Britannia rules the waves: How far right protests in the 1970s got South Hackney’s leisure centre built
PUBLISHED: 14:05 18 January 2017 | UPDATED: 16:28 17 February 2017
The Gazette looks back at the history of Britannia Leisure Centre – which is at risk of demolition if council plans come to fruition.
Swimmers have been sharing their earliest memories of the threatened Britannia Leisure Centre with the Gazette – and its wave machine seems to be the most resounding feature.
From excited kids clinging on to the side as the waves started to a heavily pregnant mum who feared she might lose her baby because of the machine’s “tsunami”, fond memories of the Hyde Road centre have been pouring in.
The £1m development, which is set to be demolished and rebuilt as part of a school building project in Shoreditch Park, was opened by Prince Philip in November 1980, and was the first centre in Hackney to provide so many activities under one roof.
Mayor Philip Glanville says it is “approaching the end of its life” and that he would need £14m – and two years’ closure – to refurbish it.
It is sometimes said to have been built on the site of the Britannia Theatre – where it got its name and which had been derelict for years – but that was in fact further down Hoxton High Street (now Hoxton Street).
That particular Britannia had been founded in 1841 by Samuel Haycraft Lane who as a teenager had walked from Devon to London 20 years earlier to escape the life of a fisherman.
The theatre, which bore celebrated Edwardian star Marie Lloyd, was badly damaged by a fire in 1900 and turned into a cinema in 1913 before being demolished during the war. Its old site is marked by a plaque.
Joannie Andrews, a Labour councillor from 1973 to 1986, was responsible for overseeing the development.
She remembers: “Part of the reason for the decision to build it was to counter Derrick Day [local National Front leader] who maintained Shoreditch was left out by the council.
“He was very active in the area at that time, and was always saying nothing was getting done in that area in terms of facilities. He felt it was neglected.
“It was quite a forward-thinking project at that particular time, because it was a leisure centre with lots of facilities.”
Britannia brought squash, badminton, table tennis, basketball, weight training, hockey, netball, volleyball, keep fit sessions and five-a-side soccer to Hackney as well as a new pool.
"[Prince Philip] was a nice man, but I was very surprised"
The Duke of Edinburgh received a judo lesson from Olympic medallist Brian Jacks at the opening.
The Gazette reported at the time: “When he left the specially designed weight-lifting room, [Philip] could not resist asking pretty 24-year-old recreation assistant Grace Ellis if she ever used the facilities for chest developing.
“Grace, who lives in Amhurst Road, said afterwards: ‘He was a nice man but I was very surprised.’”
Pat Turnbull, who is campaigning to keep the centre in Hyde Road open, told the Gazette her son “loved the excitement” when the centre’s wave machine would start up.
“Some of the time they would stay in the shallow water where there were the little waves that used to just gently move them up and down,” she said. “And at other times he and his mates would go in the deeper water and the waves would be more powerful.
“They’d hold on to the side for dear life as the waves got stronger and moved them high up and down.”
Dalston woman Catherine Bond has rather more alarming memories.
“I had just started maternity leave and it was a very hot summer’s day so I decided to go for a swim to relax and cool down,” she said.
“I had never been to Britannia before.
“I was just enjoying the cool water and swimming some lengths when I was caught out by the wave machine which started out of the blue. I hadn’t realised there was a wave machine. My big baby bump started to sway repeatedly in the water – it felt like a tsunami. I was so scared for my unborn baby.”
Joannie, 73, doesn’t want to see Britannia go. “My understanding is it’s still a wonderful facility,” she said. “I don’t want to see it disappear.”