Victoria Baths, the first public swim for 24 years and one of a series of special one off heritage swims that would follow

What has been achieved for Victoria Baths in itself is amazing, but Gill’s role as champion for historic pools has over the years extended far further.  Seeing the number of historic pools around the country closing or facing threat of closure, knowing there were other grassroots campaigns like the one that saved Victoria Baths and knowing that there were learnings to share, Gill had a vision for connecting pools around the county.  She believed there should be an organisation that celebrated historic pools, recognised them for their contribution to communities and saw their true potential as visitor attractions. 

And so began the pursuit to create and shape what would become Historic Pools of Britain (HPB), which was formally launched in September 2015.  A brilliant occasion in itself; taking place at a pool in London to a media fanfare, led by Gill and attended by pools from around the country.  We are immensely proud to have stood alongside Gill to help make this happen.

Historic Pools of Britain launch, Gill with representatives from around the country

Creating an organisation is one thing, but Gill totally lived the aspirations behind it.  This was the awe inspiring thing about Gill, what truly motivated her was making a difference, connecting people, sharing ideas and passion, giving vital help, seeing action taking place, always using her expertise and experience to help others.  Never ever judgmental, never about her, always about what she could do for others and always seeing the joy in what this could lead to.

Since we shared the sad news about Gill on behalf of HPB just a few days ago we have been receiving emails and messages from pools, writers, journalists and supporters from around the country sharing details of how Gill made a difference to their project, how some things wouldn’t have happened without her help, how her work and the confidence she inspired had helped their projects happen and what a huge loss she is to the historic pools movement.  We owe her such a lot.

The recognition of Gill’s role, the belief in her vision, the strength of feeling she engendered all mean that her legacy will live on.  These beautiful community assets, with their stunning architecture, that take us through the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Modern Movement were all central to Gill’s world. 

Some of the nation’s historic pools represented by Historic Pools of Britain

Gill retired early so that she could get out and about to see more historic pools, to be able to help more grassroots projects, to ensure Historic Pools of Britain achieves its full potential.  As ever she had great plans, and even after her diagnosis with cancer in spring 2020 she continued to put these into place. That she couldn’t fulfil all that she had planned is so very sad, but to be able to reflect upon someone who spent their lifetime making a difference is very humbling.  To have spent time with Gill as a friend and a colleague has been transformative and she will forever remain in our hearts.

Well Loved created for Victoria Baths by artist Alison Kersaw